Inexhaustible devotees of the rush, instrumental filigrees, and semantic meaninglessness of power pop, the New Pornographers have nevertheless recorded an impressive canon of albums. Their love songs are valentines to being in bands or being fans; their idea of a bad time, to quote one of their indelibles, is to endure life through blown speakers. The New Pornos are a band that took the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation” as seriously as T.S. Eliot did the Upanishads. Carl Newman brought the tunes and vacuum-packed seals, Neko Case the heart, and Dan Bejar the inscrutability that would become legible on Destroyer’s recordings.
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I’m not the best person to write about Merle Haggard, not when David Cantwell, for example, exists. “. Possessing an excellent rhythmic sense, blessed with a voice that could turn wrinkles into trenches and the instinct to alternate between talk-singing and crooning — often in the same verse — and a songwriter of masterful economy, Haggard was country’s most towering figure after the death of George Jones,” I wrote in my 2016 obit, and guess what — he’s had no heirs. Rick Rubin corralled no contemporary artists into covering Haggard. Insofar as he could proffer a mythos, it proved resistant to the times: who wants to cover “Okie from Muskogee” when Toby Keith circa 2002 and Nashville’s disinterest in female artists reaffirm the glummest stereotypes about the genre? Never mind that I Am What I Am and Working in Tennessee are as stark and startling as a scarecrow on which crows roost — the equals of Johnny Cash’s final albums, which depended on mythos to substitute for waning abilities.
Anyway, these sixteen greats approach Haggard’s legacy the way I hear it: a wiry approach committed to a emotionalism that rides roughshod over notions of taste and politics.
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Typical of Stereolab’s three decades of perversity is titling a song “Brakhage.” Little in the English-French band’s material conjures the privileged moments that the avant-garde American documentary filmmaker captured in sonnets of celluloid, many less than a couple minutes long.
Covering the work of Morrissey and sundry collaborators requires a sense of humor equal to his, or at least a sense of how humor depends on context, in his case the chime of guitars and a solid rhythm section. Bowie’s forgotten 1992 assault on “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” substitutes the chime for a solo of unique hideousness, but he compensates with a vocal performance so florid he makes Morrissey sound like Mark Hollis. My top two understand yearning even more than Morrissey did — before we realized what a hateful bigot he remains.
1. Pretenders – Every Day is Like Sunday
2. Kirsty MacColl – You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby
3. Jeff Buckley – I Know It’s Over
4. Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – Panic
5. Radiohead – The Headmaster Ritual
6. Bow Wow Wow – I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish
7. Everything But the Girl – Back to the Old House
8. The Wedding Present – Hand in Glove
9. At The Drive In – This Night Has Opened My Eyes
10. David Bowie – I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday
11. The Dream Academy – Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want
12. Placebo – Bigmouth Strikes Again
Motown’s greatest male group inspired some of its more far-out covers, best among them Junior Walker’s take on The Temptation’s interpolation of the period’s tropes but filtered through the tautness of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s songcraft. For reasons I can’t explain Mick Jagger pulls one of his rare period evocations of empathy on Some Girls‘ “Just My Imagination” yet doesn’t stop reminding listeners his dreams are dung-covered.
You will notice no reference to Daryl Hall and John Oates no doubt well-intentioned but lifeless animation project in 1985, an unintentional acknowledgment that the boomer were in charge now, thanks.
In a demonstration of the acting chops that made him irresistible in Miami Vice, the “The Heat is On” video, and the long-running CBS show South of Sunset, Glenn Frey smiles at Don Felder as if the warmth of the lead guitarist’s sun had momentarily blinded him. The occasion was the shoot for Travis Tritt’s cover of “Take It Easy,” an agreeable if perfunctory take thanks to which a 1993 country covers album compelled the Eagles to reunite for a quaking world. But the album mostly works. I’d rather listen to Tanya Tucker roar through “Already Gone” than Frey whinge over it and so would you, and John Anderson comes close to defibrillating “Heartache Tonight” even if I prefer Conway Twitty’s suave 1983 version.
Fortunately the Eagles boast a discography of surpassing generosity.
Study these dudes. Rugged, you might say. Not for them the effeminacy of mousse or hair spray — what are you, some Bowie art fag? You can taste the mythos of driftwood, Appalachia, and Greil Marcus in their mung.
Sorry, y’all, but I included tunes from The Basement Tapes.
1. Siouxsie and the Banshees – This Wheel’s on Fire
2. Aretha Franklin – The Weight
3. Joan Baez – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
4. Jim James and Calexico – Going to Acapulco
5. Rod Stewart – Broken Arrow
6. The Byrds – Nothing Was Delivered
7. Pointer Sisters – The Shape I’m In
8. The Roches – Acadian Driftwood
9. Rosanne Cash – The Unfaithful Servant
10. Emmylou Harris – Evangeline
11. Little Feat – Rag Mama Rag
12. The Allman Brothers – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
13. Jimi Hendrix – Tears of Rage
14. Jakob Dylan and Lizz Wright – Whispering Pines
15. Mekons – It Makes No Difference