When delivered with passion and a reverence for the record being covered, a track-for-track covers album reimagining an iconic album by someone’s musical heroes can result in an intoxicating listen. Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong mined this territory on 2013’s Foreverly, an album paying tribute to the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. The Walkmen took the format to the next level, inhabiting the very essence of the John Lennon-produced Harry Nilsson cult classic Pussycats with Pussycats Starring The Walkmen. And now, in 2018, the Austin-based Americana group The Band of Heathens have delivered A Message from the People Revisited, a timely tribute to the Ray Charles record A Message from the People, originally released in 1972.
Willie Nelson’s latest album My Way is billed is as a tribute to Frank Sinatra. But it’s really just another chapter in Nelson’s retelling of the Great American Songbook. It features Nelson’s signature dude ranch cabaret sound that he’s perfected over the course of the last four decades, starting with the 1978 classic Stardust.
Throughout My Way, whether he’s backed by a large orchestra or small jazz combo, Nelson has the uncanny ability to make the tracks his own. There’s his instantly recognizable voice, which still sounds impeccable. He infuses the lush arrangements with heavy amounts of harmonica. While Nelson does not break any new musical ground, listening to the record is a bit like hanging out with an old friend, or at the very least, with a familiar (red-headed) stranger.
We’re more than a week on since the tragic loss of Chris Cornell, and not more can be said that hasn’t already been written. A lot of musicians were crushed and many expressed their sadness on social media and in song (though it must be said, it didn’t always feel genuine as a few tried to capitalize on his popularity by name-checking him). While the media focuses on the how and why of Cornell’s passing, the fans mourn in the mosh pit and the mezzanines.
When I pitched writing this roundup, I also knew that regardless of how heartfelt these tributes would be, it would be incredibly difficult for many singers to hit Cornell’s singing range. This is not to pick on anyone in particular, nor to throw shade on their own expressions of grief and the want to express it. But even as someone who often has to defend cover songs versus the originals, I really think Chris Cornell was truly irreplaceable.
Here are my favorites of the many Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog covers that have been recorded since Cornell’s passing.
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
2016 in music will be most remembered for one thing: death. It seemed like an unprecedented list of major musical figures left us this year: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen. The list, sadly, goes on and on.
Prominent passings affect many aspects of the music world, but the impact is particularly clear in the world of cover songs: When an artist dies, a lot of people cover his or her songs. The world was hardly hurting for Prince covers before April 21, but afterwards, to paraphrase the man himself, we went crazy. Bruce Springsteen alone became a one-man tribute machine, covering Bowie, Prince, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, and Suicide’s Alan Vega after they died (it’s a shame his tour ended before Cohen passed because he’d do a great “Everybody Knows”). Our list this year features a number of these tribute covers – though both the Cohen covers listed were actually released before his death, proving there’s no need to wait to honor one of the greats.
Our list also features fantastic final covers by the recently departed, brilliant song-interpreters like Sharon Jones and Allen Toussaint. The fact that they died may add extra meaning to these new songs, but they’d make the list regardless. Whether they performed wonderful covers or wrote wonderful songs for others to cover, we miss these artists because they were great. They don’t need any “death bump.”
The year wasn’t all dire though. Our list features many covers by and of artists who are alive in every sense of the word. Kendrick Lamar and Drake represent the new world of hip-hop, Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson in country, Animal Collective and Joyce Manor in indie rock, and in too many other genres to name. Jason Isbell currently holds a streak here, making his third consecutive appearance this year.
We also have plenty of artists whose names I won’t highlight here, because you probably won’t have heard of them…yet. We’re not in the business of predicting fame – the music industry is far too fickle for that – but some of our past best-cover winners have gone on to big things this year, like Chance the Rapper (2014 winner) and The Weeknd (2012 winner). Hell, Sturgill (#3 in 2014) just got an Album of the Year Grammy nomination!
Those early covers may have helped kick off such success. A revelatory cover song can help a musician attract early attention. When I interviewed Mark Mothersbaugh recently, he said no one understood what Devo was doing until they covered “Satisfaction.” A familiar song done Devo-style finally made the connection for people. “Whip It” and other original hits would not be far behind.
Maybe some of this year’s under-the-radar names will go on to Weeknd-level superstardom. But even if they don’t, all these covers, by household names and Garageband geeks alike, deserve recognition. We’ll miss all the great musicians who left us this year, but it’s gratifying to see so many promising younger artists coming in to fill their shoes.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)
PS. Last year in this space, I mentioned I’m writing a book about cover songs. Well, Cover Me (the book, that is) is finished and will be out next year! In addition to the aforementioned Mothersbaugh, I interviewed Roger Daltrey about “Summertime Blues,” David Byrne about “Take Me to the River,” and many more. Follow our Facebook for updates on preorder, etc. Now, on to the countdown…
On Friday, we posted our tribute to Leonard Cohen, calling him maybe the greatest gift to cover songs ever. Many musicians agreed over the weekend, covering his songs across the world in live shows. We’ve rounded up a bunch below, from Coldplay, Norah Jones, Okkervil River, The Avett Brothers, Car Seat Headrest, and more.
The biggest surprise: Not many people picked the most obvious choice, “Hallelujah.” It seemed so perfect that I saw at least one person on Twitter begging musicians to pick something – anything – else to cover, and they listened. I figured it would dominate even more than “Purple Rain” did when Prince died, but perhaps many felt intimidated by the iconic Jeff Buckley and John Cale versions. It also might seem a daunting song to really sell, particularly if you just learned it in the tour bus (one of the only bands who did cover it: Styx).
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
I was a big fan of Roxy Music, in both their spiky earlier incarnation and their smoother second phase, then lost a little faith as Bryan Ferry seemed to endlessly noodle around and around the same somewhat bland and anodyne motifs, solo recordings palling – apart from, I have to say, and appropriately on this site, his all-Bob cover album Dylanesque, which carried a bit more verve and spark than his own stuff. However, back and currently on the road, Ferry seems to have hit upon a bit of a stride – largely, in truth, by an extensive revisiting of his Roxy catalog, rarely playing material from this century. Be that as it may, “More Than This,” from 1982’s Avalon, and actually their last UK top ten hit (it barely bothered the US charts, peaking at 102), has always struck me as a bit of a throwaway, with the by-then Ferry formula padded out in what was becoming a somewhat repetitive set of chord progressions, later repeated ad nauseum in his subsequent solo career. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a bit meh. But, inexplicably, it has become a bit of a standard for covering, perhaps on account of one of the versions commented upon below.