Apr 012022
 

Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.

Boston

Yes, you read that right, Arena Rock. Okay, class, settle down.

The term “Arena Rock” is both a straightforward musical description and an insult. On the one hand, it is a genre name used to describe the radio-friendly, coliseum-filling rock sound that began infiltrating the pop charts in the mid-70s and ultimately came to dominate the next decades’ FM radio playlists. On the other, it is a pointed putdown, meant to suggest supreme bombast, disgusting commerciality, and the worst kind of mass appeal.

Of course, as the name implies, many, many people love Arena Rock. The play counts across the streaming services for legendary perpetrators like Boston, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Foreigner are staggering. Songs like “More Than A Feeling” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” have racked up millions upon millions of plays, and in the case of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” billions. And it’s not just your Dad or your Uncle Joey–or, okay, me sometimes–hitting play on songs like these. Based on these numbers, it appears it’s freakin’ everyone. Billions!

Before we go any further, let’s note that Arena Rock is not the only term for this particular genre. If you are a picky nerd like me, you might be more inclined to refer to them as “AOR,” the excellently memorable acronym for “Album-Oriented Rock.” Because while that term originally defined a particular radio format, by the early ’80s it had come to represent a very specific sound and style of music, i.e. the precise sort the aforementioned bands were making. I admit to preferring “AOR” over Arena Rock because it’s a little less broad and is marginally cooler. Also, it has an over-confident and ridiculous superhero quality to it, which is entirely appropriate given what it represents. But hell, call it whatever makes you comfortable: Arena Rock, AOR, Classic Rock, even Dad Rock, they all apply. Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it.

Arena Rock songs take place within a mythical universe where every living being is in high school and the only time that matters is “tonight.” It is not Arena Rock’s job to enlighten or serve up valuable life lessons. Its primary purpose is to celebrate being horny and/or high, bitch about how boring this town is, and ineloquently remind people that they need to rock every hour, of every day. Of course, like life itself, it’ll occasionally get sad ‘n’ dark and there will be expressions of doomed love (“you’re tearin’ me apart”). And sometimes it’ll brag about or blame its imaginary partner in crime, the devil. But no matter where it roams, it never loses sight of its primary goal, which is to rock you tonight Cleveland-Philly-NYC.

The Arena Rock sound is typified by fat, infectious guitar and/or synth riffs, king-size choruses, and colossal hooks, served up in the most over-the-top manner possible (especially when the song is a ballad). These songs are the kind of songs that exude enough melodic and emotional bigness that they can fill every corner of whatever space they happen to be playing in, no matter how cavernous or unglamorous. Neither coy nor intellectual (“You’re not shy, you’ve been around”), they are embarrassingly straightforward about how they feel (“I’ll show you sweet delight”) and are designed to attack and consume the dumbest, most defenseless, and least discerning musical nerve-receptors of the human brain (“Stroke me”). They are the sonic equivalent of sucking down a Big Gulp™ in a 7-11 parking lot on a hot day in 1981. Arena Rock songs are all about living in the moment and “feelin’ satisfied.”

Yes, I know–what about the clothes? When playing live back in the day, Arena Rock bands were not only expected to bring it musically but to raise the roof in a sartorial sense as well. Bearded guys in silk kimonos. Jumpsuits open to the navel. And hair, lots and lots of glorious hair. True confession: I spent more time as a kid pondering Boston drummer Sib Hashian’s afro in the band photo on the back cover of their 1976 debut album than I ever did admiring the front with its iconic upside-down guitar logo. That was just a painting. Sib’s ‘fro was real. (See pic above.)

From its absolute, unwavering earnestness and perpetual “heart-on” to its fashion sense and excessive light show, Arena Rock is unequivocally, and certifiably bonkers.

Seriously though, do you know what the number one craziest thing about Arena Rock is? It is the fact that its virtues and flaws are exactly the same. The pros and cons reside in a single column. What makes it ridiculous is also what makes it awesome.

If you dislike Arena Rock or AOR, I don’t expect any of the wickedly cool covers I am about to share to change your mind. But I do hope, at the very least, they trigger a bit of newfound respect for the original songs themselves. And who knows, maybe after hearing these covers you’ll be inspired to throw a friendly head bob Arena Rock’s way the next time you pass it in the high school hallway of your soul, just to say “hey, we’re cool,” even if you have no plans to hang out with it regularly.

