Dec 132013
 

Fifty years ago, a covers album wasn’t called a “covers album.” It was called an album. Full stop.

Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Billie Holiday – most albums anyone bought were “covers albums” as we’d think of them today, but that’s not how folks thought of them then. Once the public began putting a premium on singers writing their own songs in the ’60s the concept of course shifted, so that an artist doing a covers album has to be like Michael Jordan playing baseball – an okay diversion but let’s get back to the main event please.

More so this year than ever before though, that pendulum seems to be swinging back in small but meaningful ways to what an album originally meant. More and more artists are releasing LPs saying, this is not my new quote-on-quote “covers album,” this is my new album (that happens to consist of covers). The attitude showcases a confidence and surety of purpose that shows they take performing other peoples songs every bit as seriously as they do their own.

That holds true for both of our top two covers albums this year, and plenty more sprinkled throughout. Which isn’t to knock anyone doing a covers album as a lark, novelty, tribute, or side project – you’ll see plenty of those here as well – but any blurred lines that put a “covers album” on the same level as a “normal” album have to be a good thing.

Start our countdown on Page 2…

Dec 062013
 

Nina Simone was a bold and original artist. She drew on jazz, gospel and popular music influences, developing a distinctive style and singing voice. Beginning in the late 1950s, Simone released a series of successful albums, but stayed indifferent to the music industry. Her songs were often political, addressing civil rights and feminist issues. Continue reading »

Apr 092012
 

Record Store Day is approaching on April 21st. If you’re unfamiliar with the event, it’s a day when independent record stores celebrate music, which seems like what they do any day they are open for business, but on this special day, record stores will promote exclusive events, like djs spinning, parades, giveaways (Amoeba in Los Angeles is hosting a contest for a free turntable and a box of vinyl), and limited releases. In the spirit of Record Store Day, Xiu Xiu, and tourmate Dirty Beaches, have recorded a split 7” on Polyvinyl, featuring Xiu Xiu playing Erasure’s “Always” and Dirty Beaches covering Françoise Hardy’s “Tu Ne Dis Rien.”

If you’re familiar with English synthpop bands, perhaps Erasure rings a bell. Their 1994 hit, or at least moderate hit in America within dance clubs, “Always,” is about wanting to always be with someone in harmony, set to a generic snythpop beat and occasional robot sounds. Xiu Xiu doesn’t mess too much with that besides adding some of their signature indecipherable sounds and frantic vocal cadence.

On the other side of the 7” is Dirty Beaches, a one-man band, run by Alex Zhang. The original “Tu Ne Dis Rien,” released in 1964, is delicate and demure, like Hardy. She almost whispers the lyrics, and with the simple beat, and dreamlike vocals of background singers, the song is light and playful. As a cover, Dirty Beaches sings in French, but his version is much more menacing. The beat is still simple, but the electronics make it sound more like a march, and anything but playful. (via Pitchfork)

Listen to more Dirty Beaches here and more Xiu Xiu here.

Dec 162011
 

When people look back in 2011 in music a decade from now, one name will come to mind: Adele. In our little world of cover songs, she dominated. Everyone covered Adele this year. It’s not just that we saw more covers of “Rolling in the Deep” than any other song; they beat out second place (probably “Pumped Up Kicks”) by like a factor of five! We generally try to look for larger cover trends in these annual wrap-ups, but it’s hard to remember anything else from this year except the year-long onslaught of Adele covers hitting our mailbox.

There’s only one “Rolling in the Deep” cover in this year’s list though. The rest are all over the place. Some of the artists listed built their covers with lush soundscapes, thick beats, and intricate string work. Others just took guitars or pianos and bowled us over with the emotion in their voices. There may not be much of an overarching “Year in Covers” narrative, but that means there’s a cover or two for everyone. From feel-good takes on rap songs to kill-yourself versions of pop songs, this year’s list features flips, flops, and genre switcheroos of all sorts. A good cover should be informed by the source material but stand on its own, and we’ll be unrolling the 50 finest examples of songs doing just that all week. Start with #50-41 on the next page and check back daily as we count down to the best cover of 2011.

