I think when they're just starting out, every musician dreams of making a cover album at some point down the road. We all have our favorite songs that we wish we had written and we all fantasize about singing and playing them ourselves. It's why karaoke bars exist.
Of course, everyone thinks they would do a bang-up job at their handpicked songs as well. This is, in all actuality, rarely ever the case and it's why so many of the best musicians pretty much abstain from covers altogether. You'd think karaoke bars would be enough proof that singing your favorite songs is rarely a successful endeavor when you attempt it.
Still, for better or worse, many try every year. Some are fulfilling a lifelong dream, some are honoring contractual obligations, some just want to remain in the spotlight with a quickie stopgap album, and still others just can't think of anything better to do with their studio time, especially if they're long established and well past the prime of their careers.
Regardless of the reason, the results are often less than stellar.
5. Paul McCartney, Kisses on the Bottom
What's worse than a bad cover album? A bad holiday-themed cover album. The abundance of horrible Christmas album filled with mawkish renditions of schmaltzy standards should go to show this to people, so maybe Macca thought he was being smart by circumventing that trope and doing a Valentine's Day album instead.
Not only did he turn in some of his worst love-song contributions of all time in the scarce originals contained within, but his covers of classic standards all sound like Paul performed them specifically with the intention of honoring his contract with Starbucks by handing them the most boring coffee-shop jazz-lite muzak in the world.
4. Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back
Ideally for such a musically ambitious innovator as Peter Gabriel, a cover album would be a delightful idea where we could hear him applying his masterful touch to classics by other such luminaries, such as David Bowie, David Byrne, Paul Simon and Lou Reed. Unfortunately the only thing masterful about this one is the song selection.
Gabriel made the right choice by picking classics by the aforementioned and mixing it up with some more recently acclaimed artists such as Radiohead, the Magnetic Fields, Bon Iver, and Arcade Fire. Gabriel ruined his own album's chances at success by choosing to record with only his piano and an orchestral backing and making arrangements for the songs that make them all maudlin to the point of ridiculousness. Never have I heard a more pitifully blue album and I also struggle to think of any that are more lifeless.
3. David Bowie, Pin Ups
David Bowie stands out among the rest on this list by being a wonderful interpreter of other people's songs by nature. He made "It Ain't Easy" entirely his own with the version on Ziggy Stardust. Even his later-era covers of the Pixies, the Modern Lovers, and George Harrison speak to his abilities as a cover artist.
So what went wrong in 1973, right in the middle of one of Bowie's most successful runs as an auteur? The problem is not the song choice. All those are inspired (The Who's "I Can't Explain," Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play"). Ultimately, it's just a dull and perfunctory exercise. Bowie adds absolutely nothing to the songs he's covering here and he plods along through them with extreme disinterest.
One suspects this turgid procession is a project Bowie approached in earnest then quickly tired of. It's the only way to explain it.
2. Guns N' Roses, The Spaghetti Incident?
Any fan of Guns N' Roses remembers what a debacle this was. Originally something of a stopgap, it ended up being the Gunners' last album until 2008 saw the release of Chinese Democracy. For all those years, fans had to live with the fact that the last note in the Guns n' Roses legacy was this unfortunate garbage, and for Slash devotees, it's still all they have.
The track selection theoretically should have been good, with choice picks from the Misfits, the Stooges, the Damned, and the New York Dolls. What went wrong is that the band was completely fractured by this point and their drug addictions had taken their toll, so the covers lack interesting arrangements or even sufficient performances.
It's a slapdash, devil-may-care affair that could have been good considering the G N' R style, but this one just missed the mark completely.
1. Everclear , The Vegas Years
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Everclear is bad enough to begin with (the band and the liquor), but covering classic songs? I had to ask myself, when listening to this album for this article, "what the hell am I getting myself into?" Well, I was right to be very afraid.
These power pop covers are dreadful all right. But were these guys drunk when they made the track selection too? They go from Yazoo to Thin Lizzy, Hall and Oates to the Speed Racer theme, Woody Guthrie to Tommy Tutone. To their credit, they somehow make this consistent in two ways. First, they translate each varying song to the "signature" Everclear style. Secondly, they make them all suck equally.