The title More Than A Whisper – Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith probably says it all, given the disproportionate heft of the footprint left behind by this self-effacing singer. Her mild and bookish persona, all ankle socks and cardigans, might suggest a small town librarian or primary school teacher, but what she gave, and what you got, was so very much more. A consummate writer of literate story songs (she called them folkabilly), Griffith could captivate any an audience with her Texas charm and sweet/sour voice, attracting the best musicians to play by her side. Both as a writer and an interpreter, she lived and breathed the characters in songs she made her own, several of which are well on the to becoming standards. Her run of albums, from her 1978 debut There’s A Light Beyond These Woods through to Storms, a decade and a bit later, was little short of astonishing, the traction of the one building on the next until she became quite the star. And if she became, latterly, drawn, or possibly led, more to the mainstream, with the country hayride honed down a little, still the songs remained the same, elegant constructions, meticulously put together. Illness quietened her workload this century, her last album made in 2012, before her death in 2021.
It is fair to say that most of the songs on More Than a Whisper come from Griffith’s imperial phase, 1987-9, a time where she could do no wrong, touring constantly, with new material pouring out of her. I must have seen her two or three times during those years; she always included the UK and Ireland in her itineraries. I was never less than enthralled by the show she and her Blue Moon Orchestra would put on, falling, always, a little more in love. And, lest you feel this project of such appeal as to bring back singers from the dead, this album has been several years in the gestation, it fitting, and vital, that it should include one singer always very closely associated with her. You’ll know who I mean. Continue reading »
Laura Cantrell has impeccable credentials for a successful career in country music, but has always taken her own path. Just over 20 years since her John Peel-championed breakthrough, and nine years after her last recording, she is back with a new crowdfunded record, Just Like a Rose: The Anniversary Sessions. On that album, she revisits “When the Roses Bloom Again,” which she has performed for almost all of her recording career. This time she has the legendary Steve Earle as a partner. A standard from early 20th Century American folk canon, the song’s tale of love and loss speaks to the human cost of war.Continue reading »
There are few more frictions than when folk start discussing who is the best guitarist ever. It’s guaranteed to produce a bevy of opinions, as ever more effusive hyperbole gets trotted out, ever more fierce grudges dusted down, and ever more unlikely proponents pushed forward. So we won’t go there, other than to comment that Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was probably in the top few, certainly if you remove the anathema of electricity. (To be fair, he probably had way more electricity than many a blues-rock road warrior, but remained resolutely unplugged the length of his days, 1923 – 2012.) He merited a tribute long ago, and now, with I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100, he’s got a fairly worthy one.
I Am a Pilgrim is crammed with musicians great and the good, partly drawn from the country/bluegrass/Americana palette he made his home, coming together to salute his playing, his singing and his all round good-eggness. Quite what Watson might have made of such a shindig is anyone guess, the fuss possibly embarrassing the quietly spoken and mild-mannered dude all parties suggest he was.
I first came across Watson’s superlative talent when I was a teenaged schoolboy. A new boy in class was an expatriate Yank, with a precocious talent for fiddle, or violin, as I then thought it was called. He drew my attention to the now and rightly fabled triple album set, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. My Deep Purpled and Pink Floyded mind was blown, possibly never again grouping back together again in the same way, such was the richness of the material across those discs, as a plethora of country royalty got to spar with some longhair hippies, burying prejudices and forging alliances aplenty.
Doc Watson was a key part of that. His mellifluous picking seemed just so impossibly relaxed and, at the same time, impossible to grasp. Add in his down-homey back porch dialogue, one of the delights of the project, and he just seems the coolest man on earth. Seriously, if you haven’t heard him at full pelt, raising nary a bead of sweat, try to search him out. With all the recordings containing his name–solo, with his son, with his grandson, collaborations aplenty–you can’t go wrong. Continue reading »
Does the world actually need another countrified tribute to the Rolling Stones? We’ve already seen 1997’s Stone Country and 2011’s more alt-country focused Paint It Black, not to mention the myriad one-off covers stemming out of Nashville and Texas. (I dare say we mentioned many of them here.) Now we’ve got Stoned Cold Country, and you’re probably thinking you know just what it’s going to sound like. And you’re probably right. So I’ll ask again: Do we need this?
Frankly, the answer is probably immaterial, as I share the view that you can’t have too much of a good thing, even, if, to coin a phrase, you can’t always get what you want. And it’s always good to see some young cubs getting to take a bite at the Jagger-Richards canon. Let’s see if it’s any good. Continue reading »
“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.
Experimental Elvis. Surf-rock Kraftwerk. Garage-rock Roger Miller. Stoner White Stripes. Twee Beach Boys. Heavy-metal Townes Van Zandt. Retro-soul Merle Haggard.
