I’m not really sure when my minor obsession with cover songs came about. Maybe, it happened in middle school when Elton John had two big radio hits on Central Indiana radio with “Pinball Wizard” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Back then, I had absolutely NO idea that either song was a cover. Hell, for all I knew that Elton had written the songs with some guy named Bernie Taupin and recorded them with his crack band.
Then, it happened. One Sunday morning while listening to Casey Kasem bring me “American Top 40” on the nearby station WERK-AM in Muncie, Indiana, Casey said that The Beatles had originally recorded “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” for their classic Sgt. Pepper album. Being the weirdo that I continue to be today, I went to a neighbor’s home who I knew that owned Sgt. Pepper. Once I discovered that this high school-aged young man was home, I asked him to play me The Beatles version of the song on his stereo. He told me, “Okay,” and invited me in. I stepped into his parents’ home, but the place was devoid of all humans. Instead, Pat put the record on his parents’ console television/stereo set and cranked the volume. As I listened to the song, I got the immediate impression that we were dealing with a band that was much deeper than Elton was with the very same song. Where Elton found the pop sound in “Lucy,” The Beatles original intent seemed to be at times wistful and childlike, with a side of helping of longing for a lost youth.
After the song was done, Pat then said to me that Elton’s other “hit” at the time, “Pinball Wizard,” which I knew was from the Tommy soundtrack, was another cover tune. “No way!” He told me to hang on while he found the original LP. Pat came out of his room carrying a copy of The Who’s Tommy, of which Pat informed my impressionable brain was the original source of music for the new movie of the same new. And, he played me “Pinball Wizard” by The Who. Once again, my mind could not handle to the full extent what information Pat was throwing at me. Yet, I was hooked, and enthralled. Slowly, I began my current obsession of rock music. After that fateful day in which Pat introduced me to original versions of a couple of popular songs, I began to absorbed rock music information from all kinds of sources.
First, I started with magazines such as Circus, Creem and Hit Parader. Eventually, I graduated to Rolling Stone and various books written about artists like Zeppelin, Hendrix and The Beatles. Additionally, I picked up magazines geared toward musicians, like the aptly titled Musician. I devoured everything, including Billboard magazine, a weekly trade magazine that contained all the various charts for all of the radio formats of the day.
Today, I no longer take in so much information. I am not certain why that is, but now I’d rather write down what I’ve learned rather than attempt to read basically the same background story now being applied to a new artist’s life. And, maybe, it’s the constant sensation of pain wracking my body and those bloody muscle spasms that radiated out in all directions from the L4/L5 region of my spine which took several operations to repair correctly. And those days, like today, in which the spasms extend into my buttocks AND thighs, well, I simply feel as though I hit the physical lottery. So, as much as I would love to use my brain, that function seems to be limited by my dealing with the pain and attempting to remain awake after a night of maybe two hours of sleep.
I’m not asking for a pity party. I am simply stating some facts. So, albums of cover songs seems to be a great diversion for the time being. Basically, there are two general types of these covers. First, there are the albums in which an artist, usually but not always, may be going through a dry spell, so they go back to the songs of their youth. Then, they pick out a group of them and learn them. Occasionally, the artist will invent a new arrangement for a song or two because they heard something inspirational in the lyrics. Others may simply want to rock the songs out a big. No matter what type of spin the artist may put on a favorite song of theirs, the success of the song will depend on whether the current artist remembers the original OR if the arrangement transcends the song.
Take for example the song “Love Hurts.” Personally, I remember it as a proto-power ballad for the neo-metal band Nazareth in the mid-Seventies. That version was quite a dance floor filler with slow dancers. On the other hand, the original was recorded by the Everly Brothers with the traditional early rock and roll sound. It was something that my college-age mother said she remembered hearing back in her days of being cool.
Eventually, artists began to fill up albums with cover songs in a method to rediscover their original voice. Or, sometimes, a group of artists will come together to record individual songs of a greater artist as a collected tribute. Their have been an overabundance of these tribute albums, especially during the Nineties. Most of them were fairly mundane, but a few were truly inspired artistic statements when the artist has enough songs to attract the best newer artists to cover their music. Over the years, tributes to the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix were all commercially successful, although none of them are good enough for my list.
So, here is my Top 40 Best Covers or Tribute Albums Ever. This time, I am presenting them in alphabetical order according to the artists.
- Beck – Kick (2010). In 2009 and 2010, Beck did some informal recording sessions with some of the best musicians of the alternative rock scene. Together, they covered five different albums, the best of which was Beck’s version of INXS 1987 megahit Kick.
- Billie Joe Armstrong – No Fun Mondays (2020). At the beginning of the quarantine, Green Day’s Armstrong started digging through his record collection and recording versions of his favorites. This is the collection of those inspired choices.
- Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). During the Aughts, The Boss refused to rest on his laurels. On this album, he full head-first into Pete Seeger’s catalog and recorded versions of his own.
- Bryan Ferry – These Foolish Things (1973). Although Roxy Music was riding high at the time, lead singer Ferry recorded this set of songs from his youth and gave the Glam covering.
- Chris Cornell – Nobody Sings like You Anymore, Vol. 1 (2020). The late lead singer of Soundgarden had this collection released posthumously late last year. This is an excellent collection showing just how versatile Cornell was. My one beef – the omission of his haunting version of the Michael Jackson classic “Billie Jean.”
