Jan 122017
 
Ciaran Lavery

Irish singer Ciaran Lavery wears his influences on his sleeves. His last album had a track called “Okkervil River” about hearing that band on the radio, and his new live set features a gorgeous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” His emotive lilt might remind you of his countryman Glen Hansard (himself no stranger to great Bruce covers) and he more than does Springsteen’s tribute to AIDS victims justice.

Despite “Streets of Philadelphia” being arguably one of Springsteen’s best-known songs – certainly from the last few decades at least – the Boss himself doesn’t play it live too much. We’re grateful Lavery and his string quartet stepped in to fill the void with this beautiful version. Listen to it below, along with equally lovely covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the same album. Continue reading »

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…

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Nov 172016
 
CourtneyBarnettLive

Since the surprise election of Donald Trump last week, musicians have responded in all sorts of ways, from benefit concerts to social media missives. A few have taken to the world of cover songs to express their feelings and frustrations, picking songs with titles like “Drunk On Election Night” or “Time To Move On.” We’ve pulled together a few of the best. Continue reading »

Nov 142016
 
castiles_7_big

As we continue to mourn Leonard Cohen, here’s one little gem his death has dug up. Earlier this year, Bruce Springsteen made a point of paying tribute to artists we lost on stage. He covered “Rebel Rebel” for David Bowie, “Take It Easy” for The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, “Dream Baby Dream” for Suicide’s Alan Vega, and “Purple Rain” for Prince. And were he on tour, he’d surely sing something by Leonard Cohen (I bet he’d do a great “Everybody Knows”).

But he’s not on tour, so instead check out the one time he did cover Cohen: way back in 1967, years before the E Street Band. He was only 18 and playing in a local New Jersey band The Castiles. Somehow he got onto Leonard early – before Cohen had even released his own version of “Suzanne,” Bruce was covering it. He probably learned it off the Judy Collins version, which came out the year before Cohen’s own. Continue reading »

Nov 082016
 
ThomasJeffersonViolin

When we last did an election-themed post, we wrote “this damn election continues to never end”. That was in August of 2008. How naive we were then. As this latest round finally limps to a close today, we wanted to put together a cover-song soundtrack to take with you to the polls. To that end, we’ve compiled our 11 favorite covers of campaign theme songs.

Campaign theme songs used to be far better than they are now. Up until the 20th century, candidates would use songs written specifically for them, from James Madison’s “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah” to James K. Polk’s “Jimmy Polk of Tennessee.” The best remembered is probably William Henry Harrison’s “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” a song proved more influential than his actual presidency, which lasted a month before he died in office. Sometimes these theme songs were just rewritten versions of popular songs (“Hello Dolly” becomes “Hello Lyndon”, “My Kind of Town Chicago Is” becomes “My Kind of Guy Dukakis Is”), but even still at least some effort was being made to come up with original lyrics.

Sadly, those days have ended. Now candidates choose from a handful of already-popular songs that vaguely embody their message. Hillary Clinton’s been using Katy Perry’s “Roar” a lot this time around, which Donald Trump leans on Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” after just about every other musician filed cease and desist letters (they eventually did too). No matter your politics, the move away from jolly songs about a particular candidate is a bummer. We’d definitely get behind a platform of “Make Campaign Theme Songs Great Again.”

In lieu of that, we’ve made a playlist celebrating campaign songs past and present. We could only find so many covers of the older candidate-specific songs – they don’t age well, particularly if the candidate is a loser (artists are not lining up to cover “Go with Goldwater”) – so we padded it out with some more recent campaign theme songs you might actually know. Go vote, and bring this soundtrack with you. Continue reading »

Oct 212016
 
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Mary J. Blige made headlines earlier this month when she sang Bruce Springsteen‘s “American Skin (41 Shots)” directly to Hillary Clinton during an interview. Now she has released a proper recording, accompanied by Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly addressed many of the same issues as this song. It ain’t no secret, to quote the track, why Blige is covering it right now. Though Springsteen wrote it 15 years ago, the topic of unwarranted police shootings is more prevalent in the age of Black Lives Matter than ever. At the time, he earned boos from policemen for the song, and it will be interesting to see if Blige and Lamar’s version inspires the same outrage. Continue reading »