Sep 282018
 

‘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. Continue reading »

Jun 062017
 
asgeir covers

When I first drove around Iceland in 2013, one album was in every record store window, in every coffee shop: Ásgeir Trausti’s 2012 debut Dýrð í dauðaþögn. My experience was no fluke; supposedly one out of every ten Icelandic households owned a copy. Even the biggest pop star in America wouldn’t have that kind of reach (Beyonce’s Lemonade didn’t even reach one out of every one hundred households).

Suffice to say, Trausti became massive back home. And he has since worked tirelessly to expand his reach, to become the next in the lineage of Björk and Sigur Rós. His debut was re-released internationally as In the Silence, with lyrics translated into English by John Grant. And last month he released his follow-up, Afterglow. No Icelandic-language version this time. Continue reading »

May 232014
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

 
Tim Buckley first debuted “Song to the Siren” on the final episode of The Monkees, and as a folk song, it was lovely and approachable. Then he refused to record it for three years – the line “I’m as puzzled as the oyster” had drawn mocking, and Buckley felt the song too flawed to release, which meant Pat Boone, of all people, was the first to issue it on vinyl. When Buckley finally followed suit, on 1970’s Starsailor, he revealed a changed song (and not just the switch from “oyster” to “newborn child”). If the original take was a quiet den, here was a cavernous ballroom with crumbling pillars, as Buckley’s exotic, five-octave voice stretched through otherworldly echoes, with nothing to hold it up and nothing to hold it back.
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Aug 102012
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Let It Be was the soundtrack of a band falling apart. That was never the plan, of course – the Beatles conceived the album as a back-to-basics effort, in which they would rediscover the joys of playing together without overdubs, only to find themselves bored, angry, and miserable, each one trapped with three bandmates who couldn’t understand what he was going through. They were unhappy with the results and shelved them, but a known goldmine won’t stay untampered, and Phil Spector was brought in to make something of the mess. Upon its release, the highest praise any Beatle gave it came from John, and his quote – “When I heard it, I didn’t puke” – scarcely counts as a ringing endorsement.

Today Let It Be is still seen as one of the weakest albums in the Beatle catalog – but then, this being the Beatles, that means there are only three or four immortal classics, plus a few more that would be high points in the catalogs of 98% of the world’s bands. Somehow, this dying gasp of an album, recorded in notoriously joyless circumstances, found its way into the hearts of millions; somehow, that’s where it was always meant to be.
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Apr 042012
 

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!

The highest peak and the lowest valley in Sinead O’Connor’s professional career are linked to cover songs. In 1990, she had a worldwide number one hit with her version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” written by Prince. Two years later, she performed a version of Bob Marley’s “War” before she ripped up a picture of the Pope; her career was never the same. Two decades have passed since that seminal moment, and in that time, O’Connor has quietly become one of the foremost musical interpreters of our time. Continue reading »