And now in the words of Loverboy’s all-knowing singer-sage, Mike “it’s a bandana, not a headband” Reno, Come on baby, let’s go!
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Apr 142020
 
live-from-home covers

It’s a strange circumstance: What has been awful for humanity at large has been pretty good for the world of cover songs. Even we would say that’s a terrible trade-off!

Nevertheless, we’ve been grateful that so many musicians have taken to Facebook, Instagram, etc to share their music and, in many cases, cover favorite songs that are helping get them through. So, for the fourth time and certainly not the last, we’re rounding up some of the best we’ve seen recently and encouraging you to add your own below.

One note: There are some obvious names you won’t see here. John Prine. Bill Withers. Adam Schlesinger. Kenny Rogers. So many wonderful covers are emerging to pay tribute to artists no longer with them that we’ll be rounding them up separately. We did the first set for Prine here. Continue reading »

Mar 232020
 
quarantine covers

Many musicians, unable to go on the road, have taken to performing concerts in their home in the past week. Personally, I have spent a huge amount of time watching various these live streams. The performances have been moving and powerful, an unusually intimate way to see some of your favorite musicians.

Many such shows have included covers, songs that feel right to sing right now, like John Lennon’s “Isolation” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” So I decided to round up some of my favorites below.

Unfortunately, many live stream platforms don’t archive the content, so if you miss it live, it’s gone (another reason to watch these streams!). But plenty of great covers have remained online. Check ’em out below, and let us know in the comments what others we shouldn’t miss. Continue reading »

Sep 042019
 

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!

L7 cover songs

L7 formed in Los Angeles, outside of the riot grrrl hub of the Pacific Northwest, in 1985 with just two members. Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner both provided guitar and vocals. Jennifer Finch on bass and Anne Anderson on drums joined shortly after. The bass and drum spots changed throughout the band’s career, but Sparks and Gardner have been through it all. L7 may not formally identify as a riot grrrl band, fitting more into the grunge scene, but their timing and musical content make them relevant to the broader movement. 

L7’s politics are no secret. Early in their career, the band organized the Rock for Choice benefit concert to raise money for abortion access. This benefit, started in 1991, continued every year until 2001, when the band started their “indefinite hiatus.” The venue featured both fellow riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and allies like the Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. L7’s activism is still strong. Their first new song after the conclusion of their 18-year hiatus, “Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago” was released in 2017. They followed this with “I Came Back to Bitch” in 2018, with lines like “throw some bloody rags of fun” referring to their earlier days when Donita Sparks took out her tampon on stage and threw it into a mud-throwing crowd. (Forget bra burning, tampon throwing is the riot grrrl way.) Their latest album, this year’s Alfa Y Omega, even includes the line “make no mistake – lock us up, lock us up” in the song “Burn Baby.”

Outside of their original work, you can find hints of L7’s feminism in their covers. Hear/see for yourself…

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Dec 172015
 

Follow all our Best of 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

CoverMeBestSongs2015

I didn’t realize it until I began laying out our post, but this year’s Best Cover Songs list shares quite a few artists with last year’s. And some that showed up here the year before that. Jack White’s on his fourth appearance. And Jason Isbell and Hot Chip not only both reappear from last year, but have moved up in the rankings.

Though we’re always on the lookout for the new (and to be sure, there are plenty of first-timers here too), the number of repeat honorees illustrates how covering a song is a skill just like any other. The relative few artists who have mastered it can probably deliver worthy covers again and again.

How a great cover happens is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as I’ve been writing a series of articles diving deep into the creation of iconic cover songs through history (I posted two of them online, and the rest are being turned into a book). In every case the artist had just the right amount of reverence for the original song: honoring its intention without simply aping it. It’s a fine line, and one even otherwise able musicians can’t always walk. Plenty of iconic people don’t make good cover artists (I’d nominate U2 as an example: some revelatory covers of the band, but not a lot by them). Given the skill involved, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who can do a good cover once can do it again.

So, to longtime readers, you will see some familiar names below. But you’ll also see a lot of new names, and they’re names you should remember. If the past is any guide, you may well see them again next year, and the year after that.

Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.

– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)

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Jan 282015
 

When John Fahey-esq acoustic guitar virtuoso William Tyler delivered a covers session for Aquarium Drunkard, most of the choices were understandable ones for a fingerpicker: Ry Cooder, Blaze Floley, and a track from a compilation of rare solo guitar performances. The final one was a left-turn though: Blue Ösyter Cult. Specifically, an obscure track called “She’s As Beautiful As A Foot” from their relatively unsuccessful debut LP. Continue reading »