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The Covers Album Phenomenon

Monday, March 08, 2010

When artists known for writing original songs release an album of covers, the result can be eye-opening … or ear-melting. Today: music critic Chris Richards of The Washington Post joins us for a look at the covers album, including a new bid from Peter Gabriel. Plus, British musician and Gemma Ray gives us a preview of her covers album, which includes songs from Sonic Youth – and George and Ira Gershwin.


Gemma Ray and Chris Richards

Comments [42]

Greg Coogan from Oviedo Florida

I have always enjoyed a cover when it adds something valuable to the material being covered. I would point to two covers as examples. "You Can't Hurry Love" by Phil Collins is so similar to the Motown version that it's utterly pointless. While "Satisfaction" by Devo comes from such a different place than the original that it was a great illustration of what made that band unique.

Mar. 12 2010 05:23 PM
Naomi from Brooklyn, NY

Not a whole album, but for what it's worth: I actually greatly prefer Patty Griffin's cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Stolen Car" to the original.

Mar. 08 2010 10:38 PM
deborah from Brooklyn

I keep hoping that there will be an album of cover songs performed by the Jackson 5! Smokey Robinson's "Who's Lovin' You", Sly & the Family Stone's "Stand!" The Supremes' "Forever Came Today", and Stevie Wonder's "Don't Know Why I Love You", are just a few of my favorite cover songs performed by the J5; but, there a plenty of other gems that would make for a great compilation.

The Isley Brothers are also great at covering other people's songs. Their cover of Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze" is AWESOME.

Mar. 08 2010 09:28 PM
tom from uws

John, I'm shocked SHOCKED that you let it pass with Laura that TWISTED was a Joni Mitchell song. As Kurt points out above, it was Annie Ross who originally recorded it. Annie of the seminal jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

This whole topic is pretty infuriating - you remind me of Randy Jackson telling some hapless American Idol contestant, "Dude, that's Mariah's song, you shouldn't touch that, nobody can." Help me!

Writing is one art, singing or any musical performance is another. One is "original" the other is interpretive. A song that can't bear more than one interpretation isn't much of a song. And a singer who can't interpret someone else's work .... yeesh.

And herein lies the difference between the great songs and singers and the gimmicks. Garland can sing The Man That Got Away, and then Sinatra and Bennett can sing it.

To call an album of great standard songs a collection of "covers" is patently ridiculous. How do you "cover" a song that's been recorded 100, 500 or 5000 times?

Caetano Veloso's English language album "A Foreign Sound" includes Cobain's "come As You Are" and Elvis's "Love Me Tender", as well as "Nature Boy" and "The Man I Love" ... they are not covers, but an artist's interpretation.

Any songwriter who doesn't want his or her work performed by others is frankly DUMB. You learn something about your work when others perform it. Dolly Parton's work has hit the pop and soul charts, interpreted by other artists. Lennon and McCartney?

Leonard Cohen recorded Alleluia himself, but it took a lot of other recordings before it achieved a broad recognition among many listeners.

If the written work is going to have LIFE after the pen is put down, it will need performance, with any luck by someone beyond the writer -- or the original recording artist, in the case of the Whitney's and Michael Jacksons and so many others who perform work by a wide ranger of writers.

Mar. 08 2010 02:58 PM
Ted in Atlanta from Design dept.

6 degrees of Neil Diamond: I was a freshman watching a bar band, and they played a song I knew and really liked from a band called The Ups And Downs. I said at the end of the show "Hey! I loved that Ups-n-Downs song!" The singer guy just looked at me blankly. I repeated "Wow man that Ups And Downs song was great!" He looked at me, puzzled, and walked away. Not long after that I heard yet another version of the 'Ups and Downs" song I liked, by another artist. It was then that I in a flash realized Solitary Man was probably not in fact an "Ups And Downs" song, and how much gibberish it would sound like to ask someone about an "Ups and Downs" song since they probably had never heard of that band or version.

And although I appreciate Merrit (sp?) for many many qualities, I thought the cover by Gabriel was nice also. He tends to have that grandiose hymn styling often to me, I'm not surprised! Great idea to try and approach new fans; same as the "featuring guest artist so-and-so" phenomenon in other popular genres.

Mar. 08 2010 02:53 PM
jerry from Brooklyn

I will throw Bob Dylan's Self Portrait into the mix - He was giving a nod to all kinds of music that he liked, that might have surprised his average fan.

Mar. 08 2010 02:53 PM
Sigourney Romaine from New York City

The word "cover" was introduced in the early 50s to mean a bowdlerized version of a ribald rythm and blues song that could be marketed to the white suburban market; or to do one. I realize that it has meant simply a version, or to do one, for over twenty years. Still, using cover the modern way costs us the important musical and sociological meanings of its original, 1950s, pop music usage. I urge you not to use the word that way any more. It's not that there are not covers, properly speaking, that pervert the origial song: Janice Joplin's version of Kristofferson's lovely ballad "Me and Bobbbie McGee'' surely was one.

