The usual disclaimer: Our monthly “Best Cover Songs” aren’t ranked, and the “Honorable Mentions” aren’t necessarily worse than the others.
Update: Hear me discuss this list, along with our Best Pink Floyd Covers ranking, on SiriusXM Volume:
Angus and Julia Stone – Passionfruit (Drake cover)
Three prominent indie artists covered Drake’s “Passionfruit” this month: Franz Ferdinand, Cornelius, and, the best of the bunch, Angus and Julia Stone. Covering a rap song is easier, I suppose, when there’s no actual rapping. Few political or racial minefields in the lyrics for artists to navigate help too (for a counterexample: this month’s worst cover). For Triple J’s great series “Like a Version,” Angus and Julia Stone brought their beautiful harmonies to a smooth soul bed. It floats like Gram and Emmylou singing a Marvin Gaye song.
Brownout – Fight the Power (Public Enemy cover)
What was I saying about avoiding political minefields? Never mind. Following their two-volume Black Sabbath tribute, Texan instrumental-funk collective dive into even more unexpected territory on their new album: Fear Of A Brown Planet. That’s right, they cover Public Enemy’s third album in its entirety. And they don’t shy away from the politics; before the killer horn jams kick in, “Fight the Power” opens with a deep-cut Killer Mike sample.
Con Brio – Heart Shaped Box (Nirvana cover)
Stomping electro-rock Nirvana covers have been done a lot. Two things separate this one from the pack: the blasting horn section, and lead singer Ziek McCarter’s soaring falsetto. It adds a welcome layer of soul over the expected pounding drums and synths.
Craig Cardiff – All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan cover)
The rarest of birds: A “Watchtower” cover that owes no debt to Hendrix. On his new Dylan tribute EP, singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff groups this alongside a handful of the more obvious early folk songs. In his delivery, it fits right in.
Downtown Boys – Fotos Y Recuerdos (Selena cover)
Hold tight, there’s a few layers in this one. On their new single, Rhode Island’s Sub Pop-signed punks cover Selena’s “Fotos Y Recuerdos.” But wait, you might think, I know that guitar riff, and I’ve never heard Selena. “Fotos Y Recuerdos” itself was a cover, a translated version of The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang.” Downtown Boys’ cover of a cover is a blast, a hollering blend of new-wave and hardcore.
Handsome Ghost – Maps (Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover)
As the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ready their comeback, we’re starting to see new covers of the one song everyone covers. And if you’re feeling mellow, Massachusetts duo Handsome Ghost’s subdued version is just the ticket. Singer-songwriter Tim Noyes and producer Eddie Byun create a version that starts sounding like a folkie Americana number, but builds into something else entirely.
Meiko – Super Freak (Rick James cover)
Meiko’s new ’90s covers album Playing Favorites offers a number of contenders for this list. Her acoustic version of Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” is soft and sweet, her “No Ordinary Love” finds the tender soul in a very different context than Sade, and her quiet take on Jennifer Paige’s “Crush” will get it stuck in your head as bad as it did 20 years ago. But let’s be honest: there’s no topping a straight-faced coffeeshop cover of Rick James (bitch).
Patrick Fitzsimmons – Every Kinda People (Robert Palmer cover)
I like Robert Palmer’s 1980s hits as much as anyone, but the steel drums render his Caribbean-influenced earlier work close to unlistenable for me. Luckily, along comes Vermont singer-songwriter Patrick Fitzsimmons to salvage “Every Kinda People” from faux-reggae shlock. With a string section and some jazz flourishes, Fitzsimmons delivers, to my ears, the new definitive version of this cheese-tastic song.
Roger Daltrey – How Far (Stephen Stills cover)
I can’t pretend to be an expert in Roger Daltrey’s solo career, but boy, this sounds like a later Who number. No surprise, perhaps, as Pete Townshend plays guitar on it.
Rude Boy George – Only You (Yazoo cover)
Rude Boy George boast one of the best cover-band names I’ve ever seen. They’re a ska band that covers new wave songs. Get it…Rude Boy George? Their new EP tackles classics by the Pretenders, Gary Numan, and Psychedelic Furs. Best of all is their reimagining of “Only You” by Yazoo (Yaz in America…long story) heavy on the backbeat and horn scats. Looking forward to the band’s concert film Stop Making Skanks (sorry).
Thunderpussy – The Chain (Fleetwood Mac cover)
For our recent “Best Fleetwood Mac Covers Ever” feature, I listened to a lot of “The Chain”s. But I never heard one quite like Thunderpussy’s. In fact, I had to Google the lyrics they were singing on this one. Was this video mislabeled, or a mashup? No – the memorably-named Seattle quartet are taking their cues from Stevie Nicks’ original, very different, demo version.
Trouble Peach – Niño Doble Cabeza (Neutral Milk Hotel cover)
What, you don’t remember Neutral Milk Hotel song “Niño Doble Cabeza”? Try plugging it into Google Translate: “Child Double Head.” Close enough. With strings and acoustic guitars, Australian band Trouble Peach covers the entirety of Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal album The Avion on the Sea (that’s the Google Translate version again).
Weaves – Neighborhood #3 (Arcade Fire cover)
One of the best covers of 2016 – Zaki Ibrahim’s “Show Me the Place” – came from a Polaris Music Prize video series. Short explanation: Polaris awards the year’s best Canadian album, and to promote it they commission younger artists to cover past Polaris-winning acts. This Arcade Fire tribute by Weaves is reportedly the first of three this year; can’t wait to see the others.
Witch Mountain – Mechanical World (Spirit cover)
Spirit these days seems to be most often discussed as the band who Led Zeppelin kinda-sorta-maybe borrowed the “Stairway to Heaven” riff from. Or didn’t, according to the most recent lawsuit. Judge for yourself. Or just forget all that and dig into Witch Mountain’s heavy-as-led cover of a different Spirit song, a doomy psychedelic roar that’s less “Stairway” and more “When the Levee Breaks.”
Ashley Monroe – Bartender’s Blues (George Jones cover)
Buddy Guy – Nine Below Zero (Sonny Boy Williamson cover)
The Details – Girls on the Beach (Beach Boys cover)
Devendra Banhart – Shown and Told (Joan of Arc cover)
The Green Mountain Boys – Rainbow Connection (The Muppets cover)
Henry Jamison – The Partisan (Leonard Cohen cover)
Jim James and Angel Olsen – Baby Don’t Go (Sonny and Cher cover)
Nick Lowe – Heartbreaker (Dionne Warwick cover)
Richard Ruane and Beth Duquette – Saint James Infirmary (Trad./Louis Armstrong cover)
Sam Gendel – Pure Imagination (Willy Wonka cover)
Shilpa Ray – Is It My Body (Alice Cooper cover)
Tanya Tagaq and Damien Abraham – Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden cover)