Scottish Singer and winner of--well she wasn't the winner of anything and that's kind of the point--Susan Boyle had her first album I Dreamed A Dream hitting QVC on November 5, three weeks before its official November 24 release. It's been noted that the album contains songs she clearly didn't write. Which in the days of Sinatra wouldn't be much to note. But ever since the Beatles and Bob Dylan--if not Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly before them--made it seem important that singers write their own material or else be considered losers, or uncreative types (or people with no hand in the publishing jar), it's forced people to write their own songs. A bit like the way you take a job in journalism and get sent out to sell ads.
Oddly, Bob Dylan's new album, Christmas In The Heart, is also covers (granted, Xmas tunes). Boyle's new one features such classics as the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," Madonna's "You'll See," the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" and God's own "Silent Night" and "Amazing Grace." And, of course, the title track, "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables (pronounced "Lame is Rob") that won over the hearts and minds of people who watch British television.
I decided to make a list of 25 wonderful albums that feature the songs of other people. I tried to include David Lee Roth's Crazy From The Heat, but it's only an EP, as is Metallica's Garage Days Re-Revisited and Rush's Feedback release and while This Mortal Coil also did some interesting covers of overlooked (at the time) artists from Tim Buckley to Gene Clark, they wrote quite a bit of their own material. They should be here, but are only in these introductory notes. Phooey.
So you see, this list could easily have been doubled, so write in your faves that I left off (Yo La Tengo's Fakebook?)--because I'm a heartless and cruel person who knows how to make the lives of others completely miserable. To which I say, "Oops."
25) The Commitments Soundtrack: For those of you who wore out your copies of The Blues Brothers and don't feel like searching out the perfect Motown collection. I suppose musical wallpaper can be "off-white."
24) Scarlett Johansson--Anywhere I Lay My Head: It's always interesting to see what makes people decide to get tough. Sure, Sting annoys people because he's clearly smarter, richer and snottier than they are. When they were selling millions of records, Hootie and Blowfish made people scratch their heads. And I've often wondered why Woody Allen keeps putting this young actress in his movies (I think I know). But her collection of Tom Waits covers isn't the travesty some people think it is.
23) Van Morrison--Pay The Devil: Van Morrison decides to record some old country tunes and does a handful of Webb Pierce songs in the bargain. Sometimes it sounds like he's singing in his sleep. Which sounds about right for Van. No need to wake up, Mr. Morrison, we'll just wheel the recording studio closer to the bed.
22) Ramones--Acid Eaters: The Ramones were always great at covers--"Do You Wanna Dance?," "Surfin' Bird," "Needles And Pins"--so it was only a matter of time before they got tired of writing their own tunes and recorded ones they liked anyway.
21) Sid Vicious--Sid Sings!: I don't think anyone expected Sid to actually write a song. Recording quality is what some people might call "awful." Performance quality is what some people might call "wha?"
20) Willie Nelson--Stardust: Once Willie Nelson became famous, after decades of struggle, he wasn't about to get stuck on the country charts. He wanted it all and what better way than to record an album of standards? Only "Happy Birthday" could have more universal appeal.
19) Guns n' Roses--The Spaghetti Incident: Now that Chinese Democracy has actually been released and ruined the perfection of the rumor, The Spaghetti Incident at least features the guys most people consider to be Guns N' Roses in the first place. The Dead Boys, The New York Dolls, Charles Manson...
18) Rosanne Cash--The List: Rosanne's famous dad, Johnny, once took a look at her teenaged taste and figured if she was going to ever use the Cash name, she should be able to back it up with some knowledge, so he made her a list of songs to know. It must've been pretty nuts when she figured out that her parents were pretty cool.
17) Cat Power--The Covers Record, Jukebox: She recorded "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" without the chorus. Like Vetiver, she covered Michael Hurley. Then decided a few years later to do it again with Jukebox.
16) Scott Walker--Sings Jacques Brel: A compilation of all the tunes by Jacques Brel that Walker had recorded over the years. As you see, it amounted to an album's worth.
