A Cover Album Is A Tiny Museum Of Songs

The cover of Justin Vivian Bond's album Silver Wells, on which the cabaret performer uses other people's songs to construct a plotline that echoes the Joan Didion novel Play It As It Lays. (Courtesy of the artist)

I'm sorry, word police: I like the word "curator." When it started becoming fashionable in new media circles half a decade ago, I thought its rise as a catch-all for describing the paste-and-link proclivities of bloggers and their kin made a lot of sense. "Editing" felt too static, like something that belonged on paper; besides, old-media journalists claimed it as a badge of their superiority. "Borrowing" leaned too close to "theft" to feel comfortable. "Linking" was a little dull. To be a curator was (and is) to be elegant, educated, influential, and most importantly, monied. Even though no real new model for paying creative folk for Web endeavors has solidified, self-style curators can imagine themselves in couture black.

But ever since laptop whackers started calling themselves curators, others have decried the sloppy use of the term. The excellent Choire Sicha reignited this conversation recently at The Awl. Responding to a particularly sweeping statement by the artist Jonathan Harris, Sicha fumed, "As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot, I think I'm fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in a practice of curation." Others concurred.

Of course, this is a losing battle — language changes, that's all there is to it — but it got me thinking about what activities outside the world of museums and art galleries do, in fact, approach the curator's classic achievement. Within pop music, one effort most often gives artists this chance to fulfill the curatorial opportunity: the covers album.

What makes someone a true curator? Like Sicha, I held the official title for a while (at Seattle's EMP Museum), and I learned that it's more than picking out cool stuff to show off. This is true for musicians as well as Tumblr builders. Curators build cultural legacies. They tell stories through artful juxtapositions of words, images, sounds, sometimes textures, even smells. They make connections, sometimes virtual, often real, between creators, interpreters, and subjects.

Obviously not every covers album qualifies as a curated effort. Artists don't always select their own material. Others do so to appeal to a bottom line: the many releases by rock and pop elders designed to soothe tired baby boomer ears are mostly the equivalent of a mall gallery's display of flower paintings. (Some aren't so bad, though.) And sometimes curating seems built into playing certain kinds of music: jazz and folk make reimagining others' material fundamental. (There are certainly more self-conscious, high-concept efforts, like Roger McGuinn's Folk Den or the Blue Note 7). But when an artist makes a strong statement or tells a vivid story through careful and even provocative song selection, well-considered arrangements and thoughtful performance, I think she earns the lofty title Sicha's "filthy bloggers" don't really deserve.

Lately, there's been a rush of excellent examples of singer-songwriters acting as curators across the stylistic spectrum. Two goodies, Kelly Hogan's I Like To Keep Myself in Pain and The Cherry Thing, Neneh Cherry's collaboration with Swedish jazz ensemble The Thing, have recently been features as NPR Music First Listens. That's just a start in what's becoming a very good summer for the art of assertive interpretive pop. Whether exploring a genre, honoring an elder, bringing a community to life or exploring previously hidden crossroads, these inventive explorations demonstrate how appropriation becomes a creative act. Here are six standouts.

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The Historical Romp

Classic rock's sly coyote reunites with his favorite band to tramp through a chestnut field of sing-alongs, from "Oh Susanna" to "Gallows Pole" to the doo wop favorite "Get a Job." Heavy political statement or raucous good old time? Young's point is that American music at its best is both at once.

The Theatrical Turn

One of New York's favorite cabaret artists is a transgender warrior who for years performed as the seasoned-salty lounge singer Kiki DuRayne. Bond's theatrical streak reshapes itself on this collection: the songs form a parallel narrative to Joan Didion's novel Play It As It Lays, tapping into its themes of isolation and grim self-reliance through songs by tough storytellers like Mark Eitzel, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett's piano arrangements support Bond's intense soliloquys.

The Reckoning

This decidedly non-traditional Nashville lady is better known for saying "Yes to Booty" than embracing Jesus, but she grew up going to holy-roller services, and her trio's clear-eyed, rocked-up take on country church classics on this EP unearths the human emotion behind these cries to the divine. The Velvet Underground cover makes it ecumenical — she chose "Jesus," that decidedly profane band's holiest effort.

The Heritage Move

Rock bands sometimes escape their niches by revealing a passion for subgenres their fans may have not yet explored. Guns 'N' Roses did this with punk on The Spaghetti Incident; Metallica gave us their take on Queen and Thin Lizzy on Garage Inc. Now the veteran Norwegian metal band Ulver does the same, collecting favorites from the psychedelic sixties, honoring groups like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Troggs and The Beau Brummels. It's a trippy and surprisingly pleasurable listen.

The Self-Reinvention

Can you cover your own material? If you're Lionel Richie, you can – and it will take you all the way to the bank. The native Alabaman always put some twang into his funky Commodores material and quiet storm solo hits; working with big commercial country names like Jason Aldean, Shania Twain and Willie Nelson, he helps them feel at home in a genreless pop fantasy that listeners are loving: the album is the second highest selling of the year so far.

The Curveball

Macy Gray's collection Covered has been out for a few months, but it's worth a revisit. Always one of R&B's sneakiest eccentrics, Gray has fun here pushing eclecticism to its limits — she takes on Radiohead, Metallica, and Arcade Fire in crazily inventive arrangements, and just when you think she's settling into the alt-rock groove, she throws in some Kanye and Colbie Caillat. Plus, the between-song skits are actually funny. Gray embodies the curator as party thrower: you want to hang out in her gallery.

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