Dec 132023

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20. José James — On & On

José James has taken up a lot of (digital) ink in these pages over the years, as he’s recorded tribute albums to Billie Holiday and Bill Withers, as well as an exceptional cover of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” This time James decided to go for something slightly more contemporary, recording an album of Erykah Badu covers. The choice seems fitting for James, given that Badu spent her formative years fusing R&B and jazz. One could easily imagine hearing some of the covers in a smokey New York jazz club circa 1960. Other covers veer more into fusion and trip hop territory. The standout track is the sprawling 11-minute cover of “Green Eyes,” which blends James’ hypnotic vocals with swirling electronic sounds, then features a thunderous midsong interplay of drums and piano. The track, and the entire album, highlight both James’ vocal talents as well as Badu’s idiosyncratic songwriting. – Curtis Zimmermann

19. Shannon Lay — Covers Vol. 1

Shannon Lay sets out to “shannonize” a variety of songs on this album. What this means varies from track to track. On songs such as “I Lost Something in the Hills”, we see a more faithful rendition, the original song’s folk-y style matches Lay’s overall style on this cover album. However, on songs such as “I’m Set Free” that are originally more rock-and-roll, we see Lay stray a bit from the original sound, leaning harder into singer-songwriter simplicity. A standout song is “Blues Run the Game” where the instrumental approach matches the original, but Lay’s vocals sound warmer. It’s a soothing delivery that acts almost as an adult’s lullaby. – Sara Stoudt

18. White Bike — Give Up

The latest installment in Turntable Kitchen’s vinyl-only covers series is a full-album tribute to The Postal Service’s iconic (and only) album Give Up, performed by Portland quintet White Bike. The original was famously minimalist, Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard switching over to synths and drum bands for quiet whisper-in-your-ear magic. White Bike amps up the volume and energy to—well, not quite 11, but let’s say 6. Which, given the original’s slow-burbling at 1 or 2, seems like a really muscular reimagining. “Such Great Heights” gets a distortion groove underpinning Arianna Anchustegui’s gentle crooning, while they give “Recycled Air” a wonderful acoustic fingerpicking arrangement. – Ray Padgett

17. Candice Ivory — When The Levee Breaks: The Music of Memphis Minnie

Jazz vocalist and composer Candice Ivory released When the Levee Breaks, a tribute to pioneering blues matriarch Memphis Minnie. 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the performer’s death, so Ivory’s project is well timed. The earliest recordings are nearly a century old, and yet the music remains vital, as Ivory proves throughout this project.

Ivory is no blues purist, and neither is the record’s producer, guitarist Charlie Hunter: as jazz artists, Ivory and Hunter are all about reinterpretation–here they show respect for the delta blues tradition by absorbing it and then shaking it up. Funk and reggae grooves invigorate several tracks, hand percussionists put their primal stamp on others, and the sacred steel cries from Dashawn Hickman take you farther still from Memphis Minnie’s original sound. It’s vital music getting revitalized. Ivory is herself a fresh discovery, even as she helps us rediscover a blues trailblazer who rarely gets the hearing she deserves. – Tom McDonald

16. Spencer Zahn, Dave Harrington, Jeremy Gustin — A Visit To Harry’s House

Two of the three musicians involved in this album weren’t familiar with Harry Styles’ music before they started recording, which allowed them to interpret the music in their own way. This album delivers instrumental covers close enough at times to the original that you can find the connections, but different enough to be its own work, the perfect instrumental album to keep you going through a quiet day at home. The best way to orient yourself to this album is to start with one of the hits “Late Night Talking” or “As It Was” and listen for the melody. Once you get a sense for the team’s instrumental approach, you can dig into the full album. Beyond the hits, stick around for the back half of the album; you won’t want to miss the smooth groove on “Little Freak”, the dream-poppy “Matilda”, and when the sound gets most experimental in “Daydreaming” and “Keep Driving”. – Sara Stoudt

15. Various Artists — Goo Goo Muck: A Tribute To The Cramps

You can say that psychobilly began with the Cramps, but you can’t say it ended with them, and Goo Goo Muck: A Tribute to the Cramps proves it. With all the echo of a tile floor batcave and twice the piss, this is a salute, whether with one finger or all five, to the band that brought lurid fun to the underground masses. Touching on goth, country, rockabilly and more, this collection is affectionate toward the Cramps without being a slavish imitation of them; that makes Goo Goo Muck both a stronger album and a celebration most worthy of Lux, Ivy, and the gang(s). – Patrick Robbins

14. Son Volt — Day Of The Doug (The Songs Of Doug Sahm)

I’d guess that most people don’t know who Doug Sahm is or any of his songs, and if they do, they probably know “She’s About a Mover,” and maybe “Mendocino,” or one or two other songs. On the other hand, if you are a Sahm fan, IYKYK, as they say. Jay Farrar, leader of Son Volt, has been a big fan since he was introduced to Sahm’s music by Brian Henneman back in the Uncle Tupelo days, and the two covered his songs (along with Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn) in performances as “Coffee Creek” in the early 90s. And Uncle Tupelo covered Sahm’s “Give Back the Keys to My Heart,” on their last album Anodyne, with Sahm joining in on vocals. A couple of years after Sahm died in 1999 at the age of 58, Henneman and his band, Bottle Rockets, released Songs of Sahm, and in 2009, Vanguard Records unleashed Keep Your Soul, a multi-artist tribute that included Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo and Jimmie Vaughan.

