Dec 132023

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10. Courtesy — Fra Eufori

Did you have an album of stripped-down covers of Eurodance, Trance, and Enya UK top ten hits from the turn of the century on your Best Cover Albums of 2023 bingo card this year? We didn’t either. And with that, may we introduce you to Danish DJ Najaaraq Vestbirk aka Courtesy. Her 8-song Fra Eufori album features reimagined versions of late ’90s/early ’00s chestnuts like Olive’s moody, anthemic earworm “You Are Not Alone”, Enya’s now polarizing-love it or hate it classic “Orinoco Flow” and Belgian banger “Something” by Lasgo. Listening to Fra Eufori is akin to being trapped in woozy suspended animation on a dancefloor illuminated by blurry colored lights, whilst feeling pleasantly high and/or making out. There is something genuinely intoxicating about the album’s overall vibe meaning you are not required to have been a fan of any of the once ubiquitous clothing shop/hair salon faves being covered to get into it. Courtesy undresses the original versions so only their melodic foundations remain and the results often sound like intros or interludes from extended old school 12″remixes as opposed to full covers of actual songs. Standouts include a hypnotic, operatic take on Chicane’s “Saltwater” featuring vocalist Lyra Pramuk and an extraordinarily lovely version of the aforementioned “You Are Not Alone”, starring the gorgeously-voiced Erika de Casier. Cast your cynicism aside and just feel the weird, warm vibe. – Hope Silverman

9. Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert

Cat Power Sings Dylan is a covers album, but also a historical re-enactment. Bob Dylan really did sing these exact songs, in this exact order, over two nights at the Royal Albert Hall in the spring of 1966; concerts immortalised by the famous “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg (really taped on the same tour in Manchester) that featured Dylan’s legendary “Judas” moment.

Covering such a well-known concert is an interesting concept, and one that could easily feel redundant. Wisely, Power does not attempt to imitate Dylan’s unique phrasing – although the arrangements are fairly faithful to the 1966 originals, she finds her own way into these songs, singing in a style that alludes to Dylan’s voice without crossing over into an impersonation. There’s also the interesting change in dynamic that takes place when romantic songs like “She Belongs To Me,” “Just Like A Woman,” and “I Don’t Believe You” are sung by a female vocalist, which makes these nearly six-decade-old songs feel somehow renewed.

As the hypnotic acoustic set gives way to the lively electric second half, it begins to feel like this might be a bootleg recording from an alternate universe, where Cat Power and her band blazed across Europe in 1966, dividing audiences with surreal songs, crashing drums and loud guitars. What breaks the illusion is that the entire audience, this time around, is happy to be there, and the only shout of “Judas” is good-humored and ironic. Things Have Changed! – Tim Edgeworth

8. Various Artists — I Am A Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100

Dolly Parton has had a remarkable 2023, from releasing the number 1 album Rockstar and performing an instant classic of a Thanksgiving halftime show to expanding both Dollywood and her Imagination Library program. So landing her for the Doc Watson tribute album I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 was the album’s biggest get, and Dolly doesn’t disappoint with her spirited take on “The Last Thing On My Mind.”

But she’s not the biggest name on I Am A Pilgrim. Neither are Steve Earle or Rosanne Cash. No, the biggest name on the album is Doc Watson himself. This tribute makes it clear that Watson’s influence spanned both genres and generations, and the care each artist put into their covers shows the reverence the legendary flatpicker is held in to this day. It’s a heartfelt history lesson, and if it introduces him to a new generation, so much the better. – Patrick Robbins

7. Willie Nelson — I Don’t Know A Thing About Love: The Songs of Harlan Howard

With a work ethic that dwarfs musicians a third of his age, good ol’ Willie keeps pumping ’em out, praise be. When listening to him sounding impossibly youthful on I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, his tribute to famed songwriter/contemporary/buddy Harlan Howard, it is impossible to believe Nelson turned 90 this year. These songs are staples by now, avoiding any purely Nashville C&W silo, so he and (largely) his regular crew, can imbue these songs with some outlaw life, verve and, where necessary, pathos.

Nelson could possibly put anything out at this stage of his career, and have it praised by default. I Don’t Know a Thing About Love stands up on its own legs, irrespective. So, it is true you do have to have a fair bit of love for country, and it may not quite steer sufficient into Americana crossover territory for some, but that is their problem. Any lover of Nelson and any covers lover should have a field day here.- Seuras Og

6. Various Artists — Spellbound – A Tribute To Siouxsie & The Banshees

The female voice leads in Spellbound, but the music is highly varied. We have already expressed our enthusiasm for Night Club’s “Cities of Dust,” a dancefloor filler for the late evening. Vive La Fete pay tribute to Siouxsie’s Belgian heritage with a jaunty Gallic take on “Christine” and Black Nail Cabaret give a clear reading of “Happy House,” whilst retaining the element of threat that the song needs. Longtime Banshee Jon Klein joins his post-pandemic collaborator Jah Wobble take on “Monitor” with industrial glee, managing to outmuscle Skold (which is unusual) who take “Peek-A-Boo.” Spellbound is a welcome augmentation to the Siouxsie and Banshees legacy, and covers a wide range of the band’s moods, rather than just the purely dark ones. – Mike Tobyn

