“Downtown Train.” “Ol ’55.” “Jersey Girl.” These are just three of the Tom Waits songs better known for their covers (respectively: Rod, Eagles, Bruce) than for Waits’ own performances.
It probably doesn’t need saying that Tom’s recordings are, in the best way possible, idiosyncratic. So it makes sense that, like Dylan, like Cohen, his songs often become more popular when more “traditional” voices sing them. Many of the best covers, though, keep some of that strangeness. No, they don’t do “the Tom Waits voice” – most people wouldn’t be able to talk for a week after attempting that. But they don’t sand off the strangeness.
Tom’s debut album Closing Time came out 50 years ago this month; he’s doing a reissue to celebrate. It, and its successor The Heart of Saturday Night, are in some ways his least representative albums, though. The songwriting is already strong on these, but it comes in – if you can believe it – a fairly conventional package. His voice hasn’t revealed its true character (to pick one among many memorable descriptions: “a voice like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”), and he hadn’t discovered that hitting a dumpster with a two-by-four makes great percussion.
Some of those very early songs get covered in our list below. But his later, weirder, songs abound, too. Tom’s wife Kathleen Brennan, his musical co-conspirator for decades now, said her husband has two types of songs: “Grim Reapers” and “Grand Weepers”. On his Orphans box set, Tom divided them up another way: Brawlers, Ballers, and Bastards. You’ll find some of all flavors below. (And, if you want more new writing on Tom Waits music, subscribe to a newsletter called Every Tom Waits Song that – full disclosure – I also run).
– Ray Padgett
PS. Find Spotify and Apple Music playlists of this list, and all our other monthly Best Covers Ever lists, at Patreon.
Experimental Elvis. Surf-rock Kraftwerk. Garage-rock Roger Miller. Stoner White Stripes. Twee Beach Boys. Heavy-metal Townes Van Zandt. Retro-soul Merle Haggard.
There was no shortage of ambition, or wild genre-crossing ideas, among this year’s cover albums. Here are the best of the best.
25. Otu Fuzzy Tunes
Finnish doom metal outfit Otu stay on theme (“fuzzy”) throughout this covers album without ever getting boring. Each of the tracks is of a metal or hard rock song, but the style of cover varies each time. Album opener “No One Knows,” a Queens of the Stone Age cover, doesn’t stray terribly far from the original, just a bit heavier and fuzzed out. This is followed by a version of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” that sounds almost like an early Nirvana track; the guitar is tuned low enough to sound like a bass, or else it’s a bass guitar playing the main riff. Track 3, a cover of “Iron Man,” is the first on the album to really sound like a true “doom” cover. It reveals that, while the other styles help keep the album from being too one-note, Otu’s strength is the slow, down-tuned, guttural sound of classic doom metal. “Holy Mountain” and “War Pigs” are strong tracks similarly drenched in towering, droning guitars. It’s a fun way to hear some classic tunes and you’ll get the most bang for your buck on this album with some good headphones or loud speakers. – Mike Misch
24. Various Artists Todo Muere SBXV
Todo Muere SBXV celebrates 15 years of the industrial, gothic, experimental record label Sacred Bones (that info will help to decipher the “SBXV”). Things get loud, as when a trio of metal acts Thou, Mizmor, and Emma Ruth Rundle road through Zola Jesus’s “Night.” They also get dreamy, as when ambient artist Hilary Woods warbles “In Heaven” from Eraserhead (that’s right, David Lynch is a Sacred Bones artist).
Even if you don’t know many of the original songs – and, unless you’re deep in this scene, you probably won’t – the cumulative effect is mesmerizing, moving, and at times a little harrowing. In a good way. – Ray Padgett
23. Jason McNiff Tonight We Ride
Jason McNiff may not be the best known of names, but this hard-working singer and guitarist has hewn himself quite a place in the annals of that awkwardly-titled genre, UK Americana. McNiff earned a degree in French and Russian, but the lure of his first love proved too strong. He immersed himself in the fingerpicked guitar of folk and blues, in particular the work and style of the late Bert Jansch. McNiff spent his COVID lockdown hunkering down with weekly online gigs, dubbed the “Sundowner” sessions. Exhausting both his own repertoire of songs and those he already loved by others, he had to learn a whole new catalog of material. Tonight We Ride was the logical conclusion: eleven songs encompassing artists McNiff holds the most in reverence. Sure enough, that includes two Jansch songs, alongside The Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), Leonard Cohen (“Moving On”), and a couple Dylan tunes too. – Seuras Og
22. AWOLNATION My Echo, My Shadows, My Covers, & Me
The opener clearly reveals this album as also pandemic-born: “how can we dance when our earth is turning? how do we sleep while our beds are burning?” The genre of this song is closer to that of what you might expect from modern-rock hitmakers AWOLNATION, but that’s where my predictions of what would happen next faltered. AWOLNATION provides a soundtrack for the full pandemic roller coaster featuring just as much electro pop as their signature rock approach, as well a variety of guest collaborators.
