Oct 122018
 

With his new album Lean on Me, Blue Note artist José James provides track-by-track recreations of soul master Bill Withers’ best-known hits. James has a phenomenal voice that captures the spirit of the originals and would make him an ideal frontman for a Withers tribute act. As a result, the album’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. James mirrors Withers’ sound so precisely that you have to give each track a close listen to discern any differences between his versions and the originals. Unfortunately, in the streaming era this presents a conundrum: why should one listen to the perfect tribute and not just click on Withers’ originals?
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Sep 252018
 
mike farris bill withers

Unless you are a fan of his band Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies back in the day, you might not know the name, Mike Farris. A Grammy winner in the Gospel category for his 2014 album Shine For All The People, Farris takes a more secular approach on his latest record, Silver & Stone. Full of soulful songs in the mold of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Paul Janeway, the album includes a couple of top-notch cover songs including a version of Sam Cooke’s “I’ll Be Coming Running Back To You.” Continue reading »

Sep 072018
 

kilonovaWilliam Elliott Whitmore is 40, but he has always sounded like a much older man, with a deep, soulful voice that gives everything he sings a certain gravitas.  Think Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or late Dylan, or most of all, Johnny Cash at his most apocalyptic.  If Whitmore sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” you’d still worry, and probably be unhappy.  I first heard Whitmore in 2006, opening for Lucero, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and was immediately transfixed by his timeless voice, dark songs, austere banjo, guitar and foot stomping accompaniment, and intense performance.

Born and raised on a 150-acre farm in southeastern Iowa, which he inherited from his parents and still owns, Whitmore grew up singing and playing guitar and banjo, with musical influences that started with country and moved toward punk as he got older.  At a certain point, though, Whitmore realized that he needed to focus on the folky, rustic, blues music that he grew up on–but with a punk edge.

So when Bloodshot Records released Kilonova, an album of covers of (mostly) lesser known songs from many musical eras, the question was, how would such a distinctive artist put his stamp on this block of diverse songs? “Diverse” barely begins to tell the story–artists range from Dock Boggs, to Johnny Cash,  to the Magnetic Fields to Bad Religion.

In short, the answer is, remarkably well.
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Nov 162016
 
RichardMaule

It’s hard to do a fresh cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It’s been covered so well by so many at this point, and if you’re trying to compete with Bill Withers or Joe Cocker on their turf, you’re bound to lose. But British singer-songwriter Richard Maule found a novel way to make the song his own. The cover he sent us is inventive, bold, and the right amount of irreverent. Instead of going for big soul belting like so many do, he created a quirky quasi-acappella arrangement looping his voice and handclaps over and over again – and while it seems complicated, it wasn’t. Continue reading »

Apr 012016
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

BillW

There’s talk that “Use Me,” from Bill Withers’ second album Still Bill, is about his relationship with his future wife (and, a year later, ex-wife), Hollywood actress Denise Nicholas. Withers denies this, saying he got the idea for the song before his first album, while he was still making toilets for $3 an hour. Most listeners didn’t care about its origin – they were too busy digging that funky clavinet, nodding along to lyrics that brush against masochistic tendencies while defiantly stating that one could be willing to take the bad with the good, because that good was so good. It sure felt good, especially the Live at Carnegie Hall version, so deep in the pocket that the clapping-along audience doesn’t want it to end, demanding (and getting) an immediate encore.
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Dec 172015
 

Follow all our Best of 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

CoverMeBestSongs2015

I didn’t realize it until I began laying out our post, but this year’s Best Cover Songs list shares quite a few artists with last year’s. And some that showed up here the year before that. Jack White’s on his fourth appearance. And Jason Isbell and Hot Chip not only both reappear from last year, but have moved up in the rankings.

Though we’re always on the lookout for the new (and to be sure, there are plenty of first-timers here too), the number of repeat honorees illustrates how covering a song is a skill just like any other. The relative few artists who have mastered it can probably deliver worthy covers again and again.

How a great cover happens is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as I’ve been writing a series of articles diving deep into the creation of iconic cover songs through history (I posted two of them online, and the rest are being turned into a book). In every case the artist had just the right amount of reverence for the original song: honoring its intention without simply aping it. It’s a fine line, and one even otherwise able musicians can’t always walk. Plenty of iconic people don’t make good cover artists (I’d nominate U2 as an example: some revelatory covers of the band, but not a lot by them). Given the skill involved, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who can do a good cover once can do it again.

So, to longtime readers, you will see some familiar names below. But you’ll also see a lot of new names, and they’re names you should remember. If the past is any guide, you may well see them again next year, and the year after that.

Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.

– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)

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