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 »
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.
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.
Back in 2006, Tom Waits released an outtakes and rarities compilation called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. At 56 tracks, it had a lot – but not nearly everything. So fans dutifully compiled a companion collection of everything left on the cutting room floor, cleverly titled Forgotten Orphans. In addition to more outtakes and b-sides, this fan bootleg included something the main set lacked: live performances. Many of those were super-rare covers, none of which have ever been officially released. But they are worth hearing. Tom Waits is widely regarded as an excellent songwriter, but these covers showcase Tom Waits’ power as a song interpreter. He’s never gone the Bob Dylan route of periodic forays into cover albums, but if he ever did, these songs show how great such an album could be.Continue reading »
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Summertime,” one of the most covered songs in music history (just ask The Summertime Connection), has always inspired masterful performances. The song weaves simple yet potent lyrics with a slow, steady harmonic progression, paving the way for poised renditions, yet its strengths allow the artists to freely improvise this musical masterpiece to make it distinctly their own. Covers range from chilling and ominous to sultry and even joyous, always maintaining the song’s soulful cool. Most importantly, “Summertime”‘s depth provides a canvas for inspired artists to create breathtakingly beautiful art. Continue reading »