For the new National Geographic series A Small Light, singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has combined with Sopranos and White Lotus actor Michael Imperioli to cover the Ink Spots’ iconic track “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.”
Bria – When You Know Why You’re Happy (Mary Margaret O’Hara’ cover)
Bria’s “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” made our list of the Best Covers of 2022. The track was a sneak peak at her covers EP Cuntry Covers Vol. 2, and the full thing dropped a few weeks ago. It includes a wonderful version of this much more obscure song. Bria explains: “Mary Margaret O’Hara is a creative force and one of my favorite Canadian artists. I have been a huge fan of hers for quite some time and really wanted to try my hand at one of her songs for Vol. 2. She is a real queen of vocal improvisation. It’s a trait of hers that I’ve always admired, so I really wanted to explore that when recording this cover. The video for this track is special to us, a sort of collage of memory; fragmented footage of summer taken over the last two years is dispersed throughout shots of a vast winter scene, filmed while we finished the record up North with our live band.”
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
If you were to look at the charts, the Beach Boys basically stopped having giant hits after 1966’s “Good Vibrations” (with the obvious exception of 1988’s “Kokomo”). They’re a singles band whose singles mostly dried up six years into their sixty-year career. They had a brief run of good-time hits about girls, cars, and surfing, then faded. They’re the band preserved forever in that cornball publicity photo up top.
But that’s not the story these covers tell.
The big hits are here, sure. “Surfer Girl” and “Fun Fun Fun” and “I Get Around” etc. But so are many now-iconic tunes that weren’t hits. “God Only Knows,” the Beach Boys’ most covered song, peaked at #39. By their standards, that’s a straight-up flop. Many other covered songs didn’t even make it that high. But “God Only Knows” has of course belatedly been recognized as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. As has the album it came off of, Pet Sounds, itself a relative commercial failure.
Pet Sounds, of course, has long since been recognized as a classic. So some artists dig even deeper. “Lonely Sea” is an album cut off their 1963 album Surfin’ U.S.A. “Trader” comes off the 1973 album Holland. Three separate songs here originally came off Surf’s Up, now the go-to pick for artists who want to show they know more than Pet Sounds. Even a song not released until the ‘90s, “Still I Dream of It,” gets a killer cover.
You can trace the story of the Beach Boys’ reputation through these covers. A group once perceived as a lightweight singles act have been fully embraced as musical geniuses, all the way from the hits of the ’60s through the then-overlooked gems of the ‘70s and beyond. Some of these songs below you probably won’t know. Others you will know every single word of…but you’ve never heard them sung like this.
Musically speaking, Yoko Ono (“ocean child” in Japanese) is still predominantly recognized as a primal screamer, an avant-garde provocateur, and an agent of harsh, visceral noise as a kind of feminist weapon. She’s accepted, in such terms, as a key influence in the development of female-fronted alt-rock along the lines of grunge and the riot grrrl movement, with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Courtney Love of Hole, and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill having all spoken of her importance to them. Her shrieking, confrontational sound may, indeed, be considered her signature style. But it’s also a stereotype. One that’s been reinforced in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary, where Yoko’s to be seen, in footage from 10 January 1969, leading Beatles John, Paul, and Ringo in an impromptu freak-out session by wailing and howling into George Harrison’s recently vacated microphone.
Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard is all too aware of the blinkered perspective many people have of Yoko’s music, doubtless aggravated by the fact that her songs still never get played on the radio. It’s this that’s driven him to curate Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono, a tribute album to coincide with the New York-based artist’s 89th birthday. He’s all about doing justice to her more underappreciated musical achievements here, contending that “the tallest hurdle to clear has always been the public’s ignorance as to the breadth of Yoko’s work.” He’s aware, at the same time, that the dust has long settled on previous collaborative efforts born of similar concerns, from the Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him tribute record of 1984 (for Yoko’s 50th birthday), to remix projects Yes, I’m a Witch and Open Your Box in 2007, and Yes, I’m a Witch Too in 2016. This is not to forget tribute album Mrs Lennon: Songs by Yoko Ono in 2010, consisting solely of female Brazilian artists.
Gibbard, then, resumes the good fight previously fought on albums that pitched Yoko as a versatile songwriter variously relevant to the genres of new wave, experimental pop, Brazilian pop, and dance music. Over 14 tracks, he aims to convince listeners of her particular skills in composing melodies “as memorable as those of [the] best pop writers,” as well as lyrics of “poignance, sophistication and deep introspection.”
And you know what? He makes you wonder.
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.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
The list starts on the next page…
I love the old chestnut that everybody who ever saw the Velvet Underground started a band. Certainly, were that the case, their shows must have been jampacked with underage punters, with children, even, since most of those in bands and who most keenly rate them and cite their influence would have been far too young. Many would have been in the wrong country, likewise. But, hey, it’s a great tale and, who knows, had they all actually been there, the band may have been a lot bigger and more successful in their lifetime.
For, undoubtedly, their imprint on rock music has been hugely out of proportion to their actual footprint. I forget, maybe it was all those who bought their first album started a band, but again, the numbers don’t really stack up until you collate the cumulative sales, decade on decade after the initial release. (Ed: It was, in fact, no less than Brian Eno who made this assertion, in 1982.) Hampered by a brace of lawsuits, relating to the copyright of some of the cover photos, the album limped out in 1967, taking some time to ratchet up many sales at all, trashed by critics and ignored by the record label publicity machine. Lyrics about sado-masochism, IV drugs and prostitution were seen as anathema to the mores of the day, and the linkage to Andy Warhol, then enfant terrible of the American art-house film movement, will have hardly have warmed them to any mainstream audience. But maybe that was the point. Be that as it may, in the half century plus since, the star of this still sometimes difficult record has shone ever more brightly. That first album was, to give it its full title, The Velvet Underground and Nico, with the iconic banana logo, and it is this record that is here recreated and revisioned, revalidated and recalibrated.