Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusses classic composition was originally recorded by Cy Grant in 1964, and, a year later, was covered by Nina Simone, whose version became one of the iconic tracks of that decade. Since then, its been covered, sampled and remixed dozens of times, including recently by Lauryn Hill.
I first listened to Yo La Tengo sometime in the mid-90s, slightly after the release of their 95 album Electr-O-Pura. I was living in rural North Carolina, and the idea of "indie" music was pretty new to me, and it was pretty amazing to me that there were bands creating great experimental pop music in a commercial vacuum. It seemed more "authentic" and "honest." You can laugh at those values now, but for a young person living in a small town at the south in the pre-internet era, these things didnt seem illusionary then. I was primarily drawn to the dueling aesthetics of ambience and noise in their music, especially evident on Painless and in songs like "The Evil that Men Do." I saw them in Charlotte,NC and they played 20 minute stretches of noise. Sometime after I Heard the Heart Beating as One, my musical interests had shifted, I largely abandoned guitar-based music for electronic and hip-hop. I was surprised many years later, living in San Francisco and in my mid-20s, that they had become a much quieter band, and were darlings of the latte-n-vinyl, NPR set. I wasnt sure who had changed more -- them or me -- but this is still a great playlist of the songs that theyve covered over the years. Its also great to see bands getting more involved with curation.
Thisisrnb.com is one of the best R&B fan sites on the Internet, and its recent post on Jeremih’s influences is proof. Short but sweet, these 10 tracks reveal that many if not most of the singer’s recent hits rely on samples for songwriting inspiration. It’s obvious that Whitney Houston’s deathless hi-NRG chestnut “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” informed the hook for the 2015 Jeremih smash with Natalie La Rose, “Somebody”; and that Snap!’s Euro-rave conqueror “Rhythm is a Dancer” led to his chorus on “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” But did anyone know that he copied a vocal line from Shai’s sappy a cappella ballad “If I Ever Fall In Love” for the hook of his most recent chart smash, “Oui”? One can conclude from this list that the “Birthday Sex” king has grown a little derivative, but leave it to Thisisrnb.com to assess his recent creative direction more kindly. “Some writers are just naturally gifted with the ability to remix, remake or flip a set of lyrics into a different melody or copy a melody with different lyrics,” goes the post, which is unsigned. “We’d be interested to know if he has been consciously doing remakes of big hits to hopefully land another big hit, or if it’s been more organic and just came out during sessions.”
For over two decades—first as the frontman of Chisel, then as a solo artist—Ted Leo has cemented his status as one of indie rock’s most respected songwriters. With literate, layered lyrics that are as personal as they are political, Leo has honed a unique voice in part by wearing his influences on his sleeve, merging punk, folk, and classic rock. And the songs that inspired his sound have often crept into his live repertoire and, occasionally, his recorded output.Although Leo has had some of the most viral moments of his career by showing his appreciation for pop singers like Kelly Clarkson and Robyn, the covers that have made it onto stopgap EPs between albums stick closer to his roots. The Anglophile singer/songwriter affects a slight British accent when singing songs by The Jam and Stiff Little Fingers. And when he released one of his most urgently political records, the Rapid Response EP, during the 2008 election season, songs written by the Brit punk bands Cock Sparrer and Amebix sat alongside his own agitated anthems. He’s covered more famous acts like The Beatles and David Bowie for tribute albums, but even in the latter case he put his own stamp on “Heroes,” turning the song into a slow burn that works its way to an anthemic climax.Thin Lizzy’s soaring guitar leads and Phil Lynott’s dense storytelling have always been some of the most distinctive and undeniable influences on Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. So it’s no surprise that he’s covered Thin Lizzy on multiple occasions, including “Little Girl In Bloom” with the Pharmacists and “Honesty Is No Excuse” with The Both, his 2014 side project with Aimee Mann. But an equally important influence may be the New Zealand-bred bands Split Enz and Crowded House; Leo has covered the former’s “Six Months In A Leaky Boat” on multiple releases, and even took a line from the song as the title of one of his most beloved albums, 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance.
Phish’s Baker’s Dozen residency at Madison Square Garden—which ran July 21-August 6, 2017—was a doozy of epic proportions: 13 nights, 26 sets, and tons of free donuts, and all of it was webcasted to the world at large (save the donuts, of course). They were, as Rolling Stone writer Jesse Jarnow pointed out, some of the group’s most “ambitious sets in years, with an attention to detail that recalls their nineties heyday.” On top of debuting many new tunes, as well as novel transformations of old classics that surprised even longtime heads, Phish dropped a slew of first-time covers, including Shuggie Otis’ Beatlesque funk gem “Strawberry Letter 23,” Neil Young’s static-drenched riff workout “Powderfinger,” and The Velvet Underground’s dreamy ballad “Sunday Morning.”For those only now diving into the Phish zone, such tastefully hip covers may seem odd for a band that, truth be told, was outright dissed by cool indie types for most of their career. (Amazing how this has changed in recent years thanks to tastemakers like Vampire Weekend and MGMT singing their praises in interviews.) However, for those who have followed the band since, like, forever (my first Phish experience came when the original H.O.R.D.E. tour passed through the neo-hippie stronghold of Syracuse, New York, in 1992), the killer covers are par for the course. Even if you’re confident in the immutability of your anti-Phish bias, one thing’s unfuckwithable: their record collections.Since their early days up in Burlington, Vermont, Phish have put all manner of choice covers through their jammy filter: the Talking Heads’ proto-New Wave classic “Psycho Killer” is refitted with a spiky funk groove shaped by Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder and rippling improv showcasing Page McConnell’s keys; “Purple Rain” is mutated into a Flaming Lips-like alt-freak anthem featuring Jon Fishman’s crying vacuum cleaner; and Ween’s weird pop ditty “Roses Are Free” is reborn as a punchy, twangy sing-along. Even Phish’s taste in classic rock reflects their crate-digging astuteness. In addition to numerous deep cuts from the Stones’ muddy landmark Exile on Main St., they actually tackle a (very liberal) rendition of The Beatles’ musique concrète composition “Revolution 9”—and, yes, it’s deeply noisy and bizarre, like a cross between Spike Jones, heroic doses of psilocybin, and nude performance art.Part of Phish’s aim is to challenge and surprise their fans. For them, embracing the unexpected is an expression of freedom, and this extends to their unpredictable choice in cover songs. But it also has to be pointed out that covering the likes of Talking Heads, Ween, and The Velvet Underground actually isn’t all that weird, in a sense. After all, Phish—back at the dawn of their career—were considered something of an alternative band. I know this sounds strange after decades of them being hailed as the modern-day Grateful Dead (which has never been a terribly accurate comparison). But as this fogey explicitly recalls, when Phish started to make a buzz around the Northeast they had a quirky, cerebral, and mischievous reputation that owed more to Frank Zappa and David Byrne than Papa Jerry. It’s an aspect of their legacy that’s slowly re-emerging as more and more indie kids embrace their unique music. And that’s a cool thing.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.