15) Elvis Costello--Kojak Variety: Elvis Costello always had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. So rather than write another collection of tunes based on it, he decided to go directly to the source. Of course, Costello never does anything in moderation and when it was time to put out an "Expanded Edition" of this album, he expanded it by adding 20 songs to the original 15. If he asks you if you want seconds, you might want to think about it.
14) Steve Earle--Townes: Steve Earle always sang the praises of Townes Van Zandt as one of the world's finest songwriters, so it was about time he recorded an album of Townes' songs--before Lyle Lovett beat him to it.
13) Pussy Galore--Exile On Main Street: Some people have described this "deconstruction" of the Rolling Stones' classic album as "unlistenable." They could have a point. Then again, that might be the point.
12) Petra Haden--The Who Sell Out: Why not? Doesn't everyone want to have their picture taken inside a can of baked beans?
11) Mark Lanegan--I'll Take Care Of You: Ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan always sounded like an old blues singer, so it was only a matter of time before he tried his hand at some old blues tunes, whether they be by O.V. Wright or the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
10) Richard Lloyd--The Jamie Neverts Story: Richard Lloyd was buddies with the one guy who got guitar lessons from Jimi Hendrix and who in turn showed Richard some of what he learned. Forty years later, Lloyd pays tribute to both.
9) Ted Hawkins--Songs From Venice Beach: Ted Hawkins had an amazing voice. He was discovered singing on the streets and he felt most at home singing for his supper on the boardwalk of Venice Beach where as this album--and the many others culled from the original tapes--proves, Hawkins was another guy who could sing anything.
8) Vetiver--Thing Of The Past: Who in 2008 releases an album of tunes by Biff Rose, Derroll Adams, Michael Hurley and Garland Jeffreys? Clearly someone who hasn't been to a recent record company sales meeting. Usually the idea of doing covers is to try and win over the fans of a particular musician, not to pick songs by people who have less fans than you do.
7) Mark Kozelek--What's Next To The Moon, Tiny Cities: With Red House Painters, Mark Kozelek recorded a crazy variety of covers from Simon and Garfunkel to Yes. Solo, he recorded an album of AC/DC tunes (Moon) and Modest Mouse (Cities) covers. Except when Kozelek does covers, they sometimes don't sound anything like the originals. Especially true in these cases.
6) David Bowie--Pin Ups: Released in 1973, David Bowie's Pin-Ups features a bunch of "oldies" from like eight years previous. Did time move at a different pace back then or what?
5) Bryan Ferry--Dylanesque: Thousands of people have covered Bob Dylan songs. Millions of people claim to love Bob Dylan's songs but hate his voice--which is a bit like The Daily Show's observation that conservatives love America but hate half the people living in it. Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry is just about the last guy I'd suspect would suddenly throw down an album of Dylan covers. But then that's what makes him Bryan Ferry.
4) Sinead O'Connor--Sean-Nos Nua, Am I Not Your Girl?, Throw Down Your Arms: Sinead recorded a number of albums where she didn't get around to writing her own tunes. Throw Down You Arms was reggae. Am I Not Your Girl? was mostly jazz standards and Sean-Nos Nua was traditional Irish songs. So much to choose from. (Who says my sister ain't talented? Huh?)
3) Judy Collins--Fifth Album: Some people would take In My Life, but I'm shooting an album earlier where Judy nails "The Coming Of The Roads" and a handful of Bob Dylan tunes because everyone had free reign when it came to covering Bob Dylan. His management insisted on it (except it was never "free," I can guarantee that.)
2) Ray Charles--Modern Sounds In Country And Western: Ray Charles liked to smash boundaries. He didn't much care for being considered a Jazz singer or a Soul singer. He liked music. And what would seem crazier than country music? I mean, even back in the early 1960s there were people claiming to like "all kinds of music, except country and rap."
1) Johnny Cash--American Recordings: Some of Cash's own tunes made it onto the many volumes of "American Recordings" that Johnny made near the end of his life with producer Rick Rubin. But the attention was mostly on how Rubin convinced Cash to cover Nine Inch Nails, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Beck. It proved Johnny could sing anything--even if it sounded like he had a two-note range. Incredible.