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.
If you read any of those articles, the intro inevitably claims 1996 was somehow different than ’95 or ’97. But musically speaking, cover songs follow trends; they don’t create them. For instance, dance music was having one of its periodic resurgences in (then still called “rave” rather than “EDM”), so we see a lot of dance-music cover songs in 1996. You may not having thought that America’s terrible song “Horse With No Name” could be made worse, but wait until you hear Streetnoize’s Ibiza-core cover. Moby and the Prodigy both make appearances in the list below, which speaks just to how prominent they were everywhere in the late ’90s.
The biggest cover of of the year was unquestionably the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” another definite product of its era, followed by Madonna’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” which doesn’t seem particularly “90s” at all. Johnny Cash released his second album in the American series, solidifying his late-career comeback and cementing the template dozens of other faded stars would follow (with diminishing returns). Kurt Cobain had been dead two years, but the alternative-rock boom Nirvana spearheaded was still going strong; what could speak to 1996 more than this: Johnny Cash and Tom Petty both covered Beck.
But this list isn’t The Most 1996-y Cover (if it were, it would include more Skankin’ Pickle – and this video). It’s The Best. So some of the songs represented here are very much of their moment, but others could have come out in any year. But, they didn’t. They came out in 1996, which is good enough for us, so let’s jump in.
40. Lost Innocence – I Just Called To Say I Love You (Stevie Wonder cover)
Ministry released a cover of “Lay Lady Lay” this year, which seems like peak metal-cover ridiculousness. But where Ministry took their task seriously, this Italian metal band’s surprise Stevie Wonder cover is joyfully ludicrous – and a lot more fun to listen to as a result.
39. Pink Lincolns – Heroes (David Bowie cover)
Not quite as irreverent as Lost Innocence, but close. Pink Lincolns take a song too often made maudlin and deliver cheeky punk brawler.
38. Lush – All This Useless Beauty (Elvis Costello cover)
Elvis Costello himself delivered a good cover in 1996 (of Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise”), but Lush’s cover of one of his just-released songs is even better.
37. Current 93 ft. Nick Cave – All The Pretty Horses (Traditional cover)
The quieter of the two appearances Nick Cave will make on this list. Much quieter.
36. Townes Van Zandt – Dirty Old Town (Ewan MacColl cover)
Townes Van Zandt died on January 1, 1997. But he made his last year on earth count, releasing this beautiful Ewan MacColl cover that rivals The Pogues’ version for the definitive “Dirty Old Town” treatment.
35. The Cardigans – Iron Man (Black Sabbath cover)
How many people who bought this album for megahit “Lovefool” even knew they’d snuck on a Black Sabbath cover?
34. Rasputina – Why Don’t You Do Right? (Kansas Joe McCoy cover)
When you’re a cabaret-metal band whose main instrument is the cello, your covers are always going to sound different than the originals. Rasputina has covered many famous songs, but this relative obscurity is one of their best.
33. Luna – Season of the Witch (Donovan cover)
Shockingly, there were two high-profile covers of this song in 1996. Luna’s is better (sorry Mundy).
32. Red House Painters – Silly Love Songs (Paul McCartney cover)
As the story goes, when Mark Kozelek turned this album into his label, they refused to release it. Their main objection was this cover of Wings “Silly Love Songs,” which tops 11 minutes, turning a slight Paul McCartney ditty into a Crazy Horse-style barnburner. Kozelek refused to cut it down. We’re glad he did.
31. Tim O’Brien – Father of Night (Bob Dylan cover)
Mandolin maestro Tim O’Brien released a fantastic Bob Dylan tribute album in 1996. This New Morning reinvention is the best of the bunch, but they’re all worth hearing.
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