One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.
Los Lobos‘ version of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” could well be the most faithful cover ever. Which could be the key to its greatness. There’s no reimagining going on here. No reinterpreting, reinventing, or re-anything! Nearly 30 years after it was first a hit, the band performed it just like the original artist performed it. Right down to the cowbells. Continue reading »
If you were to look at the charts, the Beach Boys basically stopped having giant hits after 1966’s “Good Vibrations” (with the obvious exception of 1988’s “Kokomo”). They’re a singles band whose singles mostly dried up six years into their sixty-year career. They had a brief run of good-time hits about girls, cars, and surfing, then faded. They’re the band preserved forever in that cornball publicity photo up top.
But that’s not the story these covers tell.
The big hits are here, sure. “Surfer Girl” and “Fun Fun Fun” and “I Get Around” etc. But so are many now-iconic tunes that weren’t hits. “God Only Knows,” the Beach Boys’ most covered song, peaked at #39. By their standards, that’s a straight-up flop. Many other covered songs didn’t even make it that high. But “God Only Knows” has of course belatedly been recognized as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. As has the album it came off of, Pet Sounds, itself a relative commercial failure.
Pet Sounds, of course, has long since been recognized as a classic. So some artists dig even deeper. “Lonely Sea” is an album cut off their 1963 album Surfin’ U.S.A. “Trader” comes off the 1973 album Holland. Three separate songs here originally came off Surf’s Up, now the go-to pick for artists who want to show they know more than Pet Sounds. Even a song not released until the ‘90s, “Still I Dream of It,” gets a killer cover.
You can trace the story of the Beach Boys’ reputation through these covers. A group once perceived as a lightweight singles act have been fully embraced as musical geniuses, all the way from the hits of the ’60s through the then-overlooked gems of the ‘70s and beyond. Some of these songs below you probably won’t know. Others you will know every single word of…but you’ve never heard them sung like this.
It feels like a cliché these days to start one of these year-end lists writing about “the times we live in,” but, as you read and listen to our picks, you’ll find the specter of the coronavirus and lockdown pretty unavoidable.
One of these albums is titled Songs from Isolation; another is Awesome Quarantine Mix-Tape. Even on some albums where it’s so blindingly obvious, it’s there. Aoife Plays Nebraska is a recording of a quarantine livestream she gave. Los Lobos envisioned Native Sons as a balm for being stuck at home, unable to tour. And then there’s the tribute to John Prine, the long-awaited sequel to 2010’s Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, inspired by his death from the coronavirus last year.
But many of these albums recall better times too. Two are belated releases of in-real-life, pre-pandemic tribute concerts, one to Leonard Cohen and the other to Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes (well, I guess both of those subject are kind of bummers, in different ways…). Tributes abound to other recent deaths – Andy Gibb, Justin Townes Earle, Roky Erickson – but we have plenty to artists still with us too, like Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, and a host of underground psych-rock bands you’ve never heard of.
Then there are those that don’t fit any narrative. An artist felt inspired by an unconnected bunch of songs, decided to cover ’em, and brought them all together into a cohesive record. What do Vampire Weekend and The Supremes have in common? Lauren O’Connell’s beatifully intimate imaginings. How about Allen Toussaint and Calexico? Robert Plant and Alison Krauss harmonizing all over ’em. Whether it’s a quote-unquote “lockdown record” or just someone saying, “hell, why not get a bunch of folkie weirdos to play Phish tunes?,” every album on this list brought something meaningful to – ugh – the times we live in.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
“We dreamed of all the crazy places we never been. Like California.” So sings/speaks Bill Kirchen in the classic Commander Cody song “Mama Hated Diesels,” aptly summing up the lure of the Golden State. And, with due hats tipped to Tennessee and to New York State, is there any other that has drawn in so many songwriter acolytes to the flame it has provided, and for so long? Which, by way of introduction, is where Dave Alvin headed with West of the West, a glorious potpourri of songs from the 5th largest economy in the world, pulled together, chosen and sung by the erstwhile Blaster and X man. Continue reading »
In two years time Los Lobos, as a band, will be an astonishing fifty years old, with a staggering seventeen albums to their name between 1978 and now, let alone a myriad of other appearances, including dozens of cover versions and a host of tribute recordings. Few bands are as able to flit between genres so effortlessly, as their presence on projects as varied as records in praise of Fats Domino, Richard Thompson, and the Grateful Dead displays. Now, with their new release Native Sons, they’re putting their latest varied covers in one place.
Native Sons is by no means the band’s first all-covers project either, thanks to Ride This, a covers EP of seven songs in 2004, and the frankly astonishing Los Lobos Go Disney, a 2009 album of nothing but Disney soundtrack favorites, played in their inimitable East L.A. sound. Flitting between an abrasive rock music, Tex-Mex stylizations and full on conjunto Tejano, they have a massive footprint in modern roots based musics.
The theme here is Los Angeles, the L.A. music they grew up listening to, the music on the radio as they honed their trade. So we get songs by big hitters like the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield, alongside some of the popular Chicano fare from the barrios. Like so many releases this year, it arose out of the sense of claustrophobia inflicted by the coronavirus; unable to play, unable to tour, the band hit on the idea of a playlist of all those L.A. songs that had inspired and fed their appetite for music. Whittled down from a longlist of around 60 songs, here are the top 12, which must surely give hope for a second volume or so, or at least for a later deluxe edition.(By the way, top 12, but 13 songs on the record, the title track being a newly written original, which sums up the point and the purpose of the whole exercise.) Continue reading »
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, suggested by staffer Curtis Zimmerman: What’s your favorite cover of a fictional song? Continue reading »