Sixty years ago this month, The Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show. You don’t need us to tell you what a momentous occasion this was; entirebooks have been written on the subject. Suffice to say we’re using the anniversary as our excuse to finally devote a Best Covers Ever to perhaps the biggest band of them all. We’ve done Dylan. We’ve done the Stones. We’ve done Dolly and Springsteen and Prince. But there was one last giant remaining.
Though it’s difficult to measure this precisely, The Beatles are the most-covered artist of all time according to the two biggest covers databases on the internet (SecondHandSongs, WhoSampled). And that certainly feels right. “Yesterday” is often cited as the most-covered song of all time, though that needs qualifiers (a ton of Christmas standards would beat it). But, again, it feels right. The Beatles were ubiquitous in their day, and they’ve been ubiquitous ever since. They just had a chart-topping single last month, the A.I.-assisted “Now and Then,” which was duly covered widely. If “Carnival of Light” ever surfaces, no doubt a carnival of covers will soon follow.Continue reading »
Well, there’s a title for you. “Woodstock” was the song Iain Matthews, post-Fairport Convention, took to the top of the UK charts 53 years ago. Neither he nor his band, Matthews Southern Comfort, actually played at Yasgur’s Farm the year before, but, this side of the pond, it became the best-known version of Joni Mitchell’s song. The band actually fell apart within a year; Matthews was uncomfortable with the fame and bored with the pedal-steel-drenched country tropes now expected of him. Instead, he plowed on with a solo career and with another band, Plainsong.
Plainsong broke up and later reformed, and in 2010, Matthews decided to do the same for Matthews Southern Comfort. He’s since flitted between the three versions of himself, pursuing whatever suits him, under the brand it might suit best. (You might recall he, as Plainsong, covered the songs of Richard Farina with Andy Roberts on 2015’s Re-inventing Richard.) For The Woodstock Album, he has chosen the Matthews Southern Comfort moniker.
The idea behind The Woodstock Album was to pick a selection of artists who played at Woodstock, and some of the iconic songs they played there. Given that Matthews’ metier is very much of a folk-tinged country/country-tinged folk, these would neither ape nor echo the originals, but would hopefully give a fresh new spin on the material. Given many of the songs are not without some considerable covers history, this might be conceived a brave idea, especially as the tracklist becomes apparent. Let’s see. Continue reading »
In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted songwriter and keyboardist Billy Preston into its ranks last month for Musical Excellence, the other inductees seemed to get all the attention. That’s fair (after all, Preston passed away back in 2006), but it’s also in keeping with Preston’s long and sometimes overshadowed career. Despite writing hit records that blended soul, gospel, funk, and R&B with rock, he tends to be pegged not as a star, but as a stellar session player supporting the actual stars.
That’s valid, too. From the ‘50s through to the early 2000s, Preston does seem to have played with all the greats, from Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles to Sly Stone; in the rock world, he partnered with the Beatles and the Stones, The Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name just a few. But we will lean on Billy’s original songs, and on Billy as leader, in our collection of Preston covers. Continue reading »
Last week, Donald Trump gave his headlining speech at the Republican National Convention. Right after, fireworks exploded over the Washington Monument, soundtracked by a cover of “Hallelujah.” A few minutes later, a second singer covered “Hallelujah” while the entire Trump family watched. Both covers were unauthorized, and Leonard Cohen’s estate quickly said they are exploring legal action. (It must also be said that the covers weren’t very good – you won’t find either one on this list.)
Though hardly a shining moment in the history of Cohen covers, this event speaks to the cultural ubiquity of his work, and of “Hallelujah” in particular. For an artist who never sold that many records, Cohen has become about as iconic as icons get. Humble to the end, he would no doubt object – politely, of course – to that statement. But it’s true. His songs transcend his albums, they transcend his performances, they even transcend Leonard Cohen himself.
There’s never a bad time to talk about Leonard Cohen covers, but they’ve really been on my mind the past couple years. Why? Because I’ve been writing an entire book on the subject, which is out today. It’s in the 33 1/3 series of small books on specific albums. The album I selected? The 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Without it, you probably wouldn’t even know “Hallelujah”… but we’ll get to that later.
In the book, I explore not just that one tribute album, but the entire history of Leonard Cohen covers generally. It’s a long and fascinating story, but suffice to say here that Cohen wouldn’t have had anywhere near the reach he did without others covering his songs. Covers gave him his start – Judy Collins’s, in particular – and resurrected his career more than once.
There are far too many great Cohen covers to fit in a list like this (and our Patreon supporters will soon get a bonus list of 100 more of them). But we all dug deep to pull the highlights, both the best of the totemic covers as well as brilliant but lesser-known interpretations. The covers span his entire catalog too. Plenty of “Hallelujah”s, of course, and versions of the ’60s songs that made him famous, but also covers of deeper cuts from albums throughout his recording career, up to and including his very last. We hope you’ll discover some new favorites, and maybe be able to listen to the classics you already know in a fresh light.
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.
During the mid-1990s, there were fewer rock-pop crossover bands bigger than Hootie and the Blowfish. But their decline at the end of the decade paralleled their meteoric rise. When the band called it quits in 2008, there was little fanfare or farewell.Continue reading »