Jan 272016
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

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Rosanne Cash, daughter of country legend Johnny Cash, has been putting out solo albums since 1978. Her work was widely lauded in the ’80s, starting with the commercial success of her 1981 album Seven Year Ache. In 1985, she won the Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” and 1987 saw the release of her landmark album King’s Record Shop. The ’90s were a quieter time for Cash, but she came roaring back in the 2000s, eventually recording The List, a selection of covers taken from a list of great American and country songs given to her by her father. She followed that with 2014’s The River and the Thread, which earned her three more Grammys, including Best Americana Album.

It would have been easy for her to have just followed in her father’s footsteps, copying his musical style, but Rosanne Cash found her own voice. She helped make cowpunk popular early in her career, and her music has evolved organically ever since. Now she stands as one of the leading artists in Americana. She records songs that speak to Southern sensibilities without restricting themselves to the trappings of modern country music. She left Nashville a long time ago to live in New York, and letting that expanded worldview influence her music makes her one of the champions of her chosen field.
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Dec 172015
 

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

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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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Oct 302015
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

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Bruce Springsteen may not be rock ‘n’ roll’s future anymore, but he’s been so prolific – by 1998, three-quarters of his catalog consisted of unreleased songs – that we could very well see new albums coming out from him long after he’s gone. That abundance of gifts he’s given have not only made him a natural for the tribute album treatment, they’ve also given the covering artists a lot to work with – top-ten hits stand shoulder to shoulder with the barely bootlegged, and with no loss in song quality. The 2003 tribute album Light of Day: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen showcased the breadth of Springsteen’s catalog – two and a half hours long, holding over three dozen songs – just as surely as it showcased the depth of his songwriting.
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Oct 282015
 
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Indie-electronica group Hot Chip know how to rock a cover, as they proved when they put out one of last year’s best covers of the year. Now they’re back with one that could put them on that list in 2015 as well. The group is on tour now and has been performing Bruce Springsteen‘s “Dancing in the Dark” live at shows this summer. They recently released an official video and studio version of the song and its well worth a listen. Continue reading »

Sep 162015
 
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Fifth in a string of record-tying Top 10 singles released from the massively successful Born In The U.S.A, “Glory Days” remains a Bruce Springsteen cornerstone – a thumping, nostalgia-inducing tune sprawling with upbeat guitar riffs, playful synth lines and honky-tonk piano. Continue reading »

Jul 172015
 

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

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Let’s start with a given — the best version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” is a cover. It would be hard to dispute that Elvis Costello’s version is the standard to which all others fall short, including the original. I’ll pause here to allow those readers unaware that Elvis wasn’t the first to record the song to go on the Internet and confirm this. (Don’t feel bad, by the way—we self-proclaimed cover experts don’t know everything, either.) That’s right, the song was written by Nick Lowe and originally recorded by his pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz and released on the band’s 1974 album The New Favourites of… Brinsley Schwarz. Although Lowe had written the bulk of the songs on the band’s prior five albums, he has claimed that it was the first truly original song that he ever wrote. However, he has admitted to having stolen a lick from Judee Sill’s “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” (See if you agree.)

Brinsley Schwarz’s version is a Byrds-esque bit of nostalgic folk rock. Lowe wrote it in 1973, when the hippie era of peace and love was being supplanted by harder edges, harder drugs, alcohol and cynicism. As Lowe has said, “this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, ‘Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’” It is, in that version, a perfectly fine song. But it took a fan of the Brinsleys, who would one day rename himself Elvis Costello, to turn the song into something more. Lowe acknowledged that Costello “brought it to the world, so to speak. Because when he recorded it, he gave it that anthemic quality which everyone reacted really well to.”
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May 222015
 

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

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When Bruce Springsteen was touring behind his 2005 album Devils and Dust, he closed his shows with a cover of the song “Dream Baby Dream” by the protopunk band Suicide. Most fans of the Boss were unfamiliar with it, and didn’t know how to take the moody mantra, sung over the drone of a pump organ and an offstage synth – “Glory Days” it ain’t. It turned out Bruce had been a fan of Suicide’s since meeting them in a studio in the ’70s, and had claimed in one interview that “You know, if Elvis came back from the dead I think he would sound like Alan Vega.” As for Vega, once he’d heard Springsteen’s interpretation, he said, “Now I can die…. He interpreted my song, he did it his way, and such a great way that I’m going to have to sing it that way, or not sing it at all anymore…. On my death bed, that’s the last thing I’m going to listen to. I’ll play it at my funeral.” So it’s safe to say he liked it.
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Dec 182014
 

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

A few months ago, I read an interesting interview with an artist named Nouela. You probably haven’t heard of her, but you may have heard her music. She’s become a specialist in a weird but growing niche: covers recorded for movie and television trailers. Whether doing a piano “Sound of Silence” to promote a new HBO show or a brooding “Black Hole Sun” to promote Liam Neeson punching people, she’s found a quickly-growing way of getting her covers out there.

It struck me as part of a growing trend we’ve seen. More and more great covers seem to come from unexpected places. Sure, you’ve got still your standby sources, your b-sides, tribute albums, and radio shows. But new avenues for covers have increasingly crept in. This year saw a Sam Smith cover that is only available to hear under Grey’s Anatomy dialog (thankfully he’s recorded a few live versions too) and a whole covers album recorded to plug a Canadian TV show. Brands have fully embraced covers too, most recently My Morning Jacket’s “This Land Is Your Land” recorded for North Face ads, or Charli XCX and Bleachers trading covers for Kia.

We don’t care where they originated when we make our year-end lists, though, and we would up with some of everything. In our top five alone, we’ve got a live radio session, a deluxe-edition bonus track, and a cover hiding in plain sight on one of the most acclaimed country records of the year. You have to keep an eye on more places than ever to spot the best covers these days. Wherever they come from, we’re glad to have ’em.

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

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