I’ll be honest: I’ve never worn a pair of Levi’s. The truth is I was such a total geek when I was in school that I didn’t wear jeans at all. I wore corduroys. Lots and lots of corduroys. Almost always: corduroys. Thankfully, I eventually grew out of that phase (though I still admire a man who can confidently rock a set of wide-wales), I never really accepted the notion of laying down respectable amounts of money for blue jeans. Count me among the Shopko shoppers in this department. Sorry Levi’s. I like their ads though. With all the Walt Whitman poetry and revolutionary youngsters running around bonfires all free and stuff.

But it was a musical stunt they pulled this summer which landed Levi’s Jeans in my facebook news feed. Starting in May, they posted two free song downloads to their website each week until, a couple months later, they’d posted an entire album’s worth of songs – 13 in all, and all cover versions – a diverse and optimistic collection of songs performed by an equally diverse and generally unassailable roster of artists, including up-and-comers like recent Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham, current hipster faves like The Dirty Projectors and Passion Pit, R&B and hip-hop veterans Raphael Saadiq and Nas, and a couple of crunchy granola adult contemporary stars Colbie Caillat and Jason Mraz, the former making a surprisingly convincing case that Blondie’s millennial-era reunion wasn’t a complete waste of our time with a cover of “Maria”, the latter enlisting a gospel choir for an unabashedly gimmicky revival of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. From their introduction to the series:

While much has changed about music over the past 50 years (artists, genres, popularity, formats, distribution, etc.), one thing remains true: The song is everything.

The campaign (which has since ended) was called Levi’s Pioneer Sessions: The 2010 Revival Recordings, and though you can’t find it on CD, this collection is one of the best covers albums I’ve heard of late. The performances are generally casual and unfussy, but delivered with genuine affection. That part about the song being everything? It sounds like these artists’ mean it. John Legend and the Roots preview their just-released collection of vintage funk social consciousness Wake Up Everybody with a solid, horn-driven revival of the Stax/Volt obscurity “Our Generation”, while Ryan Bingham, with a courage bordering on foolhardiness, takes on a Stax/Volt classic – Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” – and turns it into a devotional hymn for a whiskey-voiced loser.

While Saadiq’s cover of the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame” is a virtual clone of the original and The Shins faithfully reproduce Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook’s signature at-octave “harmony” lead vocals on Squeeze’s “Goodbye Girl”, the best entries are also (no surprise) the ones that represent an actual departure in sound. In the reconstructive hands of Colombia’s dance-pop quintet Bomba Estereo, Technotronic’s house classic “Pump Up the Jam” is still a great dance song, but it’s a decidedly trippier, more disorientingly exotic (and, yes, bilingual) experience.

Elsewhere, Passion Pit wring even more swooning starlit reverie out of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” with their synth-spangled cover, while Glen Hansard (with Marketa Irglova as The Swell Season) sings Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” (with gender-unadjusted lyrics) as a strummy folk admonishment – like someone played a joke on him and told him the 1976 disco hit was actually a Cat Stevens original.

The one real bummer of the collection has nothing to do with the music, but with the cumbersome download process itself. There’s no way to download the entire 13 song “album” all at once – you have to click to each track individually, and even then, the website directs you to your e-mail inbox where each individual automatically sent e-mail re-directs you back to the site to actually complete the download. Urgh. That said, each of the tracks comes with a (pretty cool) customized thumbnail graphic, and if you’re not hot on that, each song’s webpage includes several downloadable photos of the artists, along with “liner notes” for their track. The inconvenience of the download process is easily outweighed by the quality of the music on offer – but also, duh, it’s totally free.