aeseaes – Realiti (Grimes cover)
Bandits on the Run – Back to Black (Amy Winehouse cover)
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
I’ve been watching early episodes of Saturday Night Live recently. On the fifth episode ever – back when it bore the shorter title Saturday Night – the host was comedian Robert Klein. Two musical guests joined him: Loudon Wainwright III and ABBA.
Wainwright’s performance plays it straight, just him and his guitar on stage. With ABBA, though, the show undermines the Swedish quartet from the start. They have to perform “S.O.S.” on a sinking Titanic set, competing for screen time with Klein and some SNL writers pretending to drown in vintage dining-lounge attire. Even when the camera lands on ABBA, it waves and swoops to indicate they’re going down with the ship too.
The second performance, “Waterloo,” does them even dirtier. Before the first verse even ends, these words pop up on the screen: “Right now ABBA is lip-syncing. It’s not their fault. The tracks didn’t arrive from Sweden.” The band appears to have no idea they are being thus undermined, even as the audience titters. I’ve watched the entire first season now, and haven’t seen any other musical performer treated this way. (The individual videos sadly aren’t anywhere embeddable, but the full episode is on Hulu).
This SNL appearance neatly embodies the ABBA dichotomy. On the one hand, they were such huge stars that the show simply had to book them. On the other, they seemed so irredeemably uncool that the show felt obliged to mock them so it didn’t lose its cultural cachet. And forty-plus years on from that performance, we treat them the same way. We’ll sing and dance along to their songs – particularly after a drink or two – but only the most ardent poptimist would put ABBA anywhere but the “guilty pleasure” category.
True, the productions may be dated, and the outfits ridiculous, but at their core the songs are rock-solid. Songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, sometimes aided by band manager Stig Anderson, penned songs that still rise above the cheese-tacular performances. And there’s no better evidence than in the thousands of genre-spanning covers. Everyone from Richard Thompson to Portishead has covered these songs – and not with a wink and a nudge either, but honestly finding timeless lyrics and melodies beneath ABBA’s very of-its-time presentation.
Cher did it too, releasing her ABBA tribute album today to piggyback on the second Mamma Mia! movie’s success (commercial success, that is, as the reviews were not kind – a true ABBA divide, there). So in honor of that, we decided to pick out the best ABBA covers ever. No, none of Cher’s make the list. But thirty other artists do.
Arctic Monkeys got a lot of attention covering the Strokes last week (especially because on his new album, Alex Turner sings: “I just want to be one of the Strokes”). But I preferred their wonderfully sleazy “Lipstick Vogue” cover, played in honor of Costello as he recovered from cancer surgery. Turner’s a product of his influences; in addition to the Strokes and Elvis, he appears to have his Nick Cave snake slither down cold.
First Aid Kit’s own records have gotten progressively poppier in recent years, but their cover choices still stick with their winning formula: beautiful harmonies, an acoustic guitar, maybe a little subtle percussion – and did we mention the harmonies? We last heard them covering 20 different Leonard Cohen songs in a stunning tribute concert (oh, they did Lorde too for good measure), and now they’re back to tackle Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
Lorde‘s “Green Light” ranked on many publications’ “Best Songs of 2017” lists (#3 on Pitchfork). Fittingly, it’s seen its fair share of covers, from Arcade Fire to All Time Low. But when Swedish duo First Aid Kit stopped by the BBC over the holiday break, they picked a (slightly) deeper cut from Lorde’s Melodrama: “Perfect Places.” If you’ve ever heard the harmonies of sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg – the Everly Brothers meets Haim – you won’t be surprised by how gorgeously they transform the pop song into a lilting country waltz.
But let that be the amuse bouche to the real treat here. Last March, the pair led a massive Leonard Cohen tribute concert in Stockholm. We posted fan-shot videos at the time, but they didn’t do it justice. This fall, the full thing aired on Swedish television. It is, frankly, stunning. The sisters, a few friends, and a full orchestra and choir tackle twenty Cohen songs and poems, from classics like “Suzanne” to new songs like “You Want It Darker.” The arrangements are mesmerizing, making you hear afresh even a song you’ve heard a million times. I thought I never needed to hear another “Hallelujah” cover again. I was wrong (that one’s fronted by guest Annika Norlin). Even the poems – which in most tribute shows would be an afterthought – come across powerfully with the sisters’ voices raised to the ceiling. Their recitation of Leonard’s farewell letter to Marianne on her deathbed into “So Long, Marianne” will give you chills.
Leonard Cohen has been gone five months this week, but the tributes keep on coming. We’ve already heard new covers by – deep breath – Coldplay, Norah Jones, The Avett Brothers, Car Seat Headrest, Amanda Shires, Gov’t Mule, Okkervil River, Richard Thompson, Josh Ritter, and an all-star lineup. Plus, of course, we wrote our own massive covers tribute.
It’s hard to keep up. At Canada’s Juno Music Awards this week, Feist performed a beautiful trio cover of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” – though releasing one of his best-ever albums right before his death actually is a pretty good way to say goodbye. Watch the clip below, introduced by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Cohen was a pallbearer at Trudeau’s father’s funeral).