Feeling down? Jump right into “Take A Chance On Me,” where you might find yourself second-guessing, “wait this is the ‘Sail’ group?!?” Need to refresh your workout mix? There is “Maniac.” Other mood boosters are “Just a Friend” or “Flagpole Sitta,” which you might never have expected to appear together in an album setting. Lest you think this is only a tongue-in-cheek album, introspective choices are woven throughout, like “Wings of Change” and “Alone Again (Naturally)”.
If I had to pick a pair of favorites, one fun and one more serious, they would be AWOLNATION putting the MMMBop in “Material Girl” with Taylor Hanson and “Eye in the Sky” with Beck (not a song I was familiar with before, but now a tune I can’t get out of my head). – Sara Stoudt
21. Various Artists Stór agnarögn
If you’re Icelandic, you probably know these songs. Ásgeir Trausti’s 2012 album Dýrð í dauðaþögn was a sensation in his home country, the best selling debut ever in the country (sorry, Björk).
But statistically speaking, you are probably not Icelandic. So you don’t know the original versions of these ten songs – and if you do, it’s probably via the John Grant-translated English versions. No matter. Sigur Rós became sensations without anyone understanding what they were saying. Ásgeir’s songs have beautiful melodies, frequently soaring into Bon Iver-channeling falsetto, and they work wonderfully in this collection of his countrymen-and-women’s covers. Even if you don’t understand a single word (I don’t!), the music will carry you away. – Ray Padgett
Steve Earle’s getting good at these tributes to friends and mentors. Jerry Jeff is his third, following Townes and Guy. (Yes, of course there has also been J.T., but that paean to his prematurely deceased son was a force of necessity rather than choice, one which we reviewed here.) The latest tribute has more in common with the first two, and is maybe a bit of a surprise, not least as there is no recorded Bluebird Café gig to legitimize the link.
Indeed, those uncertain why Earle might be drawn to the works of Jerry Jeff Walker, seemingly less of a maverick, might need to think again. The outlaw-country icon is way more than just the “Mr. Bojangles” hitmaker, and that song, wonderful as it is, may not be the best marker of his styles, as he gravitated from Greenwich Village folkie to grizzled Austin veteran. (More about that song here.)
Walker, who died back in 2020, did cross paths with Earle a number of times. Once Walker invited him down to play a song for Neil. Not knowing who Neil was, Earle complied, and was delighted to find himself about to play a song for Neil Young. He was then appalled that Walker insisted he play a David Olney song, rather than one of his own. Ouch! But it goes further, Earle telling Vulture that “Mr. Bojangles” had been a (very) early stage favorite of his, it being performed at the specific request of his high school teacher for a school show.
Earle is older and mellower now, and arguably this set of Walker songs suits him a little better than his reputation(s) would predict. Plus, for those champing at the bit for some new Earle compositions, there is a promise that this is his last in his run of tributes. For them, good; for us here at Cover Me, maybe less so. Continue reading »
If you missed the whole brouhaha when Steely Dan dropped Aimee Mann as their opening act, it’s too long to recap here. To skip to the end, Mann tweeted, “All is forgiven if Donald [Fagan] just tells me what Brooklyn is about.” And he did! So, at a recent show at City Winery, she covered it. All does indeed appear to be forgiven.Continue reading »
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
If you had to be best known for but one song, “Mr. Bojangles” can’t be a bad one to leave as a legacy, even if, strangely, it isn’t necessarily that characteristic of the rest of the author’s output. The author? Jerry Jeff Walker, a stalwart of the outlaw country movement, a contemporary of Waylon and Willie, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, to name just a few. Walker wrote “Bojangles” in 1967 and released it a year later, early on in a career that would produce well over twenty subsequent long players before his death earlier this year, of throat cancer, aged 78.
“Mr. Bojangles” has often been thought to be in honor of Bill Robinson, a black vaudeville performer who used Mr. Bojangles as his stage name. Not so. Seems it’s really a song about a whole less celebrated performer who Walker had met in jail, when he had been locked up for public intoxication. This Bojangles was a homeless man, who had adopted the name to hide his true identity, but had a fund of stories relating to the life he shared with his dog. When an ugly moment arose in the communal cell, Mr. Bojangles had lightened the mood with a tap dance. As you do. Continue reading »
But why these recordings? The track selection on Dylan is perplexing, especially since Columbia already possessed much of the material that would later surface on the successful Bootleg Series. A likely explanation is that whoever compiled the album (possibly Mark Spector, who assembled an abandoned early version) was under pressure to get the record out before Dylan’s first release for Asylum – which was being recorded at that very moment – and therefore had no choice but to simply grab some of the most recent tapes off the top of the pile. The tapes in question, as it happened, were from the sessions for Dylan’s 1970 albums Self Portrait and New Morning.
Columbia’s ploy worked. Dylan reached No.17 on the Billboard chart and was certified gold, despite overwhelmingly negative reviews. Were the critics right? Let’s take another look. Continue reading »