Though Dolly Parton originally wrote and recorded “I Will Always Love You” as a country song, Whitney Houston’s R&B-blast cover has become the gold standard (there’s a chapter about it in my new book about covers). It’s become a staple of American Idol contestants and overly ambitious karaoke singers. The bigger, the belt-ier, the better. No one can top Whitney, but everyone seems to try.
In a refreshing change, Efya takes the song in an entirely different direction. A star in her native Ghana, she actually also got her start in a televised talent show, but you wouldn’t know it from the subtlety and taste she shows here. Accompanied by only a keyboard and African “talking drum,” she strips the song way back in a new live recording for Okayafrica. By tweaking the melody and rhythm, she transform the song into something dark and mournful. When she finally does open up at the end, the vocal power feels totally earned.Continue reading »
Ever since I started this site, friends and readers have suggested that I should write a book about cover songs (surprisingly, a comprehensive book doesn’t really exist). For years, I resisted. “That’s like saying ‘I’m going to write a book about original songs’,” I’d snarkily reply – i.e., that’s a stupid idea. Cover songs seemed too broad a category. There’s no grand unifying theory of cover songs to fit tidily between two book covers; it’s too big and messy and wonderful a tent for that.
After years of saying no, I finally came up with the solution. I wouldn’t write a book about cover songs – instead, I would write a book about twenty specific cover songs, and through those twenty covers, a broader narrative would emerge.
The story of covers as traced in Cover Me involves artistic triumphs and music-industry shenanigans. It touches on trends in record-making, music videos, and the internet’s impact on music (did you know the first viral song was a cover?). There are beautiful moments of unlikely artists coming together, and some uglier instances of exploitation and racism. Every major change in the music industry since the advent of rock and roll finds some expression in the world of cover songs.Continue reading »
Eddie Veder and Brandi Carlile are two artists that just exude cool. Whether they are banging out a heavy rock song or waxing poetic with a melancholic ballad, the result is always something heartfelt and musically satisfying.
It stands to reason that Pearl Jam would be among a very solid lineup of talent covering Carlile’s 10-year old album The Story for charity tribute album Cover Stories. On the heels of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Pearl Jam shows no sign of slowing as they continue to produce fantastic music such as their new version of “Again Today”.Continue reading »
Amanda Shires is best known as a violinist (also for being Jason Isbell’s wife and sometimesbandmate), but on her tender new cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” she ditches her signature instrument for the ukulele. At least it has the same number of strings!
She proves equally adept at the new instrument, plucking it quietly to accompany her delicate singing. She gets bonus points too for not forcing a switch to “I’m Your Woman,” the sort of dumb lyric change too many singers do when covering a song by someone of the opposite gender.Continue reading »
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.