Dec 172015
 

Follow all our Best of 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

CoverMeBestSongs2015

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)

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Jun 302015
 

brightersideAs long as there has been Western art, there has been a debate regarding the nature of the simulacrum, a Latin word that originally meant representation but has come, in philosophical circles, to mean any kind of imitation or copy. Plato distinguished between a noble type of simulacra – an exact copy – and an inherently dishonest image that has been distorted or altered (usually by a painter, sculptor, or actor) in order to seem true and elicit a particular emotional response for the viewer. Leaving aside Plato’s alarmist anxiety regarding the power of artist to willingly manipulate a populace via dangerous and immoral entertainments, his two “types” of simulacra represent two poles of a continuum that might be used to describe covers. Covers inherently create simulacra that, depending on the intent of the cover artist, fall somewhere between the perfect replica and the “distorted” copy designed to reposition a song in a new historical or generic context so that it might feel true to a new audience.

The thirteen covers on The Brighter Side: A 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo‘s ‘No Depression’ all lean toward the latter variety, taking significant liberties to reimagine the album as one that neatly and cleanly fits into the genre of alt-country, a genre that more or less didn’t exist twenty-five years ago. The question of representation becomes even more complicated, though, when one considers the fact that the alt-country lens through which these songs are here replicated is one that is largely believed to have been created or codified by the release of No Depression itself. In other words, No Depression is here being translated into a genre that, in theory at least, it helped invent.
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Jul 192013
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

McCartney

Paul McCartney as a septuagenarian is still going strong, having just headlined Bonnaroo last month. Showcasing covers of Macca is a pretty easy gig, so we won’t touch the Beatles (as we’ve already done that in spades); instead, we’ll look at covers of his musical output during the Mullet Years, from the time the Beatles broke up to the dissolution of Wings in 1981. It’s true that McCartney pretty much recorded his solo debut McCartney by himself, except for some oohs and ahhs from the lovely Linda, and maybe it’s not technically a Wings album, but for simplicity’s sake we’re just going to go ahead and say that it is. Now, without further ado…
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Sep 072011
 

Twelve years ago today, the Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs. Initially conceived as a theatrical revue performed by drag queens, 69 Love Songs took a different status entirely as a beloved pillar of indie pop. Though hardly a best-seller then or now, it retains a certain mystique as an album one could devote years to (witness this book or this project documenting each song in graphic form). Everything Stephin Merritt had been building with the Magnetic Fields over the previous six albums came to fruition here and then some.

Sprawling even by Merritt’s standards, 69 Love Songs covers a mind-boggling array of genres. So, in honor of its anniversary, we’ve selected a set of 12 covers that do the same. Some songs will make you dance; others will make you weep. It’s a barely-coherent smorgasbord of sounds, sources, and interpretations. Given the source material, that seems appropriate. Continue reading »

Jan 172011
 

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!

There’s no denying that it takes a versatile artist to write songs about love in ways that are both consistently inventive and precise. It takes an artist like Stephin Merritt to create songs that not only are beautiful individual pieces, but also paint a broader picture of hope and despair, murder and joy, beauty and hideousness. Merritt somehow manages to create a comprehensive picture of love with his songs, all while bringing his distinctive indie-pop sensibility to it. This book of love is never boring. He turns forty-five today. Continue reading »

Nov 162010
 

The Magnetic Fields seem to be everywhere these days! Okay, well maybe not quite everywhere. But for a group that hates the public eye and hardly ever tours, they have been popping up a lot. Early in 2010 Peter Gabriel brought their music to a whole new audience with his orchestral cover of “The Book of Love.” Now this fall, the new documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields offers unprecedented insight into the band’s 21-year history (it opens in Boston, Dallas, and Philadelphia on Friday).

The most recent entry into the Magnetic Fields 2010 Yearbook comes from L.A. trio Bodies of Water. In their version of “I Don’t Believe in the Sun,” Merideth Metcalf’s rich vocals ride over the band’s spare backing. Angelic synth lines swirl around the earthy guitar riff for a majestic performance that recalls 1950s sad-girl pop. Like “The Book of Love,” “I Don’t Believe” comes from the Fields’ magnum opus 69 Love Songs, a three-disc set providing rich fodder for cover artists. Check it out below. Continue reading »