Today, Steve Earle releases the fourth in his occasional series of covers albums. They pay tribute to his musical heroes and teachers who’ve passed on – Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker – plus, in one tragic case, his son Justin Townes Earle, who died in 2020.
We’ll be reviewing the new one, Jerry Jeff, in the near future, but as we celebrate covers by Steve Earle, we thought we’d also celebrate covers of Steve Earle. Though he’s never been a big generator of hit singles, this songwriter’s songwriter has had a number of songs become stealth standards, particularly in the Americana, folk, and alt-country worlds. When everyone from Johnny Cash to The Pretenders is singing your songs, you know you’re doing something right.Continue reading »
“I usually come in second to Dylan,” Paul Simon once said, “and I don’t like coming in second.” Indeed, he’s had to deal with it literally ever since he was born, in 1941. We already celebrated Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday in May, and today we turn to the man Dylan has called “one of the preeminent songwriters of the times,” Paul Simon, as he hits his own 80th. Simon’s in the rarified air of someone whose songs get covered almost as much as Dylan’s (ugh – second place again), so for this month’s Best Covers Ever, we’re diving into covers of the entire Paul Simon catalog, both solo and with Simon and Garfunkel.
Another thing Dylan once said about Simon, in relation to his own music, is this: “I’m not Paul Simon. I can’t do that. My songs come out of folk music and early rock n’ roll, and that’s it. I’m not a classical lyricist, I’m not a meticulous lyricist. I don’t write melodies that are clever or catchy.”
False modesty aside, Dylan hits on some of what makes Simon’s work so beloved by other musicians. His melodies are clever and catchy. His lyrics are meticulous. In both words and music, Simon can use a little to say a lot. His songs have strong cores, but leave a lot of space for other artists to play around with. So it’s no surprise that the list below spans genres from punk, dance music, gospel, and more. You’ll hear every sound except one: Silence (sorry). No matter how afield the songs roam, though, they still sound like Paul Simon.
So enough talk about Simon being a perennial silver medal winner. His craft and his talent have earned him and his songs a place at the top of the medal podium, and these fifty covers prove it.
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Lucinda Williams, the album, was the game changer for Lucinda Williams, the artist, even if few knew or realized it at the time. Sneaking out on Rough Trade records, home of the Smiths, it started a slow burn of releases, initially only by drip feed, speeding up over the ensuing decades to a now near insatiable speed.
Williams’ debut, 1979’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, was an overly polite album of blues covers and country staples. Next was Happy Woman Blues, a first stab at her own material, in 1980. Now, with her self-titled third record, she was finally paired with a band, and the combination of the developing rawness of her vocals, allied to some country-folkie-blues, was a hit more with critics than the public, a fate she was to endure for some time yet. Continue reading »
When you hear that an artist has done a James Taylor-penned cover, you can pretty safely assume that it is one of the following songs: “Fire And Rain,”, “Sweet Baby James,” or “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” Those that choose to venture deeper tend to favor a little “Shower The People” or “Carolina In My Mind.” Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with those choices: I mean, they are all undeniable evergreen classics. And there have been some ridiculously good takes on a few of these songs, especially “Fire…” of which several are themselves total fire (check some of them out here).
But, if I can offer a little get-off-my-lawn style observation, this rigid devotion to a specific handful of songs can get a little repetitive. It also does something of a disservice to the Taylor catalog, which is hundreds of crazy wonderful songs deep. All of which is to say that it’s especially nice to hear an artist take a swing at a JT deep cut. An album track. A B-side. A non-single (or non-performing one). Thankfully, there are a few artists who’ve eagerly taken the plunge, proving there is a wealth of goodness to be had beyond the hits.
It’s time to open the JT deep-cut cover floodgates. Let’s let this crew of artists provide some glorious inspiration. Continue reading »
Last week, Donald Trump gave his headlining speech at the Republican National Convention. Right after, fireworks exploded over the Washington Monument, soundtracked by a cover of “Hallelujah.” A few minutes later, a second singer covered “Hallelujah” while the entire Trump family watched. Both covers were unauthorized, and Leonard Cohen’s estate quickly said they are exploring legal action. (It must also be said that the covers weren’t very good – you won’t find either one on this list.)
Though hardly a shining moment in the history of Cohen covers, this event speaks to the cultural ubiquity of his work, and of “Hallelujah” in particular. For an artist who never sold that many records, Cohen has become about as iconic as icons get. Humble to the end, he would no doubt object – politely, of course – to that statement. But it’s true. His songs transcend his albums, they transcend his performances, they even transcend Leonard Cohen himself.
There’s never a bad time to talk about Leonard Cohen covers, but they’ve really been on my mind the past couple years. Why? Because I’ve been writing an entire book on the subject, which is out today. It’s in the 33 1/3 series of small books on specific albums. The album I selected? The 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Without it, you probably wouldn’t even know “Hallelujah”… but we’ll get to that later.
In the book, I explore not just that one tribute album, but the entire history of Leonard Cohen covers generally. It’s a long and fascinating story, but suffice to say here that Cohen wouldn’t have had anywhere near the reach he did without others covering his songs. Covers gave him his start – Judy Collins’s, in particular – and resurrected his career more than once.
There are far too many great Cohen covers to fit in a list like this (and our Patreon supporters will soon get a bonus list of 100 more of them). But we all dug deep to pull the highlights, both the best of the totemic covers as well as brilliant but lesser-known interpretations. The covers span his entire catalog too. Plenty of “Hallelujah”s, of course, and versions of the ’60s songs that made him famous, but also covers of deeper cuts from albums throughout his recording career, up to and including his very last. We hope you’ll discover some new favorites, and maybe be able to listen to the classics you already know in a fresh light.