Ryan Adams' 1989 (and five other times artists covered entire albums)
Ryan Adams has been one of the most prolific singer-songwriters in recent memory, releasing 15 solo albums in as many years and earning himself a loyal following in the process, but while some of his albums have achieved the commercial success to match their artistic merit (both Ashes & Fire and Ryan Adams reached the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic), few have generated quite as many headlines as this year's offering, 1989. That's partly down to the fact that Adams has taken the rather unusual step of covering Taylor Swift's album of the same name in its entirety, but what's remarkable from the coverage surrounding the album's release is not just the fact that 1989 has divided opinion, but the reasons why.
You see, rightly or wrongly, there are some quarters of the press for whom an artist like Ryan Adams will always be more 'credible' than one like Taylor Swift, because they consider the latter 'merely' pop music. But the argument has expanded even beyond that in recent weeks; when The New Yorker ran a review of Adams' version, stating that in his hands these songs had become “more authentic, raw, or genuine”, a response in the New York Times accused Adams of enabling this “mansplaining” of Swift's songs, accusing the reviewer of treating Swift as “a thing to be looked at” rather than listened to.
Adams, for his part, is horrified that the discussion around the record has taken on such a gender-based dimension, and rightly so. Swift, too, has given the project her full support from the very beginning, having been a long time admirer of Adams' work and having already worked with him during the making of her album Red. Adams intended 1989 to be a tribute to the work of an artist he genuinely admires, and if any proof were needed you only have to point to an interview he gave to The Guardian earlier this year in which he said the process of covering Swift's songs was “like being in Ghostbusters or something, and then all of a sudden I have to go do Shakespeare.”
There is, however, some truth buried in the arguments outlined above; Swift, as Adams is at pains to point out, is a brilliant lyricist and sometimes that can get lost underneath all the big, glossy production and obscured behind the perfectly choreographed dance routines, at least for the casual observer. What Adams does here is strip everything back and allow the brilliance of Swift's writing to shine through – and when it works, the effect is staggering. Lyrics on tracks like 'Out of the Woods', laid bare and free from the shimmering synths, are revealed to be stark and powerful: “The rest of the world was in black and white / But we were in screaming colour”.
It works both ways though. Take 'Shake It Off', for example. In Swift's hands, words like “I go on too many dates / But I can't make them stay / At least that's what people say” sound dismissive, even defiant. When Adams sings them, he sounds like he's taken the criticism to heart. That's what's interesting about 1989; it isn't just Adams offering a new perspective on Swift's value as an artist, he's also highlighting that strong material remains strong whoever performs it, and that really great writing is open to a variety of interpretations.
He's not the first artist to cover an entire album though, in fact there are some brilliant examples of this. We've picked five of the best of them below...
Camper Van Beethoven – Tusk (originally by Fleetwood Mac)
Faced with the task of following up a huge album like Rumours, Fleetwood Mac hunkered down in the studio for more than two years making the sprawling and progressive Tusk, spending over $1 million in the process. It proved a task so laboured and stressful that at one point guitarist Lindsey Buckingham emerged from the shower having freaked out and cut off all his own hair with a pair of nail scissors.
So what happens when Camper Van Beethoven, a band best known for lo-fi pop punk gems like 'Take the Skinheads Bowling', give themselves just four days in which to recreate this magnum opus? As it turns out, something quite brilliant.
Easy Star All Stars – Dub Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd)
East Star All Stars have quite literally made a career out of covering albums in their entirety, having provided the dub reggae treatment to records like Radiohead's OK Computer and The Beatles Sergeant Pepper, but it all began with this excellent reworking of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. It manages to be both a faithful recreation and a complete re-interpretation all at once. Highly recommended listening for anyone who loves the original, especially if you're also partial to some reggae vibes.
Beck's Record Club – Velvet Underground & Nico (Velvet Underground)
Beck began roping in friends like Thurston Moore and Nigel Godrich for his Record Club project back in 2009 with the aim of creating their own versions of entire records. Since then, he and a rotating cast of musicians have applied the cover treatment to albums by INXS, Leonard Cohen and – God help us – Yanni. The first of these though was their take on The Velvet Underground's most famous album and it's a weird, wonderful beast.
Pussy Galore – Exile on Main Street (The Rolling Stones)
The American garage rockers were reportedly the main inspiration behind Camper Van Beethoven's attempts to recreate Fleetwood Mac's most polarising work, having applied the same approach some years earlier when they decided to cover the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street from start to finish. Their version, it's fair to say, is a much wilder, more raw interpretation of the Stones' material (it begins with a recording of a woman saying “Hello, I hate your f***ing guts”). They've deconstructed it completely, although it's almost as if they haven't quite figured out how to put it back together again. But regardless of how ragged it sounds at times, tracks like 'Happy' and 'Loving Cup' sound as if they are were always meant to be performed with the urgency of unadulterated punk rock.
(Sadly this was only ever a limited run cassettte release whose reputation has far outgrown its commercial success, so if you ever find a copy, hang on to it; they go for quite a bit on eBay these days...)
Booker T. & The MGs – Abbey Road / McLemore Avenue (The Beatles)
The earliest example on this list – and the only one where the covering artist has messed around with the original running order – comes courtesy of Booker T. & The MGs, who released their version of The Beatles' Abbey Road just a few months later, under the new title McLemore Avenue (the address of their own record company and studio, Stax).
Almost entirely an instrumental album, McLemore Avenue takes The Beatles' final album and smothers it in layers of Hammond organ-drenched funk and soul. If you only dig out one album on this list, make it this one.