Coverage: The danger of lists

December 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.

MP3: Los Campesinos! – My Year in Lists (not a cover) [amazon]


  1. Hi Scott,

    You’re right about playlists…but to complain about it is ridiculous (not that I didn’t enjoy your article). Music is like people. Everyone’s different and no “master playlist” could ever exist to meet everyone’e needs. With that said, you know you can create your own playlists on nuTsie, right? Also, you can agree or disagree with any of the “Top …” lists and suggest changes. More power to the users that care to empower themselves.

    • Hey, c (from nuTsie, I presume) – thanks for stopping by! I do think you are rather missing the point when you say that to complain about the list is ‘ridiculous’, although you did come close when you admitted that you enjoyed the post. It’s a perfectly legitimate activity – we’re using our own bandwidth for the exercise, after all – and it’s even more fun when the litany of complaints is as snarkily amusing as Scott’s.

      • Nick, I’ll let Scott speak for himself as to his age, but yeesh! those two lists are certainly terrible.

  2. “It probably isn’t one of the 100 best covers with the word ‘California’ in the title.” = Haha

    “Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” is just insipid” – make that a minority of two!

    I think you’re either 24 or 25 – am I right?

    Biggest hits: 1998

    “My Heart Will Go On” – Celine Dion
    “Believe” – Cher
    “Closing Time” – Semisonic
    “Fly Away” – Lenny Kravitz
    “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It” – Will Smith
    “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” – Green Day
    “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” – Aerosmith
    “Iris” – Goo Goo Dolls
    “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” – DMX
    “Save Tonight” – Eagle-Eye Cherry
    “Still Not a Player” – Big Pun feat. Joe
    “3 A.M.” – Matchbox Twenty
    “This Kiss” – Faith Hill
    “Torn” – Natalie Imbruglia
    “Truly Madly Deeply” – Savage Garden
    “Uninvited” – Alanis Morissette

    Biggest hits: 1999:

    “All Star” – Smash Mouth
    “Bawitdaba” – Kid Rock
    “Californication” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
    “Desert Rose” – Sting
    “Every Morning” – Sugar Ray
    “Freak on a Leash” – KoЯn
    “I Want It That Way” – Backstreet Boys
    “I Will Remember You” – Sarah McLachlan
    “Livin’ la Vida Loca” – Ricky Martin
    “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” – Shania Twain
    “My Own Worst Enemy” – Lit
    “Nookie” – Limp Bizkit
    “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” – The Offspring
    “That Don’t Impress Me Much” – Shania Twain
    “What’s My Age Again?” – Blink-182
    “Wild Wild West” – Will Smith featuring Dru Hill and Kool Moe Dee
    “You Get What You Give” – New Radicals

  3. Nick, I’ll see your Celine Dion and Ricky Martin and raise you two Michael Boltons.

  4. Two Boltons?! Too rich for my blood, Scott. Fold!

  5. c, several of the other playlists on your site looked about right to me. For example, the 40 Most Popular Classical Works list does a good job of finding pieces that are both major/important works and accessible to an audience that might not be comfortable with classical music. And the poor quality of music the year I turned 14 isn’t your fault; that list just represents a harsh truth about the world. But there were just a few things about the covers list that were too egregious for me to look past.

    Something that might improve the user-feedback functionality of these lists is if there was a way to disagree with individual line items, rather than giving the whole list a thumbs up or down. As I noted in the post, there were parts of the list that I wholeheartedly agreed with, and having to give the full list a disagree doesn’t allow users to distinguish those pieces that should be retained.

  6. I have no problem with year-end lists – they’ve been mostly good to me. They’re not all created equal, though. I remember this “Top 100 Albums of All-Time” list – in Q or some other hyperbolic UK magazine – that had three (3) Massive Attack songs in the top 10. Seriously? I mean, “Teardrop” is a pretty song and all, but gimmie a break.

  7. […] week guest blogger Scott posted about the Jeff Buckley cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” describing it as […]

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