Dec 122014

Follow all our Best of 2014 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

Back when we redesigned the site in 2010, we created basic star icons to represent the ratings we’d give an album when we reviewed it. 2 stars, 3.5 stars, etc. When we posted an album review, we’d find the corresponding icon where we last uploaded it. However, earlier this year we couldn’t find one of the icons we were looking for. Why? It turns out we’d never used it. We’d never before given an album a perfect five stars.

This year, for the first time, we did. Which should suffice to say it’s been an excellent year for cover albums. True, a few of the marquee tributes we most eagerly anticipated fell flat, either too formulaic (The Art of McCartney) or too out-there (that Flaming Lips’ Sgt. Peppers tribute we’ll never speak of again). But in the cracks and under the radar, cover and tribute albums thrived.

In our list of the twenty best, we’ve got everything from big names on major labels to DIY projects thrown up on Bandcamp. We’ve got New Orleans jazz, Parisian dub reggae, and songs that were popular when your great-great-great-great grandfather was calling town dances. Something for everyone, I guess. Something for all our fwends (sorry, that was the last time, promise).

Start the countdown on Page 2…


Why?

That’s the first question that comes to mind when listening to A Little Help From My Fwends, the Flaming Lips’ album that covers all of the Beatles’ seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This isn’t an inherently bad question to ask, though, especially with this band. From making a 4-disc album meant to be played simultaneously (or in any combination) to releasing a USB drive of love songs inside a chocolate, anatomically correct heart, the Lips have always had a degree of quirky, unbridled (and seemingly unchecked) compulsion guiding their career. This seeming inability to reign in their impulse to do whatever idea comes to mind has resulted in a ton of great music and a feverish cult following.
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They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

The American Dream is to be self-made. To carve out an identity wholly one’s own and to succeed beyond one’s wildest imagination.

The life and times of Shawn Carter are a blueprint of the American Dream and bear striking resemblance to one of modern American fiction’s greatest protagonists, Jay Gatsby.

Both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous parvenu and the Brooklyn-born MC sprung from conceptions of themselves – impoverished Midwestern teenager James Gatz morphed into the infamous Jay Gatsby while Shawn Carter took on the nom de rappeur Jay-Z.

Both knew the excesses and trappings of extraordinary wealth as young men and both fell in love with golden girl goddesses with voices full of money.

One noteworthy difference between Gatsby and Jay-Z?

Gatsby was a man, a mere mortal, damned and doomed from the onset, whereas Jay-Z is also Jay-Hova, and gods are not as easily felled.
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Dec 022014

In Defense takes a second look at a much-maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”

Defense? I never knew Linda Ronstadt was under attack. OK, not true, I’ve known she tends to get many a sneery put-down from “real” musos, dissing both her voice and her choices of material, citing that “real” artists have way more credibility (and way fewer sales.) Beautiful but soulless, they call her and her voice, short on originality and innovation. A famous early putdown was around her being merely a competent backing singer, the irony being that ability potentially defines far greater technique than the relative ease of a solo performance, as those who have sung with her (Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, and legions more) have been more than happy to testify. I guess it stems down to generalizations around any successful artist, particularly if blessed also with photogenicity and famous boyfriends.
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Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

 
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” which first appeared on their 1983 album Speaking in Tongues (as well as on their incredible 1984 live album / soundtrack Stop Making Sense), is one of the few songs in the Talking Heads catalogue that could be considered a “love song.” In interviews, the band’s singer/lyricist David Byrne says that he made a conscious choice to make it a “real love” song, but sought to avoid making it too corny or simplistic (the “naïve melody” parenthetical shows the kind of self-awareness that made Byrne such a strong and strange creative force). The result is a song that, while lacking any kind of narrative, is brimming with poignant single lines that makes up for an emotional experience.
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Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

“Eleanor Rigby,” the second track on the Beatles’ Revolver album, may be the most atypical Beatles single. No Beatle played a note on it; instead, they were backed by a small string ensemble. Released as a single, it was the flip side of “Yellow Submarine,” and could not have been more diametrically opposed to that children’s song. It was a song not of love, but of loneliness and death, one that ran counter to their Fab-Four-moptop image. To quote Alan W. Pollack, a musicologist who gave close readings of all the Beatles’ songs, “As one of the most ‘serious’ pieces of the entire Beatles’ canon, this song straight-facedly vaporized several commonly supposed limitations of what the two-minute AM-radio pop/rock musical genre might be capable of including within its purview and power of expression. Pigeon-hole terms, such as Crossover, Fusion, or Hybrid, somehow don’t seem to do it justice.”
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They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of the “angry young man” took hold in Britain; they had a lot to be angry about in the bleak, post-war period. The resentment of the lower and middle classes about issues of income inequality, upper class privilege, and the lack of consumer goods led to a remarkable outpouring of socially conscious theater, books, movies, and (most important for our purposes) music.
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Nov 142014

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Dan Bern should not be under anyone’s radar. Not only is he an incredibly prolific songwriter — only a small fraction of the thousand or so that he has acknowledged writing have been officially released — he is also an artist, a poet, a novelist, a children’s book author, and a filmmaker. His stage banter and lyrics are funny enough that he could definitely do standup. He has written songs for movies and television, and is a pioneer in online performing. He tours constantly, and what with all of those songs, he probably never plays the same set twice.
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