10 Covers Albums: One Artist, One Tribute

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Our surveys of the best in music sometimes take us on multiple trips over thematic ground that looks kind of familiar. We’ve made more than a few lists related to the broader subjects of scary music, film music, good music from bad sources and vice versa, and the size of individual albums and artists’ catalogs. Yet there’s one popular music conceit we somehow haven’t yet touched in 10 years, to our shock and amusement: when artists perform the work of other artists or of prolific songwriters. Looking at the landscape of the cover song, individual covers and songbook interpretations fly fast and furious and often at critical cross-purposes. We hear jokes, faithful renditions, and unique twists in everything from tossed-off downloads to captured live sessions to classic proper albums. Trying to determine the best single cover song across decades of multiple versions, genres, and contexts might be best suited for a top 50, 100, or more at some point. As it stands, even searching for the best all-covers album additions to your collection could be hydra enough, since there’s a matrix of different performance and writing sources we can consider. For this Top 10 covers albums piece, we’ll look at albums where one performer pays tribute to the career of another.

Booker T McLemore AveBooker T & the M.G.sMcLemore Avenue
(1970; Stax)
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Many of the albums listed here draw power from their sense of reverence; most of them find lesser known, younger artists paying tribute to historic greats that inspired them. McLemore Avenue, on the other hand, brings us one prolific artist paying tribute to another legendary act’s magnum opus, within months of the latter’s release. Booker T & The MGs were so inspired by the creative, groundbreaking nature of The Beatles’ Abbey Road that they adapted its compositions into their own boundary-pushing Memphis soul, a sound that lifted the careers of Wilson Pickett and many other artists who recorded at Stax, where The MGs served as house band. On McLemore Avenue (named for the street where the Stax studio resided), Booker T et al. pump a new originality into some of the Fab Four’s most iconic tunes. Jamming through a number of well-timed instrumental medleys and a jaw-dropping cover of “Something,” they capture the energy of Abbey Road in a tighter, funkier bottle. – AK

Billy Bragg and Wilco Mermaid AvenueBilly Bragg & WilcoMermaid Avenue
(1998; Elektra)
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At the time that Mermaid Avenue was released, there weren’t many albums of its kind. It’s not a covers album in the traditional sense — none of the songs here were ever recorded during Woody Guthrie’s lifetime. His daughter, Nora, had collected a large set of his hand-written lyrics and contacted Billy Bragg about writing music to match them. Bragg teamed up with Wilco, and the two artists ended up creating a whole new set of what are essentially original songs, their new music written around existing lyrics. The result is something truly inspired and inspirational — a set of songs that feel like they could have been written 100 years ago, and would still sound fresh and vibrant in another 100 years. They range from the rich and rootsy (“California Stars”) to the gentle and folksy (“Ingrid Bergman”), to the occasional old-timey hootenany (“Christ For President”). It ranks among the best music that either Bragg or Wilco has ever recorded, which speaks to just how much power there is in the source material. – JT

Christopher O'Riley True Love WaitsChristopher O’RileyTrue Love Waits
(2003, Odyssey/Sony Classical)

At the end of the heyday of P2P file sharing, if you were a fan of Radiohead’s electronic-informed albums from the turn of the century there were two curious names who regularly popped up in your search results. The first would be Brad Mehldau, the relatively new young lion of jazz who has covered the band piecemeal across his catalog. The second would be Christopher O’Riley, a classical-music wunderkind who initially reached the American consciousness hosting NPR’s From the Top. This album, his second, was born out of his habit of playing classical arrangements of Radiohead during breaks in the radio show. O’Riley recasts these songs as contemporary instrumental/New Age numbers in the vein of George Winston, with occasional nods to rock’s noise and bombast. Considering his performance style and the absence of Thom Yorke’s sometimes sad and sneering lyrics, he manages to turn the frowns in major-key songs like “Let Down” and “Fake Plastic Trees” upside down. – AB

Seu Jorge Life AquaticSeu JorgeThe Life Aquatic Studio Sessions
(2005; Hollywood)
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After two back-to-back cinematic knockouts with Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson lost the plot a little on the over-indulgent and undercooked The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But whatever interesting character or plot development it lacked, the film seemed to overflow with aesthetic coolness. It looked great, of course — even the least of Anderson’s films are still interesting too look at. But the best aspect of the film by far was Seu Jorge’s soundtrack, all of which found the Brazilian artist performing bossa nova versions of David Bowie songs, sung in Portuguese of course. His gentle guitar plucks and soothing voice put a decidedly unexpected spin on tracks like “Rebel Rebel” and “Life on Mars?,” all of which end up sounding absolutely beautiful. In contrast to the messy nature of the film, they’re incredibly stark — yet to add anything else would merely overcrowd them. – JT

