Husband and wife team Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, better known as Shovels & Rope, know their way around a good cover song. We’ve shared a handful of their covers here at the site over the years, including a couple of cuts from their 2015 collection of covers, Busted Jukebox, Volume 1. From that title, it’s almost as if they knew they’d be releasing more covers at some point. Well, surprise! This week sees the release of Busted Jukebox, Volume 2, following the same format of Volume 1: a wide-range of source material reimagined with the help of some musician friends.
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
We’ve done a Best Cover Albums list every year since 2009. That list usually ends up being a reasonably even mix of various-artist tributes and single-artist records. But in all those lists, our number-one pick has been, without fail, a single-artist album (for those keeping score at home, we’ve awarded The Lemonheads, Peter Gabriel, Baaba Kulka, Neil Young and Crazyhorse, Xiu Xiu, Andrew Bird, and Bob Dylan – who didn’t turn up to accept our prize either).
This single-artist streak is no coincidence. It is naturally easier for one artist, if he/she/they are good enough, to maintain consistent quality control over 10 or 15 tracks. Whereas even the best mixed-artist tribute records usually have one or two dud tracks. Take the National-curated Day of the Dead, certainly this year’s highest-profile tribute album. Some of these Grateful Dead covers were so good they’ll appear on next week’s Best Cover Songs of 2016 list. Many others were dreck, filler, or superfluous. So we ranked the record – spoiler alert – at #20, sort of an honorable-mention position.
Even various-artist tributes comprised of uniformly good covers typically don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. For example, we ranked MOJO Magazine’s Blonde on Blonde tribute pretty high this year because we liked just about every one of the Bob Dylan covers on offer. But there’s little common ground between an aggressive electronic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and a tender folk “I Want You.” The record is more a bunch of great cover-song fodder for mixes and playlists than a truly great and unified album.
I sound like I’m being critical, but again, these are among the best cover albums of the year. This is usually the most a various-artist tribute album can aspire to: more good covers, few bad ones.
But this year, for the first time in our eight years making these lists, a various-artist tribute album rose so all the way to the top. This album was not only good top to bottom, but it felt like a real album, not just a collection of covers. It ably walked the finest of lines: showcasing diverse approaches to the source material while just remaining cohesive enough to stand together as a complete listen.
I don’t want to give away what that number-one album is just yet. We’ll get there, and there’s already enough of a tendency with year-end lists to skip straight to #1 and ignore the rest. I no doubt have not helped by hyping this magical album that broke our eight-year streak. But every one of the twenty albums we picked offers something worth hearing.
We’ve got jazz-sax forays through prog-rock and twee-pop covers of vintage punk tunes. There’s a ’60s New York icon honoring her then-competitors in the British Invasion, and a band from that same British Invasion honoring their American inspirations. There are tributes to great musicians who died this year, and tributes to long-dead musicians who there’s no news hook for honoring now, just great songs.
This list itself is as “various artists” as it can get, a whole array of genres and styles with one common thread: musicians honoring their inspirations and influences. Let’s dig in.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Start the countdown on the next page…
Any collection of a popular artist’s songs presented as children’s music should always be approached with some level of trepidation. And with good reason, given the glut of inanely saccharine covers delivered either by children and twee instrumentation or adults pandering to the younger demographics. The latter case is perhaps the most egregious, as these adults seem to believe that the only way in which to create music kids will understand is to severely dumb down the content and up the intolerably cartoonish elements of the worst of so-called children’s music performers. The question often becomes, Why subject your children to these atrociously subpar re-imaginings of popular songs when the originals are vastly superior and just as accessible?
Thankfully, the folks at Spare the Rock Records seem to have felt the same with regard to the world of children’s music and, rather than adding to the pap currently clogging the marketplace, have ventured to release music aimed at children but ideally suited for the whole family. And there is perhaps no better artist, save perhaps the Beatles, for whom this approach is ideally suited than David Bowie. With his passing in January of 2016, he left a gaping void in the musical landscape, one artists across myriad genres have, in the months since, sought to fill in the form of countless tributes, think pieces, and heartfelt expressions of admiration.
And while we may have lost the man himself, we will always have his music. His is a catalog so vast and stylistically diverse as to perfectly warrant the stylistically diverse assemblage of artists and styles gather here on the newly-issued Let All the Children Boogie. Stripped to their barest elements and rebuilt in individually idiosyncratic ways, the work of David Bowie presented here remains wholly recognizable, yet affords listeners an entirely new way of hearing these well-known songs.
Is it bad form to promote your own tribute? It almost makes you think about the crass sort of person who, say, slaps his last name on every building, golf course, airline, casino, steak, or bottle of wine or water that he has anything to do with. Now, what about if it is an employee who instigates a tribute to his employer? That seems pretty cool, especially since so many employees would probably be more likely to spit on something that glorifies their bosses than to work, unpaid, to create a monument to them.
So, let’s give kudos to Jeff “Jefe” Neely, the “website guy” for Old 97’s, who decided that it would be a good idea to get other musicians to cover Old 97’s songs and to use the project as a fundraiser for charity: water, whose mission is to “bring clean and safe drinking water to every person in the world.” The charity was founded in 2006 by Scott Harrison, a former nightclub and fashion promoter after a life changing trip to Liberia.
The band got behind the project, which became known as Desperate Times, and helped to get artists to contribute covers to the project, which was funded through a Pledge Music campaign. In fact, many of the artists had toured with Old 97’s at some point in the band’s two-decade-plus career, and a significant number are from Texas, where Old 97’s formed. Not surprisingly, therefore, most of them inhabit a similar Americana/country/rock space as the band they are covering. The contributors, all well-respected artists if not chart-toppers, seem to have embraced the challenge. For the most part, although the covers don’t generally stray too far from the originals, each is distinctive and all are of exceptional quality.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Tower of Song” was released in the late ’80s on Leonard Cohen’s album I’m Your Man. Open to interpretation by zealous music fans arguing over beers at 3 a.m., “Tower” is often thought to be an allegorical song about Cohen’s self-flagellation during his own songwriting (and when you write a song about songwriting, it becomes an ourobourus on many levels). It’s not been covered as often as other Cohen hits, but its allusions to Cohen trying to clack out a song in his invisible prison while the clock of death is ticking makes it one of his most memorable songs. Cohen spent six years of the ’90s in a Buddhist monastery trying to seek enlightenment. But you, dear reader, can achieve the same by listening to these covers below.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen something of a renaissance in Leonard Cohen covers. The trend continues today, with three new installments in Columbia Records’ Old Ideas With New Friends series.
A.C. Newman and friends perform quite a neat trick with “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” They don’t change the song that much, although Newman brings a broader vocal range than Cohen; rather, they create a track that makes Cohen’s sound like the rendering, even when listening to the two in close comparison. They create something that sounds like an ages-old folk tune (which it is, in a sense, Cohen being perhaps the greatest bard of the twentieth century); they create a track that sounds like they took the pulpy orange juice of the original and, somehow, brought all of their collective talents to it to present to us a whole, unperforated, ripe orange, peel and all.