Sinéad O’Connor’s song “Black Boys on Mopeds” has unfortunately seen a cover resurgence of late – unfortunately not because it isn’t a great song, but because the 26-year-old lyrics about a black man getting killed by police shouldn’t feel so timely. Last year we named EMA’s cover of the song one of the best of the year, and now Vermont quartet Swale has produced their own powerful cover. It explicitly ties the song into the Black Lives Matter movement by setting it to a video montage of the over 140 African-Americans killed by police between January 2015 and today.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In the summer of ’67, when Sgt. Pepper ruled the land and light pop songs like “Windy” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” were high on the charts, a song came out of the South the like of which had never been heard. Murky and mysterious, prompting far more questions than it answered, “Ode to Billie Joe” cast a spell over America, and Bobbie Gentry (who turns 72 today) was thrust into the spotlight to say what she knew about the unknowable song she’d written and sung.
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 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
I didn’t realize it until I began laying out our post, but this year’s Best Cover Songs list shares quite a few artists with last year’s. And some that showed up here the year before that. Jack White’s on his fourth appearance. And Jason Isbell and Hot Chip not only both reappear from last year, but have moved up in the rankings.
Though we’re always on the lookout for the new (and to be sure, there are plenty of first-timers here too), the number of repeat honorees illustrates how covering a song is a skill just like any other. The relative few artists who have mastered it can probably deliver worthy covers again and again.
How a great cover happens is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as I’ve been writing a series of articles diving deep into the creation of iconic cover songs through history (I posted two of them online, and the rest are being turned into a book). In every case the artist had just the right amount of reverence for the original song: honoring its intention without simply aping it. It’s a fine line, and one even otherwise able musicians can’t always walk. Plenty of iconic people don’t make good cover artists (I’d nominate U2 as an example: some revelatory covers of the band, but not a lot by them). Given the skill involved, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who can do a good cover once can do it again.
So, to longtime readers, you will see some familiar names below. But you’ll also see a lot of new names, and they’re names you should remember. If the past is any guide, you may well see them again next year, and the year after that.
Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)
I can hear you now. “You dolt! How do you not know that Prince wrote ‘Nothing Compares 2 U?’ You write for a music blog, for crying out loud!”
The thing is, I know the history of the song. I know that he wrote the song for The Family’s 1985 debut album. (The “2 U” is a dead giveaway.) I guess I just believe in giving credit where credit is due. And while I do not mean to disrespect Prince in any way, let’s face it, the masses did not know of this song until Sinéad O’Connor recorded her platinum-selling single, which went to #1 in nearly every country in 1990. It was “The Bald One” – not “The Purple One” – that made the song the third biggest hit of that year, the 82nd biggest hit of the decade and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, #162 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Willie Nelson, 82 years old today, has always been an awkward cuss. Still relentlessly on the road and putting out record after record, somehow it would seem a cop-out to “let others do the work for a while,” as is the norm for these pieces (and besides, been there done that), so this is more a celebration of the myriad and varied covers he has performed over the decades. The germ for this idea came as the staff pow-wow took place around our best country covers of non-country songs Q&A, with Mr. Nelson featuring twice.
His career in music has lasted, so far, a staggering 59 years, his first recording being 1956’s “Lumberjack.” Since then, he has passed through many incarnations, from clean cut C&W performer, consummate Nashville standards songwriter, self-imposed banishment and his counter-intuitively hippie redneck years (copyright me), banding up with and as like-minded (the) Outlaws, before settling into iconic status as a national treasure, lauded by presidents and paupers alike. Somehow his skirmishes with the I.R.S. and his enduring support for marijuana has but strengthened his appeal, even within the staunchly conservative country demographic. And, of course, all of us longhairs just love him. Don’t we?