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Covering another artist’s music is very much like babysitting someone else’s child. You can overfeed it, forget to change it, let it stay up past its normal bedtime, nurture it like your own, expose it to heretofore unknown influences, or neglect to give it the attention it deserves because you were too busy chugging tall ones and making out with the skinny adolescent from next door.
Sometimes the results are game-changing, other times they’re not. All too often whole albums of cover versions reek of the cynical cash-in. They can be a half-hearted stopgap between “proper” studio albums or simply something with which Rod Stewart can occupy his time in the run up to every Christmas.
When it’s done well, however, the covers album can be a truly magnificent beast. The best ones will reinterpret others’ songs in such a profound way that they will succeed in altering not just the music in question; the artist themselves as well as their doting listeners will emerge the other side transformed by the stimulating experience. From metal workouts to dubby reimaginings, here are ten essential covers albums for your collection.
Whereas earlier singers like Sinatra or Elvis only ever sang other people’s material, by the 1970s it had become broadly accepted that SERIOUS ROCK ARTISTS were supposed to pen their own songs. Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry broke that convention with his 1973 debut solo album on which he covered the songs of his heroes and, before long, David Bowie and John Lennon followed suit with similar projects. Such exercises in nostalgia were dismissed as a “disgusting phenomenon” by the rock critic Lester Bangs, although even he had to concede that Ferry’s interpretations of standards, soul tracks and ‘60s hits made for a masterpiece. With its glitzy horn section and Motown-style backing vocals courtesy of Manchester’s The Angelettes, These Foolish Things is more conservative than Roxy Music’s experimental Brian Eno era, yet Ferry retains the alluring facade that he is a suave vampire from an alien planet thanks to that utterly distinctive warble-croon which remains just the right side of unhinged.
Apparently Bryan Ferry was not overly amused when, shortly after the completion of These Foolish Things, David Bowie telephoned to cheerfully report that he’d just made a very similar album. Whereas Ferry had cast his net wider, Bowie zoned in on British groups of the period 1964 to 1967. Its release sandwiched between the more conceptually novel Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, Bowie’s covers album continues to be maligned by those who prefer it when David pretends to be a cross-dressing alien, fascist duke or a sexy dystopian canine. Pin Ups actually marks a crucial stage in the Bowie canon, having been recorded just as he was starting to shake off the trappings of glam rock. Far from being stuck in the past, this LP bridges the gap between the British Invasion groups being covered and the punk rock explosion that was lurking around the corner. The music’s stomping proto-punk immediacy was buttressed by the lively guitar licks of Mick Ronson, performing his Bowie-album swansong in style.
1986’s Kicking Against The Pricks was conceived as filler. It was recorded at a time when The Bad Seeds hadn’t written enough material for their next album because Nick Cave had been verbosely scribbling away at his debut novel And The Ass Saw The Angel. It’s testament to the talent of Cave and his colleagues that the results far transcended the standard knock-off covers project. In fact, owing to Mick Harvey’s string arrangements, the debut appearance of drummer Thomas Wydler and the broad range of styles that were tackled, the LP represented a creative breakthrough. Running the gamut of gothic blues (“Muddy Water”), goodtime gospel (“Jesus Met A Woman At The Well”), crooned balladry (“Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”) and ramshackle psychedelia (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”), the album kicked not only against the pricks but in addition kicked open the door to the Bad Seeds’ subsequent sonic developments. What’s more, Cave & co. proved ahead of the game by paying tribute to Johnny Cash several years before Rick Rubin made the country star cool again by advising him to play stuff written by Trent Reznor and U2.
Garage Inc. is part of Metallica’s ever-fascinating 90s period during which the LA thrashers became the biggest metal act in the world with 1991’s self-titled “Black Album,” cut their hair and embraced a grungier direction for the Load/Reload diptych, and topped off the decade by recording a live double-album with a massive orchestra. This set took older cuts from Metallica’s back-catalogue (which saw the band covering Diamond Head, Killing Joke, Misfits, Queen and others) and compiled them alongside freshly recorded takes on tunes by the likes of Discharge, Blue Öyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Nick Cave and Diamond Head (again). Freed from the pressures of making an official studio album, Metallica were able to let their hair down (or what remained of it, at least) and were thus captured playing looser, freer and way less stiff than they would sound on many of their more scrutinised long-players.
Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 debut album was a rap-metal masterwork that no one in history has ever discussed without using the word “incendiary.” By the year 2000, the genre had gone a little awry. Where RATM had used raps and riffs to rail against injustices, inequality and authority, Limp Bizkit were spitting rhymes about rollin’, nookie, and Fred Durst’s principal lyrical concern (himself), and the less said about Kid Rock the better. Rage disbanded almost immediately after completing Renegades and, despite it being comprised entirely of other artists’ songs, the LP found them sounding more fired up than they had been in years. On it, they not only paid homage to groundbreaking hip-hop legends such as EPMD, Afrika Bambaataa and Cypress Hill as well as garage-rock rebels MC5 and The Stooges, they reinvented the protest songs of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones by making them all sound, well, quite a lot like Rage Against The Machine. Fierce, phat and funky as hell, Renegades was the last great rap-metal album.
