For this month’s Best Covers Ever, we polled our Patreon supporters. Voting among five 2000s (ish), indie-rock (ish) bands they’d previously nominated – Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The Decemberists, The Killers, Vampire Weekend – an underdog won by a single vote. Unless you scrolled so fast you missed the headline and photo, you already know who that underdog was: The Decemberists!
The Decemberists are arguably the least widely-known band of the bunch – they certainly don’t have Killers-level hits – but you wouldn’t know it from the depth and breadth of covers. Other musicians love the Decemberists, and have dug deep into their catalog to cover tracks from across their entire career. They lean a bit Americana on the whole, but some covers cross over into heavy metal, pop-punk, or even mariachi. Their songs have been covered by legends, sure – Patti Smith, Nick Cave – but even more often they get covered by under-the-radar bands, genuine fans who just happen to possess a heap of musical talent themselves.
As The Decemberists prepare to embark on their Covid-delayed 20th anniversary tour this summer, we salute their songs of crane wives and engine drivers, butchers and barrow boys, with thirty covers that were meant for the stage.
Who was the first band you felt truly understood you? The one who seemed to verbalize your every inexpressible thought with such pinpoint precision, who from the moment you first heard them made every other band that previously occupied your heart cease to matter? If you happened to have come of age in the ’80s, there was only one band in the entire universe that truly understood your pining and suffering. They were called The Smiths, and they totally got you.
The Smiths weren’t like the other (’80s) boys whose blonde highlights, synthesizers, and colorfully androgynous sartorial choices were dominating the pop charts and MTV. While Duran Duran and Wham! swanned on glamorous beaches and aimed themselves straight at your, uh, parts, The Smiths actively avoided the sun and made a beeline for your heart, mind, and bookcase. They didn’t care to make silly videos to promote their wares. Their metaphorical MTV was the music press and Morrissey’s eminently quotable interviews were the key pieces of catnip used to promote the band.
Of course, for all the intellect on display in the magazines, Morrissey was still an immaculately-coiffed heartthrob who knew how to work it in the pictures (Did I write him an unanswered fan letter in 1984 to tell him I loved him? Yes). But the music required no hard selling. Morrissey’s lyrics were revelatory, a magical mix of misery, humor, bitterness, and the embarrassing truth. Who among us hasn’t suffered at some point from “a shyness that is criminally vulgar” or had a “murderous desire for love” or wanted to “hang the DJ”? The union of Morrissey’s immaculate words with Johnny Marr’s chiming guitar melodies made rejection, frustration, and self-loathing sound positively majestic.
Over the years, The Smiths have become something of a code word used to describe the first band that became your friend, the first that looked you straight in your misty eyes, clutched both your hands to their chest, and said “I feel the same way.” This is why the band continues to be covered at such a relentless clip by artists old and new. And it’s why the songs being chosen to cover aren’t confined to the usual cluster of greatest hits. When it comes to The Smiths, it’s just a little more personal.
The Smiths are never, ever getting back together. The years of inter-band sniping far exceed the number that the band was actually together. Hell, as we were finalizing this list this week yet another Moz-Marr dustup occurred. But that’s okay. We don’t need more than they’ve already given. Let’s just celebrate the good times. We now present the 40 most triumphant and charming Smiths covers in the universe. Ready, handsome devils? Let us begin…
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Up until her release of Twelve in 2007, Patti Smith had not been much of one for studio covers, give or take her fabled extended riff on “Gloria,” which remains a live staple. Sure, she had the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star” on her third album, and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding deep cut “Wicked Messenger” on her sixth, but she otherwise largely wrote her own, with her friends and band members. Twelve surprised fans and critics alike, not only by being all other people’s songs, but also by the twelve songs Smith had chosen.Continue reading »
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.
