Our official list of the Best Cover Songs of 2017 comes next week. But first, we’re continuing the tradition we started last year by rounding up some of the songs it most killed us to cut in a grab-bag post. No ranking, no writing, just a bunch of knockout covers.
Last year I did a roundup of the Best Cover Songs of 1996. It was a fun project to retroactively compile one of our year-end lists for a year before Cover Me was born. I wanted to do it again this year, but continuing the twentieth-anniversary theme with 1997 seemed a little boring. Turns out 1997 also featured a bunch of Afghan Whigs covers.
So to mix it up, I decided to go a decade further back and look at 1987. Needless to say, the landscape looked very different for covers. For one, far more of that year’s biggest hits were covers than we saw for 1996. The year had #1 cover hits in Heart’s “Alone,” the Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter,” Los Lobos’ “La Bamba,” Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Club Nouveau’s “Lean on Me,” and Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Plus ubiquitous hits that didn’t quite top the charts, but remain staples of the songs-you-didn’t-know-were-covers lists, Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” and George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You.”
A little over a week ago, Paste Magazine held an amazing release party for my new book Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time. The event featured exclusive covers of songs from the book performed by some of our favorite musicians: Emel Mathlouthi (one of our Northside Fest finds this year), Eli Paperboy Reed, and Anthony D’Amato. Paste live-streamed the full thing from their New York studio, but if you missed it, now you can watch the clips online.
Mathlouthi and D’Amato both chose Bob Dylan songs – appropriately enough, as Dylan is the only songwriter who gets two chapters in my book. Mathlouthi did the rare “All Along the Watchtower” cover that owes little to Hendrix, her gorgeous voice soaring high above a churning guitar rhythm. And D’Amato picked the book’s final chapter, following in the footsteps of Adele, Garth Brooks, and Billy Joel by beautifully covering Bob’s modern-day standard “Make You Feel My Love.”
Today is the day! At long last, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time is in stores and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and many other places (including, hopefully, your local independent bookstore!).
A lot has happened since I first announced the book back in May. The New Yorker published an excerpt about Devo’s meeting with Mick Jagger. I was interviewed on SiriusXM about the Hendrix, Cash, Aretha, Pet Shop Boys, Elvis, and Creedence Clearwater Revival chapters. And most importantly for you reading this, I put together an exclusive bonus mix that blog fans can get when they buy the book (it says “pre-order,” but we’ll say “week-of-release order” counts too).
And I wanted to share one more thing, another blog exclusive: An audio companion to the book.
Though Dolly Parton originally wrote and recorded “I Will Always Love You” as a country song, Whitney Houston’s R&B-blast cover has become the gold standard (there’s a chapter about it in my new book about covers). It’s become a staple of American Idol contestants and overly ambitious karaoke singers. The bigger, the belt-ier, the better. No one can top Whitney, but everyone seems to try.
In a refreshing change, Efya takes the song in an entirely different direction. A star in her native Ghana, she actually also got her start in a televised talent show, but you wouldn’t know it from the subtlety and taste she shows here. Accompanied by only a keyboard and African “talking drum,” she strips the song way back in a new live recording for Okayafrica. By tweaking the melody and rhythm, she transform the song into something dark and mournful. When she finally does open up at the end, the vocal power feels totally earned.
As we’ve noted already, 2017 marks Cover Me’s tenth birthday. We’ll have some more celebratory posts leading up to the actual date this fall, but I’m thrilled to announce one thing that’s on deck for October: the release of my first book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time!
Ever since I started this site, friends and readers have suggested that I should write a book about cover songs (surprisingly, a comprehensive book doesn’t really exist). For years, I resisted. “That’s like saying ‘I’m going to write a book about original songs’,” I’d snarkily reply – i.e., that’s a stupid idea. Cover songs seemed too broad a category. There’s no grand unifying theory of cover songs to fit tidily between two book covers; it’s too big and messy and wonderful a tent for that.
After years of saying no, I finally came up with the solution. I wouldn’t write a book about cover songs – instead, I would write a book about twenty specific cover songs, and through those twenty covers, a broader narrative would emerge.
The story of covers as traced in Cover Me involves artistic triumphs and music-industry shenanigans. It touches on trends in record-making, music videos, and the internet’s impact on music (did you know the first viral song was a cover?). There are beautiful moments of unlikely artists coming together, and some uglier instances of exploitation and racism. Every major change in the music industry since the advent of rock and roll finds some expression in the world of cover songs.