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 »
Typically, the world of cover songs does not change that much year-to-year. You can point to big shifts across decades, sure, but the difference between cover songs in 2018 and 2019, broadly speaking? Negligible. But 2020 was – in this as in everything else – very different.
As concerts ground to a sudden halt, musicians turned to live-from-quarantine home performances, first on their social media, then, once some kind of business model got built up, on various paid platforms. And cover songs were a big part of that. Some musicians did themed covers nights, like Ben Gibbard on YouTube early on or Lucinda Williams’ more produced Lu’s Jukebox series more recently. Others just felt the freedom in such an intimate environment to try things out, spontaneously covering influences, inspirations, or even songs they only half knew. We collected dozens of those early home covers in our Quarantine Covers series, and still only hit a small fraction.
Musicians eventually settled in, and productions got a little more elaborate than the staring-at-your-iPhone-camera look. Witness the heavy metal comedy series Two Minutes to Late Night, which transitioned from a long-running live show in New York City to a series of YouTube covers with dozens of metal-scene ringers covering songs from their couches, corpse paint and all. Witness Miley Cyrus’s endless series of killer cover locales, from a fire pit to an empty Whisky a Go Go. Or witness long-running radio covers series like BBC’s Live Lounge or Triple J’s Like a Version – often the source of a song or two on these lists. First they had musicians tape special covers from home, then, in the BBC’s case, they moved to a giant warehouse studio for suitable social distancing. (Triple J’s pretty much back to post-coronavirus business as usual – sure, Australia, rub it in.)
There’s one other major way covers reflected 2020, and it’s almost too painful to think about, so I’ll just list their names. John Prine. Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner. Charley Pride. So many musicians taken by this virus, many reflected in some of these covers (Pride’s death happened after our list was finalized, but tributes are already rolling in). In a year filled with tragedies, covers offered one place for musicians and fans to find solace.
Many of the songs on our year-end list reflect this terrible year in one way or another. But you know what? Many don’t. Because covers can also offer a fun respite from all the stress. Doom metal Doobie Brothers? Post Malone on mandolin? A viral TikTok hit by a guy who calls himself Ritt Momney? Those have nothing to do with anything! But they’re what we live for.
Adam Schlesinger died on April 1st from COVID-19 complications. Not even three months later, “collaborators, tourmates, friends, and fans” put together Saving for a Custom Van, an extensive tribute album spanning songs from his varied career. Schlesinger is best known for being a founding member of Fountains of Wayne, but he also was in the more indie band Ivy and the supergroup Tinted Windows (with members from Hanson, Cheap Trick, and The Smashing Pumpkins). He also wrote songs for a variety of movies (Music & Lyrics, That Thing You Do!, Josie and the Pussycats), television shows (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Broadway (the postponed show, The Bedwetter) that also make an appearance on this tribute album.
The resulting collage of covers is heartfelt and plays like a personal mix tape of sorts. This makes it hard to pass any judgment. Overall, it is a powerful homage that also educates listeners on the history of Schelsinger’s work. In the sad context of the album, lyrics stand out as especially poignant, from the sad irony of “All Kinds of Time” to the evergreen “Troubled Times.”
Daniel Romano’s Outfit – Sweetheart Like You (Bob Dylan cover)
This one’s for all the Dylan superfans. In 1984, Bob Dylan played three songs on Letterman with L.A. punk band The Plugz. They were gritty and garagey and raw. It boded well for his new sound. And then he never played with them again. The album he was ostensibly promoting, Infidels, was much smoother, helmed by Mark Knopfler. For those who still wonder what could have been, Daniel Romano covered the entire album as if he’d recorded it with The Plugz.Continue reading »
When it comes to the sub-genre of acoustic Beatle ballads, Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” from 1968’s White Album tends to get all the glory and attention. And while there’s no denying its greatness, the time has come to give long overdue props to another Macca ballad on the same album that’s equally fine. “Mother Nature’s Son” is sometimes perceived as a light bit of wistful, romantic fluff, especially when held next to to the weightier words of “Blackbird,” but when it comes to the actual melody, “Mother Nature’s Son,” with its descending guitar line and lush, swoon-inducing hook is a far superior animal. It features all the key demarcation points needed to shine in any style of cover.Continue reading »