The Beach Boys‘ Pet Sounds turns 50 next month, which means we’re celebrating 50 years of mediocre bands trying to replicate Brian Wilson’s perfectionist pop and 50 years of publications trying to mold otherwise good bands into pop musicians with misguided Beach Boys comparisons (I’m looking at you Animal Collective). But hey, the original record is still one of the best things you’ll ever hear.
Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
“Sloop John B” is a song that most of us have heard at least a few times in our lives. Popularized by the Beach Boys on their immortal Pet Sounds album, it has been around much longer than that. The song originally came out of the folk tradition in the Bahamas under the title “The John B. Sails.” It was transcribed as early as 1916 by Richard Le Galliene, but really came to fame in America when included by Carl Sandburg in his 1927 folk song collection The American Songbag.
From there, it was recorded multiple times over the years. Notable versions include artists as diverse as Dick Dale, Jimmie Rodgers (under the title “Wreck of the John B”), Johnny Cash (as “I Want To Go Home”), and the Kingston Trio. It was the Kingston Trio, who recorded the song as “(The Wreck of the) John B,” that had the largest influence on the Beach Boys’ take, which would explode in popularity all over the world.
In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
It’s hard to believe, but Flood, the breakthrough third album by They Might Be Giants, was released over a quarter of a century ago. Even harder to believe: John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the founders of the band, were only just getting started. They’ve since released another three dozen albums (counting compilations and live albums), won two Grammys, performed the theme songs for both Malcolm in the Middle and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, released the very first all-MP3 album by a major-label band (1999’s Long Tall Weekend), seen three of their children’s albums go gold, and sold more than four million records. Oh, and we can’t forget their pioneering Dial-A-Song phone line.
Yes, the two Johns know their stuff – and it shouldn’t be surprising that they know their cover songs as well. One of their signature songs is “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and it’s a good bet many of their fans don’t know that the Four Lads sang it first, in 1953. They’re not half bad on a few others, too…
Follow all our Best of 2014 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
A few months ago, I read an interesting interview with an artist named Nouela. You probably haven’t heard of her, but you may have heard her music. She’s become a specialist in a weird but growing niche: covers recorded for movie and television trailers. Whether doing a piano “Sound of Silence” to promote a new HBO show or a brooding “Black Hole Sun” to promote Liam Neeson punching people, she’s found a quickly-growing way of getting her covers out there.
It struck me as part of a growing trend we’ve seen. More and more great covers seem to come from unexpected places. Sure, you’ve got still your standby sources, your b-sides, tribute albums, and radio shows. But new avenues for covers have increasingly crept in. This year saw a Sam Smith cover that is only available to hear under Grey’s Anatomy dialog (thankfully he’s recorded a few live versions too) and a whole covers album recorded to plug a Canadian TV show. Brands have fully embraced covers too, most recently My Morning Jacket’s “This Land Is Your Land” recorded for North Face ads, or Charli XCX and Bleachers trading covers for Kia.
We don’t care where they originated when we make our year-end lists, though, and we would up with some of everything. In our top five alone, we’ve got a live radio session, a deluxe-edition bonus track, and a cover hiding in plain sight on one of the most acclaimed country records of the year. You have to keep an eye on more places than ever to spot the best covers these days. Wherever they come from, we’re glad to have ’em.
Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)
Foxygen drummer Shaun Fleming, better known by his musical alter-ego Diane Coffee, has picked one of the best ways to welcome summer. In honor of Brian Wilson’s 72nd birthday, he released this dreamy cover of The Beach Boys “Kokomo.”
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!
His parents named him Reginald Kenneth Dwight, and his dad wanted him to become a banker. But Sir Elton Hercules John, 67 years old today, had other ideas. Three hundred million albums, six Grammy Awards, one Academy Award, one Golden Globe, one Tony Award, the best-selling single of all time, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a knighthood later, we say “happy birthday, Sir Elton.”