Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top Ten Cover Albums

Taking a page from my blog buddy DistributorcapNY, today I am going to do a music post. DCap usually takes on a musical genre and gets all encyclopedic on its bad self, but I'm taking a different tack. I put forward here a list of my ten favorite cover albums of all time.

I define "cover album" to mean when an artist or artists known primarily for recording "their own music" does an album of other people's music. For the most part, this means singer/songwriters decided to skip the songwriting duties for one project, but not always.

#10 Rocknroll, John Lennon
. This album's story is the impetus for putting this list together. In an interview, John Lennon admitted that part of the song Come Together was built on a chord progression from the Chuck Berry tune You Can't Catch Me, and Lennon had also lifted one line of lyrics "Here come old flat top." Morris Levy, the lawyer who owned the rights to the Chuck Berry tune, decided to sue Lennon, but instead of asking for residuals from Come Together, Levy wanted Lennon to record three songs from his catalog. Lennon at the time had bigger legal fish to fry, what with the U.S. government trying to deport him. He looked through Levy's catalog and found that a lot of the tunes he loved to play back when he was a kid were there, and he put out this album of rock tunes primarily before the heyday of the Beatles, including the Chuck Berry tune at the center of the controversy.

#9 Perfectly Frank Tony Bennett
This is one of two albums on the list where the artist is not known largely as a songwriter, but instead a singer who decides to make a tribute to another singer.

On this album, Tony Bennett records tunes that are most readily associated with Frank Sinatra.

It is a matter of taste, but I like Bennett's voice better than I like Sinatra's.

It is a matter of arithmetic to say that Bennett has had a longer career than the late Sinatra and kept his voice in shape for a much longer time than many singers have been able.

It is a matter of common sense to say that Tony Bennett is a nicer human being than Frank Sinatra.

Thanks for all the music, Mr. Bennett.

#8 Moondog Matinee The Band
Sometimes The Band is classified as Southern rock, though the line-up had only one southerner, singer/drummer Levon Helm, and the rest of the group were Canadians. They were originally the back-up band for Ronnie Hawkins, then struck out on their own, then backed up the newly electrified Bob Dylan, which caused no end of concern for Dylan's folk music fans. Though they were very proficient musicians and wrote most of their own songs, except for several covers of Dylan tunes, they did have a love of the raw hillbilly harmonies of true old timey artists like the Stanley Brothers.

I bought every album The Band recorded as soon as it came out, and I loved this one just as much as I loved their original stuff. Side one started with the great hit of Clarence "Frogman" Henry, I Ain't Got No Home, included a ripping version of Elvis Presley's Mystery Train and an instrumental Third Man Theme. The second side ends with a tune I hadn't heard for years when the album came out, but that I still love to this day, Sam Cooke's posthumously released classic A Change Is Gonna Come.

Pin-Ups David Bowie. John Lennon was a little hesitant about putting out a cover album because several other artists of the time had done the same thing recently, including Bryan Ferry and David Bowie.

Bowie recorded mainly music from the British Invasion on this album from 1973, including one Syd Barrett song, two by Pete Townsend and one by Ray Davies. Besides the naked head and shoulders of Bowie and the model Twiggy, the most enduring thing from the album was the single Sorrow. Bowie's version is much better known today than the original done by the McCoys.

Just to re-iterate that what the Beatles had done with the line "Here come old flat-top" is not the definition of musical plagiarism, the Beatles also borrowed the line "with your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue" from Sorrow and incorporated it in It's All Too Much, found on the Yellow Submarine track.

Artists do this all the time.

#6 Deadicated various artists
. This album is unique on the list, but comes from a common genre. Someone decides to make a tribute album to a band or songwriter and invites a passel of artists to contribute tunes to the project. Often the proceeds are donated to charity. So it was with Deadicated, a tribute album to the Grateful Dead, with proceeds donated to rainforest protection. The albums starts strong, putting my choice for best rock and roll band still working Los Lobos ripping through Bertha. Other artists include Elvis Costello singing Ship of Fools, The Indigo Girls doing great harmonies on Uncle John's Band, and my two favorite male country singers since the era of Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett sweetly singing an acoustic version of Friend of the Devil and Dwight Yoakam tearing the fenders and hood off of Truckin'.

Deadicated is out of print, and a much sought after prize by Deadhead vinylheads the world 'round.

#5 Kojak Variety Elvis Costello. One of my students this past semester asked me if I were on a desert island and could listen to only one artist for the rest of my life, who would it be? Her choice was Talking Heads. My choice would be Elvis Costello. Elvis recorded this cover tune album and left it on the shelf for a while, but released it when the market seemed nearly flooded with bootleg recordings of the songs.

The Band put The Third Man Theme on their cover album as kind of a curve ball. Elvis, on the other hand, has an album nearly entirely of curve balls and sliders. The best known tune might be The Very Thought of You, the only song not from the rock era, a throwback to the days when Elvis' dad Ross McManus played in the big bands. The next best known tune is Days, a Ray Davies tune that has also been recorded by the late Kirsty MacColl. Elvis covers Mose Allison, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Willie Dixon and Jesse Winchester, and even when he records songs from Bob Dylan, Bacharach and David, Holland/Dozier/Holland and Randy Newman, he pulls out some of the most obscure songs from their catalogs.

It's not my favorite Elvis album, but I can still put the CD in the player and enjoy it.