Mar. 08 2010 02:49 PM
Nancy Lewis from Manhattan

Re the caller who said something about "going back to" Joni Mitchell's version of "Twisted". But this was not written by Joni. She was covering a song I originally heard done by jazz group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I believe their version was the original, wasn't it?

Mar. 08 2010 02:46 PM
Benj from Brooklyn

FYI... "Twisted" is not a Joni original... Annie Ross came before... not sure if she is the original either.

Mar. 08 2010 02:41 PM
Cory from Planet Earth

How does Willie Nelson's Stardust album qualify as a cover. There is no original performance version of note. Those were just songs that the songwriters wrote to sell to anyone who wanted to perform them.

Mar. 08 2010 02:40 PM
Laurence from Brooklyn

Love good cover albums. Here's a few of my favorites:

Motown Meets the Beatles (Various)

Mellow Dubmarine: A Reggae Tribute to the Beatles (Various)

Reggata Mondatta (Vol 1-3): A Reggae Tribute to the Police (Various)

Favorite Songs (The Gap) (Various)

Baja Sessions (Chris Isaak)

LBC Lounge: A Tribute to Sublime (Lounge Bridage)

Mar. 08 2010 02:40 PM
loo-on from newark

cyndi lauper's cover of kiss's "when you were mine." or is it the other way around?

Mar. 08 2010 02:40 PM
arisleyda dilone from Brooklyn

I really really love Nirvana's cover of "Where did you Sleep Last Night" by Lead Belly. It was perfectly attuned to their grunge style.

Mar. 08 2010 02:40 PM
Andrew from Sunnyside

Guns n' Roses did have a good cover version of "Live and Let Die" on Use Your Illusion II album. I grew up on those two albums.

Mar. 08 2010 02:40 PM
Carolyn Smaka` from Cranford, NJ

Favorite cover album: Look at all the Love We Found - Sublime covers

Worst cover album: Looney Tunes characters cover Elvis (this is not a joke! my husband picked it up recently on a lark - yuck!)

I'm addicted to covers! Some favorite random covers: REM covering Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death"; Jonatha Brooke covering Alan Parson's Eye in the Sky and too many others to name.

Mar. 08 2010 02:40 PM
Alice Playten from New York

regarding the woman who called regarding TWISTED which she catagoriized as a Bette Midler cover of a Joni Mitchell song--twisted is in fact written by Annie Ross in the Lamberts, Hendricks & Ross days. The melody I believe is based on Wardell Grey solo.

Mar. 08 2010 02:39 PM
Adam from Brooklyn

I wonder what the guest thinks about The Dirty Projectors' Rise Above, which loosely covers Black Flag's Damaged.

Mar. 08 2010 02:39 PM
Harry Kolos from LES

I think Chris Richards is spot on with his views on the vagaries of making covers.

Some highlights and lowlights that come to mind:

Rod Stewart's covers of Waits, Springstein, and Cooke ruin the original songs and demean whatever status in pop culture Stewart he has left.

Song highlights that come to mind:

Robyn Hitchcock's cover of "Trying to Get To Heaven" by Dylan. Very succesful cover in it is both true to the original and amazing done in Hitchcock's style.

And a recent one, Charlotte Gainsbourg's "Suicide is Painless". Amazing.

Mar. 08 2010 02:37 PM
Amy from Manhattan

German?! "Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn" (not "schoen") is Yiddish!! The 2nd line in the original is "Bei mir host du chen"--& "chen," w/"ch" as in "Chanukah"--comes from the Hebrew word for grace or charm. Definitely not German. The only German in the (bad) English translation is "sehr wunderbar," & believe me, the original lyrics are not about how many languages it takes to tell someone what a "sheyner" he is. To hear them (actually, both, I think), find the Barry Sisters' version. That's right, the Andrews Sisters were covering it.

Speaking of cover versions, they can be good or bad. Blanket statements about things like this are too simplistic.

Mar. 08 2010 02:37 PM
Jessica C. from NYC

Not an album, but Bonnie Raitt has done great covers of Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell songs. Had it not been for Bonnie (whom I LOVE), I don't know that I would have paid as much attention to the other two artists.

Mar. 08 2010 02:36 PM
Kurt from Rockland County

Twisted is not a Joni Mitchell song. It's by Annie Ross.

Mar. 08 2010 02:36 PM
Hillary from DC

Stone Free, the tribute to Hendrix is filled with great stuff but my favorite cover by far is the Everclear cover of Brown Eyed Girl. Love it!

Mar. 08 2010 02:36 PM
John from Brooklyn

Best cover? Hendrix's version of Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower." I've heard that upon hearing it, Dylan himself said something like, "Oh, THAT'S the way the song should be played."

Also, Hendrix's version of Johnny B. Goode is great.

