Cover albums: The best and worst releases in the genre

A spate of new albums of standards – and a clever twist on the idea – has reminded Pierre Perrone of the best, and worst, that the genre can produce

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The Independent Culture

Once upon a time, all albums were covers albums. Song stylists such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Shirley Bassey relied on professional writers. Even Please Please Me and With The Beatles, the first two Fab Four albums, contained 50 per cent rock'n'roll and Motown covers, but as pop turned psychedelic and rock went prog, groups forgot about covers, unless they needed a B-side, a riff, or an encore.

The covers-album phenomenon in pop really began at the height of glam rock with David Bowie's Pin Ups and Bryan Ferry's These Foolish Things, both issued in October 1973. Over the years, the covers album has become a stop-gap release, an easy contractual completion option. Things went from excellent – Elvis Costello's country homage Almost Blue in 1981 – to middling – Medusa by Annie Lennox and the ubiquitous Reload by Tom Jones and myriad duet partners in the Nineties – to bad to worse in the noughties with middle-aged rockers and reality-show contestants.

David Rotheray, formerly Paul Heaton's co-writer in The Beautiful South, and now the creator of the Answer Ballads project, cringes as he recollects Golddiggas, Headnodders and Pholk Songs, the 2004 album on which the South revisited ELO, Blue Öyster Cult and the Ramones. “Generally covers albums are mistakes. They happen when people are in a fallow period creatively. Good covers albums are rare. I can think of individual songs that've worked but not whole albums. ”

However, this autumn will see a spate of releases set to reinvigorate the covers album. Peter Gabriel's Real World label will finally issue And I'll Scratch Yours, the companion collection to his 2010 covers album Scratch My Back, with David Byrne, Elbow, Lou Reed and Paul Simon returning the favour. Latin pop sensation Gloria Estefan will release The Standards, which includes songs from the Great American Songbook as well as ones she has adapted into Spanish, Italian and French.

“I love the Romance languages. I really wanted to include other countries in this celebration of standards,” says Estefan. “I chose songs that had something to do with my life, my history. We recorded live, how they used to do. I'm thrilled how it turned out.”

On Imitations, Mark Lanegan also stretches the envelope with his takes on Gérard Manset's “Elégie Funèbre” and Jacques Prévert's “Les Feuilles Mortes”. But it's Rotheray who seems to have solved the covers album conundrum with The Answer Ballads. The idea came to him when he heard The Police's “Roxanne” on a juke-box.

“I dislike the song but I've always wondered what she said, not to Sting, but to the guy. The same with ”Jolene“. Those two characters stuck in my mind. Also, what happened to Elton John's Daniel? It's an intellectual conceit,” he expands about this unusual project he has carried off with considerable aplomb with collaborators like Eliza Carthy, Kris Drever and Kathryn Williams, who composed the music for “Roxanne's Song”.

“I really the idea of being the voice of ”Roxanne“. I wanted her voice to be sarcastic and tough and cynical at this man thinking she needed help,” says Williams, who will issue Crown Electric, her ninth album of original material, next month.

“I always liked the slightly oddball covers albums by Nina Simone or Eartha Kitt. On Sentimental Eartha, she did several Donovan covers. But there have been too many people riding on the brilliance of a song, the key change, the acrobatics. ”Hallelujah“ has been completely hijacked. If you can't compete with the original, you should turn it around and do something different.”

'Imitations' by Mark Lanegan is out on 16 September on Heavenly. His tour starts on 1 November. 'And I'll Scratch Yours' is out on 23 September on Real World. Peter Gabriel tours from the 21 October. 'Crown Electric' by Kathryn Williams is out on 30 September on One Little Indian. Her tour starts on 10 September. 'Answer Ballads', created and curated by David Rotheray, is out on 14 October on Navigator. 'The Standards' by Gloria Estefan is out on 21 October on Sony. She plays the Royal Albert Hall on 17 October

Sing it again! Ten master versions

David Bowie - Pin Ups

The covers album that launched a thousand copycats. Released in October 1973, at the height of glam rock, Bowie's homage to the Sixties acts who had influenced him, particularly The Who and The Pretty Things – they both got two tracks apiece – topped the British charts for a month. A second volume never materialised though, over the last four decades, the superstar has recorded enough covers to fill up at least two CDs.

