Dec 142020
 

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10. Sam Amidon – Sam Amidon

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A number of songs on Sam Amidon’s self-titled new album are traditional numbers that Jerry Garcia covered at one point. But Dead tributes these are not. Amidon takes even the most oft-covered song in the Anthology of American Folk Music textbook – “Little Maggie,” “Pretty Polly,” etc – and warps them in strange and inventive ways, drawing from experimental jazz as much as he is folk. Sure, there’s no shortage of banjo, Amidon’s main axe, but he uses even that more tradition of instruments to extremely un-traditional ends, blending it with atonal saxophone bleats on “Reuben” and with trip-hop percussion on “Maggie.” If you listen to much folk music, you’ve probably heard some of these songs many times. But never like this. – Ray Padgett

9. Various Artists – Songs For Australia

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Australian singer-songwriter Julia Stone curated this collection of international artists covering famous Australian songs, with proceeds being split by six organizations working towards bushfire relief: Firesticks, Landcare Australia, SEED, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, WildArk, and the NSW Rural Fire Service. While some punk rock purists may be disappointed in the lack of Radio Birdman or The Saints, the collection provides covers of some of the country’s greatest artists like INXS, The Go-Betweens, Nick Cave, and Stone’s own somber cover of the more-than-appropriate “Beds are Burning,” by Midnight Oil. Artists on the album include Kurt Vile doing Cave’s “Stranger Than Kindness,” The National doing INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” and Dope Lemon taking on The Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town.” – Jay Honstetter

8. Emma Swift – Blonde on the Tracks

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The title references two of Dylan’s most famous records, 1966’s Blonde On Blonde and 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, but it’s the spirit of the latter that comes through the strongest. Like Blood on the Tracks, Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks seems to be a snapshot of the end of a relationship. Also like Blood, there is sense that the story is being told out of sequence, with past, present and future melding into one. Blonde on the Tracks is an engrossing, deftly produced LP that that goes far beyond the boundaries of a straightforward tribute album. The songs may not be new, but – thanks these inspired reinterpretations of Bob Dylan’s words and music by Emma Swift – they certainly sound like they are. – Tim Edgeworth

7. Inter Arma – Garbers Days Revisited

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On Garbers Days Revisited, Inter Arma cover fellow metal and hardcore travelers like Venom, Ministry, and Cro-Mags. But these, great as they are, are not the covers that made the headlines. That would be their black-metal versions of Neil Young (“Southern Man”) and Nine Inch Nails (“March of the Pigs”), alongside less-metal-but-still-heavy covers of Prince (“Purple Rain”) and Tom Petty (“Runnin’ Down a Dream”). Against the odds, it all works, and may even convince some listeners skeptical of those growly metal vocals. Play it loud. – Ray Padgett

6. Marika Hackman – Covers

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Marika Hackman kicks off Covers with a rendition of Radiohead‘s “You Never Wash Up After Yourself,” a pretty clear indication that the album is born from the ennui of lockdown. The British singer has never been one to shy away from the dark realities of life, and she continues to forge a path of painfully honest musical expression on her fourth album, even if it is her first to consist entirely of songs written by other people. Her smooth, plaintive voice governs every track as the principal instrument, backed by an ever-present synthesizer, guitar, and drum machine. Even the surprising final track – a version of Beyonce’s “All Night” – comes off well, with Hackman experimenting with layered vocals and a more soulful sound. She offers a glimmer of hope here, too, as she delivers the “True love breathes salvation” message of the lyrics. But make no mistake, this album is soaked in the negative feelings of someone made uneasy by lockdown. And it’s beautiful, moving, powerful, and relevant for all that. – Adam Mason

5. Various Artists – Saving for a Custom Van

Bandcamp

Adam Schlesinger is best known for being a founding member of Fountains of Wayne, but he also was in the more indie band Ivy and the supergroup Tinted Windows (with members from Hanson, Cheap Trick, and The Smashing Pumpkins). He also wrote songs for a variety of movies (Music & Lyrics, That Thing You Do!, Josie and the Pussycats), television shows (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Broadway (postponed show The Bedwetter) that also make an appearance on this tribute album. The resulting collage of covers is heartfelt and plays like a personal mixtape of sorts. In the sad context of the album, lyrics stand out as especially poignant, from the sad irony of “All Kinds of Time” to the evergreen “Troubled Times.” It is a powerful homage that also educates listeners on the breadth of Schlesinger’s work. – Sara Stoudt

4. Rosie Carney – The Bends

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The other albums billed as lockdown performances on our list – Emel Mathlouthi, Gillian Welch, etc – often have an intimate, stripped-down sound, for obvious reasons. I don’t know if Rosie Carney was quarantining with an entire orchestra, but her “made-in-lockdown” record brings a grander scope. She takes Radiohead’s sophomore album and removes every trace of ’90s alt-rock bombast. It’s The Bends through a Moon Shaped Pool prism, blending subtle electronics with grand orchestrations on hits like “Fake Plastic Trees” and deep cuts alike. It radically reinvents an album that sometimes gets overlooked next to the OK Computer and Kid As of the world. Would love to hear her tackle other Radiohead records like this. She’s so good, she might even be able to redeem The King of Limbs. – Jane Callaway

3. Lucinda Williams – Lu’s Jukebox Series

Port Merch

We have always known Lucinda to be a covers lover, scattering them across her own output, and being one of the most constant contributors to tribute albums. So lockdown has done us a favor, she and her band busy cranking out lots of live-in-the-studio recordings, three volumes so far with a fourth on the way. The first a slew of Tom Petty songs, the second a rash of southern soul classic covers (and one of her own), and the third an all-Dylan selection. All full-length albums, and what fun, too. Lu sounds relaxed, and whilst her voice may not be as malleable as it was, it is a raggedly effective tool. This comes into its own, as a parallel, on the Dylan set, another wracked voice of virtue, the best songs being his from this century, the songs of darkness allied to a faltering voice, but still coming out fighting. The Petty songs are similarly covered, bringing Cash’s American Recordings to mind. The southern soul hits are just pure joy, her band relaxing into all the grooves, less strident than on live performances of late, and working as a unit, rather than any showcase for the individual parts. – Seuras Og

2. Emel Mathlouthi – The Tunis Diaries

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Emel Mathlouthi’s quarantine double album is really two covers albums, in a way. On the first album, she covers herself, re-recording her own songs in a stripped-down style. It’s great, but of course, covering yourself isn’t really a “cover.” So we’re focusing on the second album, one which Mathlouthi lends her unmistakable voice to guitar versions of everyone from Jeff Buckley to Rammstein. While locked-down in Tunisia, she recorded these songs on her family’s rooftop, and you can hear the sounds of the city in the background. – Ray Padgett

1. Various Artists – AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex

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AngelHeaded Hipster is produced by the late Hal Willner, who sadly passed away from complications from COVID-19 this past April. In the liner notes, Willner said of Marc Bolan, “I put him in the same pantheon as other composers that I’ve explored before (Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, etc.). So, the concept for the album became to show Bolan as a composer…” And he goes on to do exactly that. The album’s varied approach – taking musicians from all walks of life – allows for a tour of T.Rex’s career through the songwriting chops of Bolan. This is a tribute that does its job: it presents Bolan as a composer who created work that can stretch beyond the boundaries of any genre while celebrating not only Marc Bolan and T.Rex, but Hal Willner too. – Jay Honstetter

Click here for the 50 Best Cover Songs of 2020! (And support us on Patreon for the Best Cover EPs of 2020.)

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