Rarely Covered looks at who’s mining the darkest, dustiest corners of iconic catalogs.
Part three of our Rarely Covered Dylan Songs series – after the Early and Late 1960s – sees us hit the era of Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and Bob’s first gospel album. But this doesn’t include songs from any of them! As with the first two installments, our definition of what Dylan song could qualify as “rarely covered” starts at “not on a proper album” and expands (or, rather, constricts) from there. So below, covers of outtakes and oddities from Bob’s second decade.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.”
The story goes that Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” Not so, it turns out, but it sure seems like something he would say – it sounds a note of contrariness, but it also has the ring of truth.
Smokey Robinson turned 80 this month, and his legacy as one of the architects of the Motown sound has long been assured. Not only did he have a silken falsetto that conveyed sunshine and rain with equal ease, he also wielded a pen with a similar level of genius. Whether writing for The Miracles, the band that he led throughout the sixties, or the other members of the Motown stable, he came up with songs that became not just a part of music history, but a part of our nation’s history. As Smokey said, the Motown slogan was not “The Sound of Black America,” but “The Sound of Young America,” and that sound has rung down through the corridors of time as surely as the sound of the Liberty Bell.
No further proof is needed than the number of covers of Smokey’s songs – covers of his own recordings or covers of the original recordings by The Temptations or Marvin Gaye or the many other singers who benefited from his pen. His voice has spoken to other artists for decades, and when those artists tell us what he told them, those songs are just as fresh as they were the day he first set them down. We found thirty superlative covers of songs that Smokey wrote and/or sang, but, as we could have found thirty great recordings of “My Girl” alone, we know we’ve missed a few along the way. Whether you’re steamed at what we missed, or excited to discover what we found, we can agree on one thing: Smokey Robinson is one of the all-time greats, and we’re fortunate to have the privilege to listen to the songs he wrote for the rest of our lives.
Appropriately enough for a man whose concerts routinely top three hours, this list is long. Fifty covers long, and even then we still found ourselves left with dozens of killer bonus tracks for our Patreon supporters. The hits are all here, of course, but Bruce’s catalog runs deep. This list includes many covers of lesser-known cuts and more recent songs – even one from his just-released solo album Western Stars. Though he turns 70 today, the man is not slowing down, and neither are the artists paying tribute to him. As Bruce famously sang, he learned more from a three-minute record than ever learned in school. Well, here are fifty artists who learned something from his three-minute records.
This marks the fourth year I’ve done a big anniversary countdown (after 1996, 1987, and 1978). It also proved to be the most challenging. There were a lot of covers released in 1969. In fact, according to covers-and-samples database WhoSampled, there were more than in any of the other years we’ve done. Their database lists 3,110 covers, which is surely still a small fraction.
The reason for the cover song’s proliferation seems clear to me after going through them all: Popular bands released a lot more music back then. Aretha Franklin released two albums in 1969. So did The Byrds, Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, and Nina Simone. Creedence Clearwater Revival and Merle Haggard released three albums apiece. James Brown topped them all with four. To get that kind of output, artists would pad their albums with covers. Every 1969 album by every artist I just mentioned includes at least one cover. Many include several. A few are all covers. It adds up.
Impressively, many of those covers reinterpreted songs that had come out within the previous year. This entire list could easily have been “Hey Jude” covers. “Wichita Lineman” and “Light My Fire” came up constantly too (the latter song slightly older, but it had hit the charts again in 1968). Even songs from 1968’s soundtrack to Hair got covered endlessly in 1969.
Even beyond “Hey Jude,” Beatles covers dominated the year. I’m not going to go back through the entire 3,110 covers and count, but if you told me Beatles covers made up a full half of those, I wouldn’t be shocked. Add Bob Dylan covers to that side of the scale and it’s probably true. Beatles songs got covered in every conceivable genre for every conceivable audience. Jazz and swing and folk and proto-metal Beatles covers everywhere the eye can see. Plenty of people cover the Beatles these days, sure, but trust me: It’s nothing like it was in 1969.
So wheedling all those down to the top 50 proved incredibly difficult. But it means this is maybe the top-to-bottom strongest set thus far, and it killed me to leave some off (that’s why our Patreon supporters will get a set of 69 bonus tracks – so join now).
One note: I left off Woodstock performances. For one, we counted down the 50 best covers performed there last month. But more importantly, most people did not actually hear those covers until the movie and soundtrack came out in 1970. Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic Star-Spangled Banner – pretty much everyone’s top cover of the weekend – to a nearly empty field. Most of the audience had left before he punched in at 9 AM that Monday morning. That said, several of the classic covers performed at Woodstock were released as singles or on albums the same year – including Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” – and those studio versions make this list.
Now, let the sunshine in with the 50 best covers of 1969.
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Oh Mercy characteristically pops up in lists of later Dylan records deemed decent. Sure, everything he produces is briefly heralded as a return to form – if, that is, he has written any of the songs, which takes away anything really recent – but a couple of listens and most are back down in the crate alongside Shot of Love and Planet Waves. But Oh Mercy has stuck, at least with me, arguably hindered no little by the typically crickets and crayfish production of Daniel Lanois. So, then, guess, how old is it? Ten, fifteen years? Nope. Thirty years. As in, THIRTY YEARS!!! How can that be, it’s half a life, well half mine, but, there you have it, it is. Continue reading »