Warren Haynes’ band Gov’t Mule have made a tradition of epic New Years Eve shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Last year they did three full sets of covers of other artists (as “Grateful Mule”, “The AllMule Brothers,” and “The Mule” [The Band]). And for 2016, they paid tribute to the long list of musician who left us this year, covering Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Merle Haggard, The Eagles (for Glenn Frey), Parliament Funkadelic (Bernie Worrell), Earth, Wind & Fire (Maurice White), The Black Crowes (Eddie Harsch), and Emerson Lake and Palmer (Keith Emerson and Greg Lake). Whew!
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…
They say nostalgia works in 20-year cycles, and this year the music of 1996 has been in the media a lot. And if you believe the music blogs, it turns out 1996 was a truly groundbreaking year for every possible genre. Over at SPIN: “The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs Of 1996.” Complex: “Best Rap Songs of 1996.” Junkee: “Ten reasons 1996 was a great year for dance music”. Loudwire: “10 Best Metal Albums of 1996.” Red Bull Music: “1996: Why it was a great year for pop”. Suck it, 1995! (Kidding; similar articles were of course written last year too.)
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.
Dwight Yoakam is no stranger to covers. He has successfully covered Cheap Trick, Queen, Elvis Presley and even The Clash. (To name a few.) But I have to be honest, I never thought I would ever post something like this here: “Man, I dig Dwight Yoakam covering Prince.
While in the studio recording his latest album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…, he learned of the death of Prince. In People magazine he explained, “We were all lamenting (his death), and I said, ‘It just feels like we should record ‘Purple Rain.’ I had always loved the simplistic beauty of that melody and refrain. I always loved the song.”
Since Prince died, My Morning Jacket has worked a number of his songs into regular setlist rotation: “Raspberry Beret,” “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “Take Me With U,” and “Purple Rain.” But they have only covered David Bowie once, a “Young Americans” hometown encore in May. This weekend though, they made up for lost time with a knockout new cover of “Rebel Rebel” at Virginia’s Lockn’ festival. Watch it below.
They also debuted another new cover, of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic “What the World Needs Now.” It’s a song that can sound trite and cheesy in the wrong hands, but Jim James and co. brought the beauty back to it, complete with some fantastic guitar work by James. Watch that below too, as well as the other two covers they played: Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” (for only the second time ever) and, yes, “Purple Rain.”
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.
“It’s an old expression,” Jesse Nolan explained in an interview with MTV. “Musicians used to say you caught a ghost if you gave a good performance. Like you were possessed.”
The spirit has certainly moved Caught a Ghost, the Los Angeles indie-electro-soul musical collective headed by Nolan. They give a 21st-century voice to the ghosts of Stax and Motown, welding them to ’90s hip-hop and electronica. Nolan, who plays most of the instruments in the studio and leads a whole stageful in Caught a Ghost’s highly-praised live shows (could be four, could be eight – “We just take whoever is available when we play”), describes himself as an “imperfectionist,” making sure the music is realer by not refining it to death.