Husband and wife team Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, better known as Shovels & Rope, know their way around a good cover song. We’ve shared a handful of their covers here at the site over the years, including a couple of cuts from their 2015 collection of covers, Busted Jukebox, Volume 1. From that title, it’s almost as if they knew they’d be releasing more covers at some point. Well, surprise! This week sees the release of Busted Jukebox, Volume 2, following the same format of Volume 1: a wide-range of source material reimagined with the help of some musician friends.
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.”
Few would label St. Vincent’s eclectic brand of music as anything resembling country or western. No matter, she still channeled the ghosts of country music’s past with a stunning performance of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” during a recent appearance on the British music showcase Later… With Jools Holland.
On the show, St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) told Holland that growing up in Texas she listened to a lot of country music by artists such as Cline and George Strait. One can actually hear elements of this on her new album Masseduction. Stuck between her hard-pulsing electro pop, there’s a melancholy track, “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” containing a pedal-steel guitar interlude that sounds as if it could have been on one of Strait’s albums in the ‘80s.
Ten years ago today, I had a whim.
I was studying abroad one semester and found myself with a lot of free time – school work was light, and a college student’s budget limited my international explorations – so I decided to start a blog. A second blog actually, since for several years I had run a personal blog of concert reviews and bootleg downloads called Dylan, Etc (it had more “Dylan” than it did “Etc”). I’d fallen in love with the cover song after hearing Bob Dylan (who else) play a revelatory cover of “Summertime” on his short-lived radio show. I’d already hosted a Cover Me college radio show, and decided to expand us to the World Wide Web.
These were the days of the so-called “MP3 blog,” which included a vibrant subgenre of cover-songs blogs. That’s right, I’d like to claim credit for inventing the category, but I didn’t – not even close. RIP to Copy Right?, Cover Freak, Fong Songs, and the rest of the pioneers – and shoutout to our fellow survivors from that era, Coverville, which was releasing podcasts before most people knew what that word meant, and the folk blog Cover Lay Down, which began around the same time as us.
A lot has changed over the past decade. We’ve published 3,564 posts as of this one. Oh, and did you notice the pronoun change there? Cover Me is no longer an “I” – it’s a “we”, with over 60 writers contributing over the years. We’ve grown from an ugly Blogspot to our spiffy own domain (which is overdue for a redesign itself, frankly). And in case the large banner ads all over the site weren’t clue enough, I just released a book also called Cover Me, which – back-patting alert – Variety called “one of the best multi-subject music books to come down the pike in years.”
We wanted to do something special to celebrate our tenth birthday. And we wanted to celebrate not just ourselves, but celebrate the cover song itself. So we put together this little album Cover Me Turns 10: A Covers Tribute to Covers as a gift to our readers. We contacted several dozen of our musician friends and asked them to cover a cover. That is, to honor the many great songs we might not even know without an iconic cover – Aretha Franklin reinventing Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Quiet Riot amplifying Slade’s call to feel the noize, Prince learning that nothing compares 2 Sinéad O’Connor.
We’re honored that so many of our favorite musicians contributed, and frankly speechless at how great a job they did. So speechless, in fact, that we asked them all to introduce their own work with a few sentences. A million thanks to all of them, and also to Cover Me writer and art whiz Sean Balkwill for designing the lovely – ahem – cover. The whole thing is free to download at Bandcamp until downloads run out, and free to stream forever.
Enough chatter from me. For ten years this blog has been all about celebrating the music and we’re not going to stop now. Thanks for taking this journey with us.
– Ray Padgett
Cover Me Founder
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.
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.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Start the countdown on the next page…