In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
This year, a lot of musical artists turn 81 years old. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Aaron Neville, Paul Simon, David Crosby–the list goes on. But it’s one shorter than it should be. Otis Redding would be 81 today if he hadn’t died in a plane crash almost 55 years ago. Thinking of how much potential we never got to see fulfilled is a fool’s errand, so let’s focus on what Redding did give us in his 26 years and change.
Redding brought a voice full of emotion, an electric stage presence, and sheer drive to the sweet soul music of the ’60s. His work ethic got him to the top; his talent kept him there, long after he passed away. He’s one of those singers who’s always ripe for discovery; for an encouraging look at our future, search “first time hearing Otis Redding” on YouTube to find the next generation doing just that.
As regular readers know, every year, at the end of the year, we do a big year-end covers list. This tradition started in 2007 and will continue in a couple months with the best covers of 2021.
But there are so many years before 2007 where we weren’t doing year-end covers lists (and, as far as I’m aware, no one else was either). So once a year, we do a big anniversary post tackling the best covers of a year before Cover Me was born. So far we’ve done 1969, 1978, 1987, 1996, and, last year, 2000.
And for 2021, we look back thirty years, to the heady days of 1991. The days of grunge and acid house, of parachute pants and ripped denim, of The Gulf War and Home Alone. Country music and hip-hop increased their cultural dominance (or really just making their existing dominance known; 1991 is also the year Soundscan made the Billboard charts more authoritative). In a single day, Nirvana released Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory. Think that’s a fluke? The week before saw massive albums from Mariah Carey, Hole, and Guns ‘n’ Roses (two albums, no less). The week before that came Garth Brooks, Talk Talk, and Saint Etienne.
All of those trends are reflected in the list below. Many of these covers scream “1991!” LL Cool J raps Disney. Courtney Love shrieks Joni. Aretha Franklin tries to new jack swing. A spate of early tribute albums (in fact, last year I wrote a 33 1/3 book about a 1991 tribute album). Other covers are more timeless, from veteran artists doing great work several decades into their careers, or way-underground artists who never even approached the mainstream. The only criteria was quality. Thirty years later, these 50 covers Hole-d up the best.
Check out the list starting on Page 2, and stay tuned for the best covers of this year coming in December.
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.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
I used to work in the music department of a chain bookstore. One day a customer came in and asked, “Do you have a copy of the song ‘Sugar, Sugar’?” We did, of course; I took him to the Various Artists section and handed him a copy of Billboard Top Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits: 1969.
“Thanks,” he said. “I have to learn this song for a lip-sync for work.” He grimaced.
“Wait,” I said. “If it doesn’t matter what version you lip-sync to…”
In a twinkling he was holding a Very Best of Wilson Pickett CD, containing Pickett’s classic “Sugar, Sugar” cover. “Yes!” he said, eyes alight. “This has songs on it I’ll actually want to listen to more than once!”
The Wicked Pickett’s version is indeed eternally worthy of relistening, but I don’t want to slight the Archies song. Sung by Ron Dante and backed up by Toni Wine (who turns 72 today!), it’s the perfect AM rock song, the #1 song of 1969, one that Lou Reed once admitted he wished he’d written. It’s been remade for Archie-related live-action TV shows, not once but twice. And it’s raked up a lot of covers – including some by artists you never would have guessed…
In Pick Five, great artists tell us about five cover songs that matter to them.
Plenty of musicians write songs about politics. Fewer write songs about economics. But that’s the subject of all ten tracks on British singer-songwriter David Ford’s new album Animal Spirits, out Friday.
If an album about markets and trickle-down theory sounds kind of, well, dry – it isn’t. At all. Like all of his albums, Animal Spirits is brilliant: bluesy barn-stormers mixed with a few wedding-worthy love songs. Check out the title track:Continue reading »
Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Phil Spector had co-written a smash, and now that he was about to produce it, he had to get the right singer. Someone whose voice could blast through the thickest Wall of Sound he ever constructed. Fortunately, he had just the voice – he’d signed Ike and Tina Turner for the express purpose of having Tina record this one song.
While Ike was paid twenty thousand dollars to stay away from the studio, Tina worked. She was singing a non-R&B song for the first time in her professional life, and where Ike was always asking her to scream, Phil told her to stick to the melody. The sessions were grueling, causing Tina literal pain; after trying and trying to get it right, her blouse soaked with sweat, she said, “Okay, Phil, one more time,” then ripped off her blouse and let out an incendiary vocal that floored everybody. “It was like the whole room exploded,” her manager said. Continue reading »