Dec 142020
 

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30. Devon Gilfillian – What’s Going On

Amazon | Spotify | Apple Music

Every time I listen to Devon Gilfillian’s Marvin Gaye tribute album What’s Going On, I ask myself “Is this Marvin or Devon?” Inspired in part by the mass protests this summer, the singer/songwriter pieced together a line-by-line recreation of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterwork. While exact replicas can be a hindrance for some tribute albums, it is this record’s biggest strength. Gilfillian proves himself an adept interpreter of Gaye’s words and music, exploring themes of war, love, death, hatred, drug use and poverty with a master’s skill. Though Gilfillian adeptly handles the album’s hits, where he really stands out are the deep cuts. He taps a revolving cast of female vocalists to sing alongside him throughout the record, delivering powerhouse renditions of tracks like “What’s Happening Brother,” “God is Love” and “Wholy Holy.” Every song “make[s] me wanna holler” for more and leaves me longing for a better future – and a time when we can see him play this album live! – Curtis Zimmermann

29. Annett Louisan – Kitsch

Amazon | Spotify | Apple Music

Some people associate the word “kitsch” with overtly ironic love of something that was pretty cheap in the first place. Not Annett Louisan, who gave her album that title. “I only associate kitsch with positive feelings,” the German singer said in an interview. “Usually the term ‘kitschy’ is used when, for example, a sunset is particularly beautiful or a love scene in a film is extremely sentimental. But that’s wonderful. It can often not be beautiful or sentimental enough for me!” She proves that with her covers, in which she gives the likes of the Cure, the Verve, and the Bangles heavy eyelids and a languid heartbeat. If that’s not your cup of brau, so be it. But if you keep your eye, ears, and heart as open as Annett Louisian has, you’re in for a real treasure. – Patrick Robbins

28. Various Artists – Been Here For Too Long

Bandcamp

The hosts of Blink-155 – a podcast covering all 155 Blink-182 songs (and now that they’ve done that, any punk song they damn well please) – released a collection of 28 covers of Blink’s breakout hit, “Dammit.” Contributed by guests from the show, many of the takes drip with heavy earnestness and are about half the tempo of the original – but thankfully not all of them! While a few artists like Junior Battles take a more straightforward approach – albeit with a heavier, faster drumbeat (this was mixed by the drummer, right? not a knock, it’s good) – others like Jenny Owen Youngs and Charlatan slow it down and play around with the vocal melodies. Lydia Burrell breaks out an acoustic guitar and decides to change up the lyrics and sing about his favorite fall drinks from Starbucks, while The Clairbot decides to go way out there and mash it up with the Spice Girls hit “Wannabe” (this works surprisingly well). Blink-182 fan or not, when you hear the opening riff to “Dammit” it doesn’t leave your head for at least a week. And now there are 28 different ways of looping it in your cranium. – Jay Honstetter

27. Alyssandra Nighswonger – Nighswonger Sings Nilsson

Bandcamp | Amazon | Spotify | Apple Music

Feels like a real missed opportunity not titling this Nighswonger Schmighswonger, but otherwise this Harry Nilsson tribute album hits all its marks. Producer Chris Schlarb, who’s two degrees of separation from Harry himself due to his work with Nilsson collaborator Jim Keltner, collected a modern-day Wrecking Crew for these sessions, and it pays off with ace arrangements and a pleasant California-pop vibe. But best of all is Alyssandra’s voice, which lightly skips around these timeless songs. And we’ll forgive her the album title oversight due to the clever album cover: An homage to Nilsson’s similarly cross-stitched album The Point. – Ray Padgett

26. Unwoman – The Love Apocalypse (or, Uncovered Volume 6)

Bandcamp | Amazon | Spotify | Apple Music

Unwoman’s signature cello kicks off the album in “Love Is a Battlefield,” and from there a cover album is built as a soundtrack to the collapse of life as we know it. From on-the-nose choices like “It’s The End of the World as We Know It” (R.E.M.) and the closing “Apocalypse” (Cigarettes After Sex) to subtler choices like “I Ran” (Flock of Seagulls) and “99 Luftballoons” (Nena,) which sound chipper in their original forms but hide darker themes, the collection is perfect for losing yourself in the gloom. I’m most struck by “Young and Beautiful” (Lana Del Rey) as it forces us to confront our current isolation in comparison to the lavish Great Gatsby lifestyle of yore. – Sara Stoudt

