By Anthony DeCurtis
Updated September 26, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Over the course of nearly five decades, Johnny Cash recorded dozens of albums and has been anthologized countless times — often not well. Consequently, caution is required when negotiating his sprawling catalog. For beginners, The Essential Johnny Cash provides a fine, two-disc overview, and the three-disc collection Love God Murder (with each disc available separately) organizes his songs according to his three long-standing obsessions. Beyond that, here are some career high points.

With His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957) Cash’s first LP — and the first LP issued by the legendary Sun Records. On classics like ”Cry! Cry! Cry!” and ”I Walk the Line,” Cash and the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant) define their essential sound: spindly lead-guitar lines, scratchy, boom-chicka-boom rhythms, and plainspoken vocals whose stoic minimalism conveys worlds of emotion. And for a crisp, one-disc overview of Cash’s work at Sun, try Johnny Cash: The Sun Years.

Hymns by Johnny Cash (1958) One of the reasons Cash left Sun was that producer Sam Phillips refused to allow him to record gospel songs — an opportunity that Columbia provided on his second album for the label. As he would throughout his career, Cash sings (”It Was Jesus,” ”I Saw a Man”) as if Jesus were a particularly fascinating guy he met one night in Memphis and paradise were just an eventual stop on the honky-tonk circuit. This is faith stripped of all sanctimony, as natural as breath.

Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965) Burning with restlessness — amphetamines will do that to you — Johnny Cash seemed determined to try everything in the 1960s. This early concept album — two vinyl discs when it originally came out — is a hymn to a wilder, freer 19th-century America that, Cash makes clear in ”Hiawatha’s Vision,” included Indians as well as cowboys.

Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash & June Carter (1967) Cash never failed to relax his forbidding ”Man in Black” persona around the effervescent June Carter, a member of country music’s first family whom he would marry the year after this album’s release. ”Jackson” and ”Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” find the couple engaged in hillbilly vaudeville shtick; their affection and the fun they’re having is palpable the entire time.

At Folsom Prison (1968) You get the sense that Cash could just as easily be in the audience as on stage at this raucous show, and the inmates know it. Their roars when Cash boasts that he ”shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” prove that the singer was a true OG. Cash’s follow-up prison album, At San Quentin (1969), is equally strong, and includes his biggest hit, ”A Boy Named Sue.”

Johnny 99 (1983) Cash draws inspiration here from one of his famed inheritors: Bruce Springsteen. The album opens with a heart-stopping version of the Boss’ ”Highway Patrolman,” and transforms the title track (also borrowed from Springsteen’s Nebraska) into a rockabilly anthem of desperation. A bracing statement during one of Cash’s more fallow periods.

American Recordings (1994) The beginning of Cash’s fateful collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, who helped restore his stature as an American icon. Known for his work with the likes of the Beastie Boys and Slayer, Rubin encouraged Cash simply to stand in front of a microphone with an acoustic guitar and sing whichever songs he wanted. The result is a bare-bones masterpiece that, from Nick Lowe’s ”The Beast in Me” to Leonard Cohen’s ”Bird on a Wire,” captures the tortured, aspirant soul of a master.

American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) The empty chair on this CD’s back panel says it all. Cash stares down death here, yet when the man comes around, you have little choice but to go. Not without a fight, though. On his terrifying reading of Trent Reznor’s ”Hurt” — a must-avoid if you’re faint of heart — Cash sings, ”Everyone I know goes away in the end.” It’s a blunt, unsentimental farewell from a man who made a life and art from never flinching.