Coverage: The danger of listsDecember 15, 2008
Guest blogger Scott writes:
As the end of the year approaches, music blogs everywhere will be producing lists; best of ’08, most anticipated of ’09, biggest letdowns of ’08. And for every list, there is someone like me who has nothing better to do than to poke holes in it.
I was recently directed to nuTsie’s comprehensive page of lists with the instruction to call up the list from the year I turned 14 and sink into nostalgia. It didn’t succeed at this for very long; I was mostly just reminded of how bad music was the year I was 14. I suppose that’s a form of nostalgia. Those among you with strong feelings about the worst year in recent musical history should feel free to speculate regarding my age.
What I went to from there, of course, was the 100 Greatest Cover Songs list (105, as it turns out). Wow. Just, wow. Now, I understand that there’s going to be some component of radio play and chart toppers involved in this selection. So we aren’t going to get something like Jason Faulkner’s cover of Joni Mitchell”s “Both Sides Now” or Violent Femmes’ recent cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” But even accepting that, I have some complaints.
David Lee Roth’s cover of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” is, under no circumstances, one of the 100 best covers. It probably isn’t one of the 100 best covers with the word ‘California’ in the title. Similarly, “Red Red Wine” by UB40 is not a good song, and while I have a special place in my heart for The Bangles’ “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” it probably doesn’t belong here either. Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” is a quintessential 80s song, but that doesn’t mean that it’s worthwhile or important. And I know I’m in the minority on this, but Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” is just insipid. The Leonard Cohen original sounds as if some minor miracle has just walked him back from the edge of death and despair. Buckley’s, by comparison, sounds as if God just granted his request for a Mercedes-Benz. Sure, he’s impressed and happy and his faith has been strengthened, but there wasn’t anything of consequence on the line, so who the hell cares?
And there are obvious, as well as less-obvious but deserving, alternatives. nuTsie’s telling me that The Beatles recorded four of the top 100 covers and not one of them was “Twist and Shout”? I couldn’t tell you who originally sang three of the four listed (I did know that “Long Tall Sally” was by Little Richard), and couldn’t even call up a good recollection of the Beatles’ versions. Whereas with “Twist and Shout,” I can remember hearing both the Beatles’ and Isley Brothers’ versions on the radio and making the cover song connection, probably for the first time. Similarly, where is Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Respect”? Just because no one has ever heard the Otis Redding version doesn’t make Aretha’s not a cover. Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t the original performer of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” but it would have been considered a standard in her time, rather than a cover. By the time Mama Cass recorded it, though, it was unquestionably a cover (for most people, of the Ella version). Either version of the song could easily fit here. Lastly, another great cover that deserves inclusion is Frank Black’s cover of “Hang On To Your Ego,” but since The Beach Boys’ original ended up being retitled “I Know There’s An Answer,” it’s understandably missed.
That’s not to say that they got it all wrong. In addition to some of the required inclusions, like Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and The Clash’s “I Fought the Law,” they included some lesser-known but deserving works. Steve Winwood’s original of “Back in the High Life” comes across as blithely unironic adult contemporary, but Warren Zevon sings it as if he doesn’t mean a word he says. He hadn’t yet been diagnosed with the cancer that killed him, but on an album called Life’ll Kill Ya, he sounds like he already knows. The two Johnny Cash songs, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and “Hurt,” are the obvious choices and, while I might have chosen slightly differently, they’re obvious for a reason—they’re really good. And I’d have forgotten Deep Purple’s “Hush” if I were making this list, which would have left someone else something to complain about.