10 of the Best Covers Albums in Music History

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The Sailor Jerry Presents concert series sails on, and the most recent addition to its roster has been most excellent Detroit garage stalwarts the Dirtbombs. We nominated the band’s latest album, Party Store, as one of the most underrated of 2011 during a mid-year wrap-up, and our opinion hasn’t changed — if you haven’t heard it, it’s a collection of covers of old Detroit techno tracks reinvented as garage-rock tunes. It’s also a fantastic and original piece of work, and still gets a regular workout on the Flavorpill stereo. Plus, it catalyzed various discussions about other great covers records from over the years, inspiring us to round up ten of our all-time favorites, starting with Party Store itself.

The Dirtbombs — Party Store

The idea of a rock band covering techno tunes may sound counter-intuitive, but it shouldn’t — really, all you’re doing is taking a bunch of great instrumentals and furnishing them with different instrumentation. And generally, Party Store works a treat — the live arrangements give the tracks a looser, more organic feel than their original electronic incarnations, and the result is definitely interesting listening. The band has previous experience here, too — its second album, Ultraglide in Black, applied the same treatment to a bunch of old soul and funk songs, with similarly excellent results.

Cat Power — The Covers Record

Chan Marshall’s fifth studio album does exactly what it says on the, um, cover — it’s an eclectic selection of cover versions, encompassing everything from The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to traditional folk song “Salty Dog” and one of Marshall’s own songs (“In This Hole,” which originally appeared on her 1996 album What Would the Community Think). And yet, despite the diverse source material, this spins like a coherent record of originals, mainly because Marshall makes the songs completely her own, dismantling their arrangements and rebuilding them as stripped-back, live recordings. It’s like she’s sitting there in your lounge, playing for you — only better, because she’s not embarking on long monologues or hiding under the piano.

Condo Fucks — Fuckbook

Condo Fucks are basically Yo La Tengo, who take the opportunity to let their collective hair down, recreate themselves as a fake garage band and proceed to make a hell of a glorious racket. They created an elaborate backstory for Condo Fucks, and even though the whole thing is essentially a joke, it also sounds like they had all sorts of fun making this.

Steve Earle — Townes

If anyone’s qualified to make an album of Townes van Zandt covers, it’s Steve Earle — Earle’s music bleeds from the same dark, reflective depths as van Zandt’s songs did, and the great Texan songwriter was something of a mentor to the younger singer. The track selection for this tribute album is interesting; as well as van Zandt’s well-known classics like “Pancho and Lefty,” there are some more obscure selections, all rendered in Earle’s trademark world-weary drawl.

David Bowie — Pin-Ups

The last hurrah for Ziggy Stardust, and a relic of a period when Bowie could basically do no wrong, Pin-Ups is a collection of Bowie’s favorite songs from the period of 1964-67. Even setting aside his intergalactic persona and generally outlandish appearance, Bowie’s music always seemed to come from a place without precedent or parallel, so it’s interesting to see which of his contemporaries he particularly appreciated; alongside luminaries like Pink Floyd, the Kinks, and the Who, there are covers of songs by relatively obscure bands like the Pretty Things and short-lived Australian stars the Easybeats. (It’s definitely worth getting hold of the reissue, too, which also includes the above cover of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam.”)

Tori Amos — Strange Little Girls

Tori Amos has a way with cover versions — she recorded a great version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” way back in 1992 for her Crucify EP, and followed up a decade later with this complete covers album. Strange Little Girls attracted plenty of attention for its stripped-back and decidedly creepy cover of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” but that’s far from its only attraction. There are also versions of all-time Flavorpill fave Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” and, um, Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” There’s certainly also the occasional misstep, and critical reception was pretty mixed when the album was released, but its best moments are definitely worth the price. (The sleeve, with its Cindy Sherman-esque portraits of Amos posing as a variety of characters from the songs, is pretty great too.)

Nouvelle Vague — Nouvelle Vague

By now, the concept has been flogged harder than a dead horse at an S&M convention, but Nouvelle Vague’s conceit of recording Francopop reinterpretations of punk and new wave songs was genuinely fresh and charming when their first album was released in 2004. We particularly like the delicate cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck” — it features vocals by Camille, who also guested on a couple of other tracks, most notably XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel.”

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — Kicking Against the Pricks

The title isn’t quite as vulgar as it might sound, and anyone who’s followed Cave’s career over the years will be unsurprised to hear that it comes from the Bible. (It’s apparently from Acts 9:5 and refers to an ox kicking against the spiked rod used to drive it; a metaphor of stubborn self-destruction for which Cave no doubt felt some measure of affinity.) The tracklist will also make perfect sense to Cave aficionados; it’s a mixture of blues standards, country Gothic, and traditional Southern tunes, with themes of murder and vengeance prominent throughout. Sound familiar?

Various Artists — If I Were a Carpenter

If we had to choose a single various-artists-pay-tribute-to-dead-singer record for our collection, it would probably be this selection of Carpenters covers from back in 1994 — and really only for one song. Namely, Sonic Youth’s killer cover of “Superstar,” which is worth the steep price you’ll pay for an original copy of this on eBay. (Or you can be more economical with the regularly priced download link above.)

Jennifer Warnes — Famous Blue Raincoat

You may well know Jennifer Warnes from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, but before she soundtracked Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze having the time of their lives, she made a living as Leonard Cohen’s backing vocalist, and did a pretty fantastic job of it. This album — jokingly dubbed “Jenny Sings Lenny” by Cohen — found her performing her own versions of a selection of the great man’s songs, with pretty sublime results.

So those are some of our favorites. What are yours? Tell us in the comments below!