Update October 5: Hear a conversation about this list, and our recent Best Abba Covers Ever roundup, on SiriusXM:
Al Green – Before the Next Teardrop Falls (Freddy Fender cover)
Sorry, Beyoncé; the biggest surprise release of the year might be Al Green’s sudden return after a decade away. Well, not totally away; he still conducts weekly services at his Memphis church and, when I attended, was liberally sprinkling quotes from “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to the River” into his sermons. Best of all: This Freddy Fender cover sounds like Al hasn’t lost a step. It’s apparently a one-off, but hopefully recording it will whet his appetite to do more.
Amy Helm – Michigan (Milk Carton Kids)
A deep-cut cover choice that Levon’s daughter wholly makes her own. She tells Billboard: “The song is so devastatingly heavy and sad that at first I was kind of taken aback [when producer Joe Henry suggested it]. But in the weeks following our first meeting…the more I listened to it and hummed it in my head I honestly could hear the chorus being served so well by a rich, four-part harmony… And the lyrics, of course, are stunning. I think that song has the ability to kind of land so personally in the heart of each person who hears it but can mean 1,000 different things to 1,000 different people. It’s a mysterious story that becomes clear in different ways to each person who hears it.”
Cat Power – Stay (Rihanna)
Who would expect Cat Power to cover Rihanna? Well, after Patti Smith did, the sky is the proverbial limit for “Stay.” In Chan Marshall’s hands, “Stay” sounds nothing like a Rihanna song (and that’s not a dig at either artist). It’s a torch song, pure and simple. No gimmicks here, only Marshall on piano and some subtle strings and backing vocals that creep in near the end. That’s all she needs.
Lennon Stella – Kids (MGMT cover)
MGMT’s world-conquering debut Oracular Spectacular came out the same month I started this site, and for the subsequent year, it seemed like half the covers people submitted were of “Kids,” “Time to Pretend” or “Electric Feel.” The pace has slowed since then – and lord knows no one’s covering anything off subsequent MGMT albums – but good things come to those who wait. Though she wildly missed the buzz cycle, Nashville actress Lennon Stella tenderly delivers a slow ballad version accompanied only by spare electric organ chords.
Nina Nesbitt – Cry Me a River (Justin Timberlake cover)
A lot of “Cry Me a River” covers cross our desk, but they’re usually the Julie London torch song. How refreshing to discover Scottish singer Nina Nesbitt tackling the very non-torch Justin Timberlake hit for her Spotify session. She delivers the ballad with a piano and beautiful voice. Oh, and a full gospel choir. Come to think of it…it’s a little torchy.
Pallbearer – Run Like Hell (Pink Floyd cover)
The Wall is my favorite Pink Floyd album, and I can never get enough Wall tribute albums. In fact, I compiled my own. Lucky for me, there’s another on the way: the metal-leaning The Wall [Redux], out 11/9. Doom giants Pallbearer tackle “Run Like Hell” as a massive sludge-fest, roaring and thudding through an appropriately epic guitar workout.
Robin Kester & Moon Moon Moon – Frozen (Madonna cover)
Only a month ago we wrapped up our Best Madonna Covers Ever countdown, and wouldn’t you know it: We already have another contender. And of a song that doesn’t get covered very often too. Netherlands singer Robin Kester was invited to cover this song for a radio show, but it was cancelled before the song got put to tape. She decided to go ahead and record it anyway, alongside musician Moon Moon Moon (aka Mark Lohmann). We’re sure glad she did.
Ryley Walker – Busted Stuff (Dave Matthews Band cover)
Indie-folk-rock weirdo Ryley Walker has taken his strangest musical turn yet: Recording a full Dave Matthews tribute album. Not just that, he’s recording a full-album tribute to a Dave Matthews bootleg! Matthews recorded sessions around 2000 with superproducer Steve Lillywhite for his next album. He shelved them in favor of 2001’s Everyday, but they leaked anyway – and some superfans think the so-called Lillywhite Sessions mark Dave’s best work ever. Ryley’s one of them, apparently, as he’s covered the whole thing. Because the songs have never been officially released, he had to obtain explicit permission from Dave’s team. An unexpected pairing to say the least, but now that the Grateful Dead have become cool in indie-rock circles and Phish are on their way, maybe Dave is next.
Striking Matches – Gold Digger (Kanye West cover)
The Ventures used to churn out multiple albums a year of surf-rock covers of popular hits. Striking Matches’ “Gold Digger” feels like a modern twist on that. It’s not surf, exactly, but the instrumental two-guitar attack still boasts a retro twang with an added helping of grit. Taking on a hip-hop song – a genre pretty much defined by lyrics – as an instrumental is a bold bet. In the hands of Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, it works better than I expected.
Ty Segall – I’m a Man (Spencer Davis Group)
Ty Segall never rests. He’s already released one acclaimed album this year, which included a terrific cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner.” Now he’s got another in the can, a full covers album called Fudge Sandwich tackling everyone from War to the Grateful Dead. It’s out October 26, and the first taste offers a lot of hope for another Ty classic.
Wilder Adkins – Dancing in the Dark (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Alabama songwriter Wilder Adkins new single “Marietta” brilliantly incorporates chunks of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.” It’s not a full-fledged Boss cover, but the B-side is, as he takes on a more oft-covered Born in the USA track: “Dancing in the Dark.” And look, sad-sack “Dancing in the Dark” covers that strip away the bombast to expose the distraught cover have been done. A lot. But the concept just works, and rarely executed as well as Adkins does here.
The usual disclaimer: The “Honorable Mentions” aren’t necessarily worse than the others, just ones we didn’t blurb, or already wrote about elsewhere.