Well, it has been quite a week in politics. President Trump got sworn in Friday, then on Saturday hundreds of thousands of protesters marched across the country. We don’t need to go into the many (many) controversies and debates the first few days of the Trump administration have already brought us. You know them, and that’s not really our beat anyway.
What is our beat is cover songs, and a whole lot of politically-minded covers came out in the past week. Some are explicitly covers of songs with political lyrics, like Neko Case, kd lang, and Laura Veirs covering Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” and OK Go covering Morrissey’s “Interesting Drug” (opening lines: “There are some bad people on the rise / They’re saving their own skins by ruining other people’s lives”).
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…
We’ll be honest: 1996 was not some magical, pioneering year for cover songs. It was also not a terrible year. It was just, you know, another year. There’s no overarching theorem of 1996’s cover songs that wasn’t true in ’95 or ’97. But even so, Cover Me wasn’t around in 1996, so we never made a Best Cover Songs of 1996 list (our first year-end list came in 2009, with the Kings of Convenience’s “It’s My Party” topping it, and you can catch up on all the lists here). So we decided, before the year ends and we take our look at the best covers songs this year, why not take a nostalgic rewind and do 1996 just for fun, twenty years too late.Continue reading »
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.
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.” Continue reading »
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Surely After the Gold Rush, this “uniformly dull” record, as Rolling Stone magazine put it at the time, is the peak of Neil Young’s output?
Yet somehow I always seem to forget it, tending to immediately opt for the feistier, zeitgeistier options of Zuma and Ragged Glory, and the civilians always go for the milquier toast of Harvest. But nowhere is there such simple beauty as on this 1970 record, his third solo album after leaving Buffalo Springfield. It captures most of Shakey’s tropes on one disc – his ragged guitar, his playing always suggesting playing in mittens if not boxing gloves, his delicate acoustic whimsy, and the left-field oddness, exemplified here by “Cripple Creek Ferry.” True, volume and feedback are restrained, maybe 8/10 rather than his later 11 (at least), and it’s possible that the record is even the better for that.
So when I do remember After the Gold Rush, when I come back to it, it astonishes. I can play it side to side (yes, of course vinyl) and be instantly transported to a teenage me, dreaming of a future I couldn’t ever quite picture (and indeed haven’t quite yet), all hopes and fears, intermingled with tears and joy. Continue reading »
This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Band’s legendary The Last Waltz final concert and to celebrate, NYC’s Lincoln Center hosted an all-star tribute concert Saturday night. Held down by Levon Helm’s longstanding Midnight Ramble Band, special guests included Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and even Dr. John, reprising the song he sang at the original Last Waltz.Continue reading »