Chris Thile is compiling a laundry list of impressive musical exploits ranging from participation in the bands Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers to hosting A Prairie Home Companion. A common thread in much of what he tackles in his musical life seems to be progressivism. In his collaborations, Thile’s choices for his mandolin are unexpected and unconventional. When you are a musician of Thile’s caliber, however, unexpected and unconventional make for the most compelling musical offerings. Case in point, his recent collaboration with pianist Brad Mehldau.
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
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…
When folks have paid tribute to Merle Haggard recently, they’ve mostly picked the obvious songs: “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee.” But Grammy-nomined singer-songwriter John Fullbright – an actual Okie, unlike Merle – dug far deeper into the catalog, for the best Haggard cover yet. It’s an obscure song called “Sometimes I Dream,” from Haggard’s 1990 album Blue Jungle. How many people know Haggard albums from the ’90s?
Don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier. The White Stripes have been one of my favorite bands ever since I saw a video of them performing “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” on MTV surrounded by inanely dancing candy cane “fans”(here it is). Since then I’ve seen them live four times, and hope they reunited this year for another go round. While we wait though, many others are keeping their tunes alive.
The Dynamics – Seven Nation Army
Turns out there’s a cover or two for this song – who knew? Hell, everyone from the Flaming Lips to Duran Duran has tried it on for size. None match the bossa-nova funk of this slow-groove though. [Buy]
Aluminium – Why Can’t You Be Nicer to Me?
Richard Russell, founder of XL Records, and Joey Talbot, British composer, came together in 2005 to record one of the greatest tribute albums I’ve ever heard, an all avant-garde orchestral series of mostly-obscure Stripes tunes. The String Quartet Tribute this ain’t. They touch all albums from their first to their most recent at the time, even taking on b-sides and soundtrack contributions along the way. Click this link and get this album now. [Buy]
Long Goners – Ball & Biscuit
Jack White’s blues-rock barnstormer brings it all back home with some indie slide-folk. Lead singer Bernadette Seacrest has clearly learned much from the Stripes, having the presence of mind not to change the genders in the song as is so common (see Joss Stone’s horrendous “Fell in Love with a Boy”). Would the Stripes’ “Jolene” have made sense with “please don’t take my…woman”? This one’s from a hit-or-miss tribute disc called Indie Translations of the White Stripes. [Buy]
Chris Thile – Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
This ex-Nickel Creek man brings his mandolin bluegrass and yelping falsetto to this fiddle and harmony-filled ditty. With such a rockin’ woodsy sound, a tune about leaves and dirt makes perfect sense. [Buy]
Nikka Costa – The Denial Twist
It was their third single from 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan and, many would argue, the most enduring (“My Doorbell” eventually got irritating). Costa’s version sounds similar to the swamp guitar original until the horns blast away all memory of the White siblings (read: exes) and Nikka’s wail forces its way to the front of the sound. [Buy]
The New York No Stars – The Big Three Killed My Baby
An appropriate song for this day and age, no doubt, as the big three are going down themselves. The original’s a classic Jack screecher, taken down here for some lounge-jazz that proves that the song does indeed have a melody. From yet another tribute album. [Buy]
Jack Johnson – My Doorbell
Johnson got a lot of blog attention for his twee cover of “We Are Going to Be Friends” on the Curious George soundtrack. It was bland and boring, sure, but not really objectionable; frankly, I would say the same is true for the original. A better tune, Johnson puts his laid-back pleasantness to, you know, chill use on this poppy confection, recorded for a radio show. [Buy]
Bree Sharp – We Are Going to be Friends
Like I said above, not a huge fan of this song. Many others are, however, and I can’t help remember with fondness its use in the opening of Napoleon Dynamite (video, in case you forgot). [Buy]
The Pistol Whippin’ Party Penguins – Hotel Yorba
It’s a live one, from the never-ending source of wonder that is archive.org. Sounds like a folk-bluegrass jam session, with lots of group singing and a fiddle solo! So, basically just like the original. [Buy]
Chan Marshall – I Want to Be the Boy
You probably know this little lady as Cat Power, and she’s been on a bit of a covers kick lately. She takes a break from her beloved vintage soul at a live show in ’03, interspersing it with typically self-effacing remarks about no one singing along. Only problem here: she does change the gender. And stops it early, which is a shame. Grr… [Buy]