Following on from the Cover Album, there are many many fine Cover Versions out there.
And probably the same number (if not more) of bad cover versions too
But ... which is the best (a highly subjective question which I'm sure you'll disagree with my suggestion)
For me, it's a straight fight between John Otway's "House Of The Rising Sun" and William Shatner's " Common People"
Otway's version is a staple of his live show featuring a call and response with the audience - he sings a line, they shout back a question. The audience asks a question, Otway acts like he's never heard the question before, and then gives the answer in an explanatory tone of voice. I've seen John Otway live several times over the past (ahem) years, and this is the one song that is always in the set. If he left it out, I think the audience may lynch him.
William Shatner plays it dead straight, despite the fact that his tone of voice and ennunciation just has more than a touch of comedy about it. Lifted from his fourth (!) album - 'Has Been' - the "playing it straight" card is assisted by the presence of Ben Folds on piano and production duties, lyrics supplied by Nick Hornby for one track, and a guest list including Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, and Adrian Belew.
The comedy/novelty element is kept in check on this album, but it was the next album - 'Seeking Major Tom' - provided 12 cover versions delivered in Bill's indomitable style, which was probably not "played straight".
I think it's fair to say the William Shatner was not the greatest of actors. And by the same token, Airplane II was not the greatest of films. But add the 2 together and you get this:
But which Cover Version is better? I dunno - you be the judge ...
John Otway - House Of The Rising Sun
William Shatner - Common People
These are two of the finest covers versions out there (there are many others, but I've chosen these two).
As said above, there are a plethora of bad ones - the video for this Pulp track contains bad cover versions in the flesh.
I'm imagining one of three conversations in the Spectrum Records offices at the time of preparation and release:
"Shall we leave "Free Bird" off and see if anyone notices?"
"Are you sure you've covered their whole career, and this album is definitive?". "Yes, I think so. Can't see anything missing" (3 months later: "Whoops!")
"Do you know, I've heard that song so often I'm fed up with hearing it and refuse to put it on the album"
Now if it was Number 3, then all I can say is "Fool!"
You may think you've heard the song enough times, know every phrase, movement and guitar accent. But the moment that organ starts, the acoustic strummed chords kick in, and that shrill guitar intro leads into the song, one cannot help but reach for the volume knob and revel in the next 9 minutes (or longer if you plump for one of the many fine fine live versions out there).
There was a time, many years ago, before Pop Music was out of nappies, that every album was effectively a Covers album. The guys and gals singing were singing someone else's song. Tin Pan Alley and Denmark Street were awash with people writing songs to order, or flogging songs to Music Publishers who would place the tune with an artist, or a manager for use by one of his stable (minnions?).
And then, specifically in the early 60s, bands started to wrote their own songs and slowly began to wrestle power away from the record companies, music publishers, and producers. This wasn't an overnight thing, as Session Musicians enjoys healthy employment as producers continued to call in their favourite players to get a track done quickly and out to market. In the US, session musicians (examples include: Booker T & The MGs, The Funk Brothers, The Wrecking Crew, and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) were in constant demand until the early to mid 70s. Big names of 60s/70s stareted out as session musicains picking up a straight fee wherever they could before their dreams of fame and fortune arived - Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Ritchie Blackmore, Herbie Flowers, Nicky Hopkins, Rick Wakeman, Elton John (and in the words of Jimmy Cricket, there's more). The session musician did not disappear in the late 60s/early 70s - some of the most fruitful employment was the slew of Budget albums like Hot Hits and Top Of The Pops where facsimile versions of chart hits were created and flogged in Woolworths at a quarter of the price of the original versions.
So, there's always been a healthy trade in Covers Albums, but they didn't usually form part of a bands catalogue. It was not uncommon for B Sides or Album tracks to be carefully selected cover versions of their own influence and desire. Indeed it was an easy way for bands to fill up a spare 3 minutes - knock out a cover version from their early days.
