“Downtown Train.” “Ol ’55.” “Jersey Girl.” These are just three of the Tom Waits songs better known for their covers (respectively: Rod, Eagles, Bruce) than for Waits’ own performances.
It probably doesn’t need saying that Tom’s recordings are, in the best way possible, idiosyncratic. So it makes sense that, like Dylan, like Cohen, his songs often become more popular when more “traditional” voices sing them. Many of the best covers, though, keep some of that strangeness. No, they don’t do “the Tom Waits voice” – most people wouldn’t be able to talk for a week after attempting that. But they don’t sand off the strangeness.
Tom’s debut album Closing Time came out 50 years ago this month; he’s doing a reissue to celebrate. It, and its successor The Heart of Saturday Night, are in some ways his least representative albums, though. The songwriting is already strong on these, but it comes in – if you can believe it – a fairly conventional package. His voice hasn’t revealed its true character (to pick one among many memorable descriptions: “a voice like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”), and he hadn’t discovered that hitting a dumpster with a two-by-four makes great percussion.
Some of those very early songs get covered in our list below. But his later, weirder, songs abound, too. Tom’s wife Kathleen Brennan, his musical co-conspirator for decades now, said her husband has two types of songs: “Grim Reapers” and “Grand Weepers”. On his Orphans box set, Tom divided them up another way: Brawlers, Ballers, and Bastards. You’ll find some of all flavors below. (And, if you want more new writing on Tom Waits music, subscribe to a newsletter called Every Tom Waits Song that – full disclosure – I also run).
– Ray Padgett
PS. Find Spotify and Apple Music playlists of this list, and all our other monthly Best Covers Ever lists, at Patreon.
Lucinda Williams has never had a big hit song. None of her singles have charted on the Top 40, or even on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at all. In fact, most of her songs don’t hit any chart.
You may already be thinking to yourself: Who cares! Giant pop-chart hits are not the way you measure the success of a singer and songwriter like Lucinda Williams. You know what is one possible way, though? Covers. (A few of which, incidentally, made her song hits in other hands.)
Like a few other songwriter’s-songwriter types we’ve covered in this series (John Prine, Steve Earle), the respect Lucinda gets from her peers and fans far outweighs her own commercial success. It’s probably the sort of acclaim she’d value more. Williams’ songs have been covered by her elders alongside a wide array of younger folk and indie artists. Earle, in fact, has called the album he co-produced, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.”
None other than Bob Dylan himself, when he played her take on “Change the Locks” (covered twice on our list) on his Theme Time Radio Hour, compared her to Bessie Smith, calling her “another strong-hearted spirited woman.” He added cheekily, “Time Magazine called her America’s best songwriter in 2002. I guess I was out of town.”
Below, we’ve rounded up 25 equally strong-hearted, spirited covers. Lucinda, who turns 70 today, is no slouch at covers herself – don’t miss her recent Lu’s Jukebox series. But for her birthday, we honor her songwriting and let other artists do the heavy lifting.
25. John Mellencamp – Lafayette
Lucinda Williams’ first album was a collection of covers, but her second, Happy Woman Blues, consisted of all originals, kicked off by “Lafayette” – the first of her songs about her native Louisiana, but certainly not the last. It’s about how the singer misses Lafayette and how it took leaving to appreciate it, so she’s coming back. Because Lafayette is the center of Cajun culture, the song is fittingly a country/zydeco mix, and focuses on the eating, drinking, dancing and other wild times that she looks forward to repeating. John Mellencamp’s 2003 album Trouble No More was a collection of (mostly) blues and folk covers, and his spare take on “Lafayette” is more country-blues than Cajun. His gruff lead vocals are sometimes overshadowed by the twangy female background singer, but it’s a worthy effort. – Jordan Becker
24. Jimbo Mathus – Lake Charles
Picking a single track off Solo Blues Guitar: Jimbo Mathus Performs Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road kind of defeats the purpose. As you can probably guess from that album title, it’s Mathus, of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame, performing Lucinda’s most iconic album in full (on, as the tin says, solo blues guitar). It’s a beautiful listen that you can hone in on or just let add atmosphere in the background. But, since we have to highlight one, “Lake Charles” will give you a good taste of his combination of finger picking and slide on that beautiful resonator guitar. – Ray Padgett
23. Dennis Mac Namara – I Envy the Wind
If there were a church devoted solely to unrequited love, where all those in the throes gathered to commiserate, “I Envy The Wind” would be the lead hymn in the songbook. Why this song has been covered so sparingly over the years remains a mystery. Hyperbolic hot take coming, but if ever a song was powerful and poised enough to knock “Hallelujah” off its ubiquitous and over-covered pedestal, “I Envy The Wind” is it. Dennis Mac Namera’s skeletal acoustic cover is home to a stunner of vocal performance, equal parts booming and fragile. The heartache and longing are oh so palpable, as is Mac Namera’s unabashed admiration for the song itself. Let us pray. – Hope Silverman
22. Peter Gallagher – Still I Long For Your Kiss
Lest anyone forget, Williams is every bit as much a singer and interpreter of the blues as she is of the broader country/Americana slant she is usually associated with. Check out her aforementioned first album, 1979’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, a set of largely nothing but the blues, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Johnson and the like, with a token Hank Williams for good measure. Sure, her own version of “Still I Long For Your Kiss” carries a bluesy hint, but it took this fella to strip it right back, delectably so. This fella? Peter Gallagher. You’ll know him as an actor in loads of films and TV. But, as this clip shows, he can sing, really sing. This comes from a record he made in 2005, Seven Days In Memphis, of Southern soul belters backed by a crew of the best session men that producer Steve Cropper could find. The other singer here is his TV wife from The O.C., Kelly Rowan. – Seuras Og
21. Angel Olsen – Greenville
Angel Olsen dropped two terrific covers last June. Her version of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” recorded for the TV show Shining Girls, features haunting electronic textures underpinning her voice. It’s a surprisingly un-folky cover of one of Bob’s early folk songs. Alas, it came a year too late for our Best Bob Dylan Covers list. Her version of of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road standout “Greenville” though is just as good, guitar echoing behind her mesmerizing double-tracked vocals. – Ray Padgett
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.
