Mar 082021
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

“Wichita Lineman” is a certified classic, a fixture in the great American songbook, full stop. But it is also a work in progress. In a way.

The truth is that Jimmy Webb had every intention of writing a middle section and another verse about his solitary lineman. But Glen Campbell got hold of an early draft, and then recorded his version before Webb even knew about it. Who knows if Webb might have ruined a good thing with further revision; what’s certain is that “Wichita Lineman” is a shining example of the Less is More principle, and we owe Campbell a lot for rushing it out.

Campbell also gets some credit for the song’s creation. A year before “Wichita Lineman” dropped, Campbell scored a major hit with another Jimmy Webb gem, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” So the singer suggested the writer come up with “another song about a place.” Webb resisted the idea initially, but his poetic imagination was more receptive. Inspired by a long drive through the arid flatness of Oklahoma and the sight of a worker on a telephone pole, Webb hatched the song idea, and presented a draft of “Wichita Lineman.” It moved the homesick Campbell to tears, and that was enough for him. It was enough for everyone else, too.

Campbell got his Wrecking Crew buddies together in the studio, and added a baritone guitar solo to create an instrumental section. That, and some string arrangements, added meat to the bones of the song, and off it went. Webb knew nothing about the recording, and assumed Campbell had lost interest. When Webb found out Campbell had cut the track, he told Campbell it wasn’t done yet. Campbell replied, “Well, it’s done now!”

The song launched into the upper reaches of the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts. Soon it was in the hands of a few hundred artists attempting their version, including some of the best vocalists and instrumentalists of its time and ours. The Glen Campbell version may remain the definitive one, but there’s quite a few musicians who nailed it too.
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Nov 302020
 
best cover songs november
Ashley McBryde – You’re Lookin’ at Country (Loretta Lynn cover)

The Country Music Hall of Fame recently presented a video series called Big Night at the Museum, getting modern country and Americana artists to cover Hall of Famers. Lucinda Williams did Johnny Cash, Miranda Lambert did John Prine, and a bunch more. Best by a blonde-streaked hair was Ashley McBryde, a performer who skirts the line between country, Americana, and brawny rock, proving her bona fides on Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country.” Continue reading »

Mar 252020
 

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

aretha franklin cover songs

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 »

Mar 232020
 
rachelle garniez

The era in German history known as the Weimar Republic lasted just a few years from 1918 to 1933, but it’s impact on world history and culture is still felt today. The unstable political situation, combined with rapid inflation, contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Amidst the political chaos, the arts flourished. The period saw the establishment of the Bauhaus and Dada artistic movements. Novelist Christopher Isherwood captured the underground nightlife scene in his famed The Berlin Stories, which would serve as the basis for the Cabaret musical and film. On the theater front, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill penned The Threepenny Opera. The musical introduced the standard “Mack the Knife” as well as “Pirate Jenny,” a song Bob Dylan cited in his memoir as an inspiration for his songwriting. Continue reading »

Nov 012019
 

Check out the best covers of past months here.

best cover songs october 2019
Angie McMahon – Knowing Me, Knowing You (ABBA cover)

It comes too late for our Best ABBA Covers countdown, but Angie McMahon’s low-simmer version of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” would make a worthy addition. Though it comes coated in a layer of rock grit, the band’s vocal harmonies stand up to the Swedes. And just wait for Angie McMahon’s cover-closing holler. Continue reading »

Sep 172019
 
cover songs 1969

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.

The countdown begins on page 2…