#4 Labour of Love UB40
. This year, lead singer and founder Ali Campbell retired from UB40 after thirty years. Until this retirement, the band had the same eight man lineup since 1978. That is nearly unprecedented in rock history. The Four Tops had the same four guys until Levi Stubbs died, but keeping four guys together is a little easier than keeping eight guys together. Good on ya, UB40!

This album, for all practical purposes, redefined the band. UB40 started as a mixed race, reggae influenced and politically motivated band from Birmingham, with political songs including Food For Thought, Sardonicus, I'm Not Fooled So Easily and King. But all their previous successes were completely overshadowed commercially by their cover of the Neil Diamond tune Red Red Wine. Like with Bowie's version of Sorrow, the cover is so much more popular than the original that many don't know the original version at all. Since then, every number one hit UB40 has had has been a cover, like I Got You Babe, with guest vocalist Chrissie Hynde, the Elvis Presley ballad I Can't Help Falling In Love and the Motown hit The Way You Do The Things You Do.

#3 Mystery Lady Etta James. Etta James was famous as a belter of songs in her heyday. In the new movie Cadillac Records, Beyonce Knowles plays Etta James and re-records some of her tunes. Just like with Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, the celluloid copy only makes you long for the original.

Etta recorded her own tribute to Billie Holiday in 1994, Mystery Lady, with much more satisfying results. Etta met Billie when she was young and Miss Holiday was near the end of her career, and she never forgot it. On this record, Etta is backed by a septet lead by Cedar Walton on piano, and they lead off with Don't Explain, a heartbreaking ballad of co-dependency with lyrics by Billie herself. The album is all ballads, and some of the strongest are also some of the saddest, including You've Changed, (I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over and I'll Be Seeing You.

#2 Pop Pop Rickie Lee Jones. Rickie Lee Jones got her start in the music business known as Tom Waits' girlfriend, and there was an attempt to label her as the female Tom Waits early on, but both of these artists are much too fiercely independent to be labeled as anything but their own unique selves.

Jones recorded Pop Pop in 1991, with production help from David Was of Was (Not Was). Several musicians back her up, most notably guitar hero Robben Ford playing an acoustic nylon stringed guitar, the incomparable Charlie Haden on bass and Dino Saluzzi on bandoneon. (Side 'splainin': Yes, a bandoneon is a honkin' big accordion. And yes, only cool people play it.) This line-up can be heard on the first song, the priceless standard from the American songbook My One and Only Love. Most of this album, like Mystery Lady, is filled with songs from the jazz/pop era, though it does also include Jimi Hendrix's Up From the Skies and the Marty Balin ballad first recorded by Jefferson Airplane, Comin' Back to Me. Both Pop Pop and Mystery Lady could be classified as nice rainy day music.

#1 Acid Eaters Ramones! Earlier, I wrote that Los Lobos are the best rock and roll band still working. This is because the Ramones are not still working, with several members now deceased. Matty Boy is of the opinion that the Ramones were and are the greatest rock and roll band in history.

You may disagree. This is America. You have the right to be wrong.

Acid Eaters is not rainy day music. It's TURN IT UP LOUD music. The first song is Journey to the Center of the Mind by the Amboy Dukes, written by Ted Nugent. Clearly, the song is chosen out of respect for the artists that recorded the original.

There's also a little Long Island glue sniffing smack talk going on. Like Ted... this is what it sounds like if you PLAY IT FAST AND LOUD.


For me, there are several songs on Acid Eaters that I can no longer listen to the original versions of anymore. They're just too damn slow. John Fogerty's Have You Ever Seen The Rain never sounded like this when Creedence played it. Likewise Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love.

On the other hand, I can still listen to the Who's version of Substitute just as easily as the Ramones' version, maybe because Pete Townsend is on both of them. Also, there are some songs, like the Rolling Stones' Out of Time, that the Ramones decided not to play at RamonesSpeed™ and RamonesVolume™. Long Island's Finest still tear those songs up.

I did not agonize over the exact positions of these albums listed on the top ten. You may find there are cover albums you love that didn't make the list. The only position I would not change on this list is the Ramones are Number One!

You may disagree. This is America. You have the right to be wrong.


Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I love Deadicated. I'll have to check out that Ricki Lee Jones CD.

namastenancy said...

I feel like I'm getting a musical education just reading about your taste in music. I know about some of these singers (like Etta James and Bowie) but not all. Now I'm off to listen to new kinds of music. I may not like it but then, I might. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Thank you for another amusing and thoughtful post.

Mathman6293 said...

John Lennon Rock and Roll is one of my favorites. I used play that Album for Chloe when she was a baby and needed rockin' to go to sleep.

Padre Mickey said...


¿Qué significa la palabra unplable?
(palabra de verificación)

Matty Boy said...

Quando tu disco compacto de Acid Eaters está unplable, tú estás muy triste.

abu scooter said...

Cool selections there. At the very least, you've convinced me to start taking Southern rock more seriously.

One question, though. What do you think of Johnny Cash's American albums?

Matty Boy said...

Johnny Cash's American Recordings wouldn't quite count as a cover album. He does his own work as well as the work of others, and some songs were written specifically for him and never recorded by anyone before.

Padre Mickey said...

Hey! Happy Birfdei on you!
Happy Birfdei on you
Hippy Bathday with you
Birthday birfdei, happy happy
Hanky Birfdei on yoooooooooooooooooooooooou.

dguzman said...

Hey, is it your birdday? If so, happy!

That Bowie photo on Pinups always creeped me out as a kid when I saw it in the local record/head shop, The Black Sun. Still creeps me out today.