May 202022
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

The 2021 album I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico is, without doubt, packed with glorious covers of tracks from the seminal New York band’s revolutionary “banana LP.” Yet it sounds, at times, ever so slightly predictable, when the assembled artists from the upper echelons of US alt-rock are found guilty of smoothing out the transgressive edges of the 1967 original. Matt Berninger of The National, for instance, takes a stab at “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and he sings it magnificently in that brooding style of his. It’s well played, and it has stylish motorik beats, and the production is slick, and it has squalling guitars and backing vocals in all the right places, and…it’s pretty straightforward, really.

The brave souls who choose to tackle any of the six more improvised, less celebrated, and decidedly less melodic tracks on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, on the other hand, can rarely be accused of being predictable. Whether for a tribute album or otherwise. Yes, Julian Casablancas may have remade the title track in 2016 in exactly the way you’d expect, as a singer who always made clear his musical debt to Lou Reed and co. But for the most part, the artists are outsider acts adopting songs that express their outsider status, recognizing that the Velvets’ notorious sophomore LP fits as well now as it did in 1968, when it scraped into the Billboard Top 200 as a monumentally uncommercial, poorly produced, avant-garde, anti-hippie, anti-everything work of anarchy. No one, in any case, could hope to tame tracks so strange, confrontational, and anticipatory of punk, glam-rock, and industrial music, especially not the frenzied “I Heard Her Call My Name,” or the epically deranged “Sister Ray.”

In short, the artists to most successfully cover a White Light/White Heat song are those who manage to tap into “the quintessence of articulated punk,” as Reed himself brilliantly described the album in 2013. They also appreciate the Velvets in the way Lester Bangs appreciated them when he lauded the foursome, in his 1971 assessment of the LP, as “one of the most dynamically experimental groups in or out of rock.” But the very best White Light covers over the whole 54 years of the album’s incendiary existence? Across the realms of alt-rock, lo-fi, proto-punk, and, erm, bluegrass? Well, they would have to be these…
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May 132022
 

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

stevie wonder covers

For some artists we look at for these lists, it seems like every time someone covered one their songs, it turned out pretty good. Leonard Cohen was like that; the quality of the average Cohen cover is fairly high. John Prine, too.

Stevie Wonder is not one of those artists.

It’s not his fault, or the fault of his songs, but his material often gets sucked into the same cocktail-jazz muck that fellow piano man Billy Joel’s does. Nothing wrong with that sort of lounge jazz-pop when done well – and there are a few times on this list when it is – but there’s a lot of mediocrity to wade through. Stevie’s performance and production skills are so sharp that, when placed in lesser hands, his songs can come off as sentimental shlock. All the “Isn’t She Lovely”s alone are so sugary sweet you feel like you’ll get diabetes.

But here’s the good news: Covers of Stevie Wonder’s songs are so ubiquitous that, even when you weed out the bad and the just-okay, you’re still left with plenty of greatness. The fifty below span funk, bluegrass, rock, hip-hop, jam band, jazz, and into galaxies beyond. So here they are, signed, sealed, and delivered to knock you off your feet.

P.S. Join our Patreon to get this entire list – and every other Best Covers Ever – in playlist and MP3 formats!

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May 062022
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Strangers in the Night

SecondHandSongs says that the two most-covered songs written in 1966 were by the Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There and Everywhere.” That’s no surprise. The next two most-covered songs from that year were written by another songwriting team; Burt Bacharach and Hal David came up with “The Look of Love” and “Alfie.” Also no big surprise.

But then comes the fifth-most-covered song of 1966: “Beddy Bye” by Bert Kaempfert. Ring any bells? If not, perhaps you’ll recognize it from the movie it appeared in – the James Garner comedy-thriller A Man Could Get Killed. Still no? Well, at the time it had no lyrics, but once they arrived, and once Frank Sinatra sang them, it became immortal as “Strangers in the Night.”
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Apr 222022
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

Last year, a study by Fender and YouGov of Americans between 16-34 revealed that 16 million people had taken up the guitar since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking to Insider about the study, Fender CEO Andy Mooney estimated that “as many as 72 million people are playing the guitar right now.” These are impressive statistics, and something to be celebrated. However, it’s hard not to wonder if the prominence of instruments like the guitar might be pushing other, less-well known instruments to the sidelines.

One person doing a lot to change this is London-based percussionist Rosie Bergonzi. Rosie has a YouTube channel dedicated to the handpan, a unique flying-saucer shaped instrument that can trace its roots back to the Trinidadian steel drum. The channel is a goldmine of information, featuring lessons, interactive livestreams, and an eclectic selection of covers arranged especially for the handpan.

“I first started playing the handpan in 2015,” Rosie tells Cover Me. “A few years before, I heard a busker playing in the street, and I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard–I was determined to have one! So after a lot for searching I found my own handpan and have kept up with it from there.”

The handpan itself was created in Switzerland in 2001 by steel drum makers Sabrina Scharer and Felix Rohner of Pan Art, based on a suggestion by hand percussionist Reto Weber. For its first twelve years of existence the instrument – originally known as the Hang drum – was extremely hard to come by, available only by sending a special request directly to Pan Art. However, once Pan Art ceased production of Hang drums in 2013, the instrument became widely available from other makers, soon becoming known as the handpan.

How does Rosie go about choosing songs to cover?

“I’ve found that the tunes have to be very melodic for an instrumental cover, so rap, for example, is really hard to make effective as it’s all about the words. It’s always surprising ones that work well, so I ask around a lot for song suggestions – any genre!”

And what about arranging the songs for the handpan?

“I get the chords down, normally while singing the tune. Then I work out the melody. The harder job is working out how to play the two at the same time. My handpans have limited amounts of notes (9-17) so getting the melody to sing clearly is an interesting challenge. My favorite part is working out the arrangement, sometimes playing with the speeds to make it feel really different to the original.”

To demonstrate this process, Rosie started a series called Covers Done Quick, where she selects a song a random and adapts it for the handpan in just one hour.

Let’s look at some of Rosie’s other handpan covers…
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Apr 152022
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Ukrainians

This post is not about the Ukrainians forced by circumstance onto the world’s stage. All our hearts bleed both for them and their country, subject to the cruelest and vilest of misjudgments, victims of Putin seeking to leave his mark. But it is closely related, being about the Ukrainians, the Leeds, UK-based band, who have been touting their postpunk take on the folk music of the mother country of founder/guitarist Pete Solowka for nigh on thirty years. And a whole lot more than just the folk music of Ukraine, as covers of their musical cohorts and influences, performed in a Cossack/Slavic style, all stentorian voices and balalaikas, also feature large in their repertoire.

Originally, and sometimes contemporaneously, Solowka has been a member of the Wedding Present, and it was that band that sparked the idea into ignition. When venerable and iconic DJ John Peel asked them to perform a session on his long running evening radio show, the Wedding Present decided to perform in the Solowka family language. They played “Hopa,” a traditional song the guitarist had been brought up listening to and singing along with.

Given the favorable reception, and with Solowka’s own grasp of the language not being up to it, they seconded in the presence of Len Liggins–or, to give him his full name, the legendary Len Liggins, a Russian (and Ukrainian) scholar, fluent in each language and a dab on the fiddle besides. This too went down well with the listeners, bar one Roman Romeynes, just possibly not his real name, a musician from another Leeds band, who jested they were taking the proverbial and bastardizing the tradition. So who better to then enroll, this offshoot now having a life of its own, spinning free from the Wedding Present. (The band had sacked Solowka; he said this was due to the greater acclaim given this experiment than the parent band.)

That groundbreaking 1989 Peel session, and the later sessions that followed, all eventually became available in recorded form, with 1991 seeing the debut release by the now-official band, with both band and release being named The Ukrainians. When Romeynes left shortly afterwards, the band consolidated as a more regular unit, leaving the Wedding Present linkage shattered behind them.

They initially found an appropriate home on the maverick and left field record label Cooking Vinyl, home also of Jackie Leven and Oysterband. After making a further pair or so of albums with that label, they started their own label Zirka, through Proper. They have been relatively prolific, with three further studio albums of (largely) original material, two live recordings, a covers compendium (which we reviewed here), and a glut of EP and singles. These have encompassed further covers, including of traditional Ukrainian folk songs, as well as all sorts of idiosyncratic songs drawn from sources as unlikely as varied. All transcribed into their well-worn mix of fiddle, accordion and balalaikas, accompanied by crashing bass, resounding guitars and pounding drums.

Perhaps classifiable as a niche taste at home, they have become superstars in the eastern European diaspora, not least Ukraine itself. Under the cataclysmic events of the the past six or so weeks, the band have decided they cannot stand idly by, and have launched a tour, all monies going in support of the refugee crisis.

Ukrainians Benefit

Let’s look at some of their covers….
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Apr 082022
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Beatles Yesterday covers

This post has been a long time coming. Any cover song site worth its weight in scrambled eggs has to touch on the most covered song by the most covered band of all time. So now we arrive at “Yesterday” by the Beatles, a song they recorded four days before Paul McCartney turned 23. (They recorded “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “I’m Down” during the same session – not a bad day’s work, Paul.)

“Yesterday” was the first Beatles song to feature only one member, and the first to feature a string quartet. The lads weren’t especially keen on the song, burying it deep on side two of Help! and not allowing it to be released as a single in the UK. Matt Monro stepped up to release his version two months after the Beatles released theirs. Après Matt, le déluge – over a hundred covers in 1966 alone, over three thousand covers total according to the Guinness Book of World Records (you get the sense that they eventually threw up their hands and stopped counting).

Sinatra, Aretha, Dylan, Elvis – all of them recorded terrific versions. Many more great ones were recorded by artists who weren’t known by only one name. Parodies were recorded by artists from EuFourla to the Beatles themselves (on their 1965 Christmas record). In fact, never has the topic “Five Good Covers” felt more woefully inadequate than it does for this song. Nevertheless, we persist, and we hope you enjoy these five drops in “Yesterday”‘s ocean.
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