Bryan Ferry - These Foolish Things

Also issued in October 1973, the solo debut by the Roxy Music frontman went Top Five. Its track listing ranged from Brill Building pop to the Rolling Stones via the Beach Boys, but being named after '“These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)”, composed by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey, gave it a certain cachet. The suave Ferry became a covers-album habitué, releasing the equally nostalgic “Another Time, Another Place” in 1974 and the more diverse “Taxi” in 1993 before focusing on standards with “As Time Goes By” in 1999 and tackling the Robert Zimmerman oeuvre on “Dylanesque” in 2007.

John Lennon - Rock'n'Roll

The contractual-obligation covers album. Recorded by the ex-Beatle during his mid-Seventies lost weekend to placate the music publisher Morris Levy who felt “Come Together'' borrowed too heavily from Chuck Berry's ”You Can't Catch Me“. Lennon agreed to revisit the Berry classic along with two more Levy-controlled tunes, including Lee Dorsey's ”Ya Ya'“, but always felt there was ”a jinx on that album“. The cover photo taken in Hamburg in 1960 neatly references the days when the Fab Four's repertoire mostly consisted of covers.

UB40 - Labour Of Love

The career-rescue covers album. When “UB44” failed to repeat the success of their first two studio releases, the Birmingham band dusted off the reggae favourites of their childhood – ''Red Red Wine'', ''Many Rivers To Cross'', ''Cherry Oh Baby'' – and created a chart-topping monster in 1983. They repeated the trick impressively in 1989 but less so in 1998 and 2010. New album “After The Storm” mixes originals and country covers.

Rage Against the Machine - Renegades

When they split up in 2000, the American rap-metal band left behind three incendiary albums and this revelatory collection of covers, referencing Cypress Hill, Devo and Dylan. Named after Afrika Bambaataa's “Renegades of Funk”, it introduced the MC5 and the Stooges to a whole new generation of fans.

Tori Amos - Strange Little Girls

The high-concept covers album. In 2001, the bewitching pianist and vocalist put a feminine spin on male songs ranging from Slayer's “Raining Blood” to the Stranglers' “Strange Little Girl”. Most inspired was her reworking of Lloyd Cole's “Rattlesnakes” and her delivery of the “a girl needs a gun these days” lyric.

Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around

Hard to pick the best of the five “American Recordings” albums Rick Rubin produced for the Man in Black at the end of his storied career. The last volume issued before Cash's death in 2003, “IV” contains sparse renditions of “Hurt”, composed by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus”.

Kathryn Williams - Relations

The covers album as therapy. After her early success, the Mercury Prize nominee went through a rocky patch but fell back in love with music through other people's songs. It is a favourite of author Ian Rankin and Crosby, Stills and Nash, who I gave copies to in 2004. The trio particularly enthused about her takes on songs by The Byrds, Neil Young and Jackson Browne.

Rhydian - Waves

Four years after making 2007 “X Factor” runner-up, the Welsh baritone issued this impressive selection of cult 1980s electro tracks, including the eponymous moody Blancmange hit.

Iggy Pop - Après

The foreign-language covers album. Having tackled the French standard “Les Feuilles Mortes” on “Préliminaires”, his 2009 album inspired by a Michel Houellebecq novel, last year the Stooges frontman went the whole hog with this collection of chansons made famous by Gainsbourg and Piaf. Magnifique!

...And two unoriginal sins

Duran Duran - Thank You

The covers-album nadir. In 1995, Simon Le Bon, John Taylor and Nick Rhodes tried to follow in the footsteps of Bowie and Ferry but ended up cutting abysmal versions of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel's “White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)” and Public Enemy's “911 Is A Joke”. No thanks.

Rod Stewart - When We Were The New Boys

He can be a supreme interpreter but can also cruise like no other vintage rocker. Rod the Mod issued seven consecutive covers sets – including five “Great American Songbook” collections – between 2002 and 2010. However, none were as bad as the Britpop manqué of this 1998 release on which he covered Oasis (“Cigarettes and Alcohol”) and Primal Scream (“Rocks”).