Dec 182020

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40. Al-Qasar – Dance of Maria (Elias Rahbani cover)

Elias Rahbani, the youngest of the three Rahbani brothers, is known for bringing Western sounds into Lebanese music. His ’70s album Mosaic of the Orient used a blend of Eastern and Western instruments – nai , bouzouki, flute, guitar, double flute, kanoun, tabla, drums, tambourine, and electric organ. Standout track “Dance of Maria” is an authentic piece of Lebanese psychedelic pop history, with haunting rhythms and killer percussion. So it’s hardly a surprise that Al-Qasar recorded their own version on their debut album, Miraj. Al-Qasar blends the best elements of ‘60s/’70s middle eastern psyche and garage rock (see Erkin Koray, Selda Bağcan, The Devil’s Anvil), with Western pop of the same era. The result is a diaspora of sound that mixes traditional Eastern instruments with the standard Western set up of guitar, bass, and drums, for music that is other worldly. “Dance of Maria” is updated with heavier guitars (even a triumphant solo!), tons of percussion, and a break in the song that plays out as a false ending. It’s pretty much perfect. – Jay Honstetter

39. Josh Ritter – Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits cover)

Josh Ritter’s Dire Straits cover is built upon an acoustic guitar, a mandolin, a warm and expressive vocal, and an accordion. There’s no gruff, semi-audible singing. No smooth Les Paul guitar lines. No synthesizer. It really is like hearing the song anew. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter took on the Dire Straits track for a live performance at the Somerville Theatre in 2014, putting the recording out this year on a ten-track EP titled But See Here, I Have Built You a Mansion. He didn’t seem daunted by the song’s classic status as title track from the British band’s gazillion-selling 1985 album which every dad owned. He just read it as a poignant anti-war song, which it is, having been penned by Mark Knopfler in 1982 in response to the plight of British soldiers during the Falklands War. Ritter gives the track the feel of an Appalachian folk song, shining fresh light on its first-person narrative of a soldier dying on a battlefield. This could be a soldier in the Civil War, or any war. The composition is universal in its central message: “We are fools to make war on our brothers in arms.” Ritter’s beautiful and moving performance stymies any feeling of apathy we may feel towards the classic-rock-radio staple. A real achievement. – Adam Mason

38. Rachelle Garniez – Killed By Death (Motörhead cover)

If only Lemmy Kilmister, who died of death five years ago, could have heard this Motörhead cover. He might have sneered at the intro, a twisted invocation of “Hotel California” honoring Glenn Frey, who died a few weeks later, but the song itself he might have dug: an accordion-lead, waltz-time revamp of his pounding thrash metal anthem. He’d have a laugh at Rachelle Garniez singing in slow sultry fashion about squeezing her lizard. Garniez’ neo-cabaret stylings are perfect for Lemmy, who had a thing for Nazi memorabilia, after all. Her cover puts you in a seamy Berlin cabaret in 1930 (except there’s sometimes a mariachi band of sorts, and shades of George Michael). “Killed by Death” is the lead-off track on Garniez’ Gone to Glory, an album devoted to covers of dead musicians. Being dead is definitely the only thing the artists on Garniez’ tribute have in common; you can bet that this is the only time that Prince, Motörhead, and Glen Campbell will ever appear on the same album.) There’s been entirely too much death in 2020, but even so, I have to say this song killed me. – Tom McDonald

37. Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters – Automatic (Go-Go’s cover)

“Automatic,” from the Go-Go’s 1981 album Beauty and the Beat, is atypical for a Go-Go’s song. It’s not power-poppy like “We Got the Beat” or “Vacation”; it’s a slower, more thoughtful Jane Wiedlin composition with a simple. almost sparse, arrangement. That makes
it a perfect song for the collaboration of Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters to cover. Donelly uses the right amount of restraint to convey emotion without overpowering the Sisters’ unique instrumentation. While this version stays true to the original, it benefits from the gravitas that a seasoned singer like Donelly brings. – Bob Potemski

36. Ben Lee and Sarah Silverman – Way Back Into Love (Adam Schlesinger cover)

In March, as the Before Times were morphing into the Current Situation, comedian Sarah Silverman moved to New York to put the finishing touches on a Broadway musical adaptation of her memoir that she had been working on for eight years with Adam Schlesinger, best known as part of Fountains of Wayne. Before they could get to work, Schlesinger texted Silverman, saying that he thought he had COVID. He did, and on April 1, Schlesinger became an early casualty of the pandemic. Father/Daughter Records pulled together an incredible collection of Schlesinger covers. It was hard to pick a favorite, but I went with this lesser-known song from the soundtrack to the rom-com Music and Lyrics, which featured Hugh Grant as a washed up singer and songwriter who collaborates with neophyte writer Drew Barrymore, to write a hit for a teen diva (and fall in love, of course). The song is performed in the film by Grant and Barrymore as a “demo” and then in a more produced version by Grant and Haley Bennett, who played the star singer. The cover highlights Silverman’s girlish voice and she and Ben Lee harmonize surprisingly well to create a charming song that sonically lands somewhere between the two filmed versions. – Jordan Becker

