Two things strike me as I scan through our list this year. This first is that many of the highest-ranking covers are tributes to recently-deceased icons. No surprise there, I suppose. But none actually pay tribute to artists that died in 2018. They honor those we’ve been honoring for two or three years now – your Pettys, your Princes, your Bowies. Hundreds of covers of each of these legends appeared in the first days after their deaths, but many of the best posthumous covers took longer to emerge.
Good covers take time. That principle – the cover-song equivalent of the slow food movement, perhaps – holds true throughout the list. Sure, a few here appear to have arisen from sudden moments of brilliance, flash-arranged for some concert or radio promo session. But many more reveal months or even years of painstaking work to nail every element. Making someone else’s song one’s own isn’t easy. These 50 covers took the time to get it right.
April was the best month for covers of the year so far. There’s no particular reason for that, I suspect. These things just ebb and flow. But the fact remains that it was a proverbial embarrassment of riches, as the length of the list below confirms.
As always, there’s no quality difference between the main picks and the honorable mentions; a cover’s categorization is only determined by how much I had to say about it.Continue reading »
On the new music podcast I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, frontman John Darnielle and host Joseph Fink (Welcome to Nightvale) are discussing every song on the Mountain Goats cult classic 2002 album All Hail West Texas. Each episode concludes with a new cover of the song in question, one of which – Loamlands’ “Fall of the High School Running Back” – we already named one of the best covers of the year this week.
The new episode features The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn tackling the album’s fifth track, “Fault Lines.” Like every song on the album, the original is a solo acoustic recording, offering a blank canvas for Finn to work on. He says his lush, orchestrated cover was inspired equally by both The Walkmen and Van Morrison. It’s a far cry from the original, although – crucially with any Mountain Goats song – the lyrics stay at the forefront.Continue reading »
Our official list of the Best Cover Songs of 2017 comes next week. But first, we’re continuing the tradition we started last year by rounding up some of the songs it most killed us to cut in a grab-bag post. No ranking, no writing, just a bunch of knockout covers.Continue reading »
The Mountain Goats’ latest album Goths contains a song titled “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” which requres a bit of explaining. Andrew Eldritch is the lead singer of pioneering gothic rock band Sisters of Mercy. As Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle explained to Noisey about the song, “The Sisters of Mercy haven’t made any music in over 20 years, and I just thought at some point you have to go home and I liked the idea of Andrew Eldritch being a person. Like, ‘I take off my hat and my sunglasses and go hang out with my friends who knew me when I was just a person who enjoyed a nice, sunny day in Leeds.'”
Growing up as a teen goth (though he knew the genre as “death rock”), Darnielle’s favorite band was the Sisters of Mercy. “My girlfriend and I loved the fact that everyone else was making albums and touring, but in the beginning, the Sisters of Mercy only made 12-inch EPs that were fucking unbelievable,” he told Noisey. “We loved the first album [1985’s First and Last and Always], I saw them twice on that tour, but it lacked the magic, the total mystery of these 12-inches that had almost no details of any kind, just the names of the musicians and the songs. Each EP felt like something to parse, like a text to say how they’d grown.”Continue reading »
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…