5. Pascal Comelade, Ramon Prats, Lee Ranaldo — Velvet Serenade

A beguiling instrumental rendition of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” on xylophone and piano. That’s at least how things start off on Velvet Serenade, a Velvet Underground tribute album by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and avant-garde French musician Pascal Comelade (a modern day Reed and Cale?). It also features Catalan jazz drummer Ramon Prats, having been recorded live at Banyoles’ Auditori del Ateneu, Catalonia, in April 2022, as the brainchild of Catalan music journalist Ignacio Julià. But be careful about calling it a “tribute album” or “covers record” because Staubgold, the experimental German label behind this release, is keen to market it as a “non-nostalgic reinvention of a musical legacy.”

In truth, the album sounds like Vince Guaraldi doing the Velvet Underground instead of Peanuts, had that celebrated jazz pianist embraced electronic noise, guitar feedback, seriously psychedelic drone effects, and the musical possibilities of a child’s vibraphone. It’s downright unpredictable is what it is, where listening to revamped versions of “What Goes On” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” is like embarking on an epic journey on which you have absolutely no idea where you’ll end up. It’s also where you’ll find “Lou’s Blues,” not so much a VU cover as an ambient piece in which Reed motifs are vaguely adopted. Unpredictable, then, and hugely compelling. – Adam Mason

4. Various Artists — More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith

Most of the songs on More Than a Whisper come from Griffith’s imperial phase, 1987-9, a time where she could do no wrong, touring constantly, with new material pouring out of her. Sarah Jarosz opens the album with the slow and sad reflective tones of “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a song about outbound trains and Texas, with picked guitar and a moaning steel guitar the main scaffolding, muted percussion and a breezy organ billowing quietly in the background. Appearances follow from Lyle Lovett, Billy Strings, the late John Prine, and many more. Mary Gauthier, who also pens the liner notes, distills all the essence of the title track, raising the small hairs as she applies a delicacy that is complemented by an exquisite arrangement. If, in truth, most of these covers don’t surpass the original iterations (through no fault of the artist–the bar is simply set that high), this is one that actually does. – Seuras Og [read full review]

3. Joshua Ray Walker — What Is It Even?

Up and coming neo-traditionalist country singer Joshua Ray Walker’s fourth album in four years is his first covers record. The theme is pop hits made famous by female artists, but Walker does delve into pure country for covers of hits by LeAnn Rimes and Dolly Parton. Primarily he tackles classic pop hits by the likes of Whitney Houston and Sinead O’Connor, as well as more contemporary fare from Lizzo, Beyonce and Sia. (He also tackles Regina Spektor’s “Samson,” which wasn’t really a hit in the traditional sense.) Though the arrangements sometimes stray outside of neo-traditional country, such as with the horns on “Cuz I Love You ” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Walker’s voice is pure country and that plus the pedal steel places it firmly in the tradition. Walker’s powerful voice (complete with yodel) commands on every song, and he claims them all as his own; he manages the difficult feat of honouring the definitive hit version of each song, but also sounding unmistakably himself and unmistakably country. – Riley Haas

2. Various Artists — The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake

It’s with an open-minded view of Nick Drake as a lone performer of musical poems, by turns whimsical and spiritual, that the artists on The Endless Coloured Ways pay tribute. They ambitiously pursue the “endless coloured ways” of interpreting and recording the tracks, in line with a phrase lifted from the poignant “From the Morning,” off Nick’s final album, Pink Moon. They put their name to a wonderfully varied 25-track salute to the singer, on the heels of a generous five advance double A-side singles, all distinguished by the hallucinatory merged-image landscape photography of Bill Jackson. In fact, they deliver an album that brims with ideas and outshines all previous Nick Drake tribute albums in terms of sheer experimentalism, even the Joe Boyd-curated Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake of 2013. – Adam Mason [read full review]

1. Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO

Juliana Hatfield is a regular participant in tribute records, although she is sometimes not personally happy with the outcome. Since joining the American Laundromat label she has leaned into the tribute album as an art form in itself, with her well-received Police and Olivia Newton-John albums. She is also cool, by any reasonable measure. Nevertheless, Juliana Hatfield Sings ELO is, by far, her most ambitious effort in that arena. The Police started as a three-piece, easier to mimic with limited resources. Olivia Newton-John (except, of course, when backed by ELO) had a manageable backing band. ELO, not so much.

How difficult is it to recreate the sound of an orchestra as a three-piece sending files over the ether from confined spaces to create magic? You can transpose the string parts to guitars, or even vocalize them, but can that replicate two cellos? Hatfield has to harmonize with herself on vocals. She describes the whole project as a “labor of love,” and it is easy to sympathize. What is left when you de-layer complex tunes and concepts and recreate them in small spaces 50 years later? Pure, joyous pop magic. – Mike Tobyn [read full review]

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