Our official list of the Best Cover Songs of 2017 comes next week. But first, we’re continuing the tradition we started last year by rounding up some of the songs it most killed us to cut in a grab-bag post. No ranking, no writing, just a bunch of knockout covers.
Last year, 33 1/3 – the music book series that dissects classic albums – hosted a tribute to three of those albums at Brooklyn’s Northside Festival: Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville (covered by Frankie Cosmos), Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson (covered by Ava Luna), and Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality (covered by Deradoorian). And this past weekend, they repeated the trick, with three new bands covering three new albums.
Lower Dens headlined the event, covering ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits (not quite the same as covering a full album, but since ABBA were basically a singles band we’ll let it slide). This sort of cheesy pop is right in the band’s wheelhouse, as heard a few years back in their cover of Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” For the ABBA set, they performed the tracks as karaoke-plus-live-drumming, with singer Jana Hunter belting in a way she doesn’t often get to in Lower Dens. The karaoke format would be a little disappointing to fans who might want to see more Lower Dens-esq rearrangements of these hits, but her pipes do the songs justice. This “S.O.S.” cover follows Portishead’s last year, our #1 cover of 2016.
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Seuras Og is 59 and ought to know better. Tipped toward journalism by his careers teacher, he instead opted for a career in Family Medicine. He lives in Lichfield, England. His Gaelic mother would be proud to see his nom de plume, a direct translation. Less proud that he is still talking about pop music in his 60th year. This is his 3rd year of writing his essays for Cover Me. He particularly enjoys drafting whole album covers like Legend or Hunky Dory.
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
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…
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Björn Ulvaeus may not be a household name, but the same cannot be said of ABBA, the band he cofounded with his songwriting partner Benny Andersson. This is a band whose greatest-hits album Gold went to number one in England on five different occasions over a span of sixteen years. A band who numbered Bono, Kurt Cobain, and Vladimir Putin among their biggest fans. A band whose breaking-up songs rivaled Rumours for intraband romantic schadenfreude.
Ulvaeus built on this legacy after ABBA dissolved. He cowrote the music for the stage show Chess, the origin of “One Night in Bangkok.” The ABBA-based stage show Mamma Mia! has grossed over two billion worldwide; the movie, over $600 million. Speaking of money money money, today he is a key figure in turning Sweden into a cash-free society. He had an umlaut in his name thirty years before Motörhead did. Not even his distressing resemblance to Kato Kaelin could put an end to his coolness.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
You kids today, with your Now That’s What I Call Music compilations – you don’t know how different it was back in the day. When K-Tel was in their ’70s prime, their ubiquitous commercials made them the “As Seen On TV” company and served to get the words and music on the street. They fit twenty or so songs on one album, making for tinny sound and many songs edited for single length. Not all the songs on them were hits; you bought them for the big names and sat through the one-hit wonders, novelties, and other filler. But for only $5.99 (8-track or cassette only $7.99!), you could get a wide-ranging look at a year in music, complete with packaging ugly as a burnt-orange couch, and somehow the experience wouldn’t have been the same if the treasures hadn’t been mixed in with the trash.