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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Apr 252016
 
TheMountainGoats

Last week, the Mountain Goats wrapped up a short tour at NYC’s City Winery. It’s a venue much smaller than they’d normally play in town, which is no accident: the concept of the tour was playing lesser-known songs and rarities in listening-room environments. As frontman John Darnielle put it, “smaller rooms, audible frequencies, making eye contact with people in the back row”. These shows were for the superfans (though is there any other kind with this band?). Fittingly, the tour finale saw three rare and new covers: Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark,” Goldfinger’s “Superman,” and even a huge singalong on the classic western song “Home on the Range.” Continue reading »

Apr 162015
 

A couple nights ago, the Mountain Goats played an intimate show at a NYC winery to to celebrate the release of their pro wrestling-themed album Beat the Champ (which is way better than that description might imply). They threw a couple covers into the mix, one of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Shot in the Dark,” which they released on a 7″ last year, and a new solo take on the Grateful Dead‘s “St. Stephen.” Continue reading »

Apr 282014
 
The Mountain Goats

Indie folk rockers the Mountain Goats know how to masterfully cover a song, even if it’s worlds away in the realm of classic punk. As part of A.V. Club and Honda’s “Pioneering” series, the trio honored punk heroes the Ramones with a folksy cover of “Danny Says.” Their rendition rings true to the original, only changing the instrumentation from power punk electrics to laid-back acoustics. Singer John Darnielle does Joey Ramone proud as he snarls through this tale of life on the road. Continue reading »

Jan 172014
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

It was twenty-eight years ago this month that Phil Lynott, bassist/vocalist for Thin Lizzy, passed away far too young. At least he left behind a legacy – a quality back catalog, a memorable description from Henry Rollins as “my guardo camino… the man that gets me through the high times, the low times and all the times in between,” and a song that rivals “Jersey Girl” as the best Bruce Springsteen song that Springsteen never wrote – “The Boys Are Back In Town,” from 1976’s Jailbreak.
Continue reading »