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.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
There’s talk that “Use Me,” from Bill Withers’ second album Still Bill, is about his relationship with his future wife (and, a year later, ex-wife), Hollywood actress Denise Nicholas. Withers denies this, saying he got the idea for the song before his first album, while he was still making toilets for $3 an hour. Most listeners didn’t care about its origin – they were too busy digging that funky clavinet, nodding along to lyrics that brush against masochistic tendencies while defiantly stating that one could be willing to take the bad with the good, because that good was so good. It sure felt good, especially the Live at Carnegie Hall version, so deep in the pocket that the clapping-along audience doesn’t want it to end, demanding (and getting) an immediate encore.
Follow all our Best of 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
I didn’t realize it until I began laying out our post, but this year’s Best Cover Songs list shares quite a few artists with last year’s. And some that showed up here the year before that. Jack White’s on his fourth appearance. And Jason Isbell and Hot Chip not only both reappear from last year, but have moved up in the rankings.
Though we’re always on the lookout for the new (and to be sure, there are plenty of first-timers here too), the number of repeat honorees illustrates how covering a song is a skill just like any other. The relative few artists who have mastered it can probably deliver worthy covers again and again.
How a great cover happens is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as I’ve been writing a series of articles diving deep into the creation of iconic cover songs through history (I posted two of them online, and the rest are being turned into a book). In every case the artist had just the right amount of reverence for the original song: honoring its intention without simply aping it. It’s a fine line, and one even otherwise able musicians can’t always walk. Plenty of iconic people don’t make good cover artists (I’d nominate U2 as an example: some revelatory covers of the band, but not a lot by them). Given the skill involved, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who can do a good cover once can do it again.
So, to longtime readers, you will see some familiar names below. But you’ll also see a lot of new names, and they’re names you should remember. If the past is any guide, you may well see them again next year, and the year after that.
Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)
Sometimes covering a classic song can go, well, poorly. There are a few songs that should never be touched, and several others, such as Bill Withers‘ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” that shouldn’t be messed with unless you really know what you are doing. Or, as in Silent Rider’s case, you completely flip the song, making it something entirely of its own.
“A dark, autumnal inspired re-envisioning of Bill Withers’ classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” is how the Brooklyn-based band described their take on the song, and we think that encapsulates it perfectly. It is dark, moody, and definitely worth a listen on a stroll through a cold autumn night.
Check out more from Silent Rider on the band’s website.
From the moment he first appeared on the charts, Bill Withers had a maturity about him that was rare in show business. Not just in age – he was thirty-two when his debut album Just As I Am was released – but in pragmatism; he kept his job at the Boeing aircraft factory even as “Ain’t No Sunshine” was making its way into the top ten, just in case he was thought of as a flash in the pan. He needn’t have worried. His songs resonate just as strongly today as they did when he first set them down.
Last month, we posted our Best Cover EPs of 2011. Getting an early start on next year’s list, two artists, both from Cali, posted knockout EPs in the past week and they’re both free to download.