Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Many if not most of Burt Bacharach’s big hits were first released by other artists, usually Dionne Warwick. One big exception was “Trains and Boats and Planes,” a tale of transcontinental love which Bacharach thought was “too country” for Warwick; Bacharach and his writing partner Hal David had written the song for Gene Pitney to sing. Pitney, however, had other ideas; he rejected it and told Bacharach, “It’s not one of your better ones.”
Never one to sulk when insult was added to injury, Bacharach went to London and recorded the song with an orchestra. No lead vocalist, Bacharach assigned the lyrics to the Breakaways, a girl group who also sang backing vocals on Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Their cool, detached voices suited the impassive song perfectly, but the bridge (“You are from another part of the world…”) proved to be too tricky, and Bacharach covered for them by making it an instrumental passage.
Today the song has earned its reputation as one of Bacharach’s better ones, Pitney notwithstanding. His version was a hit, and so was Warwick’s well-nigh-inevitable cover. The dozens of other covers that followed proved the song was strong enough to thrive under any approach, either with or without the bridge. Here are five of them.
In the winter of 1998, the Spice Girls were the biggest pop act in the universe. Their movie Spice World, released on Boxing Day ‘97 in the U.K. and in late January in the U.S, brought in more than $100 million worldwide. On February 24, 25 years ago last week, the group launched its first-ever world tour in Dublin, Ireland.
It was both the best of times and the beginning of the end. Just a few months later, on the eve of their American tour, Geri Halliwell (aka Ginger Spice) would depart the group. Though they continued as a quartet and released Forever in 2000, they would never rule the pop cultural zeitgeist in the same way.
Still, in their short run at the top of the charts, they made a colossal impact on music history. In the U.S., the Spice Girls cut a wedge right through the heart of ‘90s music. Before they hit, pop music was serious business for long-haired dudes with guitars and rappers who felt they were too cool to be parodied by “Weird Al.” But the Spice Girls gave us what we wanted, what we really really wanted, whether we knew it or not. They made it okay for pop music to be brash, fun and unapologetically commercial again. The group opened the door for the countless pop acts who led music into the new millennium, such as Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC.
The Spice Girls were never highly regarded by critics or music snobs, who tend to scoff anything that appeals to young girls. Though they’re now eligible for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I can’t imagine they’ll ever get nominated. Yet the Spice Girls’ music, image and legacy have endured surprisingly well in the ensuing decades. The group performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London and just the mention of a possible reunion tour is enough to set the press into a frenzy. Not convinced? Try listening to Spice or Spiceworld. From the hits to the deep cuts, the albums are consistent listens throughout, as they both feature brilliantly crafted pop tunes that are catchy and easy to sing along to.
Despite being the best-selling female pop group of all time, the Spice Girls haven’t been covered that extensively. One has to go deeper than the usual suspects to find great covers. Whether it’s an acoustic rendition of “Stop,” a jazzy cover of “Wannabe” or countless takes on their deep cuts, the music has lived on through many different voices, just not in the voices that were used to seeing and hearing. Perhaps it takes an artist with less to lose to take a chance and deliver an original take on such pop classics. More than 25 years after their world dominance, “Girl Power” in all its awesomeness shows no signs of letting up. One just has to know where to look.
– Curtis Zimmermann
25. Zebrahead – Wannabe
Pop-punk covers in the early 2000s were unavoidable. Napster (or Limewire or Kazaa) ballooned music libraries and saturated the market with power chords and nasally vocals. It was glorious. There’s something about this cover that calls back to that time of downloading yet another song to the library; it didn’t matter if it was labeled wrong or it wasn’t the version you expected. It was catchy and would work great on your next burned CD. In their power-punk version of “Wannabe,” Zebrahead find the right mix of goofy and uplifting, just like the original. – Mike Misch
24. Shakey Graves & Begonia – Too Much
This song makes a perhaps surprisingly great duet, and this pair really sells it. Hearing the song played live can also help you really appreciate the soulful guitar lines. The soulfulness continues as they trade off lines, eye to eye, bar for bar. Around the 4:30 mark, they really take the “give it a try” line literally, repeating the refrain over and over in different ways: from monster-mash depths to falsetto heights. As much as they are having fun with this nostalgic cover, they bring back the more somber mood for the closing. – Sara Stoudt
23. The Moon Loungers – Say You’ll Be There
The Moon Loungers specialize in performing acoustic covers of songs from across the pop spectrum. The band has an extensive discography of “unplugged” recordings of tracks ranging from Taylor Swift to Jefferson Starship. The group transformed the Spice Girls’ iconic dance track into a mellow acoustic tune. The track features some heavy guitar strumming and harmonies reminiscent of ‘70s mellow rockers America and Seals & Crofts. No boomerangs or karate kicks are required for this cover. The group lets their voices and guitars do all the work. – Curtis Zimmermann
22. Sitti – 2 Become 1
“2 Become 1” was the Spice Girls’ third straight UK number 1, a romantic ballad that took the time to advocate safe sex (“Be a little bit wiser, baby / Put it on, put it on”). Philippine bossa nova singer Sitti covered it on her 2007 album My Bossa Nova, but you’ll be hard pressed to blame it on that genre. Instead, it’s a jazz sound with none of the original’s flash. That’s not a knock – when you’re in a room with quiet and candlelight, sometimes a soft warm glow is exactly what you need to hear and feel. – Patrick Robbins
21. My Sun and Stars – Wannabe
The opening ukulele might make you think that this cover is all sugar and no spice, but even with the angelic high vocals and that cheery ukulele strum, this “Wannabe” cover still has a little kick. The lyrics are doled out patiently, unrushed, matter-of-factly telling the listener how it is. That snap of the hand on the body of the ukulele and the more clipped strumming changes the tone a bit, signaling some seriousness. There’s no “here’s the story” and no bodies winding all around, but friendship remains never-ending. – Sara Stoudt
Just hearing the opening riff to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” has an instant calming effect. The lyrics kick in, and you’re on a joyful soft rock journey for the next five minutes. Or, in Jim O’Rourke‘s case, 33 minutes.
