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There are many flavors of cover album: standards, tributes, dives into obscurity, curated selections of gems designed to sketch an artist’s sensibility. They’re all worth examining, because they all reveal something about the evolution of shared taste and cultural memory. The four albums reviewed below present varied approaches to engaging with the past. Some are startlingly original, which is the idea.

Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (American Laundromat)

What a glorious meeting of pop queens. Alternative rock icon and guitar hero Hatfield converts Newton-John’s biggest hits into distorted jangle-rock songs. Presumably indie chauvinists will find the gesture hilarious and/or beneath her, but Hatfield doesn’t disrespect the material. She obviously loves Newton-John’s songs, and sings with a fan’s dazzled admiration.

Whether inspired by her hero’s ebullience or just by coincidence, this album is faster and brighter than Hatfield’s norm. The guitars crunch and yowl, the drums are tough and blustery, with strategically placed strings and acoustic chords to add an airborne lightness.

Hatfield’s deadpan, slightly flat voice suits Newton-John’s cheery, perhaps too neatly developed pop melodies, producing a droll, amused quality that rejuvenates both the original songs and the bluntness of Hatfield’s own guitar-rock.

Although she revises, she doesn’t turn the songs into Juliana Hatfield songs. The material’s provenance is crucial to her project, for in this act of public adoration, she illustrates how mega-pop balladry and spiky indie confessionals are both borne of a revelatory weirdness — the urge to dramatize vulnerability, to overshare, to let your feelings gush forth and make a mess. While the originals usually mask this impulse behind pop formalism, Hatfield’s shambolic approach accentuates it, as Newton-John’s chirpiness finds a natural corollary in the bleeding guitar fuzz and Hatfield’s vocal quaver.

The central triumvirate of “Magic,” “Physical,” and “Totally Hot” demonstrates three different ways to rock — skewed, furious, and clunky — but all the tracks lash out with electric riffage, as the originals once glided on disco propulsion. “I Honestly Love You” aches with an embarrassed yearning that is the result of placing pop’s directness of expression in punk’s fragile electric context.

Although the definitive versions remain Newton-John’s, few monuments to fandom double so effectively as excuses for an artist to rock hard and show off her formal imagination. The secret lies in the delighted confidence that emerges when an artist believes the song she’s singing is absurdly, superlatively great, and she tries to convince you too.

Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin (Universal Nashville)

This is one of two Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute albums released simultaneously this year, with John overseeing the showbizzy pop-rock of Revamp: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin and Taupin collaborating with contemporary country artists on Restoration. Although the country edition is lighter and more tasteful, it often feels bogged down in empty reverence.

The idea, as Taupin has explained to Rolling Stone, is to countrify Elton John and thus reclaim both composer John, and, especially, lyricist Taupin, as figureheads of good old-fashioned Nashville writerly craft. It’s hardly a stretch — John and Taupin ransacked country as they did every other pop genre under the sun, and they share with the artists on this compilation an aptitude for catchy, well-made quasi-ballads with a hint of corn; countrifying Tumbleweed Connection and “Roy Rogers” is a no-brainer. As several tracks on Restoration demonstrate, many of Taupin’s similes and turns of phrase follow Nashville rules about figurative language, for example, when Lee Ann Womack sings “Honky Cat” with a particular fondness for the line “It’s like trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine.”

The concept backfires as half the artists perform their songs as faithfully and precisely as possible, adding and changing nothing, going through the motions to prove they’re worthy of singing Elton John. Without the pumped-up arena-ready schlock on Revamp, the album overcompensates in the other direction; the sunny guitar jangle and seeping waves of pedal steel favored by artist after artist seem encased in amber, warm but inert, collecting dust.

