This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Band’s legendary The Last Waltz final concert and to celebrate, NYC’s Lincoln Center hosted an all-star tribute concert Saturday night. Held down by Levon Helm’s longstanding Midnight Ramble Band, special guests included Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and even Dr. John, reprising the song he sang at the original Last Waltz.
When I was five, my brother and I were digging in the yard and we dug up some jelly beans. Being jelly beans, we ate them. As you would expect, as they weren’t really food and since they didn’t really decay, they were pretty much intact. And they were delicious. Our Mom apparently didn’t seem to think this was a very smart thing to do, so we were punished. But it seemed oh-so-worth-it in the end.
Listening to the Red Hot Organization’s 25th release, the sprawling 5-CD Day of the Dead, I kinda feel the same way. There’s a lot more digging though, and way fewer jelly beans.
August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars depicts the tragic death of a black blues musician unable to take advantage of his stardom because he can’t get his guitar out of the pawnshop so that he might return to Chicago and record another hit single on a better contract. The play is set in 1948, a year after real-life inspiration Blind Willie Johnson, the gravely voiced musician eulogized in the new tribute album God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson, succumbed to pneumonia while living in the ashes of a house that had burned down a week earlier. Despite having recorded thirty songs, Johnson died broke, famously using wet newspaper as blankets during his final days.
There are a million ways to evaluate God Don’t Never Change; most of them, I think, will settle on the fact that it will likely go down as one of the best American roots albums of 2016. I think so too. However, the lengthy discussion that follows will not just be about the incredible music of Blind Willie Johnson or even the deserving covers featured on this album. In what is perhaps a risky move in the world of music criticism, I want to frame my discussion of this album around issues of race and culture because we are a site dedicated to covers: the origins of the blues raise questions germane to any discussion of what it means to cover songs belonging to a genre that originally existed to give voice to the experiences and suffering of a specific group of people.
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)
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Fans of Gram Parsons are generally divided into three camps over 1999’s Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons. The first thinks it’s brilliant, a reverent homage to a great songwriter and a testament to the weight of his country rock influence. The second likes the raw sound of another tribute album better: 1993’s Conmemorativo: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, featuring the likes of Bob Mould and The Mekons. And the third camp feels that the only person that can sing Gram Parsons songs is Parsons himself.
If we took the philosophy of the last opinion to heart, this site wouldn’t even exist. While the so-called purists would deny any version other than the one by the original artist as being legitimate, it certainly would be a dull world if all musicians were content to color within the lines without recognizing that someone else before them drew those lines. While Conmemorativo does contain some gems, there are two reasons why Return of the Grievous Angel is better: great production values, and the guiding hand of Emmylou Harris, who worked so closely with Parsons and who served as executive producer of the compilation. So count us among the members of that first camp. Now let’s meet the man who inspired the album.
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!
Mary Lou Lord is a music lover. For starters, she was busking for eight years before being signed to a label; there are bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose careers are shorter than that. She cofounded the Boston chapter of Girls Rock Camp, a summer program designed to foster a positive atmosphere for girls to become empowered through music education. She shares songs that are new to her on her Facebook page, and when she talks about Connie Converse, or points out how much Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” sounds like Carole King’s “He’s a Bad Boy,” you can’t help but get caught up in the giddy excitement of her discovery.