Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
Amigo the Devil – Before He Cheats (Carrie Underwood cover)
When we last heard Amigo the Devil, he was stripping down a Tom Jones song to create a haunting murder ballad. Now he does the same to another highly polished pop song – but a much more recent one. “[The original is] this very confidence-boosting, really good-feeling, power-infusing song,” Amigo’s Danny Kiranos told Rolling Stone. “I was curious what it would sound like if you took away the positive nature of it and kept the lyrics, essentially the emotions they are portraying.”
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
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.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
The list begins on Page 2.
Tanya Donelly has a long history, as both singer-songwriter of Belly and solo artist, of interweaving emotionally charged originals with covers similarly forged from despair, heartbreak, and loneliness. The results have frequently been sublime, as when she complemented “Gepetto” with a heartfelt version of Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1” on the Gepetto EP of 1992, or when she accompanied “New England” and “Days of Grace” with an equally fervent rendition of the Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” on 2006’s This Hungry Life. The covers have usually taken the backseat as B-sides and deep cuts, or as contributions to tribute albums to the likes of The Smiths or Elliott Smith. Yet now, in this topsy-turvy year of 2020, they are the main event; Donelly has not only released a series of quarantine covers for charity (featuring Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone,” and the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”), but has also polished off a covers album in collaboration with the Parkington Sisters, Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters.
It’s Donelly’s first all-covers album, therefore, that stands before us, but it’s clearly no ordinary covers album. The Belly, Breeders, and Throwing Muses star initiated it out of a desire to do something different with the format in the wake of Juliana Hatfield’s recent successes with Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018), and Sings The Police (2019). She might well have followed in the steps of her sometime collaborator and fellow doyen of New England alt-rock by making, effectively, a tribute album to one of her musical heroes: Kate Bush, say, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But instead, Donelly has attempted to bring a sense of unity to nine reinterpretations of songs that have been hugely meaningful to her, by way of the moody string arrangements and somber vocal harmonies that the classically trained, Massachusetts-based Parkington Sisters are known for.
Hi! Ray Padgett here, founder of Cover Me. Excuse the self-promotional interruption from our usual flow of content, but I imagine it’s a self-promotional interruption that anyone reading a site about covers might actually be interested in.
Some of you may have read my first book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time. This new one is a successor of sorts. Not a sequel, exactly. More like a distant blood relative you only see on holidays.
It’s about tribute albums.
It’s part of the 33 1/3 series of short books on classic albums. I used one tribute album, 1991’s I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, as an entry point to talk about the strange history of tribute albums more broadly.
Why pick I’m Your Fan out of all the possible tribute albums? Well, for one, you wouldn’t know the song “Hallelujah” without it. It’s one of only a couple tribute albums that has had that concrete an effect on music history (here’s the very brief overview). The entire album has a fascinating story, too: Two French fanzine editors with zero industry connections somehow convinced R.E.M., Pixies, John Cale, and more to record Leonard Cohen songs at a time when Leonard was at his most uncool. In doing so, they resuscitated a fading legend’s career.
I’m Your Fan also serves as a perfect example of the tribute album phenomenon more broadly. If you have a favorite tribute album, chances are it comes up in this book. If you have a least favorite, it probably does too. I interviewed the artists and creators of dozens of tributes, including the late, great Hal Willner, who basically invented the format single-handedly. (His first words when I called him up: “Is it all my fault?”)
The book comes out September 3. If it sounds of interest, pre-ordering it would really help, especially because no one’s going to be stumbling across it on bookstore shelves next month. Here are some links:
PRE-ORDER ‘I’M YOUR FAN’:
Barnes and Noble
A bonus for Cover Me readers: if you pre-order the book and email me some sort of proof, I will send you a private mixtape I made of my favorite other cover of every Cohen song on I’m Your Fan, all newer versions that came out after this album. Think of it like a bonus track to the book. Or, in this case, many bonus tracks.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for our Best Leonard Cohen Covers Ever countdown coming in a few weeks.