During the pandemic, Farrar found himself listening to The Complete Doug Sahm Mercury Masters, and it reminded him of the quality of Sahm’s music, beyond the more well-known tracks. With time on his hands, Farrar decided to put together a tribute to these lesser-known gems with the current version of Son Volt, bassist Andrew Duplantis, drummer Mark Patterson, guitarist Mark Spencer, and multi-instrumentalist (and former Bottle Rocket) John Horton.

As someone who was pretty much in the “I knew a handful of Sahm songs” camp, the album showed me that Farrar was right—the deep tracks are of high quality, and the performances are excellent (as they usually are with Farrar and whoever is in Son Volt at any given time). If you’d like a song-by-song review of the album, check out Seuras’ review from earlier this year. But what jumped out at me from listening to it was that it sounded like Farrar was actually enjoying himself. He’s usually a pretty lugubrious guy, which doesn’t seem right for someone who has been supporting himself as a musician since his teens, a gig many of us would readily swap our lives for, but on Day of the Doug, it seems like he’s having fun. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s not worried about how his own songs will be received, or that he’s not tackling deep issues, but there’s a looseness and joy to much of this album that is often missing on Son Volt (or other Farrar projects) which adds to the listening experience. – Jordan Becker

13. Ghost Train Orchestra & Kronos Quartet — Songs and Symphoniques: The Music of Moondog

On Songs and Symphoniques, experimental classic stalwarts Kronos Quartet team up with jazz ensemble Ghost Train Orchestra to cover 17 pieces by street musician and cult icon (a Tom Waits favorite) Moondog. To handle the songs with vocal parts, they enlist a variety of sympathetic singers from Rufus Wainwright to Jarvis Cocker to Cover Me fave Marissa Nadler. Moondog was known as The Viking of 6th Avenue, due to his bizarre getup and street home, and while these versions are far more polished than his magically idiosyncratic home recordings, they channel the same spirit of weirdness and whimsy. – Ray Padgett

12. Various Artists — A Song For Leon (A Tribute to Leon Russell)

Tribute albums where multiple artists cover the music of one singular artist tend to be so erratic in individual song quality that they need to be graded on a curve. Basically, if half of the tracks are worth spending time with, then the album itself can be considered successful (we have expounded on this phenomenon here). A Song For Leon is a typical example of this scenario. This tribute to the legendary, gorgeously drawling, piano-pounder features the expected allotment of curios that sounded good on paper, as well as some missteps. But they are blessedly overshadowed by a handful of genuinely worthwhile wonders.

Covering the evergreen classic “A Song for You” at this point can seem like a fool’s errand as both the Donny Hathaway and Carpenters versions are so superlative. Hundreds have tried, but none have bettered. That said, Monica Martin’s version is superb. She delivers a vocal that is a tinch of Diana Krall, a smidge of Rickie Lee Jones with an added dash of Phoebe Snow, and it is positively captivating. Orville Peck’s camp ‘n’ country, silly ‘n’ sexy, Gene Pitney meets Elvis Presley take of “This Masquerade” is also pretty damn fabulous. And Hiss Golden Messenger majestically uncovers the hidden melodic heart of the angsty, clanging “Prince Of Peace” in their laid-back version of the tune. The next bests after those three hot things are Durand Jones & The Indications’ gritty, Stax-flavored “Out In The Woods” and The Pixies’ fun grungy, slop-fest version of boogie-ing banger “Crystal Closet Queen.” – Hope Silverman

11. Easy Star All-Stars — Ziggy Stardub

The Easy Star All-Stars’ album Ziggy Stardub is billed as a tribute to David Bowie’s masterwork Ziggy Stardust, but it’s actually a showcase for the many shades and offshoots of reggae music. The album features a cast of special guests, including reggae greats Steel Pulse and Maxi Priest, performing reinterpretations of Bowie’s songs across multiple styles. These include: traditional reggae, ska, rocksteady, elements of punk and hard rock, and, of course, dub. Highlights include “Five Years,” “Lady Stardust,” and the closing track, a rendition of “All the Young Dudes,” which wasn’t on Ziggy Stardust (or even first released by Bowie), but works well in the reggae style, too. Ziggy, it would seem, was happy playing all kinds of guitar. – Curtis Zimmermann


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