Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
If you live and die known for but one song, it better be a good one, and in “Midnight Train to Georgia” Jim Weatherly, who just died last month, wrote one of the best. The song is far and away best known in the iconic version by Gladys Knight. Never forgetting the Pips, for it is they who lift the song from merely great to transcendent. OK, the arrangement is pretty damn fine too, the orchestration and backing exuding all the desolation and disappointment of Amtrak by night. But it wasn’t always that way. Continue reading »
Today, Willie Nelson releases his 71st – yes, you read that right, 71st – album. It’s a set of Frank Sinatra covers called That’s Life. But while we prepared to hear more covers by Willie Nelson, we thought it was a good chance to look at covers of Willie Nelson. Because those 71 albums include hundreds and hundreds of songs Willie wrote himself, from classics like “Crazy” and “On the Road Again” to a plethora of deep cut gems just waiting to be discovered. And you can’t spell “discover” without “cover,” so we’ve put together thirty ways for you to discover some songs you don’t know and new interpretations of some songs everyone knows.
Because Willie’s discography is so deep and times convoluted, we set a few ground rules for this list:
We only included covers of songs Willie himself wrote, rather than songs he just popularized. That knocks out a few of his big hits: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and “Always on My Mind” among them.
The first recording of a Willie song doesn’t count as the cover – even if that first recording wasn’t by Willie himself. Remember that before you get mad that Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is not on this list. Subsequent versions of those songs are of course fair game.
An artist can’t cover themselves. That normally goes without saying, but Willie’s recorded in so many different bands and configurations, the same songs sometimes come up repeatedly. So The Highwaymen singing an older Willie song doesn’t qualify as a cover.
Okay, caveats and disclaimers behind us, let’s dive in! Click onward for the 30 best Willie Nelson covers ever…
Cover Me began in 2007 and we did our first year-end list in 2008, so 2000 isn’t that long before we were following this stuff in real time. But, in music eras, 2007 and 2000 seem eons apart. 2000 was nü-metal and Napster, Smash Mouth and the ska revival. Beyoncé was in the quartet Destiny’s Child; Justin Timberlake only had a one-in-five chance of being your favorite member of N’Sync (or maybe one-in-four…sorry Joey). By the time this site started seven years later, all this seemed like ancient history.
There were a lot of extremely prominent covers in 2000. “Prominent,” of course, doesn’t necessarily meaning “good.” This was the year that Madonna covered “American Pie” (not to be outdone, Britney Spears then took a stab at “Satisfaction”). It was the year a Jim Carrey movie soundtrack inexplicably asked bands like Smash Mouth and Brian Setzer Orchestra to cover Steely Dan. It was the year of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Bet you didn’t even know that one was a cover (unless you’re a faithful Cover Me reader).
None of those are on this list (though, if you want more dated trainwrecks like those, stay tuned Monday for a bonus list I’m calling the “The Most Extremely ‘2000’ Covers of the Year 2000”). But 2000 offered a wealth of wonderful covers, often flying just under the mainstream radar. Some of them still seem of the time – anything ska, basically – but most could have come out decades earlier. Or yesterday.
YouTube was still a few years away, as was streaming more generally, so covers still mostly came out through “traditional” avenues: on albums, as the b-sides to singles, etc. As I wrote in my new book, tribute albums were big business by this time too, which means that many 2000 covers emerged through that format. Even narrowing this list down to 50 was hard, which is why Cover Me’s Patreon supporters will get a batch of 150 Honorable Mentions.
Check out the list starting on Page 2, and stay tuned for the best covers of this year coming in December.
Powerhouse singer and songwriter Neko Case turns the big Five-Oh today. Case has never been an artist to deny or put a spin on who she is, so well-intentioned remarks like “50 is the new 30” might not fly. We’ll keep it simple with a loving “Happy Birthday, Neko!” Continue reading »
August 16 has long been a day of infamy in the history of American popular music. It started in 1977 when Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n’ Roll, passed away. Forty-one years later, another member of rock royalty also died: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Though she was older and her death less of a shock to the cultural landscape, I still remember the exact moment when I heard the news. I was with my family driving home from Sesame Place in Pennsylvania listening to the Beatles channel on SiriusXM. The DJ interrupted to tell us the sad news and in Franklin’s honor played her version of “Let It Be.”Continue reading »
This marks the fourth year I’ve done a big anniversary countdown (after 1996, 1987, and 1978). It also proved to be the most challenging. There were a lot of covers released in 1969. In fact, according to covers-and-samples database WhoSampled, there were more than in any of the other years we’ve done. Their database lists 3,110 covers, which is surely still a small fraction.
The reason for the cover song’s proliferation seems clear to me after going through them all: Popular bands released a lot more music back then. Aretha Franklin released two albums in 1969. So did The Byrds, Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, and Nina Simone. Creedence Clearwater Revival and Merle Haggard released three albums apiece. James Brown topped them all with four. To get that kind of output, artists would pad their albums with covers. Every 1969 album by every artist I just mentioned includes at least one cover. Many include several. A few are all covers. It adds up.
Impressively, many of those covers reinterpreted songs that had come out within the previous year. This entire list could easily have been “Hey Jude” covers. “Wichita Lineman” and “Light My Fire” came up constantly too (the latter song slightly older, but it had hit the charts again in 1968). Even songs from 1968’s soundtrack to Hair got covered endlessly in 1969.
Even beyond “Hey Jude,” Beatles covers dominated the year. I’m not going to go back through the entire 3,110 covers and count, but if you told me Beatles covers made up a full half of those, I wouldn’t be shocked. Add Bob Dylan covers to that side of the scale and it’s probably true. Beatles songs got covered in every conceivable genre for every conceivable audience. Jazz and swing and folk and proto-metal Beatles covers everywhere the eye can see. Plenty of people cover the Beatles these days, sure, but trust me: It’s nothing like it was in 1969.
So wheedling all those down to the top 50 proved incredibly difficult. But it means this is maybe the top-to-bottom strongest set thus far, and it killed me to leave some off (that’s why our Patreon supporters will get a set of 69 bonus tracks – so join now).
One note: I left off Woodstock performances. For one, we counted down the 50 best covers performed there last month. But more importantly, most people did not actually hear those covers until the movie and soundtrack came out in 1970. Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic Star-Spangled Banner – pretty much everyone’s top cover of the weekend – to a nearly empty field. Most of the audience had left before he punched in at 9 AM that Monday morning. That said, several of the classic covers performed at Woodstock were released as singles or on albums the same year – including Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” – and those studio versions make this list.
Now, let the sunshine in with the 50 best covers of 1969.