Empire State of Mind no more: Alicia Keys is going full-on Brit this month. After a mini-set at the center of the Queen’s recent Platinum Jubilee festivities (I always knew Elizabeth II was the titular “Girl On Fire…”), Keys journeyed up the country for a subsequent performance at Manchester’s AO Arena. Midway through the show, Keys invited Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to the stage for guest spot on an unexpected cover of The Smiths’ “This Charming Man.”
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
When Bruce Springsteen invited Billy Joel to play with him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 40th anniversary concert, he described their meeting as the “Bridge and Tunnel Summit.” This crossover surprised no one; the two artists are similar in many ways, riding careers that exploded from modest singer-songwriter origins playing dive bars to filling stadiums across the world. But one of the ways their trajectories have diverged: The Tunnel side of that equation (that’s Bruce from New Jersey) is about 100 times cooler than the Bridge side (Billy from Long Island). As a result, Springsteen songs have been covered far more often than Joel tunes, despite both having quite a few household-name hits under their belt.
Or maybe they’ve just been covered differently. When we did our Springsteen list, we had an abundance of genre-spanning covers to choose from, the hippest artists around finding meaning in Bruce’s work from every conceivable direction. Doing this month’s Joel list, we had an abundance too – of lounge piano. So much lounge piano.
Joel’s songs deserve better treatment than they often get. So we had to dig deep for this list, sifting through the schlock. There’s a little jazzy piano sprinkled in here and there, sure, but there’s also hardcore punk, ’90s R&B, spectral folk, robot electronica, south-of-the-border disco, and more. Turns out there are plenty of revelatory Billy Joel covers out there; they’re just lurking a little below the surface.
The list begins on Page 2.
Daniel Romano’s Outfit – Sweetheart Like You (Bob Dylan cover)
This one’s for all the Dylan superfans. In 1984, Bob Dylan played three songs on Letterman with L.A. punk band The Plugz. They were gritty and garagey and raw. It boded well for his new sound. And then he never played with them again. The album he was ostensibly promoting, Infidels, was much smoother, helmed by Mark Knopfler. For those who still wonder what could have been, Daniel Romano covered the entire album as if he’d recorded it with The Plugz.
Amaara – House of Cards (Radiohead cover)
We just posted the 45 best Radiohead covers ever, but there’s already a 46th. Unsurprising, really, considering how much this band gets covered. The musical project of actor Kaelen Amara Ohm, Amaara took on the In Rainbows gem “House of Cards.” Her cover carries echoes of the haunting original, but with a smoother electro-ambient sheen.
Chris Anderson – Eh-Hee / Digging in the Dirt (Dave Matthews / Peter Gabriel cover)
Composer Chris Anderson draws from some pretty deep wells of music knowledge on his new Song Cycle. He covers Laurie Anderson and John Cage and Tom Waits – twice. He covers Peter Gabriel twice too, on a beautiful “Mercy Street” and more subtly here, working bits of “Digging in the Dirt” into – of all things – a gospel Dave Matthews cover. “The addition of a choir was important to me to create the feeling of a ground-swell of support,” he writes in an email. “The fact that the song is about ‘knocking the devil to his knees’ made the gospel choir a natural choice.”
Last night’s VMAs surprised many by omitting any sort of musical tribute to Aretha Franklin. You’d think if anyone could pull that together with a few days notice, MTV could – but honestly, I get it. There have been fewer memorial covers of Aretha Franklin than we saw for Tom Petty, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and many others. Even Chris Cornell earned more in-concert tributes, and Aretha’s career of hits goes back decades further than his.
Why is that? Certainly Aretha is no less beloved than these others; eloquent and moving tributes in other forms continue to pour in hourly. My guess: Aretha is first and foremost known as a singer, maybe the greatest ever (Rolling Stone said she was). Though certainly no songwriting slouch (pretty much every part you’d sing along to in “Respect,” she added herself), Aretha may simply be too daunting vocally for many musicians to attempt.
Luckily, not all musicians. Here are the best posthumous Aretha Franklin covers we’ve seen so far. Hopefully more are coming!
Every so often, a figure from behind the scenes of popular music garners such renown that he or she becomes a household name: “Colonel” Tom Parker, Quincy Jones, and Carole King (as a hitmaking songwriter before she stepped into the limelight) to name a few.
And then there are all the countless others, the ones who passed through this realm largely unheralded by the record-buying public. One of these was songwriter and producer Ed Cobb, who would have turned 80 today. You may not know his name, but he left his mark on some very disparate—and uniquely compelling—byways of pop music.
Cobb’s musical career began as a member of the Four Preps, a white doo-wop group that scored two Top Five hits in 1958. The Preps’ sound was safe and family-friendly; hardly the stuff of legend. But early on, Cobb gravitated towards songwriting and production, penning soul and R&B numbers rather than the Preps’ squeaky-clean material. One of these was a little number Cobb wrote for Gloria Jones called “Tainted Love.” It didn’t make much of an impact in its first two iterations, but on its third try became a record-breaking smash, hitting #1 in 17 countries. (Of course, close readers of Cover Me will already know this story.)
But there’s more to that song’s journey. When we recently spoke with Fugazi frontman and Dischord Records co-founder Ian MacKaye about Ed Cobb – his other band Minor Threat covered Ed Cobb’s “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” – he alerted us to a yet another cover of the song: