The covers record is a complicated project for an artist. It often cements a move away from mainstream pop, and thus most covers albums are dismissed as irrelevant . Unfortunately, a good covers album marks an artistic achievement in taste, vocal performance, and production. This year's two best illustrations of this principle are Natalie Imbruglia's Male and Donna Lewis's Brand New Day. Both albums are the results of expert record making done with care.
Let's start of Imbruglia's Male, which takes on songs originally written and performed by men. There are no complicated gender politics here (despite the gender-centered concept), but Imbruglia takes these muscular pop songs and adds a lightness to them. Her voice has always carried a sense of class and sensitivity that helps these songs feel fresh. Her album's highlights include the first single "Instant Crush," "Goodbye in His Eyes," and a delightful banjo-inflected "Friday I'm in Love." Male plays through so well because Imbruglia has carefully attended to each production. At this point in her career, she is an expert record-maker, and her masterful approach refreshes these older tunes.
Fellow 90s star Donna Lewis takes a different angle on Brand New Day. Known for impeccable dance pop records, Lewis reinvents her sound by approaching her covers album as a laid-back jazz record. Her breathy voice and thoughtful delivery feel at home with these tunes. For example, her vocal on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" takes that song from a manic soul tune to a walk through the rain; it's an interesting transition because the jazz setting can feel at once cozy but complicated. Lewis also tackles songs like Bowie's "Bring Me the Disco King," standard "Walk on By," and her own megahit, "I Love You Always Forever," with skill. The album is a charming listen because Lewis sounds like she's enjoying this more organic sound, and the album feels alive.
Pop music is for the young, and some would argue that covers albums are less significant because they are about nostalgia rather than youth. However, taking that view can close a listener off from some great music.