Words are overrated. From Little Richard to Rihanna, sometimes a song can say more with random sounds than any coherent content. So to celebrate the inanity of catchy hooks that don’t mean a thing
Queen – Tutti Frutti (Little Richard) Rocking out one of the most famous phrases in rock and roll, Freddie Mercury “wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom”s his ass off with some crowd participation. And – big shock – Brian May is very good at guitar. [Buy]
Phish – Mmmbop (Hanson) It says Hanson above, but Phish makes it clear that this is actually a James Brown cover. Listen up and hear what I mean. [Buy]
Los Chicros – Changes (David Bowie) Much like “My Generation,” “Changes” wouldn’t be half as good without the “ch-ch-ch” stutter. [Buy]
The Vox Collective – Disturbia (Rihanna) A modern classic for sure, and a song made for down-tempo acoustic covers (I already have three). Bum bum be dum… [Buy]
Chris Dunnett – Blue (Da Ba Dee Da Ba Di) (Eiffel 65) Euro-dance music on flamenco guitar…now why didn’t I think of that? [Buy]
Elliott Smith – Jealous Guy (John Lennon) Someone find me a song with a better whistling part. Come on, I dare you. The best part about this is how the Cambridge audience whistles along. [Buy]
Marmalade – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles) In 1969 this song was the first by a Scottish band to top the UK charts. Such a big hit, so quickly forgotten. [Buy]
Matt Weddle – Hey Ya (Outkast) Yeah, I guess “hey” is technically a word, but what the hell does “hey ya” mean? A lot, apparently, in Weddle’s beautifully fragile acoustic take. [Buy]
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Trampled Rose (Tom Waits) Tom had a nice low moan on the original, but Krauss brings a whole new eeriness to the tune by jumping like eight octaves without breaking a sweat. [Buy]
The Big Wu – Werewolves of London (Warren Zevon) A perfect lead-in to my inevitable Halloween post here. This Minnesota jam band rocks Zevon’s biggest hit for seven minutes, with plenty of “ah-oooooo” excitement. [Buy]
ANNOUNCEMENT: You may have noticed the new “Donate” button off to your right. I hate to ask for hand-outs, but my old free server cut off my access, so I have to use a paid one. It’s cheap, but I’m poor, so just a few bucks will go a long way! This is the last time I’ll advertise it though, promise. On the plus side, all links should last for much longer than they used to. They are all up to date.
With that out of the way, it’s been a tradition at this blog to have the first post each month be covers of a full album…but we’re going to push it back a week for an extra-special contribution to this month’s album. Don’t want to give away what it is, but here’s a clue: horse waits.
This week’s post, however, is no last-minute substitution. It’s a look at a group huge in its time, but obscured in history by bigger vocal groups like Simon and Garfunkel: The Everly Brothers. Sure, Paul Simon’s a hell of a songwriter, but in my book you can’t beat the harmonies of Don and Phil. They may hate each other, but I saw them perform a couple years ago, and they still got it.
The Ditty Bops – Bye Bye Love A cutesy, folksy cover that keeps the original’s basic feel, but sounds a little more organic. If Don and Phil had been a couple of granola girls in Birkenstocks, they’d have sounded like this.
Bob Dylan – Take a Message to Mary “What is this shit?” So opened Greil Marcus’ famous review of this album, Dylan’s 1970 Self Portrait. Mostly covers or crappy live versions of older hits, I can see why people were pissed. It sounds a lot better with the passage of time though, country bumpkin songs like this being trite but fun. Bet you didn’t know Bob’s voice ever sounded this good.
A-Ha – Crying in the Rain It’s no “Take On Me,” but A-Ha still managed to pull of a minor hit with this harmony-filled builder. The 80’s production is atmospheric without being obnoxious and makes me think maybe there’s more to this band than the one big hit.
