With their surprise success “Africa,” Weezer delivered easily the biggest cover-song news of 2018. And they similarly seemed poised to dominate this year’s cover-album news when they dropped a full set of similar songs in January (that album’s not on our list, because it is – and I say this as a fan for going on 20 years – terrible).
Thankfully, that album got forgotten about five minutes after its release. A slate of other high-profile cover albums took its place, and delivered more staying power. Angelique Kidjo, Morrissey, and Juliana Hatfield all released covers albums, and a host more stars contributed in one way or other to tribute compilations, from Norah Jones and Margo Price covering Bobbie Gentry to Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile tackling Wilco. Some of the aforementioned made our list and some just missed it, but all are worth investigating.
That’s to say nothing of the many lesser-known artists who came out of nowhere, amazing covers records by bands and singers I’d never heard of before. Covers albums can offer a wonderful entry point for discovery, and I’ve now got a lot of new favorite bands to dig deeper into. Hopefully you’ll find a few here too.
I’ll pull no punches: Janiva Magness is one of the best blues voices you maybe won’t have heard of. Despite being only the second ever female artist to win the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award, she has been operating largely under the mainstream radar since the early ’90s, quietly building up steam, aided and abetted of late by the retro chops of Brian Setzer/Dan Hicks producer, Dave Darling. Now, with Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty: Change in the Weather, she sets out to cover the work of a voice that’s been hears far more often.
Magness has done Fogerty before: she included “Long As I Can See the Light” in her 2016 release, the Grammy-nominated Love Wins Again. Clearly this hit a chord, as this time she runs with a further dozen, both CCR material and some later songs. But make no mistake, this is no cut’n’paste job, settling for substituting her husky vocal for his hoarse holler; rarely does she revisit the swamp-pop murk of the originals, applying instead varied shades of classic blues to the palette, giving new life and, dare I say it, depth. So, rather than the potential overkill of listening to a Creedence greatest hits selection, the varied timbres bring added nuance to the lyrics, bringing forth more — and again I falter — subtlety than the bombast Fogerty and the band gave the material (rightly so in their case, as it worked for the needs of their audience at the time).
Given how thoroughly “Old Town Road” dominated the summer – the longest-reigning Billboard #1 in history, for those under-a-rock-dwellers among you – it seems shocking that it took until now for the first truly great cover to emerge. Less shocking: that it came from rapper/singer/drummer extraordinaire Anderson .Paak. Back in May, he performed a more straightforward version with Lil Nas X himself, but for BBC’s Live Lounge he and his band The Free Nationals reinvented it into a soul groove with shades of D’Angelo.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.
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!
When Sleater-Kinney reunited for the first time in 2015, they commented on the riot grrrl movement for an interview with The Cut.
For [guitarist Corin] Tucker, riot grrrl isn’t a dirty word. “I was definitely part of riot grrrl in Olympia,” she said. “For me, that was about having this really supportive group of women that wanted to do art — that was fanzines, that was music, it was spoken word, it was visual art — and that we would support each other and make a larger space for women’s voices in the world.
Tucker said, “For us, the lyrics are really tied to our beliefs and our desire to change things – that’s really the scene that we came from, is all about sincerely being angry and wanting to use music to change the world, basically,”
Now, as they prepare to release a new album, I’m hopeful that a change in this world is on the horizon. There is a riot grrrl in all of us, and now is the time to be heard.
You know the story – on August 15, 1969, an estimated 400,000 people coalesced on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate Bethel, New York, for “3 days of Peace & Music” at a music and art fair that ultimately defined a generation. Today marks the golden fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, and to celebrate the occasion, the staff at Cover Me are going “back to the garden” to wrap you in the Top 50 covers performed by the legendary artists who graced the stage during that long weekend.