Dec 162016
 

Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

best cover songs

2016 in music will be most remembered for one thing: death. It seemed like an unprecedented list of major musical figures left us this year: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen. The list, sadly, goes on and on.

Prominent passings affect many aspects of the music world, but the impact is particularly clear in the world of cover songs: When an artist dies, a lot of people cover his or her songs. The world was hardly hurting for Prince covers before April 21, but afterwards, to paraphrase the man himself, we went crazy. Bruce Springsteen alone became a one-man tribute machine, covering Bowie, Prince, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, and Suicide’s Alan Vega after they died (it’s a shame his tour ended before Cohen passed because he’d do a great “Everybody Knows”). Our list this year features a number of these tribute covers – though both the Cohen covers listed were actually released before his death, proving there’s no need to wait to honor one of the greats.

Our list also features fantastic final covers by the recently departed, brilliant song-interpreters like Sharon Jones and Allen Toussaint. The fact that they died may add extra meaning to these new songs, but they’d make the list regardless. Whether they performed wonderful covers or wrote wonderful songs for others to cover, we miss these artists because they were great. They don’t need any “death bump.”

The year wasn’t all dire though. Our list features many covers by and of artists who are alive in every sense of the word. Kendrick Lamar and Drake represent the new world of hip-hop, Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson in country, Animal Collective and Joyce Manor in indie rock, and in too many other genres to name. Jason Isbell currently holds a streak here, making his third consecutive appearance this year.

We also have plenty of artists whose names I won’t highlight here, because you probably won’t have heard of them…yet. We’re not in the business of predicting fame – the music industry is far too fickle for that – but some of our past best-cover winners have gone on to big things this year, like Chance the Rapper (2014 winner) and The Weeknd (2012 winner). Hell, Sturgill (#3 in 2014) just got an Album of the Year Grammy nomination!

Those early covers may have helped kick off such success. A revelatory cover song can help a musician attract early attention. When I interviewed Mark Mothersbaugh recently, he said no one understood what Devo was doing until they covered “Satisfaction.” A familiar song done Devo-style finally made the connection for people. “Whip It” and other original hits would not be far behind.

Maybe some of this year’s under-the-radar names will go on to Weeknd-level superstardom. But even if they don’t, all these covers, by household names and Garageband geeks alike, deserve recognition. We’ll miss all the great musicians who left us this year, but it’s gratifying to see so many promising younger artists coming in to fill their shoes.

– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)

PS. Last year in this space, I mentioned I’m writing a book about cover songs. Well, Cover Me (the book, that is) is finished and will be out next year! In addition to the aforementioned Mothersbaugh, I interviewed Roger Daltrey about “Summertime Blues,” David Byrne about “Take Me to the River,” and many more. Follow our Facebook for updates on preorder, etc. Now, on to the countdown…

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  9 Responses to “The Best Cover Songs of 2016”

Comments (9)
  1. How did another moody slowed down version of happy pop song cynically put together for a movie trailer make it all the way to number 1?

    • You’re right that there are many covers like that these days, but for what it’s worth, “S.O.S.” was not used in the trailer. The song was not even released for months after the movie came out, until the band wanted to pay tribute to a murdered politician.

      • Also, I’d argue that Portishead’s motivations for recording the song were far from cynical. In the context of the movie High-Rise, “S.O.S.”‘s effect is devastating. If the band recorded the song for the sole purpose of having a hit, I’d agree with you, but self-interest is sorely lacking here.

        If any of these 50 songs get you smiling, humming, or thinking, then we’ve done our job. We hope they make you want to hear more from the artists involved, whether covered or covering.

  2. There is a little gem of a cover of the Patti Smith classic, “Dancing Barefoot”, by her Majesty. It is sexy and sultry and trippy.

  3. Disturbed’s Sound(s) of Silence? Come on! How could you leave this out???

  4. Great list! I really appreciate the trouble all of you go to over the course of the year listening and finding things and writing them up…and then making this list from among all those selections.
    See ya in 2017~

  5. C’mon man, And I Bid You Goodnight is a Joseph Spence song, and anyone writing about music should know that. And it had been covered many times (most notably by The Incredible String Band) before the Dead got to it. If you want to make a list of “Best Cover of A Cover Song”, then you can include Sam Amidon covering the Grateful Dead covering The Incredible String Band covering Joseph Spence.

  6. thanks for the list. while a lot of the songs dont do much to me (as a cover and orginal) there were some nice finds in that i (as always not very observant) totally missed before but liked:
    Sinéad O’Connor cover, her voice sounded very nice on that track.
    really loved roy peaks version of miss ohio. has a nice bit more energetic take on it.
    Norah Jonescover was nice too
    Lucinda Williams made me emotional. so much thanks.
    i personaly would have gave 41 shots the first place from this songs.

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