Joe Cocker is a master cover artist. Delta Lady is probably one of his best efforts.

Mar. 08 2010 02:35 PM
Rich K from UC, NJ

But my first introduction to covers was "Nilsson sings Newman", which allowed me to discover two amazing artists with one album.

Mar. 08 2010 02:35 PM
Jack from Brooklyn, NY

Oh. And the Flaming Lips covering "Dark Side of the Moon"? Putrid, self-indulgent junk. Wayne Coyne at his patronizing worst.

Mar. 08 2010 02:35 PM
George Gilbert from Manhattan

One of the best cover albums was Nilsson sings (Randy) Newman and perhaps one of the greatest covers of all time was The Beatles cover of Twist & Shout

Mar. 08 2010 02:35 PM
christopher jeffrey from midtown

they are a gateway drug to music you may not know performed by an old favorite. chris whitley's "perfect day" is great project. maybe better than the original ?

Mar. 08 2010 02:34 PM
Rich K from UC, NJ

And from Joni's cover of Twisted, I found the original original - Hendricks, Lambert and Ross. And from there I discovered the original original original - Wardell Gray.

Mar. 08 2010 02:33 PM
Joe from New York

Joni Mitchell's interpretation of "Twisted" is not the original, by a long shot! It was originally performed decades earlier by Annie Ross, based on an improvised sax solo by Wardell Gray.

Mar. 08 2010 02:33 PM
keith lovinggood from the bronx

not sure if it qualifies.Soundtrack for Across the Universe is a fav of mine because it's different but still true to the original.

Mar. 08 2010 02:33 PM
danielle jensen from manh

l love covers esp. of songs i love including the beatles songs .

Mar. 08 2010 02:32 PM
Jack from Brooklyn, NY

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Kicking Against the Pricks = Utterly amazing cover album.

Mar. 08 2010 02:32 PM
Katey from brooklyn

One of my favorite covers albums is Jeffrey Lewis's 12 Crass Songs. I think it really hi-lights Crass's lyrics and pays due homage, while simultaneously reworking their songs into completely new pieces of music.

Mar. 08 2010 02:32 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

It depends on the covering artist.
There’s a new album called “You Heard it Here First Vol. 2” (and there’s vol. 1) where you can argue who performed it better first.
I think the difference between a cover and the American songbook/jazz standards are that a lot of the songbook songs come from musical theater or vaudeville where different people would sing them. Mel Tormé singing “Autumn Leaves” is a little different from him single “Secret Agent Man.”

Mar. 08 2010 02:32 PM
Colin from Mineola, NY

To epitomize the value of the cover song, for me, was Sinead O'Connor's reinterpretation of Elton John's "Sacrifice" on the 2 Rooms album. I was not a fan of Mr. John's original, but continue to be haunted to this day by Ms. O'Connor's interpretation.

Mar. 08 2010 02:27 PM
Randy from Newark

What about Renegades from Rage against the machine. Besides the lyrics you can not evan tell where it came from, or Jimi Hendrix who performances would dwarf the originals.

Mar. 08 2010 02:25 PM
Randy from Newark

What about artist like Jimi Hendrix, whose spectacular performances would dwarf the actual creator. Or even more interesting Renegades from Rage Against the machine a cover album that sounds completely original

Mar. 08 2010 02:22 PM
Brian Solomon from Fairfield

Why should this be so shocking? Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and so many others recorded other people's songs and completely made them their own every time. This was the entire basis of the "American Songbook" tradition--performers contributing their own take to an already existing song. It seems now like artists can only record songs they have written themselves if they want it to be taken "seriously". Seems rather silly to me.

Mar. 08 2010 02:21 PM
jayr pulga

Chrissy Hines's version of Cree by radio head is brilliant! It's unique to her approach. In some ways IO like it better than the original!

Mar. 08 2010 02:17 PM
Angela from Brooklyn

Just heard Peter Gabriel's cover of Book of Love - ick. And I like Peter Gabriel! And I love the Magnetic Fields.

More importantly, Gabriel's concept as expressed through the title sounds cynical. Why not artist to artist appreciation?

Mar. 08 2010 02:15 PM
Victor Krothe from Austin TX

She Loves You by the Twilight Singers. NO ONE does covers like Greg Dulli, by the time he's done with the song it bears little resemblence to it's former self and is now more Dulli's than the original artist's. Highlights include Bjork's Powerballad and Martina Topley Bird's Too Tough To Die.

Mar. 08 2010 12:17 PM
Mark Solomon from Ardsley, New York

Favorite cover album: Eric Clapton - "From the Cradle." Great playing, great songs, great tribute to the blues masters, great education for music lovers.

Least favorite: Various artists - "Is it Rolling Bob." Reggae artists covering Bob Dylan songs. Not sure why it doesn't work for me. Maybe the elaborate lyrics aren't meshing with the directness of reggae?

Mar. 08 2010 11:38 AM

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