By Mike A. Bryan, Staff Writer
When most people think of cover bands, images of poorly-costumed 80’s themed bands playing weddings and bar mitzvahs come to mind. Cover songs often evoke ideas of young, new bands that do not have enough of their own music to play a full set. Sometimes, however, there are bands that re-interpret a song or album in a way to truly make it their own; a new version that reminds us of the original by paying homage without being an exact copy. Over the past 50 years, we have seen Hendrix play the National Anthem in an explosive, unprecedented way, heard 90’s hip hop/R&B group P.M. Dawn cover the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood,” felt the pain of addiction with Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails “Hurt,” and bobbed our heads to Chet Faker’s cover of “No Diggity,” to name a few.
Suffice it to say, covers have a true place in the overall history of popular music, with some covers being more memorable than the original, such as “All Along the Watchtower” by either Jimi Hendrix or Dave Matthews Band, originally written by Bob Dylan. More recently, country singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson wowed us with covers of “The Promise” by English band When In Rome, and the Nirvana song “In Bloom.” There are a few other recent covers that stand out, like the “House of the Rising Sun” by alt-J on their new album “Relaxer,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by Regina Spektor on the “Kubo” movie soundtrack, and Moses Sumney’s cover of Bjork’s “Come to Me.”
While some artists and groups are content with covering a song here or there, whether live or on an album, other groups form just to cover other music, or devote whole albums to covers. One of the best examples of a cover album is “Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates,” in which the Bird and the Bee cover a slew of popular Hall and Oates classics. The songs are clearly paying homage to the originals, but add enough modern feel to make the songs new again. More recently, Matthew E. White and Flo Morrissey created an album of covers titled Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, that includes such classics as “Thinking Bout You” by Frank Ocean, “The Colour in Anything” by James Blake, and “Sunday Morning,” by The Velvet Underground. All have an understated, indie rock feel, and are a recognizable version of the original song.
If alternative/rock covers are not your cup of tea, there are some notable hip hop/R&B cover albums to check out as well. The Cold Chilling Collective put out an album titled “Compton,” that contains a slew of re-interpreted classic rap anthems, such as Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” “Insane in the Brain” by Cypress Hill, “Tha Crossroads” by Bone Thugs and Harmony, and “Boyz-N-The-Hood” by Eazy E. All of the covers are from a rock, country, and R&B perspective, but are uniquely able to maintain their connection to the original songs. For music that stays truer to the original vibes, check out the J. Dilla covers album by Abstract Orchestra, or any of the El Michels Affair albums. Each album of the latter group is a cover of various classic funk and hip hop albums, from Isaac Hayes to the Wu-Tang Clan.
For an even more interesting sound, check out the reggae band The Easy Star All-Stars. They have whole albums dedicated to Radiohead (Radiodread,) Pink Floyd (Dub Side of the Moon,) The Beatles (Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band,) and Michael Jackson (Thrillah.) The sound is straight reggae, which can be a bit repetitive, but the Easy Star All Stars manage to make the covers memorable and entertaining on their own. No matter which album you choose by this group, you will be bobbing your head to the music and enjoying the reggae interpretations of these famous musicians and their works.
Obviously, the negative connotations that come with cover songs and albums will never quite go away. With so many great cover albums and songs out there, however, this image may evolve into something respectable. The songs and albums listed here are just the tip of the iceberg. Find out for yourself and see if your favorite song has been covered by an artist that you like. It is highly unlikely that you will be disappointed.