Follow all our Best of 2017 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
Cover albums come and go from memory. It’s sort of inherent in the genre. When a major release comes out – a cover album by one prominent artist, or a tribute compilation by many – it tends to garner an avalanche of blog posts, then get forgotten within a year or two. Many deserve to, no doubt…but not all.
So, since we’ve been looking back a lot this year to celebrate our tenth birthday, I dug back into our previous year-end album lists. My original plan was to see which of our past #1s held up and which didn’t, but I was pleasantly surprised to find they were all still enjoyable. But many, even those that were big deals at the time, have been semi-forgotten.
So I thought, before we dive into this year’s crop, let’s remember what came before. We didn’t do a list the first couple years, but here’s every album we’ve named #1 so far, along with an excerpt of our reviews:
2009: The Lemonheads – ‘Varshons’
“Twelve songs of booze-pop genius cover both classic tunes by songwriters like Leonard Cohen (Liv Tyler guests!) and Townes Van Zandt and obscurities from July and the unfortunately-named FuckEmos.” See that year’s full list here.
2010: Peter Gabriel – ‘Scratch My Back’
“Against all odds, Gabriel builds an orchestra-filled, indie-fied, emotion-fueled masterpiece.” See that year’s full list here.
2011: Baaba Kulka – ‘Baaba Kulka’
“It’s a boisterous Iron Maiden celebration by a collective that may not have a metal bone in its body, but invite big grins while you sing (and dance) along with the wildest crossover album this side of Warsaw.” See that year’s full list here.
2012: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – ‘Americana’
“When you press play the first thing that strikes you is the fuzz of the power chords, the strained bellows, the cardboard-box bashing of the drums. Neil and the Horse’s ragged glory rages so hard the source material becomes secondary.” See that year’s full list here.
2013: Xiu Xiu – ‘Nina’
“Xiu Xiu’s Nina Simone tribute album isn’t an easy listen. It’s not necessarily an enjoyable one either. What it is though is riveting.” See that year’s full list here.
2014: Andrew Bird – ‘Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…’
“In Bird’s delivery, the Handsome Family’s songs of old, weird Americana kitsch will hopefully reach listeners who might find the originals too weird.” See that year’s full list here.
2015: Bob Dylan – ‘Shadows in the Night’
“Him releasing an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra was no surprise at all; he’s been operating in the Ol’ Blues Eyes vein for decades now, just with a (very) different instrument.” See that year’s full list here.
2016: Various Artists – ‘God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson’
“When it comes to preserving the depth and breadth of the contexts and traditions of American music that informed Blind Willie Johnson’s ecclesiastic but world-weary growl, it helps that the nine artists here…are able to handle the spiritual aspects of Johnson’s work.” See that year’s full list here.
Okay, now that you’re all caught up – let’s see what this year holds!
If you are a regular reader of this site, you may remember this post from a couple months back, about the (to my ears) hotly anticipated shared project between English folkstrel Olivia Chaney and Portland quirkmeisters the Decemberists. Well, the lovely people at Nonesuch have now released Offa Rex’s The Queen of Hearts, and mighty fine it is too.
Chaney may not be especially well known to many, unless you were lucky enough to catch the last round of occasional Joe Boyd-curated Nick Drake tribute shows, featuring a host of singers and musicians from varied sources. Chaney was undoubtedly one of the stars of the one I saw, alongside company like Glen Hansard and Sam “Iron and Wine” Beam. This led me to her 2015 release, The Longest River, which I can commend. The Decemberists are much better known and have long been drawn to the canon of trad.arr., especially singer Colin Meloy. Indeed, one might surmise the seeds for Offa Rex were sown by a tour-only EP Meloy produced in 2006, Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins. Indeed, Meloy says he invited Chaney to the table by suggesting in a tweet that his band be her Albion Country Band. Queen of Hearts shows them not making a half-bad shot of it, with side-orders aplenty of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, not to mention a little of fellow U.S. travelers 10,000 Maniacs on the keyboard swirl of “Bonnie May.” Continue reading »