35. Emma Swift – I Contain Multitudes (Bob Dylan cover)

Emma Swift’s Blonde On The Tracks is not only one of the finest covers albums to emerge in 2020, it’s one of those records that’s only going to get better as it ages. That makes almost perfectly perverse sense considering its inspiration. While it’s true that Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is the best “39th studio album” that an artist has ever released, it’s also one of the straight-up best albums to emerge in 2020. At age 79, Dylan is still making vital, prescient, and wondrous art. And Emma Swift gets it, feels it and knows it. One of the highlights of her aforementioned album is a cover of Rough and Rowdy‘s magnificent opening track, “I Contain Multitudes.” Swift exquisitely and perfectly captures the song’s embraceable weirdness and warmth. It’s part hymn, part prayer and all beautiful. – Hope Silverman

34. Pom Pom Squad – Cellophane (FKA Twigs cover)

FKA Twigs fans will find familiarity in the simple beginning of Pom Pom Squad’s cover of “Cellophane.” Vocalist Mia Berrin holds her own with the long, high notes FKA Twigs lays down. But the cover soon diverts from the clear crisp vocals and plays to their strengths by adding distorted guitar and a pulsing drumbeat. It is further built up by bassist Mari Ale Figeman, drummer Shelby Keller, and guitarist Ethan Sass reclaiming the song as a rock anthem. With a few well-placed pauses in instrumentals, the overall effect is a pushing and pulling of energy to make a explosive cover. – Ally McAlpine

33. Rhiannon Giddens ft. Sxip Shirey – Just the Two of Us (Bill Withers cover)

Amongst the near-uncountable losses brought upon us by 2020, a major blow to the world of music was the death of triple Hall of Famer (Grammy, Songwriters’ and Rock & Roll) Bill Withers this past March. Not long after, Rhiannon Giddens offered a wonderful tribute to him with this cover of Withers’ 1981 hit “Just the Two of Us.” While she stays true to the original’s tempo and phrasing, she makes this version her own with the instrumentation and arrangement. With a sousaphone, valve trombone and, notably, Sxip Shirey’s haunting harmonica, this version has a distinctly New Orleans sound, grittier than the original’s smooth style. That grittiness is well-balanced by Gidden’s silky vocals, keeping this version familiar, yet unique. – Bob Potemski

32. Adrianne Lenker – Summer’s End (John Prine cover)

The outpouring of love and appreciation for John Prine’s brilliant work following his passing in 2020 was truly overwhelming…and maybe even a little revealing. Based on the number of heartfelt covers and moving online tributes, it became clear that, despite his not being a household name, nearly every music lover walking the planet had been a Prine fan all along. It was especially beautiful hearing younger artists talk about their abiding love for Prine. Case in point the extraordinary Adrianne Lenker, of rootsy indie band Big Thief. Her version of latter-day masterpiece “Summer’s End” was recorded four days before Prine’s passing, when the world knew he was sick, at the time serving as both a prayer and a tribute. Lenker serves up a live performance of heart-wrenching vulnerability and truly life-affirming power. If you are feeling fragile, you should grab a tissue before you hit play. – Hope Silverman

31. Poolside – Shakedown Street (Grateful Dead cover)

Poolside’s synthy dance sound is appropriate for this particular Grateful Dead song, which was at the time of its release in 1978 derided as “Disco Dead.” The sound was influenced in part by Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s interest in disco, particularly the Bee Gees, and the cover bops along, with some interesting electronic effects. As someone who was firmly on the rock side of the rock/disco debate, it was not my favorite Dead song, but if you watch videos of the band playing the song over the years, they look like they are having a blast, even as they incrementally de-discoed the performance. The band played a nearly 11-minute version of “Shakedown Street” the one time I saw the Dead in 1979, and while I don’t really remember it (it was the Dead and the ‘70s, OK?), based on the bootleg I have, the crowd seemed pretty pleased. – Jordan Becker


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  One Response to “The 50 Best Cover Songs of 2020”

Comments (1)
  1. Prince sometimes it snows in april cover
    Good listening

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