The Best Cover Songs of 2016

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Dec 162016

Continued from…#40-31.

Norah Jones30. Don’t Be Denied (Neil Young cover)
Norah Jones

The great thing about Neil Young’s approach to songwriting is that, because of their seemingly simplistic, often rudimentary nature, his songs easily translate from electric to acoustic and vice versa. Because of this, an artist like Norah Jones can take a song like “Don’t Be Denied,” a shuffling, shambolic bit of electric country-rock in its original form, and turn it into a soulful, piano-centric country. The woozy New Orleans funeral horns are a particularly nice touch, their subtle accents acting as a sort of counter-harmony that leads nicely into the glorious chorus of voices on the song’s outro. – John Paul

John Fullbright29. Sometimes I Dream (Merle Haggard cover)
John Fullbright w/ Chris Thile

Though “Mama Tried” is the far more common Merle Haggard song to be dusted off as a tribute and homage to his particular brand of hard-drinking, hard-loving American manhood, this song is every bit as good. The rendition here, recorded for one of the first several episodes of Chris Thile’s incarnation of Prairie Home Companion, harnesses Fullbright’s voice – steeped in self-loathing and yet longing to be heard and headed – to create a portrait of a definitively American Hamlet. Where Shakespeare’s noble Dane only hung onto life because the possibility of bad dreams prohibited him from ending his daily suffering, Haggard’s character is able to endure the slings and arrows of his own making precisely because of the unlikely escape offered by those same dreams. Our mostly-drunk but dead-serious protagonist is played perfectly straight here, without any romanticization or flourishes. He is, as Hamlet said of his father, “a man, take him all in all.” It’s a truly astonishing cover that showcases Haggard, Fullbright, and Thile in equal measure. – Matt Vadnais

mewithoutYou28. Cleo’s Ferry Cemetery (Say Anything cover)

In their second decade, mewithoutYou alternate between being a screamy post-hardcode band and oddball freak-folk troubadours. They’re very much in the freak-folk mode here, covering “Cemetery” by emo tourmates Say Anything as a tender ballad while adding a few of their own lines (and borrowing a Morrissey lyric to boot). Aaron Weiss can deliver quirky, oddball lyrics like no other – even when they’re not his own. Here, he undersings beautifully on verses about and underwater cemetery where one might hide from the G.O.P. (prescient!) before opening into a tender chorus. – Ray Padgett

Lucinda Williams27. Factory (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Lucinda Williams

I have no idea where Highway 20 runs, but I am hoping it cuts across Nebraska, as Lucinda so out-bruces Bruce’s schtick on that album. Yes, I know Nebraska is mainly acoustic, and this isn’t, and I know “Factory” isn’t on Nebraska, but it is the mood I am reminded of. No other version quite hits the desperation of the working life, the drudgery and the despair, as does Lu’s, her voice achier, croakier than perhaps ever. Consummate. – Seuras Og

[audio: Miscellaneous/LWFactory.mp3]
Britta Phillips26. Drive (The Cars cover)
Britta Phillips

Less is, as ever, so much more. The smooth wash of the Cars’ original replaced by what sounds like echo-drenched banjo. A repeated guitar motif and shuffled drums permeating the background. Britta singing with reverb on 11. No messing with the melody, just an interpretation that imbues as much warm hopelessness as the original. (There is also a slightly rawer and less Mazzy Starr-ed live rendition from Houston’s Skyline Sessions, which by taking even more away, gives an even greater grace to the song.) – Seuras Og

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker25. Dark Turn of Mind (Gillian Welch cover)
Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker

Gillian Welch hasn’t released an album under her own name since 2011’s The Harrow & The Harvest, but people just keep covering songs off of it. Night Beds made our 2014 list with a lovely “The Way The Whole Thing Ends” cover, and British duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker try to out-pretty even that with “Dark Turn of the Mind.” Clarke’s lilting high notes and Walker’s delicate picking gets augmented by tasteful strings on one of the most straight-up gorgeous covers we heard all year. – Ray Padgett