This cover by the experimental musician, recorded live in Japan in 2002, uploaded to YouTube in 2016, and brought into wider view by a in a Washington Post article last week, lulls you into a false sense of security. The classic riff starts us off, and it seems like it’s going to be a straightforward cover, but after a minute or so, the riff starts to be looped, just out of sync of the main melody. By six minutes, the loop has started to turn into a swelling drone, filling your ears and blocking out the rest of the world. By the half-way point of this 33-minute (!) track, the riff has disappeared, with a new droning tone and guitar melodies swirling around the space.Continue reading »
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
2016 in music will be most remembered for one thing: death. It seemed like an unprecedented list of major musical figures left us this year: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen. The list, sadly, goes on and on.
Prominent passings affect many aspects of the music world, but the impact is particularly clear in the world of cover songs: When an artist dies, a lot of people cover his or her songs. The world was hardly hurting for Prince covers before April 21, but afterwards, to paraphrase the man himself, we went crazy. Bruce Springsteen alone became a one-man tribute machine, covering Bowie, Prince, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, and Suicide’s Alan Vega after they died (it’s a shame his tour ended before Cohen passed because he’d do a great “Everybody Knows”). Our list this year features a number of these tribute covers – though both the Cohen covers listed were actually released before his death, proving there’s no need to wait to honor one of the greats.
Our list also features fantastic final covers by the recently departed, brilliant song-interpreters like Sharon Jones and Allen Toussaint. The fact that they died may add extra meaning to these new songs, but they’d make the list regardless. Whether they performed wonderful covers or wrote wonderful songs for others to cover, we miss these artists because they were great. They don’t need any “death bump.”
The year wasn’t all dire though. Our list features many covers by and of artists who are alive in every sense of the word. Kendrick Lamar and Drake represent the new world of hip-hop, Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson in country, Animal Collective and Joyce Manor in indie rock, and in too many other genres to name. Jason Isbell currently holds a streak here, making his third consecutive appearance this year.
We also have plenty of artists whose names I won’t highlight here, because you probably won’t have heard of them…yet. We’re not in the business of predicting fame – the music industry is far too fickle for that – but some of our past best-cover winners have gone on to big things this year, like Chance the Rapper (2014 winner) and The Weeknd (2012 winner). Hell, Sturgill (#3 in 2014) just got an Album of the Year Grammy nomination!
Those early covers may have helped kick off such success. A revelatory cover song can help a musician attract early attention. When I interviewed Mark Mothersbaugh recently, he said no one understood what Devo was doing until they covered “Satisfaction.” A familiar song done Devo-style finally made the connection for people. “Whip It” and other original hits would not be far behind.
Maybe some of this year’s under-the-radar names will go on to Weeknd-level superstardom. But even if they don’t, all these covers, by household names and Garageband geeks alike, deserve recognition. We’ll miss all the great musicians who left us this year, but it’s gratifying to see so many promising younger artists coming in to fill their shoes.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)
PS. Last year in this space, I mentioned I’m writing a book about cover songs. Well, Cover Me (the book, that is) is finished and will be out next year! In addition to the aforementioned Mothersbaugh, I interviewed Roger Daltrey about “Summertime Blues,” David Byrne about “Take Me to the River,” and many more. Follow our Facebook for updates on preorder, etc. Now, on to the countdown…
Today is Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday and, if you follow us on social media (or just about any other music site), you know last week was the 50th birthday of his iconic album Blonde on Blonde. To celebrate, Mojo magazine’s new issue contains a tribute CD with covers of every song. Hear a selection of highlights below.Continue reading »
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Writing about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seems a little like eating at a buffet right before closing. There may be a few good things left, but it is pretty well picked over, and what’s left has lost its flavor. Few rock albums of the past 20 years have been discussed and analyzed as much as YHF. Yet we proceed, undaunted, because what we do is different. And maybe, just maybe, listening to a full set of covers of each song of this great album will allow you to hear it anew. Because you never know when the buffet is going to get restocked with something fresh. Continue reading »