Sun Kil Moon Tiny CitiesSun Kil MoonTiny Cities
(2005, Caldo Verde)
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San Francisco singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek had occasionally led his old band Red House Painters through some inventive covers. Expecting his new group to wade deep into the music of a buzz-bin band (Washington rockers Modest Mouse) when they too were still merely up-and-coming? Something else entirely. Sun Kil Moon acquitted themselves nicely, making more of the countrified slowcore first heard on their boxing-obsessed debut Ghosts of the Great Highway. It’s also here that Kozalek likely solidified his reputation as a master bandleader by bringing Modest Mouse’s trippy and bouncing arrangements down to Earth — trimming the fat from songs like “Exit Does Not Exist,” slowing down “Space Travel is Boring,” and casting new light on work like “Convenient Parking” and “Ocean Breathes Salty” using his quietly suffering vocals. – AB

Walkmen Pussy CatsThe WalkmenPussy Cats
(2006; Record Collection)
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The Walkmen have always held the perfect mix of mysticism and depression. There is often beauty in their music, yet even in their most gentle moments a slight cynicism clings to every word or instrumental phrase. So, really, what modern band is better suited to pay homage to the twisted pop that Harry Nilsson and John Lennon masterminded during Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” period? Each track on The Walkmen’s homage is spot-on, but what really makes the album so fantastic is how the band covers the feel of Nilsson and Lennon’s wandering, self-destructive feel at the time of the album. While a large dose of the songs here are notably not written by Nilsson or Lennon (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” being the most obvious example), there’s never a doubt that The Walkmen are covering the Pussy Cats versions of these tunes. It’s a slightly more haunting, yet undeniably truthful, visit to the original mood Nilsson and Lennon cast in 1974. – AK

Phosphorescent To WilliePhosphorescentTo Willie
(2009; Dead Oceans)
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That singer/songwriter Matthew Houck (a.k.a. Phosphorescent) would cover Willie Nelson is not a stretch in itself. Houck’s folk-tinged pop-rock has always been a stone’s throw away from alt-country, and Nelson — certainly a godfather to the genre — has always been an icon for lonely misfits and outlaws alike. Some might pass over Houck’s tamer vocal style as unable to live up to Willie’s original delivery. Rather, Phosphorescent filters these defiant outlaw country tunes into a more somber and self-reflective light. Houck’s “gotta get drunk,” but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna be happy about it. Not surprisingly, all the songs here fit well into Houck’s own self-deprecating country-pop, but “Walkin’” is a particularly strong example of the muses the two share in common; it’s performed so naturally that you’d almost believe that Houck wrote the song first. To Willie is a simple album — understated and concise — but it’s strong enough to do more than pay homage to Wilson. It introduces a whole new generation to the ethos of one of country music’s best and brightest legends. – AK

Steve Earle TownesSteve EarleTownes
(2009; New West)
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Townes Van Zandt has been covered countless times, for a pretty simple reason: his music is timeless, and deeply affecting. You could more or less say the same thing about country-rock troubadour Steve Earle, who indeed has shown a deep Van Zandt influence throughout his career, so it would only make sense that he’d take on the Texas legend on Townes. He plays a lot of the songs pretty straight, with gentle strums and the occasional bluegrass flourish, as best heard on his upbeat take on “White Freightliner Blues.” None of the songs sound exactly like Van Zandt’s originals, though they also don’t take away the simple emotional resonance of any of his originals. And that’s one of the key rules for recording a covers album: Never get in the way of a good song. – JT

Inverse Phase Pretty eight machineInverse PhasePretty Eight Machine
(2012; Self-released)

A crowdfunded, entirely 8-bit remake of Nine Inch Nails’ debut album, framed as both an homage to and reimagining of the original? If that sounds too crazy to be true, I don’t blame you. But Pretty Eight Machine is not only real, it is transcendental. Taking the shocking compositions found on Pretty Hate Machine and making them even more alienating, Inverse Phase pushes the limits of 8-bit capabilities, letting his love for the album lead him into fantastic, experimental directions. These aren’t your everyday Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog samples. This album reaches far outside the tired fad sound of 8-bit electronica to pay tribute to an industrial landmark—creating a whole new masterpiece in the process. – AK

Xiu Xiu - NinaXiu XiuNina
(2013, Graveface)
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The end of 2013 saw some interesting additions to the tribute-album canon. Norah Jones teamed up with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to record Foreverly, a mirror image of The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us from 1958. Much stronger, however, was this trek through the Nina Simone songbook by Jamie Stewart and his San Jose avant garde rock crew. Where Billie Joe and Norah took a few weeks to faithfully recreate the wistful pop of a bygone era, Xiu Xiu used just a day in the studio to inflate both the desperation and creep factor in Simone’s jazz compositions. Full of artsy acoustic flutter and the skronk of brass and electronics, Nina is a loving, deceptively careful tribute assembled in much the same manner as stalkers build shrines to their intended victims. – AB

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