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!
Over the years, the perception of Keith Richards has changed from “He’ll die any day now” to “How has he not died yet?” to “He’s never going to die.” In 2016, a year that wiped out Bowie, Prince, and Abe Vigoda, not to mention Emerson, Lake, and (Arnold) Palmer, the soul of the Stones kept right on glimmering. A popular meme shows him reading the paper and saying, “Hey, Mick, look who I outlived this week.” In a way, it’s self-fulfilling prophecy; Keith is rock and roll, and rock and roll – especially in the form of the Rolling Stones’ songs – will never die.
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.
I can’t believe you won’t have already read or heard at least a hundred reviews of Blue & Lonesome, an 11th-hour reprieve for the best rock and roll band in the world, burning up column inches and airspace across the world. And all so uniformly and fawningly good, too. Where are the naysayers? Well, not here, I fear, for this is the real deal.
It’s true, from when it was first announced, I so wanted and wished it to be good, because I am a Rolling Stones fan, even (well, mostly) through the years of drought. Then, as the promo reviews were released, I faltered – could it really be so? Yesterday morning it arrived on my doormat and my anticipations soared. First track in, “Just Your Fool,” and I knew it. The Stones have cracked it. Combined age et cetera et cetera, laughter lines and all, bang bang bang, easy, job done. Continue reading »
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Otis Redding built one of his greatest songs out of almost nothing. Guitarist and co-writer Steve Cropper explains: “‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’ was just a riff I’d used on a few songs with the MG’s. Otis worked it up with the horns in about 10 minutes as the last thing we did one night in the studio. Just a riff and one verse that he sings over and over. That’s all it is.”
The Rolling Stones haven’t released an album since 2005, but in December they’ll finally return – and with their first-ever covers album to boot. Titled Blue & Lonesome, the album contains their versions of 12 classic blues songs by Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and more. They’ve snuck a blues cover on LPs here and there in the past (“Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed, “You Gotta Move” on Sticky Fingers) but this is the first time they’ve filled a full album with them. They’ve already released the first track, Little Walter’s “Just Your Fool,” which you can hear below. And this weekend, they performed another album cut at Desert Trip festival (aka “Oldchella”): Eddie Taylor’s “Ride ‘Em On Down,” which they last performed in 1962!Continue reading »
Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Writing an “Under the Radar” piece inevitably forces the writer to address the elephant in the room: Why is an artist you like enough to spend time researching and crafting a piece about considered to be “Under the Radar” by the vast majority of people? Hem, a band that formed in 2002 and sporadically released music until last year, would seem to have had so many advantages – intelligent songwriting, fine musicianship, a distinctive sound and, maybe most importantly, a lead vocalist with a scarily gorgeous voice. Seven of their songs were used in national commercials for Liberty Mutual Insurance, a classic Christmas cover was used in an ad for Tiffany’s, and other songs have appeared in television shows. They created music, which was well received by The New York Times, for a production of Twelfth Night for New York’s legendary Shakespeare In The Park program, featuring Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald and Hamish Linklater. They were touted by outlets as diverse as NPR and Entertainment Weekly. Yet it appears that radar just doesn’t pick them up. Continue reading »