Singers as theoretically raucous as Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris try to stay in midtempo mode, while Chris Stapleton’s bellow turns “I Want Love” into a fist-pumping weeper. To my ears the best performances are by old-timers; thanks to Willie Nelson’s humility and Don Henley’s arrogance, neither is intimidated by John’s long shadow. Nelson’s “Border Song” stresses the final lyric (“He’s my brother/let us live in peace”) the way you’d hope an outspoken, liberal country singer would — and he’s the only singer in history to utter “Won’t you please excuse my frankness but it’s not my cup of tea” without sounding campy.

Compared to the all-encompassing pop hunger of 1970s-era John, country and mainstream rock are conservative genres in today’s commercial climate. I hope these two compilations are the start of something bigger and weirder. The potential of something like Elton Goes EDM! to be godawful, say, would suit him better than the caution displayed here.

Josh Groban: Bridges (Reprise)

Josh Groban, the most successful pop-classical singer of our time, walks a delicate tightrope between sex appeal and respectability, between vocal virtuosity and fun approachability, between the sanctity of his calling and the glitz of selling millions of records. With Bridges, he once again finds the most optimal synthetic settings to showcase the inspirational grandiosity of his technically proficient voice.

Groban’s singing has lightened since the overenunciation he strained for on the Broadway-themed Stages; the relatively simpler albeit string-drenched chamber-pop arrangements allow him room to breathe, and he displays a fuller and fruiter array of vocal textures.

Artists like Groban raise important questions about the value of originality in music. Do his fans value him as a singer for the sound of his voice or for the real human essence his voice ostensibly projects? “Is it better for Groban to perform chestnuts like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Celine Dion’s “S’il suffisait d’aimer,” or distinguish himself by writing his own creative songpoems about rivers and symphonies? While Groban’s compositions are new, and we don’t need another version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the latter is a better song than any of the former.

Questions of originality are mostly moot in Groban’s case; his original material has zero distinguishing attributes, informed as it is by decades of prewritten schmaltz. Even the accidentally creepy “More of You” (“I don’t look at you, I stare”; “I don’t miss you/I crave”) fits the pop industry’s universal ballad standard, building rather predictably toward an aggrandizing soar.

Groban’s return to adult contemporary after several years in the musical theater conveys the desperation of a man who missed raw schlock with all his heart, and on Bridges he lunges for it twice as hard. A pop-classical baritenor singing his own songs isn’t a crusader for honest self-expression. He’s an entertainer sucked into his own void.

Disney Peaceful Piano: Happy (Walt Disney)

Just as its title suggests, this peculiar album consists of nine songs from Disney films, rearranged and performed on solo piano. Slight, pokey, and minor though it is, it radiates an adorable charm.

I don’t know much about this album. While the copyrighted material and the credit to Walt Disney Records indicate an affiliation with Disney, scant information about the project is available online, and no specific pianist is credited. The recordings could have been preprogrammed, although they’re played with a perky, lived-in musicality that suggests a live musician’s instincts and touch. This is the bubbliest and kindliest installment in a longer series, with different albums devoted to different feelings, presumably intended as ambient mood music, the way mood-themed Spotify playlists recede into the background while one studies, exercises, falls asleep, etc.

While these friendly little pieces indeed provide excellent accompaniment while going about one’s day, they stand up upon close listens. The Disney songbook has sufficiently permeated the culture that most of these tunes should sound vaguely familiar even to those who haven’t watched many Disney movies (“A Spoonful of Sugar”, “I Wanna Be Like You”). However, these stripped-down and decontextualized versions remove the comforts of childhood nostalgia while leaving melodic comfort intact. Since most of the melodies are beautiful and the piano counterpoint is jauntily intricate, and carefully shaded, these arrangements reveal unexpected dimensions in superficially simple music. Their starkness, too, heightens the alien familiarity; there’s nothing catchier than an isolated melodic nugget. They strike a balance between calm and playful.

This is ideal mood music — sharp, discrete, tuneful, ambient but not formless. It’s just the thing if you need to cheer up, or cool down, or just follow along with the ups and downs of a pattering piano line.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...