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 »
When we began our Best Covers Ever series a little over three years ago, Bob Dylan was about the first artist who came to mind. But we held off. We needed to work our way up to it. So we started with smaller artists to get our feet wet. You know, up-and-comers like The Rolling Stones and Nirvana, Beyoncé and Pink Floyd, Madonna and Queen.
We kid, obviously, but there’s a kernel of truth there. All those artists have been covered a million times, but in none of their stories do cover songs loom quote as large as they do in Bob Dylan’s. Every time one of his songs has topped the charts, it’s been via a cover. Most of his best-known songs, from “All Along the Watchtower” to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” didn’t get that way because of his recordings. In some cases fans of the songs don’t even realize they are Bob Dylan songs. That’s been happening since Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and it’s still happening almost sixty years later – just look at the number of YouTube videos titled “Make You Feel My Love (cover of Adele)”.
So needless to say, there was a lot of competition for this list. We finally narrowed it down to 100 covers – our biggest list ever, but still only a drop in the bucket of rain. Many of the most famous Dylan covers are on here. Many of them aren’t. The only criteria for inclusion was, whether iconic or obscure, whether the cover reinvented, reimagined, and reinterpreted a Dylan song in a new voice.
With a list like this, and maybe especially with this list in particular, there’s an incentive to jump straight to number one. If you need to do that to assuage your curiosity, fine. But then come back to the start. Even the 100th best Dylan cover is superlative. Making it on this list at all marks a hell of a feat considering the competition. (In fact, Patreon supporters will get several hundred bonus covers, the honorable mentions it killed us to cut.)
In a 2006 interview with Jonathan Lethem, Dylan himself put it well: “My old songs, they’ve got something—I agree, they’ve got something! I think my songs have been covered—maybe not as much as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Stardust,’ but there’s a list of over 5,000 recordings. That’s a lot of people covering your songs, they must have something. If I was me, I’d cover my songs too.”
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
As a companion piece to our best Bob Dylan single song covers post, coming this Monday, it’s worth considering the myriad tribute albums to the bard of Duluth. To narrow that down at least marginally, we’ll focus on those by an individual band or artist (several Dylan sets appeared on our recent best tribute compilations countdown). There are a lot of them, many more even than you might imagine, encompassing all styles and stages of his ever-changing moods. So let’s start setting some real guidelines here…
We’ll rule out those put together retrospectively as a compilation, so no The Byrds Play Dylan or Postcards of the Hanging by The Grateful Dead. This piece only addresses those made for and released at one sitting. Space begets also a ruthlessness that further excludes participants put together solely and especially for one specific recording, so farewell the excellent Dylan’s Gospel and the intriguing Dylan Jazz. Finally, this is a Top Twenty list, squeezing out many further worthy gems like Joan Osborne’s Songs of Bob Dylan and Robbie Fulks’ 16, a track-by-track take on Street Legal that has some of the best individual songs, frustratingly alongside some decidedly not, perhaps due to the songs and not the singer. Finally, I felt it would be interesting/indulgent to add two essential bits of information about each record:
1. What is the deepest cut contained?
2: Does it feature “Like a Rolling Stone,” the benchmark Dylan song?
Will you disagree with my selections? Sure, and that’s fine, it’s what the comments area is for. Let me know what you think shouldn’t have missed the cut, and what shouldn’t have made it. Continue reading »
Bob Dylan has never exactly been a loquacious interviewee. From the ’60s, when he would spend interviews mocking the press, to the ’10s, where he rarely bothers giving interviews at all, comments from Bob on any given subject are usually relatively few and far between. But I was curious, as we prepare to launch our 100 Best Bob Dylan Covers Ever list on Monday, what Dylan covers has the man himself remarked upon?Continue reading »
Lana Del Rey has been one of the most polarizing artists in the 21st century pop world. Questions of authenticity have dogged her for her entire career, from criticisms of her so called adopted persona to her supposed affections supporting it. Every move has been ripe for attack. Criticism has often come wrapped in a thin veil of sexism; the fact is, her career blueprint is not much different from that of David Bowie’s. He was as calculated and theatrical in regards to his persona and product as they come, but the credibility of the music he produced was never in question.
The latest Del Rey album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is not the work of a persona or a character; it is an open, brazen modern day love letter to the classically cynical, gorgeous California pop of the ’70s. Gone are the echo laden, girl group, Blue Velvet vibes that personified her previous recordings, Del Rey instead meshes lyrically caustic, in your face vocals with memorable melodies resting somewhere between post Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and early ’70’s Joni Mitchell and wears her passion for these sounds on her sleeve. Prince once said when it came to making music, he would look at what his contemporaries were doing and go the other way. Del Rey is going the other way.Continue reading »
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.