Sturgill Simpson24. In Bloom (Nirvana cover)
Sturgill Simpson

“Don’t know what it means….to love someone.” This extra line added onto the chorus of “In Bloom” is all it takes to elevate Simpson’s Nirvana cover from potentially disastrous to genuinely haunting. For Simpson, this haunt is very real; he recorded the song and most of his latest album, the now Grammy-nominated A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, for his young son. For Simpson, this cover is neither an indulgence nor a gimmick – it’s an act of love. – Brady Gerber

Kacey Musgraves23. Crazy (Gnarls Barkley cover)
Kacey Musgraves

Just when you’re thinking don’t bother, it’s yet another cover of Miss Walking After Midnight’s “Crazy” (which, incidentally, Kacey Musgraves also does), here comes a twist on the ol’ Gnarls Barkley. Sure, we’ve all heard back-porch Americana versions aplenty, and that’s how this one starts. So far, so meh, but after a chorus or two, the steel starts to hum, and the tune yee-haws into a middle section so cheesy it has you smiling (with? at? up to you), the quality of the instrumental soloing giving eventual due respect. – Seuras Og

Music Super Circus22. Don’t You Want Me (The Human League cover)
Music Super Circus

The first half of this take on Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” feels like a very depressed Jack Johnson got ahold of it. It’s laid back, with the right amount of jazzy guitar, but without Johnson’s unflappable positivity. That all changes when the lovely backing vocals chime in on the chorus, and the second half ends up being surprisingly peppy. It’s a simple take on a classic, but it works. – Mike Misch

Autre Ne Veut21. Little Red Corvette (Prince cover)
Autre Ne Veut

Prince’s influence on pop music is immeasurable, and his death this year resulted in an insane number of covers and tributes. Autre Ne Veut, whose music borrows heavily from the Prince playbook, take this upbeat tune to a new place of reflection. It starts slow, but ends triumphantly and with more weight than it’s ever had. – Mike Misch


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  12 Responses to “The Best Cover Songs of 2016”

Comments (9) Pingbacks (3)
  1. How did another moody slowed down version of happy pop song cynically put together for a movie trailer make it all the way to number 1?

    • You’re right that there are many covers like that these days, but for what it’s worth, “S.O.S.” was not used in the trailer. The song was not even released for months after the movie came out, until the band wanted to pay tribute to a murdered politician.

      • Also, I’d argue that Portishead’s motivations for recording the song were far from cynical. In the context of the movie High-Rise, “S.O.S.”‘s effect is devastating. If the band recorded the song for the sole purpose of having a hit, I’d agree with you, but self-interest is sorely lacking here.

        If any of these 50 songs get you smiling, humming, or thinking, then we’ve done our job. We hope they make you want to hear more from the artists involved, whether covered or covering.

  2. There is a little gem of a cover of the Patti Smith classic, “Dancing Barefoot”, by her Majesty. It is sexy and sultry and trippy.

  3. Disturbed’s Sound(s) of Silence? Come on! How could you leave this out???

  4. Great list! I really appreciate the trouble all of you go to over the course of the year listening and finding things and writing them up…and then making this list from among all those selections.
    See ya in 2017~

  5. C’mon man, And I Bid You Goodnight is a Joseph Spence song, and anyone writing about music should know that. And it had been covered many times (most notably by The Incredible String Band) before the Dead got to it. If you want to make a list of “Best Cover of A Cover Song”, then you can include Sam Amidon covering the Grateful Dead covering The Incredible String Band covering Joseph Spence.

  6. thanks for the list. while a lot of the songs dont do much to me (as a cover and orginal) there were some nice finds in that i (as always not very observant) totally missed before but liked:
    Sinéad O’Connor cover, her voice sounded very nice on that track.
    really loved roy peaks version of miss ohio. has a nice bit more energetic take on it.
    Norah Jonescover was nice too
    Lucinda Williams made me emotional. so much thanks.
    i personaly would have gave 41 shots the first place from this songs.

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