The final track from Nirvana’s breakthrough classic Nevermind doesn’t get as much cover love as the rest of outstanding tracks on that album. “Something in the Way” is almost a fragment of a song; you have to strain your ears to interpret Kurt Cobain’s whispered lyrics (second verse, same as the first) and in the end you are left with only a piece of a haunted tale. The refrain feels loud in comparison, but the most prominent contributor there is a cello. It’s a beautiful and chilling song, but tough to make it your own with so little content, already done so well.
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…
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“In The Pines,” AKA “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” AKA “Black Girl,” is a traditional Appalachian folk song, nearly a century and a half old, that encompasses elements of searing heartbreak, perceived betrayal, death (by decapitation in many cases), and murder. Not to mention the fact the the song title is named after a location where “the sun don’t ever shine” and “we shiver when the cold wind blows.”
Not exactly “Kumbaya,” right? Which is fortunate, because if this song had been about the warm and fuzzies, it never would have lasted to become the haunting classic it remains today.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
One of the perks of writing for Cover Me is the degree to which it gives you the chance to make discoveries. For instance, I was searching for some good Clash covers (more on why in a minute) and it led to find the 2006 album Stereo Also Playable Mono by MakroSoft. After listening to a few tracks, I got the impression that John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and Ennio Morricone had gotten together, in a laboratory sponsored by Kraftwerk, and created film scores based on some of the immortal songs of the previous half century.
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 Raphael Camara: What’s a song that’s been covered too many times?
What is “An overused word to describe a song”, Alex?
To be fair, there are some songs that can only be described as “haunting”. For example, “Laurie (Strange Things Happen) by Dickey Lee. This is the song where a guy meets a girl, Laurie, at a dance on her birthday. They hit it off, he walks her home and gives her his sweater to wear because it’s a little chilly. When they get to her house, he kisses her goodnight (Yes!) and starts to head back home only to realize that he forgot his sweater. He goes back and her dad answers and tells the guy that Laurie “died a year ago today”.