Our official list of the Best Cover Songs of 2017 comes next week. But first, we’re continuing the tradition we started last year by rounding up some of the songs it most killed us to cut in a grab-bag post. No ranking, no writing, just a bunch of knockout covers.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Nebraska is the Bruce Springsteen album that it’s cool to like. Springsteen’s previous album, The River, had his biggest hit in “Hungry Heart,” and he was ready to break huge. Instead, he released an album that was literally a demo on a cassette, with all the intimacy and intensity that that entails. “I was interested in writing kind of smaller than I had been,” Springsteen said, and that’s what he did with Nebraska, focusing on individuals in trouble with an intensity that was more cathartic than a mostly-acoustic album would be expected to carry.
The respect that Nebraska has gained over the past three and a half decades has been equally split among fans, critics, and artists. The latter have saluted the album multiple ways, including a 2000 release from Sub Pop called Badlands, a full-album tribute that featured artists from Johnny Cash to Chrissie Hynde to Los Lobos. It had its moments, but a much smaller release called Long Distance Salvation did a much better job at conveying the original’s impact, even as it expanded on Springsteen’s work.
When people argue over the Worst Song of All Time, inevitably someone will mention Journey’s (in)famous “Don’t Stop Believin’.” If Starship had never built that city on rock and roll, it would probably take the crown.
Frankly, I like other Journey songs, but “Don’t Stop Believin'” deserves most of the hate it gets. Its ubiquity on class rock radio, bad karaoke stages, and every college a cappella group that ever donned bow ties has made in insufferable (thank the Glee cover inexplicably going to #4 on the charts for the last one). Even The Sopranos couldn’t give it a coolness bump. It is not only Journey’s biggest song by a mile, it’s one of the most well-known songs of the 1980s, period.
The funny thing is that when it came out, not only was it not Journey’s biggest hit, it wasn’t even the biggest hit on that same album. “Open Arms” off Escape went to #2. “Who’s Crying Now” went to #4. “Don’t Stop Believin’,” meanwhile, barely scraped its way into the top ten.
Escape turns 36 this week, which might occasion a Full Album if anyone ever covered any of the other songs off it. But they don’t. They only cover “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Any band from Asbury Park has an obvious choice to make. You can run like hell from any Boss comparisons or embrace your city’s favorite son. Levy & the Oaks has chosen the latter, healthier option on a new cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” premiering below.
“I’m on Fire” is one of Springsteen’s most-covered songs, and the first few guitar strums might make you expect another paint-by-numbers Americana version. But the moment Lou Panico starts singing, it becomes something special. He may hail from Springsteen’s stomping grounds, but he is not too beholden to tradition, changing the song’s melody and rhythm to make it his own.
“Streets of Philadelphia” is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best-known songs since his 1980s ubiquity, even winning him an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1994. But for whatever reason, the man himself doesn’t play it live very much. Since the 1990s, he’s only performed it twice outside the titular city (and even there he often skips it).
Luckily, other artists are filling the void. The past month has seen two terrific covers surface, one by Ryan Adams and the other by Berlin electronic duo Lea Porcelain. While Adams has a tendency to cover less obvious fare – think Danzig or Taylor Swift (for a full album no less) – Springsteen falls squarely in his wheelhouse. So his cover is about what you’d expect from a solo acoustic performance – but few artists put as much emotion into solo acoustic performances as Ryan Adams. Even if he’s not wildly rearranging it, his cover proves powerful in a quiet way.
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Ray Padgett founded Cover Me in 2007. He has a book about cover songs coming out in October (see #9 below) which you can preorder at Amazon.
For the past two weeks, our writers have been writing about the ten cover songs that matter the most to them (catch up here). I will be doing the same, but for me, the list is slightly different. I founded this site ten years ago this year, and the covers that are the most important to me double as the covers that are most important to Cover Me.
Any cover I’ve loved for the past decade has made its way to Cover Me, and many of Cover Me’s milestones became important covers to me – even ones that are basically coincidences. I don’t know how well I’d remember Lucinda Williams’ Shel Silverstein cover otherwise (though it’s worth remembering), but because premiering it was our first post of months of work re-designing and re-launching the site from scratch (RIP covermesongs.blogspot.com), it holds a special place in my heart.
So here are the songs that matter the most to me, which double as a history of this website from its inception to today. Whether you started reading us last week or last decade, thanks for you support all these years. See you in another ten.
– Ray Padgett