Bill Frisell, a legend of jazz and guitar and the creator of one of our favorite cover albums of last year, sat down with Fretboard Journal to play a cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. But if you weren’t reading this on a website with a focus on cover songs, I think Bill’s almost unrecognizable version could have fooled you.
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
We’ve done a Best Cover Albums list every year since 2009. That list usually ends up being a reasonably even mix of various-artist tributes and single-artist records. But in all those lists, our number-one pick has been, without fail, a single-artist album (for those keeping score at home, we’ve awarded The Lemonheads, Peter Gabriel, Baaba Kulka, Neil Young and Crazyhorse, Xiu Xiu, Andrew Bird, and Bob Dylan – who didn’t turn up to accept our prize either).
This single-artist streak is no coincidence. It is naturally easier for one artist, if he/she/they are good enough, to maintain consistent quality control over 10 or 15 tracks. Whereas even the best mixed-artist tribute records usually have one or two dud tracks. Take the National-curated Day of the Dead, certainly this year’s highest-profile tribute album. Some of these Grateful Dead covers were so good they’ll appear on next week’s Best Cover Songs of 2016 list. Many others were dreck, filler, or superfluous. So we ranked the record – spoiler alert – at #20, sort of an honorable-mention position.
Even various-artist tributes comprised of uniformly good covers typically don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. For example, we ranked MOJO Magazine’s Blonde on Blonde tribute pretty high this year because we liked just about every one of the Bob Dylan covers on offer. But there’s little common ground between an aggressive electronic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and a tender folk “I Want You.” The record is more a bunch of great cover-song fodder for mixes and playlists than a truly great and unified album.
I sound like I’m being critical, but again, these are among the best cover albums of the year. This is usually the most a various-artist tribute album can aspire to: more good covers, few bad ones.
But this year, for the first time in our eight years making these lists, a various-artist tribute album rose so all the way to the top. This album was not only good top to bottom, but it felt like a real album, not just a collection of covers. It ably walked the finest of lines: showcasing diverse approaches to the source material while just remaining cohesive enough to stand together as a complete listen.
I don’t want to give away what that number-one album is just yet. We’ll get there, and there’s already enough of a tendency with year-end lists to skip straight to #1 and ignore the rest. I no doubt have not helped by hyping this magical album that broke our eight-year streak. But every one of the twenty albums we picked offers something worth hearing.
We’ve got jazz-sax forays through prog-rock and twee-pop covers of vintage punk tunes. There’s a ’60s New York icon honoring her then-competitors in the British Invasion, and a band from that same British Invasion honoring their American inspirations. There are tributes to great musicians who died this year, and tributes to long-dead musicians who there’s no news hook for honoring now, just great songs.
This list itself is as “various artists” as it can get, a whole array of genres and styles with one common thread: musicians honoring their inspirations and influences. Let’s dig in.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Start the countdown on the next page…
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
In the week after John Lennon’s death, the universal outpouring of grief obscured a significant anniversary; his first post-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, had been released on December 11, 1970 – ten years, almost to the day, before Mark David Chapman shot him. It was an anniversary rarely noted at the time; those who gathered outside the Dakota were more ready to sing of giving peace a chance and imagining all the people than they were to sing lines like “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school” or “The dream is over.”
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” can legitimately lay claim to having three different artists record the original version. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded it before anybody else, but Motown president Berry Gordy vetoed its release. Gladys Knight and the Pips got their faster, sassier version released first – again, Gordy didn’t want it to leave the studio – and took it to number one. But the version Gordy fought hardest against putting out, recorded two months before Knight’s and released eighteen months after its recording, was Marvin Gaye’s.
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.
Even if you haven’t heard of her, there’s a pretty good chance that Petra Haden’s been lurking around some of the music you like. In 2005 she toured with indie rock extraordinaires The Decemberists. The year after that she accompanied the Foo Fighters on their unplugged tour. In both cases she added texture to those bands’ songs with her impressive violin skills and unique voice. Green Day even employed her to contribute violin to their 1997 Nimrod album. What would “Hitchin’ a Ride” or “Good Riddance” be without that sweet string sound?
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!
Rock ‘n’ roll animal turned rock ‘n’ roll survivor, Lou Reed has always tread his own path, never following trends, only setting them. Lead singer and songwriter for one of the most influential bands of all time, The Velvet Underground, Reed’s music inspired both the glam and punk movements. Today, he enjoys the status of poet laureate of modern music.