Feb 272020
 

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

smokey robinson covers

The story goes that Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” Not so, it turns out, but it sure seems like something he would say – it sounds a note of contrariness, but it also has the ring of truth.

Smokey Robinson turned 80 this month, and his legacy as one of the architects of the Motown sound has long been assured. Not only did he have a silken falsetto that conveyed sunshine and rain with equal ease, he also wielded a pen with a similar level of genius. Whether writing for The Miracles, the band that he led throughout the sixties, or the other members of the Motown stable, he came up with songs that became not just a part of music history, but a part of our nation’s history. As Smokey said, the Motown slogan was not “The Sound of Black America,” but “The Sound of Young America,” and that sound has rung down through the corridors of time as surely as the sound of the Liberty Bell.

No further proof is needed than the number of covers of Smokey’s songs – covers of his own recordings or covers of the original recordings by The Temptations or Marvin Gaye or the many other singers who benefited from his pen. His voice has spoken to other artists for decades, and when those artists tell us what he told them, those songs are just as fresh as they were the day he first set them down. We found thirty superlative covers of songs that Smokey wrote and/or sang, but, as we could have found thirty great recordings of “My Girl” alone, we know we’ve missed a few along the way. Whether you’re steamed at what we missed, or excited to discover what we found, we can agree on one thing: Smokey Robinson is one of the all-time greats, and we’re fortunate to have the privilege to listen to the songs he wrote for the rest of our lives.

– Patrick Robbins, Features Editor

The list starts on Page 2.

Aug 022019
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

Edwin Starr War Temptations

Most know “War,” the anti-Vietnam protest song, by its distinctive and aggressive opening. After a drum roll, Edwin Starr launches into soulful protest: “War, huh, yeah / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing.” Hearing his hurt and anger, you can understand why the song resonated with the anti-war sentiment of the times. Throughout, Starr mixes singing with screaming, matching the tone of the wailing electric guitar and the occasional sassy saxophone lick. Starr’s powerful voice can stand up to the at times cacophonous instrumental accompaniment. The lyrics are not subtle, and Starr emphasizes each line without apology: “Induction then destruction / Who wants to die?”

The song was a massive success; it was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Its message remains potent, its obvious political statement inspiring near-continual controversy nearly half a century after its release. For example, after the September 11th attacks, Clear Channel Communications put “War” on a list of songs to be avoided for radio. However, it is thanks to the political nature of the lyrics that Edwin Starr got the chance to record the song in the first place. 

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Oct 092018
 
oates weir

History has been kind to the legacies of perceived second-bananas John Oates and Bob Weir. In a recent comedy special, Chris Rock noted how Oates deserves just as much credit as Daryl Hall for their long running partnership. “I don’t know what Oates does,” Rock quipped. “But Hall never had a hit record without him.” Similarly, Weir was always perceived to be second to Jerry Garcia during the lifespan of the the Grateful Dead. But in the two decades since Jerry’s death he has played an essential role in keeping the spirit of the band alive.

Oates and Weir recently teamed up during an Oates solo performance at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California. It was an encore of their previous pairing at the venue in 2015. Weir blends in so well with Oates’ band that one hopes they make a habit out of this.

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Jun 152018
 
best cover songs 1978

Welcome to the third installment in our Best Cover Songs of Yesteryear countdown, where we act like we were compiling our usual year-end list from a year before we – or the internet – existed. Compared to the first two, this one has significantly less grunge than 1996 and less post-punk than 1987. It’s hard to have post-punk, after all, before you have punk, a new genre starting to hit its peak in 1978. And don’t forget the other big late-’70s sound: disco. Both genres were relatively new, and super divisive among music fans. Lucky for us, both genres were also big on covers.

Disco, in particular, generated some hilariously ill-advised cover songs. We won’t list them all here – this is the Best 1978 covers, not the Most 1978 covers. If you want a taste (and think carefully about whether you really do), this bonkers take on a Yardbirds classic serves as a perfect example of what a good portion of the year’s cover songs looked and sounded like: Continue reading »

Apr 132018
 

With the exception of a small-minded baker in Colorado with a penchant for litigation, the wedding-service industry has mostly welcomed the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. because of the new business it brings. Same-sex couples strutting down the aisle in greater numbers presents another hot-button cultural issue: how to find the perfect song for that first dance? Despite the fact that pop music has been loosening its collar since Elvis first shook his pelvis, when it comes to gender roles, mainstream songs tend to be as heteronormative as a ‘50s sitcom, no matter how suggestive the lyrics may be.

To address this issue, and no doubt tap into a lucrative commercial market, MGM Resorts sponsored a six-track EP called Universal Love. The collection features reworked versions of popular love songs with altered pronouns to celebrate same-sex love. The company must be betting big as they tapped serious star power, namely Bob Dylan, St. Vincent, Kele Okereke (lead singer of Bloc Party), Valerie June, Benjamin Gibbard (lead vocalist of Death Cab for Cutie) and Kesha. Continue reading »

Apr 032018
 
temptations stay with me

As the only surviving member of the Temptations’ original lineup, Otis Williams has done his part to keep the group alive long past its expiration date. The latest incarnation of the famed vocal group recently released a cover of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” as the first single from their forthcoming album All The Time.

Just to be clear, this ain’t the Temptations of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” or “My Girl” fame, since the group is going for a more contemporary vibe. Listening to Smith’s original alongside the Temptations’ cover is a bit like hearing Hall & Oates “She’s Gone” next to the Tavares’ version. Or comparing Mott the Hoople’s cut of “All the Young Dudes” to David Bowie’s own take. At first listen, it’s difficult to tell the two tracks apart. Yet, once you start breaking the songs down, there are enough subtle differences that make the cover stand on its own.

The vocals in the opening verses of each track are the most similar. The Temptations give it a slightly different feel by adding in syncopated percussion, unlike the straight time from the original. As they sing the chorus, the group interjects a bit of call and response, which one expects from the Temptations. With each subsequent verse/chorus, they include heavier drums, different voices alternating between lead and backing vocals and a fiery blues-guitar accompaniment. Like Smith’s original, the cover is also infused with gospel, but the quintet adds more bass to the vocals throughout.

The track is not destined to land on any greatest-hits compilations. However, if the Temptations add it to their setlist, kids whose grandparents drag them to the shows will appreciate the effort.

Click here to listen to more Sam Smith covers.