We already counted down the 50 Best Cover Songs of 2018 but, inevitably, many of our staff’s personal favorites get left off. So, before we begin scouting for what might become the best cover of 2019, we share the best of the rest, an unranked hodgepodge of worthy covers that only just missed our year-end countdown.
Two things strike me as I scan through our list this year. This first is that many of the highest-ranking covers are tributes to recently-deceased icons. No surprise there, I suppose. But none actually pay tribute to artists that died in 2018. They honor those we’ve been honoring for two or three years now – your Pettys, your Princes, your Bowies. Hundreds of covers of each of these legends appeared in the first days after their deaths, but many of the best posthumous covers took longer to emerge.
Good covers take time. That principle – the cover-song equivalent of the slow food movement, perhaps – holds true throughout the list. Sure, a few here appear to have arisen from sudden moments of brilliance, flash-arranged for some concert or radio promo session. But many more reveal months or even years of painstaking work to nail every element. Making someone else’s song one’s own isn’t easy. These 50 covers took the time to get it right.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Start the countdown on the next page…
With his new album Lean on Me, Blue Note artist José James provides track-by-track recreations of soul master Bill Withers’ best-known hits. James has a phenomenal voice that captures the spirit of the originals and would make him an ideal frontman for a Withers tribute act. As a result, the album’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. James mirrors Withers’ sound so precisely that you have to give each track a close listen to discern any differences between his versions and the originals. Unfortunately, in the streaming era this presents a conundrum: why should one listen to the perfect tribute and not just click on Withers’ originals?
Unless you are a fan of his band Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies back in the day, you might not know the name, Mike Farris. A Grammy winner in the Gospel category for his 2014 album Shine For All The People, Farris takes a more secular approach on his latest record, Silver & Stone. Full of soulful songs in the mold of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Paul Janeway, the album includes a couple of top-notch cover songs including a version of Sam Cooke’s “I’ll Be Coming Running Back To You.”
William Elliott Whitmore is 40, but he has always sounded like a much older man, with a deep, soulful voice that gives everything he sings a certain gravitas. Think Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or late Dylan, or most of all, Johnny Cash at his most apocalyptic. If Whitmore sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” you’d still worry, and probably be unhappy. I first heard Whitmore in 2006, opening for Lucero, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and was immediately transfixed by his timeless voice, dark songs, austere banjo, guitar and foot stomping accompaniment, and intense performance.
Born and raised on a 150-acre farm in southeastern Iowa, which he inherited from his parents and still owns, Whitmore grew up singing and playing guitar and banjo, with musical influences that started with country and moved toward punk as he got older. At a certain point, though, Whitmore realized that he needed to focus on the folky, rustic, blues music that he grew up on–but with a punk edge.
So when Bloodshot Records released Kilonova, an album of covers of (mostly) lesser known songs from many musical eras, the question was, how would such a distinctive artist put his stamp on this block of diverse songs? “Diverse” barely begins to tell the story–artists range from Dock Boggs, to Johnny Cash, to the Magnetic Fields to Bad Religion.
In short, the answer is, remarkably well.
It’s hard to do a fresh cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It’s been covered so well by so many at this point, and if you’re trying to compete with Bill Withers or Joe Cocker on their turf, you’re bound to lose. But British singer-songwriter Richard Maule found a novel way to make the song his own. The cover he sent us is inventive, bold, and the right amount of irreverent. Instead of going for big soul belting like so many do, he created a quirky quasi-acappella arrangement looping his voice and handclaps over and over again – and while it seems complicated, it wasn’t.