Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
If you were to step into a time machine and request to be sent to “a hot summer day in the early ’70s in the U.S.A.,” there’s a damn good chance History: America’s Greatest Hits would be the album blaring through the transmitter during liftoff.
History is the sound of a VW van driving toward a multi-colored sunset in 1971. It is the thunk of a frisbee landing in the mouth of a leaping dog wearing a bandana around its neck in 1972. It is the whoosh of a breeze blowing through the long, middle-parted, Herbal Essence™ scented hair of a “lady” in 1973…
Damn. Sorry about all that. I’m getting transported and I’m not even listening to History right now, I’m just freakin’ thinking about it (and trying to imagine what the hell flying alligator lizards look like).
History was released in November of 1975 and featured all the singles the soft rock trio of Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek had released up to that point. Six of the album’s 12 tracks had been Top 10 hits on the Billboard pop chart: “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” ‘Tin Man,” “Lonely People” and “Sister Golden Hair.” The album’s other six tracks didn’t hit those same heights, and they range in quality from mighty fine (“Daisy Jane”) to just okay (we’ll get to those coattail riders shortly). History went platinum both in the U.S. (4 million copies) and Australia (450,000 copies) and to this day remains the band’s best-selling album.
Now while millions of regular citizens enjoyed that sweet, windblown America sound, the music press emphatically did not. The Rolling Stone Album Guide described their music as “little more than bubblegum for adolescent hippies.” They also offered this snooty slap-and-run attack on the trio’s most popular and beloved songs:
America’s early ’70s hits were all variations on the same themes: mawkish love songs (“I Need You”), clumsy impressionism (“Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway”), childhood fairy-tale metaphors (“Tin Man”), and corny affirmations (“Lonely People”).
Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
Musical obsessions are not always as cut and dried as “this is my favorite song/ album/ band/ genre.” Occasionally you will find yourself in uncharted territory, involuntarily drawn to something so specific and esoteric that it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of an actual existing category. Hmmm… I’m making this sound way more dignified than it is. What I’m trying to say is, most dyed-in-the-wool music nerds have what I’m going to call an imaginary friend. By that, I mean that they have an obsession with some weird-ass thing or self-invented category, one that may not be audible to the ears of others, but feels oh so real to them.
I am now going to introduce you to my imaginary friend, my Harvey, my Snuffleupagus, my Drop Dead Fred. It’s a “thing” I’m obsessed with, which, while exceedingly specific and adhering to a strict set of self-invented rules, doesn’t technically exist as an established, formalized entity.
In a nutshell, I have an insatiable fascination with R & B covers of ’70s Soft Rock songs. Specifically, those recorded in the same era as the originals, when the originals themselves were still young, topical, and ubiquitous.
This oddball interest has roots in all the times I spent as a captive backseat passenger in my Mom’s 1972 white Chevy Nova with the sunflower painted on the side (only one word for that car: bitchin’). It was in this magical machine that my musical foundation was established and my taste was, some might say tragically, molded into shape. Meaning I was exposed to a helluva lot of ’70s AM pop radio as a kid. And there were two things being churned out in ample quantities back then that I especially loved:
1. R&B aka Soul Music (the first single I ever bought was by The Spinners, the first LP was by Billy Preston)
2. Soft Rock, primarily the candy-coated version (“Shannon is gone, I heard…”)
For a specific subgenre, “Soft Rock” is a pretty broad descriptor. The term has come to characterize the adult incense burning-cool babysitter sounds of Carole King and James Taylor, as well as the candy-coated, big-chorus-ed corniness of Barry Manilow and the Captain and Tennille. While we tend to draw a distinction between these two types of Soft Rock (the former is “cool,” and the latter… isn’t), back then, to my kid ears, they were the same damn thing, 100% equal in terms of their artistic credibility. They were all served up on the same radio stations, so in my world, Jackson Browne and Helen Reddy were as one. It was all pop music.
My sloppy love for both the Soul and the Soft did not trigger a lightbulb moment where I thought, “hey, I love these two things and I wonder if there are artists who have perhaps married the two.” Lord no. That would have been far too sophisticated a notion to have ever sprouted up in my eight-year-old peanut brain. My fascination with the marriage was a more random pursuit that defined itself over time. I think it may have been triggered by hearing The Four Tops’ incendiary cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” on some compilation in the ’80s. I honestly can’t remember. What I do know is that as technology advanced, my pursuit grew more and more fanatical with each passing day.
Once I could get at discographies with the touch of a button, the nerd assembly line kicked into high gear. Stores were scavenged for Soul-ified Soft Rock treasures. Mixtapes were assembled, followed by mix-CDs, finally culminating in an immense iTunes playlist I pathetically titled, yup, Soul in the Middle of the Road, that grew to feature hundreds of songs. They ran the gamut from transcendent (some rivaling or surpassing the originals in terms of beauty) to horrible (oh man) to just straight-up bizarre (you’ll see).
As alluded to earlier, my main interest is in covers that were recorded during the same era as the originals, in or on the edges of the ’70s. These covers offer a direct nod to the ubiquity of the originals and capture the spirit of that swingin’ era in a way that is impossible for a latter-day cover to achieve (to me, anyway).
I now humbly offer you 30 of the finest, weirdest, and “what the holy hell was that” soul-infused covers of classics and beloved deep cuts from the sweet ‘n’ vast Soft Rock canon. Now I’m sure some of the artists I’m about to mention would bristle at having one of their works characterized as “Soft Rock,” but hey rock star, you made a Soft Rock song, so you know, that’s onyou (also thank you, you sexy thing). At the end of the day, they should all feel grateful and flattered to have had their sweetest sounds so soulfully celebrated.
As for me, I hear love in every one of the covers that follow and genuinely hope you can too. Take it away, Tops…