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…


Apr 272016

Last year, Alanis Morissette’s monster album Jagged Little Pill celebrated its 20th birthday and, as happens on such occasions, got its own big box set. For an even better tribute, though, check out The Land Below’s new cover of one of the album’s hit single, “Hand in My Pocket.” Over low synth drones and a slow crescendo, Sweden’s Erik Lindestad sings the haunting melody at about half the speed of the original. For even those of us who were not Alanis fans the first time around, this cover is revelatory. Continue reading »

Mar 232011

Last fall, Kanye West took over the Internet with his G.O.O.D. Fridays series of free song releases. Now, Durham NC quartet Delta Rae tries to one-up him with a similar GRAET Mondays campaign. Fittingly, one of the first songs in their weekly updates is a joyous cover of West’s “All of the Lights.” Continue reading »

Mar 152011

America’s obsession with choirs covering popular hits has been growing with intensity over the last several years. Just look at the television sensation Glee, the Academy Award/Hollywood darlings of PS22 Chorus, and even those crappy group song nights on American Idol.  However, last year audiences were introduced to a different kind of choir in a haunting trailer for the movie, The Social Network. Sung by an all-female Belgian group, the Scala and Kolacny Brothers’ ethereal cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” played over the montage.  Their unique take on this oft-covered tune became an overnight sensation.

The United States may just be catching on, but the Scala choir has been creating chilling cover songs since 1996. With five studio albums under their belts in Europe, Scala is finally reaching across the pond. In addition to their North American tour that begins next month, the group finally released their album in the U.S. Boasting thirteen tracks from their previous overseas albums, Scala and Kolacny Brothers is a great introduction to some of their best material.  Continue reading »

Jul 212010

Cover Commissions is a monthly series in which a featured artist covers a reader-selected song for this blog. Any artists interested in participating, contact us.

Corey TuT first crossed our radar with his Lady Gaga covers, so it seems fitting that you all picked Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” as the song for him to tackle in last month’s Cover Commissions. The man’s got a talent for off-kilter female songwriters. And off-kilter it is, as TuT took Morissette’s megahit into Nine Inch Nails territory. And you thought the original was angry!

Corey says:

This is definitely one of my favorite songs of the ’90s and I knew I could really squeeze the hell out of the angst in this song, but I wanted to do something a bit different. I secretly was hoping the Nine Inch Nails song [“Something I Can Never Have”] would win, because it is so spare and dark, yet very powerful. When the Alanis song won, I thought, well, what if Trent Reznor was doing it? That was my initial inspiration. I slowed it way down and started playing around with different piano lines. I love a looping, melodic, hypnotic instrumental line, and I really wanted to bring a mix of electronic and organic instruments. Continue reading »

The Police

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May 142009

When The Police reunited in 2007, I was thrilled. I’d loved their two-disc live set ever since “borrowing it” from a friend in high school. To that I’d added their Greatest Hits, and that was basically all I needed. Though ticket prices were outrageous for that reunion tour, I managed to catch ‘em at Bonnaroo (read my review) and loved every minute of it. Only having the greatest hits and the live set, I knew all the songs but two. They did leave out a couple classics – where was “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”? – but not many. So here’s a chance to relisten to the tunes of Sting and co.

John Butler Trio – Message in a Bottle
They opened with this at the ‘Roo, so we’ll open with it here. Come to think of it, JBT was also at Bonnaroo that year. Wonder if they played this. Acoustic funk with plenty of guitar slapping and white-boy warble. [Buy]

Mika vs. Armand Van Helden – Can’t Stand Losing You
I never quite know what to make of this one. It’s a cover-cum-remix off of the great Radio 1 cover double-disc. Fun but dark, it kind of reminds me of that vampire dance scene in Blade. You know, the one where blood bursts from the showerheads as everyone raves on. Not sure what the connection is to this song. [Buy]

Uncle Earl – Canary in a Coalmine
I discovered Uncle Earl at the same Bonnaroo as the Police, and they busted out this cover – appropriate, as the Police passed it by four hours later. John Paul Jones’ favorite bluegrass group featuring Sara Watkins barely keep their harmonies ahead of the galloping mandolin and fiddle. This is a live version from I don’t know when. They need to record it. [Buy]

Limbeck – So Lonely
¡Policia!: A Tribute to the Police has the biggest names out there, from Fall Out Boy to Underoath. If you share my taste in music, you’ll understand why I think most of it is pretty terrible. Thank god for lesser-knowns Limbeck then for a thumping yet thoughtful take on my favorite Police tune. [Buy]

David Lamotte – Walking In Your Footsteps
Backed by slow tribal drumming, this sparse arrangements really highlights “Hey Mr. Dinosaur, you really you couldn’t ask for more / You were God’s favorite creature, but you didn’t have a future.” Not sure what sting was going for with this one, but Barney approves. [Buy]

Rabbit Junk – Walking On the Moon
Hey Sting, you know who else takes giant steps? Dinosaurs. Just sayin’. [Buy]

Artgeko – The Bed’s Too Big Without You
Finally, a more straightforward rock song. The crunchy guitar riffs are nice, but nothing compared to the echo-harmony breakdown of the title line. Short but sweet, and you don’t see it coming. [Buy]

Frankmuzik – Every Breath You Take
Spastic dance music about stalking. You can get it along with dozens more original covers in the first volume of Buffetlibre’s Rewind series. [Buy]

Rosetta Stone – Synchronicity II
I did a post long ago with lots of gothic covers, so add this to the list. Rosetta Stone has a whole disc of goth-tastic covers of eighties tunes. It’s called Unerotica, and worth a snatch for when you’re feeling dark. [Buy]

Alanis Morissette – King of Pain
I’d hoped to never have Alanis on my iPod, but here we go. This comes from her MTV Unplugged set, before her career was relegated to ironic Black-Eyed Peas covers. If you can handle her voice – a lot to ask I know – it’s a nice stripped down take. And props to her for not changing it to “Queen of Pain.” [Buy]