Oct 012018
 
best cover songs september

Update October 5: Hear a conversation about this list, and our recent Best Abba Covers Ever roundup, on SiriusXM:

Al Green – Before the Next Teardrop Falls (Freddy Fender cover)


Sorry, Beyoncé; the biggest surprise release of the year might be Al Green’s sudden return after a decade away. Well, not totally away; he still conducts weekly services at his Memphis church and, when I attended, was liberally sprinkling quotes from “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to the River” into his sermons. Best of all: This Freddy Fender cover sounds like Al hasn’t lost a step. It’s apparently a one-off, but hopefully recording it will whet his appetite to do more. Continue reading »

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 »

Aug 162018
 

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

madonna covers

Today is Madonna’s birthday, when the Material Girl herself turns – well, one isn’t supposed to talk of such things, so let’s just say it’s a nice round number. Round enough for us to devote this month’s Best Covers countdown to her many hits and, in a few cases, underexposed deep cuts.

A very few cases, to be honest. More than anyone we’ve done these lists about before, Madonna remains best known as a singles artist (even Beyoncé now gets thought of as an album artist). As a result, it’s the singles a cover artist tends to focus on – f’rinstance, the song “Like a Prayer” has been covered more than every other track on the album Like a Prayer combined. The repeated dipping into the same dozen or so songs sets the bar pretty high. You can’t just tweak a tune here and adjust it there. To stand out amidst the million other “La Isla Bonita” covers, an artist needs to attempt something radical.

Many have taken up the challenge. Not one cover on our list would you confuse with Madonna’s version for a second. These artists translate her dance-pop smashes into garage-punk, gypsy-jazz, reggae-soul, and a few genres that no amount of hyphenates will do justice (just wait ’til you reach that Sonic Youth side project).

So get into the groove below. And, if you have any favorite covers we missed, express yourself in the comments! Continue reading »

May 222018
 

john wesley harding coversOn “Bastard Son,” one of the early recordings by John Wesley Harding, the singer, songwriter, novelist and overall renaissance man self-describes himself as the bastard son of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, a description that seems to be pretty much accurate. Whether you are listening to one of the albums released under his nom de plume or reading one of his novels under his given name Wesley Stace, the conclusion is the same. This is one talented guy. Continue reading »

Apr 302018
 
best cover songs april

April was the best month for covers of the year so far. There’s no particular reason for that, I suspect. These things just ebb and flow. But the fact remains that it was a proverbial embarrassment of riches, as the length of the list below confirms.

As always, there’s no quality difference between the main picks and the honorable mentions; a cover’s categorization is only determined by how much I had to say about it. Continue reading »

Apr 172018
 
kendra morris virgin

No stranger to an exquisitely crafted cover song, Kendra Morris is back with a nuanced version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” that was just released as the B-side of her new single “Playing Games.” With her cover song mettle already on display with her 2013 release Mockingbird, Morris ramps up her game even more on her new release. Continue reading »