Dec 172021

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40. Pete Yorn – Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan cover)

“Lay Lady Lay” may hold the distinction of being Bob Dylan’s most seductive song. In the slow-moving track, Dylan delivered one of his finest vocal performances as coaxed his paramour into his “big brass bed.” On this cover, singer-songwriter Pete Yorn infused the song with a horn groove that seems to have been lifted from ‘60s pop stalwarts Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. He turned the Dylan classic into an upbeat dance number, more appropriate for doing the twist than hitting the sheets. – Curtis Zimmermann

39. Phoebe Bridgers – Nothing Else Matters (Metallica cover)

We were inundated with Metallica covers this year, due to The Blacklist, the mammoth tribute to Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album. Bridgers’ version of “Nothing Else Matters” stands above the crowd for its relative restraint and its beauty. Mostly driven by a piano and Bridgers’ voice in the beginning, Bridgers distills the song down to its essence: a pretty melody with plaintive lyrics. When strings do come in to back her, they are deep in the mix, adding texture but not taking away from the focus on her voice. When she sings the chorus, she goes bigger, but never over the top. Even when a beat finally comes in, three minutes into the song, it still feels like a restrained and subdued performance, focusing on the meaning of the lyrics rather than trying to capture the bombast of the original. – Riley Haas

38. k-os – Just What I Needed (The Cars cover)

Canadian singer/rapper k-os knows no sonic boundaries. He is a nomad, at home in everything from hip-hop to R & B to rock, and he imbues his every creation with beautiful weirdness and joy. His raucous, ridiculous cover of The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” exemplifies that. There’s more riffage, bonus rapping, nods to Ben Orr’s original vocal complete with his same inflections (but turned up to 11) plus loads of fabulously extravagant “yeah-ing” pre-chorus, post-chorus, and everywhere else. And if you are old enough to have watched a music video show on a UHF channel in the ’80s, the video too will speak to your soul. k-os said, “Power pop has been described as a song genre of energetic performances, and happy-sounding music underpinned by a sense of yearning, longing, or despair. Ironically, this is exactly how I would describe the music I’ve been making my whole life, A Joyful Rebellion.” – Hope Silverman

37. “Weird Al” Yankovic – This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us (Sparks cover)

This is just so darn good as to be impossible on so many levels. I’m no card-carrying advocate of the curly-haired parodist myself, which is just one of the impossibilities that nail it for me. The others? Well, first of all, it’s an instrumental, taken straight and with lashings of love and respect. Second, it is accordion-based, which, despite Al’s best efforts, remains only a fringe favorite. And third, and most importantly, it is just such fun. No nuance, no irony, no knowing nod or wink. A difficult tune, I guess, with frequent changes in tempo, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” evokes, oddly, both Christmas cheer and disturbing remembrances of the Sparks brothers in all their quirky oddness. – Seuras Og

36. Angel Olsen – Eyes Without A Face (Billy Idol cover)

“Eyes Without A Face” was a hit for Billy Idol in 1984, but its full power as a twisted ballad is often lost on those who regard the lip-curling, fist-pumping singer as a slightly cartoonish figure. Angel Olsen reinvents the song for her Aisles EP, in all seriousness, as a lush piece of dream-pop, keeping the impeccable bassline, the lightly strummed acoustic guitar, and the handclaps, but adding layers of breathy, vocoder-assisted vocals. She sings it with as much emotional commitment as her own “Shut Up Kiss Me,” another song about a relationship sunk by feelings of betrayal and mistrust. She achieves something wonderful on the adventurous bridge section, too, substituting what she calls “a rap part” with a “tripped out instrumental” and going full Herbie Hancock on the vocoder as she repeatedly entreats: “Don’t call me on the phone.” – Adam Mason

35. Omar Apollo – California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & The Papas cover)

Yes, the slightly slower and stripped-back model of covers is becoming oversubscribed, but this is a masterclass in how to do it. From Omar Apollo’s androgynous vocal timbre, breaking and cracking exquisitely as he gets down on his knees, the cheesiness of the organ arriving at much the same point pure and perfect pop music. The slight Latino cadence over glistening acoustic guitar and bass, the latter cracklier by the second, allows the song to appeal to those who might otherwise balk at the melisma that creeps in. But it is overall a success and to be welcomed. Uncertain, however, if I get the reason for the abrupt end, the tape snipped mid-song. – Seuras Og

34. Billy Strings – The Gambler (Bobby Bare / Kenny Rogers cover)

Once concert venues started reopening in early 2021, bluegrass guitar slinger Billy Strings hit the road with a vengeance, performing more than 90 shows and counting. Within his setlists, Strings often includes multiple covers, taking on everything from Black Sabbath to Cher to Doc Watson to the Grateful Dead. While performing in Las Vegas, he delivered a stellar rendition of “The Gambler,” a song first recorded by Bobby Bare, but most commonly associated with Kenny Rogers. Strings dispensed with his usual guitar-picking fireworks and focused mainly on his vocals, proving himself as an adept country crooner with a voice to match his guitar. – Curtis Zimmermann

33. Rhiannon Giddens – I Shall Not Be Moved (Trad. cover)

There doesn’t seem like there’s anything that Rhiannon Giddens can’t do well, but covering a spiritual is firmly in her wheelhouse. The song dates to the slave era, and was taught to Giddens by fellow North Carolinian and renowned Black traditional fiddler Joe Thompson. This was released on They’re Calling Me Home, a pandemic project recorded over six days by Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi at a small studio on a farm in Ireland, where they live when not touring. Its intimacy makes you feel like they’re playing in your living room – if you were lucky enough to have a couple of virtuoso musicians playing in your living room. Google the lyrics to the song, and you’ll find numerous different versions, so the fact that Giddens added some of her own is squarely in the folk tradition. – Jordan Becker

32. Lady Parts – 9 to 5 (Dolly Parton cover)

In 1980, Dolly Parton wrote the theme song and starred in the feminist comedy 9 to 5, where she and her coworkers enacted the ultimate revenge fantasy against their “sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot” of a boss. The theme song got a recent overhaul when it was performed by the titular band in the British drama We Are Lady Parts. The show is about an all-female, all-Muslim band trying to make it in the music business. For the soundtrack, “9 to 5” is recast as hard-edged noise punk, meant not only to crash through barriers but shatter them. – Curtis Zimmermann

31. Boy – Bette Davis Eyes (Jackie DeShannon / Kim Carnes cover)

You know when a song is so popular that covering it seems redundant? When the original is just so singularly memorable that no cover will ever be anything beyond karaoke? My first reaction when I read about BOY covering “Bette Davis Eyes” was “what is the point of covering this?” (But, of course, the famous Kim Carnes version was itself a cover.) Then I listened to it. And I was blown away. The duo had injected this played-out, overexposed, polarizing, eternally #1 track with heretofore unseen life and poignancy. Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass completely undo the song, turning it from a quirky, screamy singalong to a wistful, wanting tearjerker. What the hell. It is the antithesis of the Carnes hit; it is gorgeous, and life is officially weird. – Hope Silverman


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  2 Responses to “The 50 Best Cover Songs of 2021”

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  1. “Wow, what an incredible compilation of cover songs! Each song on this list showcases the artists’ incredible talent and their unique interpretive abilities. I love how they manage to put their own twist on familiar tunes, breathing new life into them. The selection here truly captures the essence of musical innovation and creativity in 2021. Thank you for curating such a fantastic list! Looking forward to discovering more amazing covers in the future. Best regards, Gary Ford.”

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