Nov 092017
 
jim james beach boys cover

My Morning Jacket has turned cover songs and tribute-album appearances into a cottage industry, playing tunes by everyone from Buddy Holly to the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band. So it comes as no surprise that frontman Jim James will drop an album of covers on December 8 called Tribute to 2.   

James recently released the lead track from the album, a cover of the Beach Boys’ majestic “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from their 1966 magnum opus Pet Sounds. The tune was co-written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher and sung by Wilson. The moody song, with its dark, introspective lyrics, signalled a stark change for the band from its happy blend of Chuck Berry and doo-wop inspired surf-pop. James channels Wilson’s falsetto in such a way that he almost sounds like a lost Wilson brother. Continue reading »

Oct 132017
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Who does the best version of “God Only Knows”?

Accepting that the true answer is probably “Beach Boys, Beach Boys, Beach Boys,” this is a song oft covered and rarely, if ever, bettered, such is its beauty and ubiquity, as reliant on the arrangement as the melody, the lyrics as the singer. Most who have met the cover-me challenge have failed, duplicating and copying, facsimiles falling and failing at the shrine of St. Brian. And at the feet of St. Carl, for it is his sublime vocal that nails it. Some of these are pleasant enough – come in, Elvis Costello and Michael Stipe – but leave a memory that just longs for the original. A distinctive or different voice isn’t enough, as both Joss Stone and P.P.Arnold have discovered.
Continue reading »

Aug 142017
 
glen campbell covers

The world lost a quintessentially American artist with the passing of Glen Campbell last week. Dolly Parton called Campbell “one of the greatest voices of all time”, and his incredible career certainly supports her praise. Hits that toed the line between country and pop included “Rhinestone Cowboy”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Gentle on My Mind”, and “Southern Nights.”

Many of those hits were covers, including his most well-known, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Originally recorded by Larry Weiss, the song made little impact initially, but became an instant hit in the States once Campbell took it up a year later. Campbell’s charming, heartfelt vocals combined with soaring instrumentals perfectly encapsulated the theme: 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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Sep 302016
 
Fugees

They say nostalgia works in 20-year cycles, and this year the music of 1996 has been in the media a lot. And if you believe the music blogs, it turns out 1996 was a truly groundbreaking year for every possible genre. Over at SPIN: “The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs Of 1996.” Complex: “Best Rap Songs of 1996.” Junkee: “Ten reasons 1996 was a great year for dance music”. Loudwire: “10 Best Metal Albums of 1996.” Red Bull Music: “1996: Why it was a great year for pop”. Suck it, 1995! (Kidding; similar articles were of course written last year too.)

We’ll be honest: 1996 was not some magical, pioneering year for cover songs. It was also not a terrible year. It was just, you know, another year. There’s no overarching theorem of 1996’s cover songs that wasn’t true in ’95 or ’97. But even so, Cover Me wasn’t around in 1996, so we never made a Best Cover Songs of 1996 list (our first year-end list came in 2009, with the Kings of Convenience’s “It’s My Party” topping it, and you can catch up on all the lists here). So we decided, before the year ends and we take our look at the best covers songs this year, why not take a nostalgic rewind and do 1996 just for fun, twenty years too late. Continue reading »

Nov 022012
 

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!

At this writing, Glen Campbell is taking his Farewell Tour. This is not one of those concert tours by a celebrity announcing retirement yet again; rather, it’s Campbell taking a valedictory lap around the country before the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease rob him entirely of his gifts. Reviews of these shows note the occasional stumbles, but also make mention of the standing ovations, Campbell’s still-unerring guitar work, and the fact that this is a man who doesn’t need to make new fans – he needs to say good-bye in style, and he’s doing exactly that. Continue reading »