They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Happy Birthday to Gillian Welch! She deserves an extra slice of cake this year, her 54th, because the past twelve months have been so surprisingly busy.
For one thing, she won a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category this year, for her all-covers collection All the Good Times, made with her ever-present partner David Rawlings. (We reviewed the album here.) The couple also collaborated with Barry Gibb, the Bee Gee with a taste for the kind of Americana and country music that Welch and Rawlings have helped to popularize. But most importantly, the duo spent the year releasing the 48-song, three volume Lost Songs project, rare bits of good news in those hard and uncertain times.Continue reading »
When we began our Best Covers Ever series a little over three years ago, Bob Dylan was about the first artist who came to mind. But we held off. We needed to work our way up to it. So we started with smaller artists to get our feet wet. You know, up-and-comers like The Rolling Stones and Nirvana, Beyoncé and Pink Floyd, Madonna and Queen.
We kid, obviously, but there’s a kernel of truth there. All those artists have been covered a million times, but in none of their stories do cover songs loom quote as large as they do in Bob Dylan’s. Every time one of his songs has topped the charts, it’s been via a cover. Most of his best-known songs, from “All Along the Watchtower” to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” didn’t get that way because of his recordings. In some cases fans of the songs don’t even realize they are Bob Dylan songs. That’s been happening since Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and it’s still happening almost sixty years later – just look at the number of YouTube videos titled “Make You Feel My Love (cover of Adele)”.
So needless to say, there was a lot of competition for this list. We finally narrowed it down to 100 covers – our biggest list ever, but still only a drop in the bucket of rain. Many of the most famous Dylan covers are on here. Many of them aren’t. The only criteria for inclusion was, whether iconic or obscure, whether the cover reinvented, reimagined, and reinterpreted a Dylan song in a new voice.
With a list like this, and maybe especially with this list in particular, there’s an incentive to jump straight to number one. If you need to do that to assuage your curiosity, fine. But then come back to the start. Even the 100th best Dylan cover is superlative. Making it on this list at all marks a hell of a feat considering the competition. (In fact, Patreon supporters will get several hundred bonus covers, the honorable mentions it killed us to cut.)
In a 2006 interview with Jonathan Lethem, Dylan himself put it well: “My old songs, they’ve got something—I agree, they’ve got something! I think my songs have been covered—maybe not as much as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Stardust,’ but there’s a list of over 5,000 recordings. That’s a lot of people covering your songs, they must have something. If I was me, I’d cover my songs too.”
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.
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Was Zuma the album that finally allowed Neil Young to ditch the encumbrance of being just the fourth name in a list of four?
Before the cloud fills with angry retorts, exhorting Shakey’s eternal place as King of the Gods, back down a little and let me explain.
For sure Young was huge before Zuma‘s 1975 release, that’s obvious, but he wasn’t, how you say, massive. Young made his name in Buffalo Springfield, alongside Stephen Stills; on that band’s implosion, their solo recordings each got notice and were garnished with praise. Stills arguably leapt ahead when he teamed up with Crosby and Nash, even if it then took Young joining to make the supergroup a superlative group. Fast forward past the post-Four Way Street wreckage: Manassas was giving Stills some huge credibility, and Young was in need of a band. Of course, he already had one, but they were arguably just background noise up until this point. Nerds (yes, that’s us) knew all about Crazy Horse and possibly had their separate records, but only with Zuma did Young bring them in the forefront and put them in sizable writing on the cover.
I would assert that this made the difference, catapulting Young ahead his onetime partner. Manassas may have had all the classy talent, but the Horse had pure, um, horsepower. Never again would Stills equal his rival, no matter how long he may run. Young didn’t even need the Horse to maintain his pole position, but, give or take the International Harvesters or Promise of the Real, Booker T’s MGs even, it seems only with these guys does Neil really fly. Unless, paradoxically, he is entirely alone. Continue reading »
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!
Norah Jones is only just beginning her fifth decade on the planet, but for two of those decades she’s been restlessly touring and recording at the most elevated level. And she’s been collaborating, cross-pollinating, all that time. The long list of luminaries that she’s worked with, in so many musical genres and contexts, is all the evidence you need of her unique talent.Continue reading »