25. Bettye Lavette – Blackbirds

Amazon | Spotify | Apple Music

It is hard to believe Bettye LaVette is 74… actually, scratch that: it is only too easy, what with her raggedly powerful voice etched deep with the experience of hard knocks. In what she laughingly now calls her 5th career, the fact she is here at all demonstrates the quiet determination and self belief that has seen her drag herself up onto her uppers, clawing her way into the limelight some decades after she was carelessly and callously dumped by the industry she had dedicated her life to. And still does, as her Blackbirds demonstrates. On it, she celebrates the songs of, largely, her peers, African-American women singers (black birds, get it?) with something to say and who made damn sure they did. So she covers the likes of Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Leonard Cohen’s longtime writing partner and backing singer, Sharon Robinson. Tipping a more overtly jazz and blues hat than her usual rock’n’soul style, there is also a timely take on Billie Holiday’s chilling “Strange Fruit.” – Seuras Og

24. Daniel Romano’s Outfit – Do (What Could Have Been) Infidels By Bob Dylan & The Plugz

Bandcamp

The 1980s are often seen as Bob Dylan’s lost decade, but a closer look reveals many hidden gems – not least of all Dylan’s performance with punk band The Plugz on Late Night with David Letterman in March 1984. Dylan had spent months beforehand jamming with The Plugz at his Malibu home, and the band understandably assumed that the Letterman performance would lead to bigger things. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to Dylan himself, the group never backed Bob again. Daniel Romano’s awkwardly-titled album imagines an alternate universe in which Dylan had re-recorded his then-new album Infidels with The Plugz, reinventing each track in the same manner as the Letterman performance. The smoky, reggae-influenced vibe of the original album is replaced with a lean, wiry New Wave attack, with Romano himself providing a surprisingly effective Dylan impersonation that manages to avoid veering into parody. The loving recreations of the two Infidels songs performed on Letterman (“Jokerman” and “License to Kill”) are expertly done, but the album’s real triumph is in reworking slower tracks like “Sweetheart Like You” and “I and I.” Press play, close your eyes, and it’s March 22, 1984 all over again. – Tim Edgeworth

23. Scott the Hoople – NEIL (Vol. 1)

Bandcamp

Famed alternative rock sideman Scott McCaughey is perhaps best known for his contributions to R.E.M. and The Minus 5. In November 2017, McCaughey had a serious stroke that, in his words, left him without his “ability to talk, sing, make music.” He used Beatles and Neil Young songs to help recover his music-making skills. Now he’s released some of the Neil Young recordings, under the nom-de-rock Scott the Hoople. NEIL (Vol. 1) is clearly a personal record, filled with idiosyncratic takes on Neil Young songs that most casual fans have never heard. McCaughey’s fairly radical rearrangements work more often than not, and they provide a new lens through which the Neil Young superfan can hear these songs anew. – Riley Haas

22. Lotte Kestner – Covers, Vol. 2

Bandcamp | Amazon | Spotify | Apple Music

Every time Seattle singer Lotte Kestner releases a covers project, we sit up and take notice. There was the first covers album, Stolen, back in 2011. Apparently the dozen songs on that didn’t quench her covers thirst, because she released the Extra Covers EP immediately afterward. Then, in 2015, she released Covering Depeche Mode, which landed her on our Best Depeche Mode Covers Ever list. And now she’s done it again on Covers, Vol. 2. There’s nothing fancy about these recordings; they’re mostly her voice and guitar, augmented by some electronics and effects. Whether she’s tackling Radiohead or Billy Idol, that’s all she needs. – Ray Padgett

21. Various Artists – Save Stereogum: An ’00s Covers Comp

Indiegogo

The title of the 55-track behemoth Save Stereogum: An ’00s Covers Comp is both literal and brutally honest. The supercool, eminently readable, lovably polarizing independent music site found itself in financial peril this year and was in danger of shutting down; once the pandemic descended, the advertising revenue that had been the site’s lifeblood completely dried up. And so a fundraising campaign was launched through Indiegogo with the goal of keeping Stereogum alive. Those that donated to the cause were rewarded with a dreamy gift custom-built for the modern music nerd; an exclusive, specially commissioned digital compilation of some of Stereogum’s favorite artists performing covers of self-chosen songs originally released in the ’00s. Starring a who’s who of indie-pop wonders and alternative vets, Save Stereogum is stuffed to the gills with goodness. Lucy Dacus molds Hinder’s ridiculous cheating anthem “Lips Of An Angel” into a stunning dreampop hymn. Soccer Mommy reinterprets The Wreckers’s 2005 country #1 “Leave The Pieces” into a lo-fi bedroom beauty. There’s a beauteous take on Imogen Heap’s “Hide And Seek” by Gordi present, as well as Ryley Walker applying some of his trademark hypnotic guitar to Switchfoot’s “The Shadow Proves The Sunshine.” It isn’t necessary that you have previously existing relationships with every song or participating artist on offer to enjoy the album; at 55 tracks, there are bound to be some unfamiliar things. Part of what makes it such a fun and compelling listen is the endless opportunities to both discover and rediscover. – Hope Silverman

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