For the first time since 808s and Heartbreaks, a new Kanye West album has been met with decidedly mixed reviews, from the ecstatic to the underwhelmed. Maybe in a few years it, like 808s will be hailed as a pioneering work that changed music. But, failing that, at least it inspired this amazing new cover – a Life of Pablo song done in the spaced-out style of 808s.
Canadian indie-pop vets Stars have been releasing records for 15 years now, and in that time have put out a handful of great covers: their version of The Smiths’ “Asleep” is a wonderful twee lullaby, and they put just the right combination of swagger and emotion into “Fairytale of New York.” 2016 will see them up their cover game dramatically though, with a new cover every month. And if the first two are anything to go on, it’s going to be a great year.
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)
Though you may never have heard of her, Christine and the Queens are huge in France. Her debut album went to #2 last year, her music videos have millions of views, and, judging from poking around YouTube, she’s performed on every French TV show there is. Now, like so many artists before her that have to assure doubters “I’m big in [any country that’s not America]”, she’s trying to break stateside. And she’ll probably do it.
A new version of her debut album is being released in the States, with appearances by Perfume Genius and Tunji Ige. And, in an almost too-perfect metaphor for bridging the cultural divide, one track combines a cover of Kanye West‘s “Heartless” with a cover of “Les Paradis Perdus” by an older French star, Christophe.
In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”
It is easy to understand how someone could find a pre-school appropriate cover of “Big Pimpin” musically lacking. By stripping all lyrical content from hip-hop and infusing a heavy dose of xylophone, artistic value becomes shaky. While this style of cover might fit well in a high school talent show, superficially they offer little more than a tight chuckle and warrant slightly more than a participatory prize.
So, why are these covers being defended?
Samples in hip hop are a main ingredient of many successful hits. “No Church In The Wild” is no exception. That beautiful looped guitar riff comes from the talented master, Phil Manzanera, of Roxy Music. Phil’s solo work, “K-Scope” from 1978, was sampled by Kanye West and Jay-Z in their 2011 song.