This year’s cover albums offered ambition on a scale we’ve never seen before. Moving beyond the normal “cover a bunch of random songs we like” tossoff, 2012 offered deeply thought-out conceptual collections. One updated kiddie folk songs for raved-out rockers, others reworked complete albums to their own ends. Even the all-star tributes that pop up every year aimed higher – one of the year’s most high-profile had 70+ tracks! So today we count down the best of the bunch, the ones that swung for the fences and got there. With every passing year there seems to be less sigma attached to the phrase “cover album,” and these sets move that needle even farther forward.
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.
It’s the end of the era of Etta and her more than fifty year stretch of hit singles, cross-genre awards and industry-shaking influence concludes with a dream. A dream that features Axl Rose… without being a nightmare!
With her most recent release, The Dreamer, Etta James announced her retirement from the music business. Her family recently disclosed that the 73-year-old suffers from leukemia, along with a number of other physical complications, and revealed her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2009. While her decision to end her career is no surprise, what does startle is the nature of the final album with which Etta chose to take her bow. A curious collection of covers in which a handful of true blue soul and R&B standards rock alongside the likes of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Tribute albums often sound more like compilations than unified albums. The usual mold of gathering together an eclectic group of artists to either produce their own covers of an artist or play together can make for interesting listening, but results in a rather disjointed affair. Even with a single artist bringing in “special guests” – a standard practice for these sorts of endeavors – the preponderance of different voices can struggle to create a cohesive sound. Ben Waters manages to completely avoid this trap on his new album Boogie 4 Stu: A Tribute To Ian Stewart.
Stewart, often referred to as the “Sixth Stone,” mastered boogie-woogie piano and helped to form The Rolling Stones in 1962. Unfortunately, he did not fit the image created for the band by early manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who demoted Stewart to road manager. Undeterred, he served the band faithfully until his death in 1985, occasionally contributing piano at Stones sessions and playing with Howlin’ Wolf, Led Zeppelin and Pete Townshend on the side. For the present tribute, boogie-woogie piano maestro Waters assembled a group of Stewart’s friends to record an album of the music Stewart loved.
We know some of you might be thinking, “Hold on, Willie and Wynton? Didn’t this album come out a few years ago?” Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis understand the possible confusion. They even prefaced this brand new album of Ray Charles cover hits by titling it Here We Go Again (also a track off the album, natch) in an attempt to clarify.
Back in 2007, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis joined up for a two-night live show and created Two Men with the Blues. They found a connection as well as commercial success, so what seemed like a novelty cross-genre one-off became a lasting collaboration. In 2009, Nelson and Marsalis reunited, this time asking Norah Jones to join them at New York’s Lincoln Center. Two years later, the live album Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles delivers the experience to all those who missed out.
The grammar police will be on your back if you use a double negative, there ain’t no doubt. But from my brief days a linguistics major, I learned that “grammatically incorrect” language like this, when used widely enough, takes over. It’s how language evolves. So “whom” Nazis, give it up.
The double negative is a unique “mistake” though, as it seems socioeconomically based, and racially some too. So I can’t tell you whether it will ever become an “acceptable” for of speech. What I do know though, is a lot of great tunes use it, and you’d be missing out if you discounted them based on linguistic snobbishness.
Dolapdere Big Gang – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)
Covers of this one vary from the powerful (Otis Redding) to the seizure-inducing (Britney Spears) to the just plain bizarre (Devo). This one’s a little more unusual, but when I snagged it from over at Cover Freak a while back I wasn’t disappointed. A little string quartet appetizer, some salsa congo as the main dish, and a pre-chorus breakdown to cleanse the pallatte, and a horn-flute breakdown to polish things off. Yum. [Buy]
Buddy Guy – Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
Lots of covers of this one, but I’ve never heard one that approaches this soulful horn-fueled swing. Guy’s molasses voice shines through here, but duet partner Tracy Chapman is no slouch herself, turning the song into a duet of two lost lovers missing each other. Buddy throws down his signature guitar lines, holding back enough to not overpower the tune but adding pure texture to this powerful slow jam. [Buy]
Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Nina Simone)
Elvis Costello does a decent version, but you can’t beat this ten-minute salsa funk from the Kill Bill soundtrack. Quentin Tarantino has got a hell of an ear for music, and he hit gold tacking on this dance frenzy. A must-hear. [Buy]
Aaron Neville – Ain’t No Cure For Love (Leonard Cohen)