Stripped-down cover versions have since been co-opted by TV advertisers across the land in a transparent attempt to peg some vague sense of emotional significance onto whatever cold consumer goods they happen to be flogging. Even so, Cat Power’s The Covers Record from the year 2000 retains its sense of quiet radicalism. On the one hand, Chan Marshall comes across as more fragile than a paper umbrella on these recordings (and this perception of her was exacerbated by her penchant for abruptly ending live performances due to crippling stage fright and excessive self-medication). Such descriptions do a disservice to how boldly Marshall claims these songs as her own, which she does using only the sparsest acoustic guitar or piano accompaniments. See, for example, her rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which is flayed so far down to its barest bones that not even its chorus remains, or the similar liberties Marshall takes with The Velvet Underground’s “I Found A Reason.” If her minimalist version of that track doesn’t raise your goosebumps then I fear you may be without pulse.
Having already covered the whole of Pink Floyd’s most celebrated album on 2003’s Dub Side Of The Moon, this reggae collective turned their hands to Radiohead’s moping opus of premillennial neuroses OK Computer. Far from creating a silly novelty record, the All-Stars showed that compositions such as “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “Exit Music” lend themselves surprisingly well to ganja-blissed dub workouts. Their interpretation even manages to improve on the original album’s awkward midpoint slump with “Fitter Happier” and “Electioneering” both surpassing the entertainment value of Radiohead’s blueprints. Elsewhere, with assistance from Toots & The Maytals “Let Down” becomes a light, bouncy and life-affirming affair, while “Paranoid Android” replaces Jonny Greenwood’s twitchy angst-rock guitar with warm jazzy trumpet blasts. As such, the album manages to achieve the remarkable feat of injecting into Radiohead’s music at least one emotion that has always eluded the anguished Oxford quintet, i.e. joy.
It’s always a bold move to cover another artist’s classic album in its entirety. It takes a special type of musical maverick to embark on that task having not actually heard the album in question for 15 years. The story goes that David Longstreth stumbled across his old cassette copy of Black Flag’s seminal hardcore album Damaged when helping his parents move out of the house in which he’d been raised. Alas, the case was empty and the tape itself was missing. Naturally, Longstreth decided to remake the album from memory without listening back to any of the original music or even having a sneaky glimpse at the lyric sheet. Suffice to say, the result differs drastically from Black Flag’s version. In fact, it makes the aforementioned reggae adaptation of OK Computer look positively faithful. Rise Above’s uncanny polyrhythmic arrangements, euphoric harmonies and wiry guitar patterns are almost as far removed from the scuzzy aggression of its source material as you can imagine, resulting in an exemplary case of turning something old into something completely fresh and new.
What do you get when you cross alt-country’s greatest singer-songwriter with Chicago’s premier jazz-influenced post-rock outfit? A record that doesn’t sound much like either artist’s previous output, it turns out. Together, Tortoise and the man born as William Oldham stripped the bombast and optimism away from Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” so all that remained was a sad and spidery skeleton. Conversely, they took Minutemen’s “It’s Expected I’m Gone” and fleshed it out with distortion, feedback and other dulcet tomfoolery. Elton John’s “Daniel”, meanwhile, was embellished with trip-hop glitches and ambient guitar textures while the Bonnie Prince’s falsetto retained the original’s emotional pull. By rights this marvellous meeting of minds should also be included in the “10 Best Collaborative Albums To Own On Vinyl” whenever we get around to printing that list.
When it was released at the end of 1999, this double album was viewed by many as the logical conclusion of Sonic Youth’s self-indulgent, “difficult” and “unlistenable” tendencies which is exactly why it rules. “Goodbye 20th century and goodbye career,” jibed the NME when confronted by this celebration of 100 years of avant-garde musical exploration (or more precisely its second 50 years). Across two discs with track lengths ranging from 12 seconds to over 30 minutes, art-rock’s artiest band and their collaborators reinterpreted works by composers including John Cage, Steve Reich, Yoko Ono and Christian Wolff. What better way for you to show off your highbrow muso credentials than displaying this proudly in your collection? Just make sure you have a response ready for queries such as ‘So how does Sonic Youth’s reading of George Maciunas’ “Piano Piece #13” compare to past performances of his creation?’ (Possible answer: ‘There is a certain postmodern nuance to the casual way that Sonic Youth hammer those nails into the piano’s keys which, albeit not entirely devoid of hipster irony, should help the anarchic spirit of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus movement retain its relevancy for younger generations of interdisciplinary abstract expressionists.’)
JR Moores is a freelance writer based in the north of England. His work has appeared in Noisey, Record Collector, Drowned In Sound, Bandcamp Daily, The Guardian and many others, and he is currently resident psych-rock columnist for The Quietus.