August 16 has long been a day of infamy in the history of American popular music. It started in 1977 when Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n’ Roll, passed away. Forty-one years later, another member of rock royalty also died: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Though she was older and her death less of a shock to the cultural landscape, I still remember the exact moment when I heard the news. I was with my family driving home from Sesame Place in Pennsylvania listening to the Beatles channel on SiriusXM. The DJ interrupted to tell us the sad news and in Franklin’s honor played her version of “Let It Be.”Continue reading »
The story goes that Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” Not so, it turns out, but it sure seems like something he would say – it sounds a note of contrariness, but it also has the ring of truth.
Smokey Robinson turned 80 this month, and his legacy as one of the architects of the Motown sound has long been assured. Not only did he have a silken falsetto that conveyed sunshine and rain with equal ease, he also wielded a pen with a similar level of genius. Whether writing for The Miracles, the band that he led throughout the sixties, or the other members of the Motown stable, he came up with songs that became not just a part of music history, but a part of our nation’s history. As Smokey said, the Motown slogan was not “The Sound of Black America,” but “The Sound of Young America,” and that sound has rung down through the corridors of time as surely as the sound of the Liberty Bell.
No further proof is needed than the number of covers of Smokey’s songs – covers of his own recordings or covers of the original recordings by The Temptations or Marvin Gaye or the many other singers who benefited from his pen. His voice has spoken to other artists for decades, and when those artists tell us what he told them, those songs are just as fresh as they were the day he first set them down. We found thirty superlative covers of songs that Smokey wrote and/or sang, but, as we could have found thirty great recordings of “My Girl” alone, we know we’ve missed a few along the way. Whether you’re steamed at what we missed, or excited to discover what we found, we can agree on one thing: Smokey Robinson is one of the all-time greats, and we’re fortunate to have the privilege to listen to the songs he wrote for the rest of our lives.
2020 marks a number of twenty-year anniversaries in music, but perhaps nothing as much as the extremely turn-of-the-millenium phenomenon of the boy band. At the start of the year, NSYNC set a first-week sales record with No Strings Attached. At the end of it, Backstreet Boys set their own sales record with Black & Blue. No one before or since sold CDs like boy bands sold CDs. Even the year’s other huge artists seemed defined in reaction to boy bands; Eminem dissed boy bands in seemingly half of his songs, while Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst was constantly starting feuds with them. It was that kind of year.
Because boy bands had their detractors. Boy oh boy, did they have their detractors. I was a 13-year old in 2000, and I remember the arguments dominating middle school hallways. But whether you were a fanatic or a skeptic, it’s hard to argue that, stripped of the love-it-or-hate-it presentation, the songs were rock solid (melodically, if not always lyrically). I imagine every one of us has gotten some of these stuck in our head – even if we didn’t want them there.
So rather than picking just one artist, we decided to pay tribute to the entire genre. We didn’t limit it to songs from the year 2000, but we did limit it to the phenomenon that 2000 represents. Though you can make a fair argument that The Beatles and Jackson 5 were boy bands, including groups like that would render this list pretty meaningless. Every artist here fits a pretty strict definition of a boy band, even if they came just before the genre’s cultural peak (New Edition) or after it (One Direction).
So everybody, rock your body with the 25 best boy band covers ever.
Last week, R.E.M. released a 25th anniversary expanded reissue of their 1994 album Monster. Unlike many of their albums, Monster was not an obvious candidate for a splashy box set. Practically every new review has noted that Monster was, as Salon succinctly put it, “a notorious staple of dollar bins everywhere.” But, as tends to happen with such reissues, the celebrated albums get celebrated again and the less-loved albums get a critical reappraisal. Sure enough, everyone loves Monster all of a sudden.
So perhaps an avalanche of Monster covers is forthcoming – because there certainly aren’t many now. Despite that being the ostensible news peg for this list, no songs from that album appear on it. But, in a band with as rich a discography as R.E.M.’s, there was a lot of competition. Sure, the obvious hits get covered as much as you think, but many artists delve deeper. The song at the very top of the list, for instance, originally appeared on 1998’s Up, an album that might have an even worse reputation than Monster.
Luckily we don’t need to wait four more years for the reappraisal of that, or of any of the other songs on our list. These 25 covers reappraise R.E.M. deep cuts you didn’t know and reimagine the hits you’ve heard a million times.
Appropriately enough for a man whose concerts routinely top three hours, this list is long. Fifty covers long, and even then we still found ourselves left with dozens of killer bonus tracks for our Patreon supporters. The hits are all here, of course, but Bruce’s catalog runs deep. This list includes many covers of lesser-known cuts and more recent songs – even one from his just-released solo album Western Stars. Though he turns 70 today, the man is not slowing down, and neither are the artists paying tribute to him. As Bruce famously sang, he learned more from a three-minute record than ever learned in school. Well, here are fifty artists who learned something from his three-minute records.
The first big film to to emerge in the post-Bohemian Rhapsody biopic boom is Rocketman. Compared to the Queen movie, critics like Rocketman better (somewhat), fact-checkers call it more accurate (somewhat), and LGBT advocates praise it for more honestly addressing the star’s sexuality (somewhat). Also – and hopefully this is unrelated – it has fared worse at the box office. Again, somewhat worse; it’s done fine, but does not seem to be the smash Bohemian Rhapsody was.
Unlike Queen, though, Elton John didn’t really need a mega-blockbuster to return to the public eye. He never left (after all, it’s hard to look away from clothes that sparkly). The farewell tour he launched last year will take him through 2020, and 2018 also saw two tribute albums featuring megawatt performers: from Lady Gaga to Ed Sheeran on the pop one, Miranda Lambert to Willie Nelson on the country one. For Elton, the Rocketman biopic is just the latest tribute in a career full of them.
And nowhere has tribute been paid more often than in the world of cover songs. From his second, self-titled album onward (no one covers songs off his 1969 debut), Elton’s songs have been covered constantly. Hell, Three Dog Night released their cover of that second album’s “Your Song” a month before John’s original even came out. Though artists inevitably gravitate towards the huge hits, John’s songbook boasts a long tail, with even some relative deep cuts generating classic covers. So this month we count down the thirty best Elton John covers ever.
Best so far, at least. At the rate he earns tributes, it won’t be long before the next batch lands.