Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
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.
Regular readers might not all be aware of erstwhile UK teatime favorites, the TV duo of Sooty and Sweep. Whilst the show limps on in several formats, time has not always been kind to Sweep, a roan cocker spaniel who first made his performing debut, astonishingly, as far back as 1957, and he has had to learn to adjust to the changing demands of a fickle audience. In the last year or so he has discovered a powerful and emotive singing voice: previously able only to vocalize in a fashion understandable to his close colleagues and family, he has learnt how to sing. Whilst this is not fully understood, this is perhaps akin to a stroke victim retaining or recouping the power of song ahead of the return of speech. and, although he can now speak, this famously first taking place on air in 2014, song still remains easier.
Sweep, always a keen musician anyway, through his longstanding membership of the Sooty Braden Showband between the late ’60s and early ’70s, has produced, to date, 186 videos, encompassing all genres and styles. These are usually solo acapella performances, he proving himself adept at maintaining rhythm with clapped hands and vocal beatbox effects, much in the style of Bobby McFerrin, with polyphony and multiphony.
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
You Want it Darker, the title of Leonard Cohen’s farewell album of 2016, might also have made an appropriate moniker for Depeche Mode’s 1990 release, Violator. The British synthpop group had grown steadily in popularity since signing to the independent Mute label in 1980, even to the point of selling out the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena (over 90,000 seats) in 1988. Yet it was when they took a more direct approach to the subjects of guilt, sin, sexual obsession, and inner torment on their seventh LP that they truly achieved a mass audience. This involved selling three million copies in the US and 15 million worldwide, in the glow of the indomitable hit singles “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence.”
Today marks 30 years since the release of Depeche Mode’s bleak, unit-shifting masterpiece, one of the most influential records of the ’90s, and one that made #342 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of all Time in 2012. The breadth of artists who’ve covered its songs is testimony to the album’s impact. These artists span an unimaginable variety of genres on an international scale, and they provide ample justification for the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Wham, Steely Dan, Bette Midler, Bill Withers, Rihanna, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Eagles, the Stones – Tori Amos has covered ’em all, and anyone and everyone left in between. (OK, maybe except maybe boybands – it wouldn’t surprise me if she tackled, say, “Back For Good” at least somewhere live, but I couldn’t find it in the pages and pages and pages of YouTube Tori Covers links.) Not necessarily successfully every time, it’s true, but always challengingly and usually well worth the ride.
Despite this evident love for the songs of others, Amos has officially issued only the one covers project, such is her own prolific muse, with well over a dozen discs of her own. (There’s also Midwinter Graces, a festive album with several traditional songs, and Night of Hunters, reimagining several classical pieces of inspiration to her over her years, but they don’t really count as cover albums.) Strange Little Girls, which came out in 2001, had a specific intent. Rather than a outpouring of personal favorites, this was a procession of songs delineating a masculine view of the world. By men and about men. With Amos’s acknowledged feminist opinions and activism, this was a deliberate stance, with the aim of subverting them and offering a female perspective thereto.
Perhaps Depeche Mode’s most iconic song, at least for the general public, “Personal Jesus” manages to combine singer Dave Gahan’s sex appeal with a sinister undercurrent of dominance and submission. Songwriter Martin Gore wrote the song after reading about the relationship between Priscilla Presley and Elvis, and how utterly one-sided it was. In Gahan’s delivery, though, the relationship seems considerably more appealing. The original video, set in a brothel, also emphasizes the sexual side of the relationship over its more troubling aspects.
The last time I saw Josh T. Pearson live, he pulled a knife on an unruly audience member. Or at least he threatened to – my memory’s fuzzy, it was almost a decade ago. The former Lift to Experience frontman certainly looked like a man who might pull a knife on someone, clad in a jetblack bad-cowboy outfit, hat and long beard and all, under the scorching Austin sun.
It was a rare show promoting a rare album: Pearson’s solo debut Last Of the Country Gentlemen, one of those albums that got passed around like a secret by those in the know. Over half of the seven tracks topped ten minutes, harrowing fingerpicked ballads with titles like “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ” and “Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her.” It was my favorite album of 2011, and those of us who grew obsessed with it couldn’t wait for a follow-up.
The wait took seven years. Finally, a few months ago, album number two – cheekily titled The Straight Hits! – finally came out. A genre mashup of country and rock and soul, it sounds nothing like the first album. Written quickly to break out of writer’s block, every song was written according to Pearson’s self-imposed “Five Pillars”:
1) All songs must have a verse, a chorus and a bridge.
2) The lyrics must run 16 lines or less.
3) They must have the word ‘straight’ in the title.
4) That title must be four words or less.
5) They must submit to song above all else.
The album is a lot of fun – fun is the last word one would apply to the previous album – and it’s been a thrill to see Pearson re-emerge from hibernation. Not least because with every rare album cycle he delivers some knockout covers. Last time around it was “Rivers of Babylon” and a stunning Christmas EP.