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.
It has been uplifting hearing the response of many famous artists to the devastation Hurricane Harvey has wreaked upon Houston. Coldplay recently gave a one time performance dedicated to those affected by the hurricane, and Paul Simon and his wife Edie Brickell donated $1 million to Harvey relief efforts. Tying the two together is Simon’s ’80s classic “Graceland,” recorded at the BBC’s Live Lounge by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.
On Friday, we posted our tribute to Leonard Cohen, calling him maybe the greatest gift to cover songs ever. Many musicians agreed over the weekend, covering his songs across the world in live shows. We’ve rounded up a bunch below, from Coldplay, Norah Jones, Okkervil River, The Avett Brothers, Car Seat Headrest, and more.
The biggest surprise: Not many people picked the most obvious choice, “Hallelujah.” It seemed so perfect that I saw at least one person on Twitter begging musicians to pick something – anything – else to cover, and they listened. I figured it would dominate even more than “Purple Rain” did when Prince died, but perhaps many felt intimidated by the iconic Jeff Buckley and John Cale versions. It also might seem a daunting song to really sell, particularly if you just learned it in the tour bus (one of the only bands who did cover it: Styx).
“Bones sinking like stones, all that we fought for,” laments Chris Martin, as mellow guitar and drum lines sweep over, captivating the listener and softening them up for the emotional punch that is the chorus. Straight off the album that launched Coldplay into the legendary status they have now, “Don’t Panic” is a somber, depressing tune which leaves you sitting quietly in awe as you find yourself clicking repeat.
And somehow, 18 year old Claire Rachel Wilkinson manages to match that hopeless atmosphere whilst injecting it with her own personal touches, leaving behind a dark and gloomy piece worthy of the equally dark and gloomy X-men: Apocalypse trailer in which it was featured.
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)
For a musician, the honor getting to sing the James Bond theme song is in its own category. Many movies need songs, but you never see articles wondering who will do the next Fast and the Furious song (even though more people would likely hear your song there than in Bond). Giving their music to sell a product is something musicians regularly do, but rarely take as a career honor.
But given the track record Bond theme songs have had, the appeal makes sense. James Bond songs might even have a higher batting average than James Bond movies (and certainly higher than James Bond actors). And there’s a prevailing sense artists are chosen for abilities beyond just star-power, despite plenty of counterexamples over the years. Some of the most iconic songs were sung by singers who rarely topped the charts elsewhere – three by Shirley Bassey alone – whereas attempts to grab zeitgiesty performers have flopped.