Appropriately enough for a man whose concerts routinely top three hours, this list is long. Fifty covers long, and even then we still found ourselves left with dozens of killer bonus tracks for our Patreon supporters. The hits are all here, of course, but Bruce’s catalog runs deep. This list includes many covers of lesser-known cuts and more recent songs – even one from his just-released solo album Western Stars. Though he turns 70 today, the man is not slowing down, and neither are the artists paying tribute to him. As Bruce famously sang, he learned more from a three-minute record than ever learned in school. Well, here are fifty artists who learned something from his three-minute records.
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…
Mary J. Blige made headlines earlier this month when she sang Bruce Springsteen‘s “American Skin (41 Shots)” directly to Hillary Clinton during an interview. Now she has released a proper recording, accompanied by Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly addressed many of the same issues as this song. It ain’t no secret, to quote the track, why Blige is covering it right now. Though Springsteen wrote it 15 years ago, the topic of unwarranted police shootings is more prevalent in the age of Black Lives Matter than ever. At the time, he earned boos from policemen for the song, and it will be interesting to see if Blige and Lamar’s version inspires the same outrage.Continue reading »
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren had a very long gestation period. Originally recorded in 1968 and released as the B-side of the Nazz’s “Open My Eyes,” it was re-recorded in 1971 and released on 1972’s Something/Anything? album; a year later, it came out as a single, at which point it went top-five and became Rundgren’s biggest hit. The wait may have been prolonged and inexplicable, but that Carole King-with-soul sound made the wait totally worthwhile. Continue reading »
Arcade Fire just performed a new song in NYC last week and, from the sound of the shaky live video, it holds promise. The real new Arcade Fire everyone should be buzzing about though is by San Francisco duo Meklit & Quinn. This pair of jazz-educated musicians just released their self-titled debut, covering everyone from MGMT to Patti Smith with grace and delicacy. Their version of Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” belongs in the annals of great AF covers.Continue reading »