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 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 »
A few months back, Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium hosted two star-studded tribute concerts to Bob Dylan to celebrate his 75th birthday. Kesha performing “I Shall Be Released” was the big news-maker as her first high-profile performance during her ongoing legal battle, but many other members of country and Americana royalty also took the stage for an amazing couple nights. The full thing was webcast, but it hasn’t been archived anywhere, so if you missed that you were stuck with grainy YouTube videos – until now. We’ve got every song to stream below (except Kesha, which wasn’t webcast, presumably for legal reasons). For the first time since that night, you can hear pristine recordings of Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Kurt Vile, Emmylou Harris, Butch Walker, Wynonna Judd, Boz Scaggs, Langhorne Slim, John Paul Williams of the Civil Wars, Ann Wilson of Heart, and more covering their favorite Dylan songs, many for the first time ever.Continue reading »
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.
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, from Cover Me staffer Jordan Becker: What’s a cover that made a significant, annoying, and/or unforgivable change to the original lyrics? Continue reading »