In 1969, on the advice of her manager, the folk singer Joni Mitchell opted out of playing an event dubbed “An Aquarian Exposition” in the tiny farm community of Bethel, N.Y. Had she performed, it’s possible she would have played a rain-drenched set filled with technical difficulties and tried to forget the whole thing. Instead, while watching the events unfold on TV, she was inspired to write a song that would bear the festival’s more popular name: “Woodstock.”
Curtis Roush, the singer/guitarist for the Austin-based band The Bright Light Social Hour, cites a laundry list of musical influences on his website. They include: ‘70s album rock, heavy metal, classic rock and hardcore. Yet, when we asked him about the inspiration for his recent solo cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love,” he named the British Nigerian singer as a favorite. “Her singing, songwriting, and surrounding production have been a huge influence on my solo music,” he told Cover Me. “‘No Ordinary Love’ is mysterious and soothing, but also has this very deep, almost heavy quality to it. I strive for a similar balance in my own music.”
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Nirvana released its first single 30 years ago today. Well, today-ish. That single was the first installment in the now-legendary Sub Pop Singles Club, so I imagine its “release date” was whatever day it landed in the mailbox for the 1,000 lucky people who got it (you can get it too, but you’ll have to drop $3,300 on Discogs).
And what was that very first Nirvana single? Whaddya know, it was a cover! The band launched their recording careers with “Love Buzz,” originally by Dutch psychedelic-rockers Shocking Blue. Not the most obvious start for the most iconic band of the ’90s (apparently it was Krist’s idea). Already a staple of their raucous live show, “Love Buzz” did represent, according to Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, “an indicator of some of their direction in songwriting.”
Three decades on, that songwriting has generated a few covers of its own. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has of course been covered thousands of times, but some other Nirvana songs aren’t as far behind as you might think. “Lithium,” “Come As You Are,” and “In Bloom” remain perennial cover selections, and “Territorial Pissings” seems surprisingly popular. (“Rape Me,” not so much.) Heck, half the artists we hear covering David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” or Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” seem to really be covering Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged versions.
So today, we continue our Best Covers Ever series by whittling down the moshing masses of Nirvana covers to the best thirty. Here we are now. Entertain us!
Honorable Mention: Nirvana – Lithium
No, not that Nirvana. The 1960s British band of the same name covered “Lithium” when they reunited in the 1990s. A cute nod, made less cute when you realize this older group had sued over the grunge band’s use of the name only a few years prior (Sub Pop reportedly had to pay them $100,000). At any rate, this Nirvana’s cover is not that good, but this psych-pop spin on “Lithium” perhaps paved the way for a much better version in the same vein a few years later. But we’ll get there…
No offense to replacement guitarists Vinnie Vincent, Mark St. John, Bruce Kulick or Tommy Thayer, but certain legions of the Kiss Army believe the band lost all its creative mojo when Ace Frehley left the group in 1982 (and again in 2002). Take the Kiss tribute act Ace’s High. Its members all dress like Frehley (with costumes from different eras) and only play songs that Ace either wrote or sang on. In a documentary, one band member who models himself after Destroyer-era Ace explains the devotion. “We all just wanted to be Ace, because he was the best, the most talented and our favorite member.”
AJ Lambert – Lush Life (Frank Sinatra cover)
Frank Sinatra’s granddaughter covers Frank Sinatra. You think you know where this story ends: fawning nepotism. But despite familial loyalty, A.J. Lambert isn’t afraid to twist “Lush Life,” adding a Lynchian undercurrent of menace. More of an overcurrent in the crawling, nose-bleeding video.
Amy Shark – Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover)
Every month, one or two of these selections invariably hail from Spotify’s terrific new cover-sessions series. My only gripe is that they came with no information, the sort a band would write in the YouTube description or press release announcing a new cover, or say on stage before performing one live. That’s now solved with Spotify’s new “Under Cover” podcast, in which the artists performing the covers talk about them. We learn that Amy Shark tried to make “Teenage Dirtbag” a Pixies song, and that she considered the song her anthem when she was young. She says: “The first time I heard ‘Teenage Dirtbag,’ I was in high school. I was crazy obsessed with it to the point where it was in my head every day all day. I would sing it in all day in school. Even teachers would say, ‘Amy, please listen to something else.'”
The Lemonheads have popped up here a lot recently, despite not doing much. When we posted our Best Covers of 1987 retrospective last year, The Lemonheads’ “Amazing Grace” was on there. The year before that, we decided the also did one of the Best Covers of 1996 (Metallica’s “Fade to Black”). But their biggest list appearance here was the first. The first time we ever did a year-end Best Covers Albums list, in 2009, sitting right at the top was The Lemonheads’ brilliant Varshons.
They haven’t released an album since, but Evan Dando will return in January with Varshons 2. As you can imagine, we’re pretty excited, though he has set himself quite a bar with the first volume.
The track list shows promise, blending obvious peers and influences (The Jayhawks, Paul Westerberg) with some serious left-field choices (Florida Georgia Line??). He announces the album with a cover of the Yo La Tengo song “Can’t Forget.” On paper, this might not be the first song on the tracklist I’d want to hear, but there’s a story here. Back in 1990, Yo La Tengo released their own covers album, Fakebook. Well, an almost-covers album, as the band included a couple originals. One was, you guessed it, “Can’t Forget.”