Pearl Jam with Beck – Sleepless Nights A live one from ‘02, I cannot believe Eddie Vedder’s voice gets this melodic. It blends perfectly with Beck’s on a straight-forward acoustic cover that bring the pain to the fore.
Cat Power – Dream An outtake from her indie hit The Greatest, she jazzes up the tune and rhythm so that it takes you a few bars to realize it’s the same song.
Elliott Murphy & Ernie Brooks – Cathy’s Clown Regular readers of this blog will know that Murphy is one of my favorite cover artists, and his duet version of this one hints at why. The vocals on the verge of breaking down makes a sad song sound even sadder.
John Kincade – Till I Kissed You Now we’re talking, an Everly cover with some balls. Fuzz guitar and thumping drums clash beautifully with the sugar-sweet lyrics.
Zoey Deschanel and Samantha Shelton – Walk Right Back Thanks to Jamie over at Fong Songs for this one, it’s a little clap-along a cappella version, bouncy in a barbershop quartet sort of way.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Stick With Me Baby The guys seem to like the Everlys, tackling two of their songs on their debut album Raising Sand. One became the single (see the surprisingly good video here), but that one rocks a little harder than the rest of the album. This is representative of everything this pair has to offer, beautifully understated harmonies, wavering guitars and laid-back swampy production. If Plant keeps churning out songs like this, I couldn’t care less about a Zeppelin reunion.
Rosie Thomas – Let It Be Me If this song doesn’t get it you, either the original or this cover, you’ve got a heart of stone.
Sorry this post is a couple days late, but hopefully there’s enough here to make up for it. It’s about a diverse a post as I’ve had, with the only theme being artists who are playing Bonnaroo 2008. It’s a great line-up so far, with more to be added, so check it out at bonnaroo.com. First up we’ll do covers of Roo artists.
Patricia O’Callaghan – Better Man (Pearl Jam) Having an opera-trained soprano doing a grunge song is a shakey proposition, but it works pretty well here as she reins her voice in from unnecessary theatrics. Starts off with some nice piano that I wish it had stayed with the whole time.
Rodrigo y Gabriela – Orion (Metallica) Why Metallica is headlining Bonnaroo is beyond me, as there are few bands I can stomach less, but at least there a few nice covers of their songs. This one shows the Mexican acoustic guitar duo (who, incidentally, played Roo last year) put their flamenco-metal spin on the Master of Puppets instrumental, transforming it into something that doesn’t make you want to rip your ears out. Well done.
The Automatic – Gold Digger (Kanye West) I’m a big Kanye fan, but this is one of the worst singles he’s released. It’s much better as an ironic acoustic rock jam with some screeching backing vocals and flute riffs.
Kind of Like Spitting – Title Track (Death Cab for Cutie) I need to get myself educated about this band before June, as all I have is a few covers they’ve done. From the one cover of a songs I have though, there’s potential.
And now Roo artists covering others, which gives you a better sense of the festival sound this year.
Jack Johnson – Mama, You Been On My Mind / Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie (Bob Dylan) I really want to hate this laid-back guitar-strumming surfer dude, but the few covers I have by him are all pretty good. He keeps the momentum here in a song perfectly suited to his voice, before doing a rhythmic melodic version of Bob’s one spoken-word poem. The man knows his Dylan, as I’ve never even heard it covered before.
Phil Lesh and Friends – All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan) Another Dylan one here, but a band it could be argued does only covers (depending on where you place songs by the Grateful Dead, a band Lesh was in). This has to be one of the most covered songs ever, but Lesh keeps it fresh (har har) here at an ’06 concert. Joan Osbourne has a beautiful gospel intro before some lively jamming and solos worthy of the song.
The Raconteurs – Bang Bang (Cher) Jack White knows how to do a cover as well as anyone and with a little more exposure this could be the band’s Jolene. In almost ten minutes his wavering vocals interact with pounding instruments and waves of distortion in a live staple. They do it in about five parts, each one building on the last in an passive-aggressive tour de force that chills.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Killing the Blues (Rowland Salley) These guys do almost exclusively covers, with a laid-back swing feel that suits the duo perfectly. Steel guitar and brushed drums give them space to explore vocally here, with T-Bone Burnett at his best production-wise.
Tegan and Sara – Dancing in the Dark (Bruce Springsteen) You’ve probably heard their cover of Umbrella, but this one’s even better, taking Springsteen’s poppiest song and making it all shoegazer indie.
Willie Nelson – Time After Time (Cyndi Lauper) Lauper’s inane ramblings trying to deliver a Grammy the other day were pretty pathetic, but she used to be a pretty legit pop star, with some pretty fun songs. I’d think Nelson’s country warbling would be a terrible fit for this song, but the arrangement is perfect and he keeps the twang out his voice in a subdued take that isn’t afraid to mix up the chorus a bit.