Now, I'm not professing to give a definitive history of who produced the first Covers Album, but I've got a sneaky suspicion the oeuvre may have been invented by David Bowie in 1973 when he released 'Pin Ups'. 'Pin Ups' came after 'Aladdin Sane' and marked the point where Ziggy Stardust left the building. It was a worthy concept - Dave paying tribute to the bands and songs that influenced him when starting out in the mid 60s. Only problem I have with it is that some of the songs sound thrown together and played by a Pub Band. Second place goes to Bryan Ferry with 'These Foolish Things' - a collection of 60s songs and standards that obviously influenced him, and rendered in his best Lounge Lizard drawl. Actually released a week before 'Pin Ups', but Bowie wins because his star was somewhat higher than Bryan's.
John Lennon did a similar thing during his Lost Weekend in 1973 (which went on until 1975, when his 'Rock & Roll' album saw the light of day. And then marked the start of his 5 year retirement until 1980). However, this was not an artistic decision. More a penance for nicking a bit too much of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" for The Beatles "Come Together". Part of the settlement with Maurice Levy was for Lennon to record 3 songs and all royalties would be funneled to Levy (It's also believed Allen Klein was involved somewhere securing "double bubble " from Lennon, similar to the court case for George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord").
In the world of covers albums, the next major stopping point is UB40s multi selling 'Labour Of Love' - an album that probably did as much (if not more) than Bob Marley in bringing Reggae to the mass British public. Knowing they were on to a good thing, 2 more 'Labour Of Love' collections rolled out over the next 15 years.
Towards the end of the 90s, the covers album seemed to become more commonplace. Some were released to fulfill a contract (Ramones 'Acid Eaters'), some to plug a gap between albums (Guns n Roses 'Spaghetti Incident') or just to ease yourself back into the world of recording (Madness 'Dangermen Sessions'). Let us not forget those other contractual obligations where previously recorded cover versions were collected together and issued as a "New" album - Motorhead 'Under The Covers' and Manic Street Preachers 'Lipstick Traces' are 2 worthy efforts worth seeking out. There are obviously many others out there, but most fall into the "listen once" category - an interesting exercise, but no real "come back-ability" to them (others like Duran Duran's 'Thank You' you will probably listen to twice just to confirm you did hear what you thought you heard - is there a worse choice of cover version for Duran Duran than Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines"?).
Another route with covers albums is to take songs from one genre and re-interpret them in another - fancy some Classic Rock performed in bluegrass style? Hayseed Dixie will deliver on that whim. Your favourite punk and new wave tracks given a lounge bossa nova makeover? Nouvelle Vague is the answer. Classic albums given rendered as Dub Reggae? The Easy All Stars are the band for you.
One of the better covers efforts of recent years was Matthew Sweet & Susannah Hoffs - Under The Covers project (now collected together in 3 disc package). It's the combination of song choices, the playing, and the sheer enjoyment that come across in the performance that makes these albums more than just a collection of covers.
Which brings me nicely to the point of this post (oh, you have got one then?)
If you are going to do a covers album, you don't necessarily need to re-invent arrangements, lyrics, or the feeling of the song - just place your own stamp on it (which is what Sweet and Hoffs did above). And is exactly what Kate Rusby is doing with 'Hand Me Down'. One of her own personal stamps is her strong Barnsley accent, which renders the tracks both recognisable, and sufficiently different on each hearing.
Kate Rusby - The Barnsley Nightingale - has been re-interpreting old songs for many years, and wowing folk audiences in the process. But who says Folk Singers should only do Trad Arr tunes, or songs from a long way past. Why not stuff from the last 30 or so years? Why not, it's all musical history, and is just another way of preserving history for a mass audience in future generations.
She's produced a dozen albums across the last 20 or so years, and each one contains something (many things) of interest. OK, her Christmas albums are a bit twee, but 'Awkward Annie' (from 2007) is worth seeking out - if only for the cover of "Village Green Preservation Society".
Versions of 'True Colours' and 'Carolina On My Mind' add a certain raw emotion to proceedings, as do 'Manic Monday' and 'Friday I'm In Love'. OK, her version of "Days" doesn't quite match Kirsty MacColl's (how could it?), but there is little to disappoint. And the award for "Most Unlikely Cover Version Choice" must surely go to "Maybe Tomorrow (The Theme From The Littlest Hobo".
Oh, and you know that mangling of genres I mentioned above? The album finishes off with a folk rendition of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds"
Don't worry about a thing - just put this album on and enjoy the feeling of comfort in the songs, but the renewed interest of some different versions.