Dec 092016
 

Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

tribute records

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.

– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief

Start the countdown on the next page…

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Sep 302016
 
Fugees

They say nostalgia works in 20-year cycles, and this year the music of 1996 has been in the media a lot. And if you believe the music blogs, it turns out 1996 was a truly groundbreaking year for every possible genre. Over at SPIN: “The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs Of 1996.” Complex: “Best Rap Songs of 1996.” Junkee: “Ten reasons 1996 was a great year for dance music”. Loudwire: “10 Best Metal Albums of 1996.” Red Bull Music: “1996: Why it was a great year for pop”. Suck it, 1995! (Kidding; similar articles were of course written last year too.)

We’ll be honest: 1996 was not some magical, pioneering year for cover songs. It was also not a terrible year. It was just, you know, another year. There’s no overarching theorem of 1996’s cover songs that wasn’t true in ’95 or ’97. But even so, Cover Me wasn’t around in 1996, so we never made a Best Cover Songs of 1996 list (our first year-end list came in 2009, with the Kings of Convenience’s “It’s My Party” topping it, and you can catch up on all the lists here). So we decided, before the year ends and we take our look at the best covers songs this year, why not take a nostalgic rewind and do 1996 just for fun, twenty years too late. Continue reading »

May 252016
 

dylan fallen angelsThere’s something inherently ironic about a musician long criticized for his vocal abilities releasing an album of covers, each of whose success is predicated on the strength of the vocalist in question. While there have certainly been a handful of performers with admittedly “unique” voices covering this territory – Jimmy Durante and Willie Nelson immediately spring to mind – vocal-oriented pop derived from the so-called Great American Songbook has long been the purview of singers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and scores of others.

That none other than Bob Dylan should look to tackle the Great American Songbook is intriguing not just for his admitted vocal shortcomings, but also his early positioning as the polar opposite of everything the supper club set stood for. Perhaps it simply has something to do with the maturation process – something of a rite of passage for aging musicians – in that a certain level of nostalgia begins to creep in and an overwhelming urge to explore the music of their youth starts to take hold. That they would have largely scoffed at the idea of endeavoring such a feat during their formative proves all the more interesting now decades removed from the idealism of youth.

Continue reading »

Dec 172015
 

Follow all our Best of 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

CoverMeBestSongs2015

I didn’t realize it until I began laying out our post, but this year’s Best Cover Songs list shares quite a few artists with last year’s. And some that showed up here the year before that. Jack White’s on his fourth appearance. And Jason Isbell and Hot Chip not only both reappear from last year, but have moved up in the rankings.

Though we’re always on the lookout for the new (and to be sure, there are plenty of first-timers here too), the number of repeat honorees illustrates how covering a song is a skill just like any other. The relative few artists who have mastered it can probably deliver worthy covers again and again.

How a great cover happens is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as I’ve been writing a series of articles diving deep into the creation of iconic cover songs through history (I posted two of them online, and the rest are being turned into a book). In every case the artist had just the right amount of reverence for the original song: honoring its intention without simply aping it. It’s a fine line, and one even otherwise able musicians can’t always walk. Plenty of iconic people don’t make good cover artists (I’d nominate U2 as an example: some revelatory covers of the band, but not a lot by them). Given the skill involved, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who can do a good cover once can do it again.

So, to longtime readers, you will see some familiar names below. But you’ll also see a lot of new names, and they’re names you should remember. If the past is any guide, you may well see them again next year, and the year after that.

Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.

– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)

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Jun 252015
 

For the past couple years, Bob Dylan has stuck to a pretty standard setlist on tour – kind of a bummer from an artist famous for switching it up night to night. And when he kicked off his new European tour over the weekend, he finally did just that. He’s brought in more songs from his terrific new Frank Sinatra cover album, and in Germany he debuted a cover of Willie Nelson‘s 1973 classic “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” Continue reading »

Apr 292015
 

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!

Willie Nelson, 82 years old today, has always been an awkward cuss. Still relentlessly on the road and putting out record after record, somehow it would seem a cop-out to “let others do the work for a while,” as is the norm for these pieces (and besides, been there done that), so this is more a celebration of the myriad and varied covers he has performed over the decades. The germ for this idea came as the staff pow-wow took place around our best country covers of non-country songs Q&A, with Mr. Nelson featuring twice.

His career in music has lasted, so far, a staggering 59 years, his first recording being 1956’s “Lumberjack.” Since then, he has passed through many incarnations, from clean cut C&W performer, consummate Nashville standards songwriter, self-imposed banishment and his counter-intuitively hippie redneck years (copyright me), banding up with and as like-minded (the) Outlaws, before settling into iconic status as a national treasure, lauded by presidents and paupers alike. Somehow his skirmishes with the I.R.S. and his enduring support for marijuana has but strengthened his appeal, even within the staunchly conservative country demographic. And, of course, all of us longhairs just love him. Don’t we?
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