- Daryl Hall & John Oates – Our Kind of Soul (2004). Right before Daryl was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease, rock’s great duo of all-time recorded an album of their favorite soul songs. The big surprise? The inclusion of Dan Hartman’s 1984 hit “I Can Dream About You,” which you always knew was written for the boys.
- David Bowie – Pin-Ups (1973). Around the same time that Bryan Ferry was doing his covers album, Bowie was deconstructing his favorite songs.
- Def Leppard – Yeah! (2006). What is an aging hair metal band to do in order to get their creative juices flowing again? Record their favorite songs of their youth, that’s what.
- Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Almost Blue (1981). After proving his mettle as a singer and songwriter on some punk-fueled classic albums, Costello and his band takes their first creative left turn into their favorite country tunes in a very loving manner.
- Eric Clapton – 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974). Yes, Clapton wrote TWO songs on his big comeback album after getting clean. But, for the most part, Clapton covered other artist’s songs, including his hit version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”
- Guns N’ Roses – The Spaghetti Incident? (1993). GNR covers metal and punk classics.
- Jennifer Warnes – Famous Blue Raincoat (1987). Warnes covers her favorite Leonard Cohen songs.
- John Lennon – Rock & Roll (1975). Lennon covers songs that were influential to him.
- Johnny Cash – American Recordings (1994). Producer Rick Rubin gives Cash a stack of recent rock songs and Cash makes them his own.
- Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). Hatfield lovingly covers her favorite Olivia Newton-John songs.
- Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs – Completely Under the Covers (2015). Sweet & Hoffs cover songs that were influential to them from the 70s, 80s & 90s on this box set of their trio of covers albums.
- Metallica – Garage Inc. (1998). Metallica covers songs that were influential to them.
- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Kicking Against the Pricks (1986). Does Cave really need to do a covers album? No, but this is a fantastic album displaying his ability to re-interpret others’ songs.
- Patti Smith – Twelve (2007). Smith covers songs that were influential to her.
- Paul McCartney – CHOBA B CCCP (1988): McCartney covers songs that were influential to him.
- Paul Weller – Studio 150 (2004). Weller covers songs that were influential to him.
- Peter Gabriel & Various Artists – Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours (2013). Artists cover Gabriel songs, while Gabriel covers songs originally done by the artists.
- Rage Against the Machine – Renegades (2000). RATM covers songs that were influential to them.
- Rush – Feedback (2004). Rush covers songs that were influential to them.
- Ryan Adams – 1989 (2015). Adams covers Taylor Swift’s 1989.
- Shonen Knife – Osaka Ramones: A Tribute to the Ramones (2011). The all-female Japanese pop punk trio honors their favorite band, Ramones.
- The Black Keys – Delta Kream (2021). The band’s tribute to the blues.
- The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome (2016). The Stones’ tribute to the blues.
- The Smithereens – Meet The Smithereens (2007): Tribute to The Beatles.
- Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – Cheek to Cheek (2014): Gaga teams up with Bennett to breathe new life into the pop standards.
- Tori Amos – Strange Little Girls (2002): Amos records versions of her favorite songs by other artists.
- UB40 – Labour of Love (1983): UB40 records their favorite reggae songs and become huge stars.
- Various Artists – A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector (1963): Phil Spector and his artists update Christmas standards for the rock era.
- Various Artists – Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International (2012): To honor Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary, artists came together to cover Bob Dylan songs.
- Various Artists – Drink a Toast to Innocence: A Tribute to Lite Rock (2013): This album answers the question of what yacht rock standards of the late-70s and early-80s sound like when recorded by current power pop artists.
- Various Artists – Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon (2004): Who cares who records Zevon’s music, the world needs to hear them.
- Various Artists – If I Were a Carpenter (1994): 90s alternative artists make the Carpenters hip.
- Various Artists – Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (1991): Get some of the best artists since the late-60s onward and let them cover Elton & Bernie’s songs, and you’ll end up with one terrific album.
- Various Artists – We’re a Happy Family: A Tribute to the Ramones (2003): There’s nothing more fun than listening to disparate artists (from the Chili Peppers to Kiss) cover the Ramones.
- Weezer – Weezer (The Teal Album) (2019): Weezer quietly snuck out this covers album of some of their favorite songs of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
- Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly (2013). Covering the Everly Brothers
- The Bird and the Bee – Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (2010)
- Duran Duran – Thank You (1995). As the title implies, D-squared thanks their heroes by recording their songs.
- Various Artists – A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (A Tribute to the Stars) (2007). Contains Prince’s transcendent “A Case of You.”
- Various Artists – Big Star, Small World (2006). The alternative stars of the Nineties and the Aughts pay tribute to one of the greater underappreciated bands.
- Various Artists – Day of the Dead (2016). It seems as though every artist has a favorite song by the Dead. This album is loaded with great performances
- Various Artists – Endless Highway: The Music of The Band (2007). This compilation of songs by The Band, including My Morning Jacket’s terrific cover of “It Makes No Difference.”
- Various Artists – Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved (1994). This is one of the more diverse tribute albums since it contains Garth Brooks doing “Hard Luck Woman,” which works quite well.
- Various Artists – Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (1999). Unfortunately, few people outside of the music world knows Parsons’ work. This works as an excellent introduction, even though everyone knows “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones and written by Gram.
- Various Artists – The New Sell Out (2012). A great power pop cover tribute of The Who’s classic concept album The Who Sell Out.