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 232016
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

alexvissia

From the prairie town of Stony Plain, just outside of Edmonton, Alex Vissia found stardom in Canada performing with her two younger sisters, in venues up to and including the Olympics. After graduating from college, she turned solo; since then, she’s released two records and is working on her third, writing songs described as “grown from folksy prairie roots, distilled until clear, and carefully Rock-filtered to let just the right amount of dirt back in.”
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Jun 242016
 

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Laura_Nyro_-_Gonna_Take_a_Miracle

Following the cultural tumult that was the end of the 1960s, many musicians opted for a more introspective, seemingly autobiographical approach to their songwriting. Artists like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and scores of others suddenly made it okay to turn down the volume and once again focus on the lyrical content that tended to get swept aside during the height of psychedelia. Yet not all introspection resulted in the creation of original material. With the nation seemingly falling apart, many artists began looking back to the late-1950s and early-1960s, essentially their formative years, to help better understand how they arrived and, in the process, finding themselves temporarily transported to better times.

For a musician like Laura Nyro, herself always open and contemplative within her own songs, the approach transcended the internal here and now in favor of a more accurately autobiographical look at how she ended up where she did by the time of 1971’s Gonna Take A Miracle. Rather than digging deeper into herself in an attempt to find a wealth spring of inspiration, she returned to her original inspirations as though they were a palate cleanser designed to erase the memories of the preceding years’ social unrest. By returning to her roots and the music that inspired her in the first place – her “favorite teenage heartbeat music,” she called it – Nyro sought to find her center, looking backwards for answers contained within what was beginning to be (incorrectly) perceived as a simpler time.
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Apr 142016
 
animal_collective_-__photo_credit_tom_andrew_-ac2-_300pi copy

“Jimmy Mack” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas is a Motown classic, upbeat and insanely catchy. Not that you’d know it from the new cover by Animal Collective, who, it will not surprise anyone who knows them to learn, have changed the song radically. They’ve been performing it on their current tour, and finally laid down a studio version a few days ago at the KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic session. Continue reading »

Jan 132016
 

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, about a man we’ve written of before and surely will again, but perhaps not with as much emotion as we do this week: What’s your David Bowie memory?
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