Following their viral cover of Toto’s “Africa,” Weezer surprise released The Teal Album last night (Jan. 23), giving fans and curious bystanders a covers LP chock full of vintage karaoke faves: a-ha, Michael Jackson, TLC and more. Weezer’s effort comes not too long after Cher’s all-ABBA covers album Dancing Queen, which was similarly faithful in execution but deliriously delightful thanks to the energy and love poured into each performance.
That started us thinking about the long history of covers albums, from the countless compilations boasting a dozen or so artists tackling one icon’s catalog to celebrated covers albums from legends like Metallica, Johnny Cash, Rage Against the Machine, Nick Cave and the Flaming Lips (not to mention the plentiful all-Dylan covers albums people have been churning out since the ’60s).
But instead of walking down familiar paths, we’re taking a look at 10 underappreciated covers albums – LPs that were either unjustly maligned upon release, entirely ignored or somewhat forgotten in the sands of time. It includes everything from Prince covers by Yo La Tengo’s bassist to a full-on recreation of Judy Garland’s iconic Carnegie Hall live album.
Cat Power, The Covers Record (2000)
Opening with a deeply despairing cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” (second only to Devo’s bizarro deconstruction of the song), most of Chan Marshall’s LP spotlights underground faves such as Moby Grape and Smog. But with her spare, lonely and resigned delivery, Marshall sings these songs as if they could come from no other pen but hers.
Def Leppard, Yeah! (2006)
With the amount of classic rock bands turning in half-assed collections of the songs that inspired them to pick up the gee-tar, you can be forgiven for sleeping on Def Lep’s 2006 covers album. But consider this your screeching alarm to wake up and check out the hard rock band’s deft takes on everything from the slinky glam of T. Rex to their fist-pumping rework of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” Yeah! is right.
Macy Gray, Talking Book (2012)
Released 40 years after Stevie Wonder’s 1972 classic, her start-to-finish recreation of his game-changing LP deserves far more attention than it got upon its 2012 release. Her smoky, lilting voice lends itself perfectly to a faithful rendition of opener “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” but on “Superstition,” she strips down the funk, amps up the eerie blues vibe and delivers a startlingly fresh take on an endlessly played radio hit.
Elvis Costello, Almost Blue (1981)
At the height of his commercial viability in the early ’80s, Elvis Costello slipped into his spurs and indulged his penchant for old-fashioned country & western music. The critics responded with confusion and the fans ignored it, but decades later, Almost Blue – featuring smirk-free, heart-rending versions of classics from Don Gibson and George Jones – is the first indication that Costello was more than a sharp-penned rocker: He was a first-rate interpreter of songbook material.
Patti Smith, Twelve (2007)
More than just a covers album, Patti Smith makes the dozen songs on Twelve sound entirely hers – an especially astonishing feat considering one of the tunes in question is Nirvana’s signature song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which she recasts as a dark banjo nightmare featuring a spoken word detour. Equally arresting is her yearning take on Paul Simon’s “Boy In the Bubble” and her lovely version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (released well before Lorde and Weezer tackled it).
Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism (2018)
Ever uninhibited by genre, Meshell Ndegeocello’s 2018 covers album features sublime reworks of everything from freestyle classics (check her syncopated take on Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If I Take You Home”) to new jack slow jams (Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day” sounds ethereal in her hands) to the Minneapolis sound (here, “Funny How Times Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” dips its toe into post-rock territory). Despite the title, this is a master’s course in making another’s work your own.
Dump, That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice? (2001)
Listen, no one asked the Yo La Tengo bassist to deliver an all-Prince covers album under the unfortunate moniker Dump. But just like starfish and coffee are an unexpectedly perfect pairing, James McNew and songs from the Purple Pen turned out to be a strangely compelling match, with his lo-fi “1999” exploring the haziness and foreboding doom lingering beneath the surface of the original.
Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall (2007)
For those not beholden to a rock-centric retelling of musical history, Judy Garland’s 1961 live effort Judy at Carnegie Hall stands as perhaps the finest live album of all time (top 10, at the very least). Singer-songwriter (and friend of Dorothy) Rufus Wainwright recreated her LP onstage at Carnegie Hall in 2006 with similarly scintillating results. Although he hardly imitates her vocal styling, the undercurrent of sadness flitting through his voice — not to mention the precision of his enunciation — makes him the perfect vehicle for irony-free takes on standards from the first half of the 20th century.
Shonen Knife, Osaka Ramones (2011)
For their 30th anniversary, all-female Japanese pop-punk trio Shonen Knife turned to genre progenitors the Ramones for Osaka Ramones, a tribute album that zings by at breakneck speed. Whether demanding the airwaves, beating on the brat or hitching a ride to Rockaway Beach, Shonen Knife demonstrates the universal appeal of a few chords and a lot of attitude.
Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones, Foreverly (2013)
After hitting it big with “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” (Nos. 2 and 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively) in 1957, The Everly Brothers took a commercial 180 with Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a haunting, sparse collection of traditional folk songs. Murder ballads and tales of children visiting dying moms weren’t exactly ’50s teen fodder, and the album missed the Billboard 200 entirely. Still, it paved the way for rock and pop stars to assert their authenticity via stripped-down releases, a trend that continues to this day. In 2013, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and adult contemporary whisperer Norah Jones paid homage to that prescient release with the covers LP Foreverly. Jones is certainly better suited to the Everly’s countrified harmonies, but Armstrong acquits himself surprisingly well, capturing the guileless, bittersweet quality of their style.