In 2006, everyone was losing their mind over Gnarls Barkley’s breakout single “Crazy.” The song appealed to just about everyone: young/old, black/white, people who dug Motown and people who dug hip-hop. I was working at a record shop at the time, and music lovers turned out in droves to buy the duo’s debut album on CD, even in a era when most listeners were downloading iTunes singles en masse. Like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the song blends dark, paranoid lyrics with a danceable groove.
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…
Kacey Musgraves, a traditionalist country star trying to drag her genre out of New Nashville Hell, is a fitting choice to pay tribute to a musical act that in the 2000s did the impossible and wrote a universal indie/rap/pop/whatever hit that was so good you didn’t roll your eyes when Rolling Stone named it the #1 song of the decade.
During her set at the 2016 Cayamo cruise Musgraves covered Gnarls Barkley‘s “Crazy” almost 10 years to the date of its release. She turned the fun, beat-driven groove into a dark meditation about losing your mind.
Gnarls Barkley‘s “Crazy” was an inescapable song in 2006 in both its original form and cover renditions. Everyone from The Raconteurs to Nelly Furtado have put their own spin on the highly infectious tune. Although eight years old (yes, you read that correctly), the song still has that freshness to it, and YouTube star Daniela Andrade captures it perfectly with her take on the debut single from Danger Mouse and CeeLo Green.
Hailing from the blues hotbed of St. Louis, Bhi Bhiman isn’t your typical acoustic guitar-strumming, harp-blowing, scratchy-voiced folk troubadour. While many of his folk peers strive for the classic early-Bob Dylan aesthetic, Bhi’s voice has a soulful smoothness to it that makes him sound more like Cee-Lo Green than Ramblin’ Jack Elliot or Woody Guthrie. Considering the obvious vocal resemblance between Bhiman and the former Goodie Mob rapper, it seems only natural that Bhi would offer his own acoustic interpretation of Green’s most vocally-ambitious track, the hit single “Crazy” from the 2006 debut album by Gnarls Barkley, Green’s collaborative project with Danger Mouse.
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!
Cee-Lo Green turns 37 today, and he has every reason to celebrate. The Atlanta-born singer, rapper, and producer has been everywhere the past year: taking over the radio with his ridiculously catchy single “Fuck You,” performing at the Grammys with a psychedelic peacock costume and backup from Gwyneth Paltrow, and, most recently, judging the hit NBC show The Voice. His birthday may fall on Memorial Day this year, but we’re not sure this guy ever takes a day off.
Countless artists, from Sara Bareilles to Pixie Lott to William Shatner have jumped aboard the Cee-Lo bandwagon with their own takes on “Fuck You” – just like what happened five years ago when Green’s Gnarls Barkley hit “Crazy” climbed the charts. In honor of his birthday, Cover Me presents alternate renditions of Cee-Lo’s two biggest hits, along with three others from his solo career and his work in Gnarls Barkley.