Jan 142022
 
Carla Thomas

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 on you (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

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Mar 022021
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Midnight Train to Georgia covers

If you live and die known for but one song, it better be a good one, and in “Midnight Train to Georgia” Jim Weatherly, who just died last month, wrote one of the best. The song is far and away best known in the iconic version by Gladys Knight. Never forgetting the Pips, for it is they who lift the song from merely great to transcendent. OK, the arrangement is pretty damn fine too, the orchestration and backing exuding all the desolation and disappointment of Amtrak by night. But it wasn’t always that way. Continue reading »

Jan 242020
 

They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with covers of his or her songs. Let someone else do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Today Neil Diamond reaches his three score and nineteen. Parkinson’s disease has taken him away from touring, but he assured fans that “I plan to remain active in writing, recording and other projects for a long time to come.” These projects include a Broadway musical and an upcoming Las Vegas benefit show. If that wasn’t enough, his songs continue to resonate with listeners today – “Sweet Caroline” was just chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry.

And if THAT wasn’t enough, his songs remain popular cover material, no matter who’s doing it or how. We’ve found five covers that take the words and music of the Jewish Elvis to their own personal Gracelands.
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Nov 222019
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

I should probably start this with a pop music true confession: the first Joni Mitchell album I ever bought and listened to in full was 1974’s Court And Spark, and the sole reason I purchased it was because I’d heard Prince, whom I was obsessed with (this was the early ’80s), say that he loved it and thought she was a genius (or something to that effect). Basically, if the person who made my #1 favorite album (Purple Rain) with my # 1 favorite song (“I Would Die 4 U”) loved her, there had to be a reason, and I needed to know what that reason was. I bought the album, and by the time I’d finished playing it, like most humans upon exposure to Joni, I’d been transformed into a complete devotee, snarfing up every album and playing them endlessly forever. That Prince, he knew what he was talking about.
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May 032019
 

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

joni mitchell covers

Joni Mitchell is 75 and won’t be with us forever. She suffered an aneurysm in 2015, and she’s coping with the little-understood Morgellons disease. She has difficulty walking, and has not spoken publicly in years. But if her place on earth is tenuous, her place in the heavens is secure; millions of people already look up to her every day.

Joni Mitchell’s songs are famous for being intensely personal, a deep expression of her self that people nevertheless relate to. Those who aspire to her voice become near-slavish devotees. There’s a great New Yorker piece about a small show of Joni’s that a drunken Chrissie Hynde gets overly caught up in (“That’s a REAL singer up there!”), and Hynde’s not alone. Mitchell isn’t just a real singer, though. She’s a real songwriter, a real painter, a real guitarist, a real follower of her muse – a real artist, one of the realest of the past hundred years. That authenticity is what continues to bring people into her circle on a daily basis.

In an excellent essay for NPR, Ann Powers wrote: “Like her prime compatriots Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and her favorite protégé Prince, no one can adequately echo her; even great singers, taking on her songbook, admit they can only hope to achieve proximity.” Indeed, a Joni Mitchell cover is never just a tribute – it’s an assertion, an artist coming forth to pick up a gauntlet she lay down decades ago.

We found 30 covers that show the artists doing an especially good job at matching their talents to Joni’s, creating new works of art that, no matter how novel or innovative they may be, never set out to eradicate the original artist’s signature. May her art continue to open eyes, whether through her own performances or those of others, for centuries to come.

–Patrick Robbins, Feature Editor

Dec 042017
 
2017 cover songs

Our official list of the Best Cover Songs of 2017 comes next week. But first, we’re continuing the tradition we started last year by rounding up some of the songs it most killed us to cut in a grab-bag post. No ranking, no writing, just a bunch of knockout covers. Continue reading »