At the end of every year, we work for weeks curating our annual Best of the Year list (here’s last year’s). We’re monitoring what comes out all year though, so this month I thought: why wait? Here’s a more impulsive and spontaneous list, some songs we’ve written about already and others we didn’t get to. Just some great covers that stood out as the month comes to a close.
On our recent 25-track tenth birthday album, there was only one artist that two different musicians covered. It wasn’t the Beatles. It wasn’t Bob Dylan. It was Tommy James and the Shondells. Though, in terms of overall influence, I think many would put them in the second tier of 1960s pop bands, the songs they recorded during their initial five-year run just keep getting covered. In 1987, Tiffany went to #1 with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” She was then bumped from the top spot – by Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony Mony.” And this is twenty years past the Shondells’ heyday!
Now we’re thirty more years on, and the covers just keep coming. The latest comes from erstwhile Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto, who roars through relatively lesser-known cut “I’m Alive” on a new single. Though written by James, the song was first recorded by 1960s R&B singer Johnny Thunder (not to be confused with 1970s punk Johnny Thunders) before James’ own Shondells got to it. In 1969, Bob Dylan called the Thunder performance “one of the most powerful records I’ve ever heard.”
As you’ve surely heard by now, R.E.M. broke up yesterday via an understated note on their website. Just as it began, the entire enterprise ended not with a bang, but with a murmur. The quartet-turned-trio performed together for 31 years, 15 albums, and countless “R.E.M. changed my life” exclamations in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Over the course of their career, the band performed countless covers. From the very beginning, they seemingly relished every opportunity to pay tribute to their influences, tacking covers onto singles, compilations, and their annual Christmas fan club records. In the whole lot, there are few duds. Through a combination of smart selections (no novelty rap covers here) and a rare ability to extract the essence of a lyric or melody, they made just about every song they tackled sound like an R.E.M. original. To remember the beloved band, we look back chronologically at some of their most important and best-known covers.