I put this one up long ago in a Leonard Cohen album post, but since I removed the link months ago I figure I can throw it back up again. Neville does just fine without his brothers here, turning the over-produced schlock of the original (sorry Lenny) into a soul groove that just won’t quit. [Buy]
Francis and the Lights – Can’t Tell Me Nothing (Kanye West)
I posted one cover of this one a while back, but another has turned up on a recent covers-happy compilation. The comp is supposed to be based on guilty pleasures though, and I don’t think anyone should feel guilty enjoying Kanye West. And if you feel guilty enjoying this cover, then we’ve really got a problem. [Buy]
Hell Blues Choir – I Don’t Need No Doctor (Ray Charles)
Norway’s Hell Blues Choir has released two phenomenal tribute album, one to Tom Waits and one to Ray Charles. Where you’d think choir songs would be uniformly lame, the addition of creative arrangements and a rocking bands keep their sound fresh and exciting for song after song. Grab these discs! [Buy]
Jah Malla – Ain’t No Man Righteous (Bob Dylan)
Dylan’s born-again Christianity inspired him to write a whole flurry of songs in ’79, many of which never made it on record. For this he wrote a gospel track he performed with full backing singers on tour, but here is a reggae take (could you tell from the artist?) that somehow makes perfect sense. [Buy]
Bob Dylan – Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie (Elizabeth Cotton)
Cotton was a southern black folk musician not discovered until middle age, in the 50’s by folk revivalist Pete Singer. Wikipedia can tell you far more than I can, but it won’t tell you that Bob covered this tune 48 times in the late 90’s featuring his acoustic guitar solo-noodling and earthy background harmonies from Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton. This recording comes from a soundboard recording in Hamburg. Also scout around for Dylan covering Cotton’s “Shake Sugaree” around the same time. [Buy]
Peter Case – A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today (Merle Haggard)
Couple this with his more famous Working Man’s Blues, and it’s clear old Merle had a thing for the nine-to-five blue collar man. With some folksy instruments and slide guitar Case helps this song bounce along, sounding like Woody Guthrie on happy pills. But in a good way. [Buy]
Lyle Lovett – Ain’t No More Cane (Trad.)
“Lyle Lovett?” I can hear you saying. “Ew.” Now normally I’d be right there with you, but give this one a chance. An Americana-country background gives a sparse but lush field in which his powerful voice can roam free. The woah-woah-woah chorus brings the song back to its prison work song roots and (dare I say it) puts The Band’s version in its place. [Buy]
It’s been a little while since we had a strictly thematic post, so here we are with streets, both specific and general.
I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business – Positively 4th Street (Bob Dylan)
The organ-fueled rant of the vitriolic original has been taken down to a light folk-rock take that, though the sound seems superficial, keeps the fury intact in a more passive-aggressive mode. Probably a bad choice to start this set with though, as other than the title the song actually has nothing to do with streets. Oh well.
Abbie Gardner – Hit the Road Jack (Ray Charles)
Gardner takes a Joan Osborne-esq approach, stripping the soul classic down to some slapped guitar and understated vocals.
Patty – Highway to Hell (AC/DC)
Off of the pretty good Backed In Black tribute album, it sounds about what you would expect the track to sound like on an acoustic guitar. Which isn’t a bad thing.
Marah – Streets of Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen)
Bruce has got a lot of street songs: Thunder Road, The E Street Shuffle, Tenth-Avenue Freeze-Out, Streets of Fire, Incident on 57th Street, etc. Only one of them has won him an Oscar however. So, though it’s far from one of my favorite Springsteen songs, it’s hard to knock it. Fellow Jersey boy Marah gives it a little more life in an uptemp country take that replaces the synths with banjos.
Al Jarreau – (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 (Bobby Troup)
A bop-jazz instrument-less version of this rock standard stands out from the competition, most of which all sound identical (though Depeche Mode does a decent take too). The sounds of a Beat coffee shop.
Anti-Nowhere League – Streets of London (Ralph McTell)
Though not in the same league fame-wise as the Sex Pistols or The Clash, they certainly have the sound down on this punked updated of the folk standard, off-key nasal drawl and all. Fast and straight-ahead, with no fucking around.
Brandi Carlisle and A Fine Frenzy – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John)
Two great indie-fabulous female vocalists combine for this live duet
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes – Take Me Home, Country Roads (John Denver)
These guys only do one thing, but they do it well. So here’s one of dozens of their non-rock songs turned into pop-punk. Sounds exactly like you’d expect.
John Hammond – Fannin Street (Tom Waits)
It’s a cover, but Hammond (the producer’s son) released it years before Tom released his own. Named after a Leadbelly song, John’s version is much smoother, slow country-blues in this live take from an ’01 show.
Tenacious D – Abbey Road Medley (The Beatles)
Jack Black and Kyle Gass, known mostly for songs about slow sex and farting, occasionally do a cover…and are surprisingly adept at it. Here’s Side B of Abbey Road, minus the Ringo drum solo. That famous side can’t be discussed, however, without a link to Chris Bliss juggling to it.