Queen

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Mar 312009
 

Queen was my first musical love and, re-listening to these tunes for this post, I remember why. Few dispute Freddie Mercury’s position as one of the greatest frontmen of all time, but Brian May’s absurd guitar playing and Roger Taylor’s rock-solid drumming helped propel these tunes to another dimension. As a kid I never went beyond the greatest hits, and I never needed to. They’re that good. So here are some of said hits, done different.

Electric Six – Radio Ga Ga
The Detroit six-piece behind the über-catchy Danger! High Voltage! brings their electro-rock to this Metropolis-themed Queen hit. It’s loud, brash and sassy, and doesn’t forget to include the tune’s signature double-clap-along. [Buy]

Hayseed Dixie – Fat Bottomed Girls
This bluegrass tribute act is about as tongue-in-cheek as you can get (Hayseed Dixie = AC/DC. Get it?) and brings some down-home hootenanny fun to this ode to larger ladies everywhere. Queen hit publicity gold with double single for this and “Bicycle Race,” staging a naked bicycle race with plenty of, you guessed it, fat bottom girls. Check it. [Buy]

Xiu Xiu ft. Michael Gira – Under Pressure
This one at once clings to the original arrangement and pulls away from it, coming apart at the seams even while the performers take it very seriously. Having a female vocalist brings a new swagger to it (inspired perhaps by Annie Lenox’s masterful turn at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert) while some dissonant horns threatens to bring the whole thing down. [Buy]

Beach House – Play the Game
Left off the indie-tastic Dark Was the Night compilation for some sort of licensing reasons (did Queen really not approve an AIDS benefit disc??), the wavering synths back some neo-folk singing, fragile even with the drum machine. [Buy]

Tenacious D – Flash
Jack Black and Kyle Gass aren’t exactly known for their covers, but this live one is a real gem. The song is just absurd enough as is to count as comedy, so their masterful acoustic playing is put on the spotlight to propel a wry take. If you wonder why it cuts off so suddenly, it’s because it’s an intro to their own “Wonderboy.” Watch the whole thing here. [Buy]

Ingram Hill – ‘39
It’s an irresistible chord progression, showing guitarist Brian May was no slouch at writing songs either, and does it justice with thumping drums, choir harmonies, and a bit of accordion. This comes off Killer Queen, the only Queen tribute comp worth getting, which includes Joss Stone’s slow-burn “Under Pressure” and the Flaming Lips’ spastic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” [Buy]

Laibach – One Vision
German Industrial giant Laibach lets loose with a stomping translation called “Geburt Einer Nation” (Birth of a Nation) that Wire magazine proclaimed one of the greatest covers ever. It’s definitely different, as if the song’s optimism was on the war path for your head. [Buy]

Upsilon Acrux – Bicycle Race
Some sort of low-fi, toy-piano freakout, this one can’t help make you smile at the A.D.D. absurdity of these guys. Like ten covers in one, they transfer from grunge to lounge without flinching, adding some space-age effects en route. [Buy]

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Killer Queen
Known as “Britain’s national orchestra,” London’s Philharmonic doesn’t just churn out the standard boring “classical” take on rock music. Their tribute discs are arranged and performed by the very finest composers and players England has to offer, and you can hear the difference. Off of their Passing Open Windows Queen tribute, “Killer Queen” blasts out with horns, drums, and…what is that familiar interlude? “Good bye, everybody…” [Buy]

The Busters – We Are the Champions
True story: In high school my band decided at the last minute to close one of our shows with this one. The only problem: none of us were particularly good, and we didn’t have time to learn the chords. So we just got the audience singing loud enough to mask out dissonance. Thankfully, the samba-reggae Busters did their homework. [Buy]