Dec 132019

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10. P.P. Arnold – Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie (Bob Dylan cover)

Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” would seem to be an uncoverable song, in part because it was never a song in the first place, but a poem he read aloud once. But this year, on her first album of new material in over half a century, P.P. Arnold showed she’d found the magic key to unlocking the mystery of how to cover this and make it work. She turned the poem into a piece that Gil Scott-Heron would have been proud to call his own, with instruments weaving in and out. Her take on the words is less a rap than an incantation. With this performance, Arnold joins God and Guthrie in the Grand Canyon at sundown. – Patrick Robbins

9. Maribou State – Spooky (Mike Sharpe/Dusty Springfield cover)

“Spooky” has a great cover history. In its original form it was an instrumental, played by saxophonist Mike Sharpe in 1967. Classics IV added lyrics not long after. Dusty Springfield’s version might be the most mainstream; it was featured in the movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Maribou State, an electronic duo from England, joined the cover ranks this year when they recorded their version for Spotify Sessions. The duo keeps the traditional and smooth bass line, skipping the original’s more staccato guitar riff. The vocals follow suit, airy yet sultry. Hinted at in the very beginning of the song and teased throughout, this cover adds electronic elements, building to a more electronic than jazz vibe towards the end. – Sara Stoudt

8. Our Native Daughters – Slave Driver (Bob Marley cover)

The remarkable Rhiannon Giddens organized this project, gathering three other prodigiously talented African-American women, all of whom play the banjo (among other instruments): Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla (like Giddens, a former Carolina Chocolate Drop), and Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell. How this album, which focuses on African-American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope, isn’t on top of every best-of 2019 list (at least those that acknowledge Americana and roots music) is inexplicable. Although the album’s songs draw on older sources, the only true cover on the album is this Bob Marley song, which fits the theme of how people dealt with slavery, oppression, and notably, the withholding of education. Sung by all four women swapping leads and sharing harmonies, accompanied by Giddens on “minstrel banjo” along with guitar and bass, it retains the reggae feel without slavishly copying the original (pun intended). – Jordan Becker

7. Unleash the Archers – Northwest Passage (Stan Rogers cover)

Folk song “Northwest Passage” has been called the unofficial Canadian national anthem – and by a Canadian Prime Minister, no less. The covers it gets are almost exclusively both a) by Canadians and b) extremely folky (Judy Collins also did one this year, for example). Unleash the Archers qualifies on the first point – they’re from Victoria – but couldn’t be much farther away on the second. They keep a bit of the original’s a cappella feel on the verses, driven by knockout vocals by Brittney Slayes (great name), but go full power-metal on the thundering choruses. It’s one of the most dramatic genre-crossovers we heard this year, and one of the best. – Ray Padgett

6. Flor de Toloache – No Sigas [Don’t Speak] (No Doubt cover)

Flor de Toloache bills themselves as the first and only all-female mariachi band in New York City. Their latest album this cover from No Doubt’s third album. Flor de Toloache turns it into a Spanish classic. Like the original, the cover starts out sparsely, with vocals and only a timid but persistent acoustic guitar. “Tu y yo” replaces “you and me” and we’re off on our Spanish lesson. String interludes are interspersed among the verses, and the song builds to the chorus where more traditional mariachi sounds join forces with the expressive vocals. It seems fitting that the Toloache flower, the band’s namesake, is traditionally used in love potions as this cover makes us fall back in love with an old-school No Doubt song. – Sara Stoudt

5. Snoop Dogg – Red Right Hand (Nick Cave cover)

Don’t skip Dogg’s loopy intro, which gives a flavor of what is surely to come. This is so barking as to be positively dystopian. Nick Cave’s original is the opening song for Peaky Blinders, the gangsters-go-legit(ish) series that makes The Irishman seem believable. Set in a barely recognizable Birmingham, UK (I should know; I live there), this ’20s through ’40s story has used contemporary music, strangely, convincingly and effectively, as its soundtrack. With greater success, the checkbook has afforded special commissions, an earlier one being PJ Harvey’s version of the same song. Dogg actually does little to the song beyond ramping up the beat(s) into a pleasing hip-hop canter and rapping the vocal. From time to time random voices interrupt, with accents as variable and haphazard as the program, the whole giving a buzz that can’t fail but delight. And it keeps the tubular bell. Makes Cave seem positively archaic. – Seuras Og

4. The Marías – …Baby One More Time (Britney Spears cover)

The Marías’ video for their cover of Britney Spears’ 1998 breakthrough song “…Baby One More Time” feels like a cross between a German art film and a Lonely Island digital short. The video appears as if it was filmed with an 8-millimeter camera and features the group singing the song in a lush countryside alongside armless nude statues. The music holds up just as well without the imagery. The group plays the song as a slow piece of stripped-down dream-pop, with a touch of synthesizer. At the end, the group includes a reference to Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again,” reminding everyone that they’re “not that innocent” either. – Curtis Zimmermann

3. Puss ‘n’ Boots – Angel Dream (Tom Petty cover)

Many tributes have been made to Tom Petty this year, as we still mourn the loss of such a great artist. One of the most notable, a cover of “Angel Dream” by alt-country trio Puss ’n’ Boots, was released on Petty’s birthday. Featuring Norah Jones’ distinctive vocals with gorgeous harmonies from Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper, and some interesting rhythmic choices with the drums, the cover is lush and easy. – Angela Hughey

2. Childish Gambino – Lost in You (Chris Gaines cover)

Childish Gambino’s cover of Garth Brooks’ lost ‘90s hit might be one of the most meta covers of all time. Brooks released the song in 1999 as part of his Chris Gaines project, where he recorded an album of pop tunes under a fictitious name. It was supposed to be a soundtrack to a film about the fictional Gaines’ life, but due to lack of interest, genuine confusion, and downright mockery of the project, it got scrapped. The album did produce one top-five radio hit: “Lost in You,” a light, finger-snapping R&B song unlike anything else in Brooks’ repertoire. Gambino is of course the alter-ego of actor, singer, producer Donald Glover. He revived the song during a performance for Australian radio this year. Glover’s cover itself is a beautiful, heartfelt, gospel-powered tune. He gives new life to this otherwise forgotten pop-culture oddity. – Curtis Zimmermann

1. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Echoes (Pink Floyd cover)

Who in their right mind could ever think this could possibly work? Since when could an acoustic guitar duo ever even begin to reproduce this epitome of Floydian symphonic majesty? Well, if you know anything at all about this Mexican couple, erstwhile street buskers, you know the answer. Challenge and counter-intuition are their calling cards, as their versions of Zeppelin and Metallica, among others, display. These are no normal acoustic guitars, for flamenco is their name, two guitars and four hands producing more notes simultaneously than nature should allow. But they also know when to let just one suffice, as in the beginning of this. In fact, seldom is there any essence of excess, of showing off, this being as restrained a cover as they give. Eighteen minutes long, this must be the longest “song,” here, sadly with only the same number of words given me to describe. OK, it helps to know the original, but that isn’t essential. A masterclass in utilizing the limitations (ha!) of just two musicians. Listen and be unworthy. – Seuras Og

Click here for our Best Cover Albums of 2019 list!

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  One Response to “The Best Cover Songs of 2019”

Comments (1)
  1. What about Steve Earle & Los Refugios Tiernos – Señor (from Mayans MC), Bob Dylan cover

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