There was no shortage of ambition, or wild genre-crossing ideas, among this year’s cover albums. Here are the best of the best.
25. Otu Fuzzy Tunes
Finnish doom metal outfit Otu stay on theme (“fuzzy”) throughout this covers album without ever getting boring. Each of the tracks is of a metal or hard rock song, but the style of cover varies each time. Album opener “No One Knows,” a Queens of the Stone Age cover, doesn’t stray terribly far from the original, just a bit heavier and fuzzed out. This is followed by a version of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” that sounds almost like an early Nirvana track; the guitar is tuned low enough to sound like a bass, or else it’s a bass guitar playing the main riff. Track 3, a cover of “Iron Man,” is the first on the album to really sound like a true “doom” cover. It reveals that, while the other styles help keep the album from being too one-note, Otu’s strength is the slow, down-tuned, guttural sound of classic doom metal. “Holy Mountain” and “War Pigs” are strong tracks similarly drenched in towering, droning guitars. It’s a fun way to hear some classic tunes and you’ll get the most bang for your buck on this album with some good headphones or loud speakers. – Mike Misch
24. Various Artists Todo Muere SBXV
Todo Muere SBXV celebrates 15 years of the industrial, gothic, experimental record label Sacred Bones (that info will help to decipher the “SBXV”). Things get loud, as when a trio of metal acts Thou, Mizmor, and Emma Ruth Rundle road through Zola Jesus’s “Night.” They also get dreamy, as when ambient artist Hilary Woods warbles “In Heaven” from Eraserhead (that’s right, David Lynch is a Sacred Bones artist).
Even if you don’t know many of the original songs – and, unless you’re deep in this scene, you probably won’t – the cumulative effect is mesmerizing, moving, and at times a little harrowing. In a good way. – Ray Padgett
23. Jason McNiff Tonight We Ride
Jason McNiff may not be the best known of names, but this hard-working singer and guitarist has hewn himself quite a place in the annals of that awkwardly-titled genre, UK Americana. McNiff earned a degree in French and Russian, but the lure of his first love proved too strong. He immersed himself in the fingerpicked guitar of folk and blues, in particular the work and style of the late Bert Jansch. McNiff spent his COVID lockdown hunkering down with weekly online gigs, dubbed the “Sundowner” sessions. Exhausting both his own repertoire of songs and those he already loved by others, he had to learn a whole new catalog of material. Tonight We Ride was the logical conclusion: eleven songs encompassing artists McNiff holds the most in reverence. Sure enough, that includes two Jansch songs, alongside The Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), Leonard Cohen (“Moving On”), and a couple Dylan tunes too. – Seuras Og
22. AWOLNATION My Echo, My Shadows, My Covers, & Me
The opener clearly reveals this album as also pandemic-born: “how can we dance when our earth is turning? how do we sleep while our beds are burning?” The genre of this song is closer to that of what you might expect from modern-rock hitmakers AWOLNATION, but that’s where my predictions of what would happen next faltered. AWOLNATION provides a soundtrack for the full pandemic roller coaster featuring just as much electro pop as their signature rock approach, as well a variety of guest collaborators.
Feeling down? Jump right into “Take A Chance On Me,” where you might find yourself second-guessing, “wait this is the ‘Sail’ group?!?” Need to refresh your workout mix? There is “Maniac.” Other mood boosters are “Just a Friend” or “Flagpole Sitta,” which you might never have expected to appear together in an album setting. Lest you think this is only a tongue-in-cheek album, introspective choices are woven throughout, like “Wings of Change” and “Alone Again (Naturally)”.
If I had to pick a pair of favorites, one fun and one more serious, they would be AWOLNATION putting the MMMBop in “Material Girl” with Taylor Hanson and “Eye in the Sky” with Beck (not a song I was familiar with before, but now a tune I can’t get out of my head). – Sara Stoudt
21. Various Artists Stór agnarögn
If you’re Icelandic, you probably know these songs. Ásgeir Trausti’s 2012 album Dýrð í dauðaþögn was a sensation in his home country, the best selling debut ever in the country (sorry, Björk).
But statistically speaking, you are probably not Icelandic. So you don’t know the original versions of these ten songs – and if you do, it’s probably via the John Grant-translated English versions. No matter. Sigur Rós became sensations without anyone understanding what they were saying. Ásgeir’s songs have beautiful melodies, frequently soaring into Bon Iver-channeling falsetto, and they work wonderfully in this collection of his countrymen-and-women’s covers. Even if you don’t understand a single word (I don’t!), the music will carry you away. – Ray Padgett