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.
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Last week, R.E.M. released a 25th anniversary expanded reissue of their 1994 album Monster. Unlike many of their albums, Monster was not an obvious candidate for a splashy box set. Practically every new review has noted that Monster was, as Salon succinctly put it, “a notorious staple of dollar bins everywhere.” But, as tends to happen with such reissues, the celebrated albums get celebrated again and the less-loved albums get a critical reappraisal. Sure enough, everyone loves Monster all of a sudden.
So perhaps an avalanche of Monster covers is forthcoming – because there certainly aren’t many now. Despite that being the ostensible news peg for this list, no songs from that album appear on it. But, in a band with as rich a discography as R.E.M.’s, there was a lot of competition. Sure, the obvious hits get covered as much as you think, but many artists delve deeper. The song at the very top of the list, for instance, originally appeared on 1998’s Up, an album that might have an even worse reputation than Monster.
Luckily we don’t need to wait four more years for the reappraisal of that, or of any of the other songs on our list. These 25 covers reappraise R.E.M. deep cuts you didn’t know and reimagine the hits you’ve heard a million times.
The list starts on Page 2.
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
It’s a bit overrated, to be honest. Compared to Let it Bleed and Beggars Banquet, which I think are more of a piece, I don’t see it’s as thematic as the other two. I’m not saying it’s not good. It doesn’t contain as many outstanding songs as the previous two records. I think the playing’s quite good. It’s got a raw quality, but I don’t think all around it’s as good. – Mick Jagger
Every time I (choose my favorite Stones album), I keep thinking about the ones I’m leaving out. It’s like babies. But if I’ve got to pick one I’ll say – and you can take it with a large dose of salt – Exile. Because of its amazing spirit, the incredible amount of enthusiasm and screw-you-ing, You can throw us out but you can’t get rid of us. – Keith Richards
Now seen as a masterpiece, Exile on Main Street has been getting mixed reviews for most of its life, and not just from its creators. Lester Bangs wrote a review calling it “at once the worst studio album the Stones have ever made, and the most maddeningly inconsistent and strangely depressing release of their career”; later, he wrote, “I practically gave myself an ulcer and hemorrhoids, too, trying to find some way to like it. Finally I just gave up, wrote a review that was almost a total pan, and tried to forget about the whole thing. A couple weeks later, I went back to California, got a copy just to see if it might’ve gotten better, and it knocked me out of my chair. Now I think it’s possibly the best Stones album ever.”
Now the critics of yesteryear who trashed Exile have turned into critics calling the record overrated. But that’s a hard criticism to support. The record shows the Stones at their bravest and least calculated, playing blues, gospel, country, boogie, good old rock ‘n’ roll, even a couple of covers, as if the music exuded from deep inside their selves. These multiple genres weren’t accoutrements to dress up in as the mood struck, but were part of the sweat and grime that hung in the air and coated the basement walls at Nellcote as the Stones recorded there.
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
We’ve done a Best Cover Albums list every year since 2009. That list usually ends up being a reasonably even mix of various-artist tributes and single-artist records. But in all those lists, our number-one pick has been, without fail, a single-artist album (for those keeping score at home, we’ve awarded The Lemonheads, Peter Gabriel, Baaba Kulka, Neil Young and Crazyhorse, Xiu Xiu, Andrew Bird, and Bob Dylan – who didn’t turn up to accept our prize either).
This single-artist streak is no coincidence. It is naturally easier for one artist, if he/she/they are good enough, to maintain consistent quality control over 10 or 15 tracks. Whereas even the best mixed-artist tribute records usually have one or two dud tracks. Take the National-curated Day of the Dead, certainly this year’s highest-profile tribute album. Some of these Grateful Dead covers were so good they’ll appear on next week’s Best Cover Songs of 2016 list. Many others were dreck, filler, or superfluous. So we ranked the record – spoiler alert – at #20, sort of an honorable-mention position.
Even various-artist tributes comprised of uniformly good covers typically don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. For example, we ranked MOJO Magazine’s Blonde on Blonde tribute pretty high this year because we liked just about every one of the Bob Dylan covers on offer. But there’s little common ground between an aggressive electronic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and a tender folk “I Want You.” The record is more a bunch of great cover-song fodder for mixes and playlists than a truly great and unified album.
I sound like I’m being critical, but again, these are among the best cover albums of the year. This is usually the most a various-artist tribute album can aspire to: more good covers, few bad ones.
But this year, for the first time in our eight years making these lists, a various-artist tribute album rose so all the way to the top. This album was not only good top to bottom, but it felt like a real album, not just a collection of covers. It ably walked the finest of lines: showcasing diverse approaches to the source material while just remaining cohesive enough to stand together as a complete listen.
I don’t want to give away what that number-one album is just yet. We’ll get there, and there’s already enough of a tendency with year-end lists to skip straight to #1 and ignore the rest. I no doubt have not helped by hyping this magical album that broke our eight-year streak. But every one of the twenty albums we picked offers something worth hearing.
We’ve got jazz-sax forays through prog-rock and twee-pop covers of vintage punk tunes. There’s a ’60s New York icon honoring her then-competitors in the British Invasion, and a band from that same British Invasion honoring their American inspirations. There are tributes to great musicians who died this year, and tributes to long-dead musicians who there’s no news hook for honoring now, just great songs.
This list itself is as “various artists” as it can get, a whole array of genres and styles with one common thread: musicians honoring their inspirations and influences. Let’s dig in.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Start the countdown on the next page…
Over the past few months, we’ve been hard at work making our list of The Best Cover Songs of 2016. Narrowing it down to 50 caused some excruciating choices, that’s how many great covers there were this year.
We’ll be posting the full list next week (and “Best Cover Albums” this Thursday), but as a little appetizer, here are our Honorable Mentions, covers we loved and still wanted to spotlight as among the best 2016 had to offer.
In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Merle Haggard died on April 6th, his 79th birthday. On another April 6th, eleven years earlier, he celebrated his birthday in Chicago, opening the spring run of Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour.”
I don’t know what he did for most of that 66th birthday, but I do know how five minutes or so was spent. He was standing outside his tour bus, listening to a handful of Dylan obsessives sing “Happy Birthday” to him. I was one of them.