Dec 172021

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20. Hand Habits – I Believe in You (Neil Young cover)

It is hard to avoid a syrupy kitsch in covering one of Neil Young’s most maudlin songs. Hand Habits, aka Meg Duffy, not only sidesteps that risk; they also heighten the desperation seeping out the song. Is it a song of hope or a song of despair? Without that point ever being answered in either version, Duffy channels all the helplessness Young offers. That mood is amplified, ironically, by the barely-amplified strum of guitar, as eerie keyboards flit in and around their raw and wounded vocal, a constant droning hum of synth the other backdrop. The mood is then ramped up (or is it down?) by the chorale of additional backing vocals. Finally, the killer line “I don’t even know her,” repeated a number of times, a possibly impromptu ad lib at the end, and suddenly you have to rethink the whole damn thing. – Seuras Og

19. Waxahatchee – Fruits of My Labor (Lucinda Williams cover)

I first heard Waxahatchee, Katie Crutchfield’s musical project, as a grungy, rocking band, but her latest album, Saint Cloud, was more country/Americana influenced. The change in sound was apparently the result of personal exhaustion, new sobriety, and a desire to make lifestyle changes. Waxahatchee often covered Lucinda’ Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor” live, and recorded this spare, faithful version during the album sessions, but only released it as a bonus track on a re-release of Saint Cloud (along with covers of two other pretty fair songwriters, Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen). Crutchfield captures Williams’ slow, bluesy drawl, and the dreamy, almost psychedelic music, as she sings to a former lover using lush imagery of fruit and flowers, which ties directly into the song title. – Jordan Becker

18. Blinker the Star – Love Comes Quickly (Pet Shop Boys cover)

Love him or hate him, when it came to restarting the careers of legacy artists down on their luck (sales), Clive Davis knew what he was doing. By hooking them up with hot pop producers (Aretha riding the “Freeway of Love”) or custom fit concepts (Rod Stewart doing standards), he was able to inject new life into the careers of folks who weren’t as big in the charts as they used to be. After seeing the 2017 doc about Davis, Jordon Zadorozny, better known as Blinker The Star, was inspired to make a cover album as he imagined Clive himself might conceive it. “It’s a concept album of cover songs hand-selected by a fictional Clive Davis.” This is how the cheekily titled Arista album came to be. It is home to ten exquisite covers of songs by everyone from Madonna to Solange (plus one of the best Stones deep cuts ever) all of which are great, but the best of the bunch is this lush take on the Pet Shop Boys 1986 classic “Love Comes Quickly.” It’s as moody and full of longing as the original, but enhanced with some gorgeously spaced-out guitar and a big full-bodied vocal. Yes, it will still make you fall. – Hope Silverman

17. Aly & AJ – I Need My Girl (The National cover)

Sisters Aly and AJ Michalka wrap The National’s melancholic 2013 song in sweeping synths and shushing drums. The original guitar riff is still here, as are the weighty lyrics, although in this cover they are sung in beautiful harmony. Despite the octaves of difference between Matt Berninger’s original vocals and Aly and AJ’s, the songs feel incredibly similar. That’s not to say unoriginal, but rather that the two songs could exist on the same record, the dark version on one side and the darker version on the other, perfectly balanced. – Mike Misch

16. Molly Tuttle ft. Iron & Wine – You Don’t Get Me High Anymore (Phantogram cover)

I am immediately sold on the spunky acoustic guitar opening. It seems like there would be a lot to lose in taking on this song, so full of electronic elements, in an acoustic direction, but this cover definitely fits into the shock-and-awe genre-bending category. Tuttle even has that haunting timbre of Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel. When Iron & Wine join in for the bridges and choruses, the stakes are raised, and the lyrics become even more ominous. – Sara Stoudt

15. Cristin Milioti – 715 creeks (Bon Iver cover)

As far as challenging cover songs go, just about anything from Bon Iver’s catalog gets extra credit for difficulty, but tackling “715 – CRΣΣKS” is taking it even one step farther. Cristin Milioti, known for her roles in How I Met Your Mother, Palm Springs, and Black Mirror, shows here that acting isn’t the only thing she does well. The Bon Iver original features Justin Vernon’s vocals heavily modified with a Prismizer Effect, and no other accompaniment. It sounds incredibly lush, but is really very simple; the lyrics and the emotional delivery multiply the effect. Milioti decides to go with no harmonies on her voice at all, accompanied by just a simple piano backing and some strings. It’s a bold plan, but it pays off because her voice starts off strong and only gets stronger. The climax of the original song is so powerful it seems impossible that it could be replicated without Vernon’s vocal effects, but Milioti rises to the occasion. This is one of those covers where, if someone were to hear it before the original, they might consider it the definitive version. – Mike Misch

14. Nap Eyes – When I Come Around (Green Day cover)

Long before their music made it to Broadway, “When I Come Around” was one of Green Day’s biggest hits. More of a mid-tempo rocker than a punk song, the track has endured through the decades as one of power trio’s most well-known songs. The track got a makeover in 2021 when the Nova Scotia-based band Nap Eyes reworked it as a dreamy fusion of country and rock. – Curtis Zimmermann

13. Matt Berninger – Big Bird (Eddie Floyd cover)

One of the least National-esque vocals on the National frontman’s solo album, this is a cracking vocal and cracking arrangement of an admittedly cracking song. True, little is done to the original template of Eddie Floyd, beyond adding a very Creedence-like shimmer to the guitars, but, frankly, that’s enough. Perhaps a little less brass, but, when it comes, it is spot on. Towards the higher end of Berninger’s baritone, he manages to balance just on the side of straining his voice. More relaxed than his usual fare, it allows you to believe he can do fun as well as his more usual trademark wracked angst. I’ll bet Booker T. had fun too, having written, produced and played on the original, as well as producing and playing on this version. – Seuras Og

12. Hope D – Toxic (Britney Spears cover)

Australian singer (and former busker) Hope D reimagines Britney’s iconic hit as an aughts indie rock song, complete with guitar solos. She and her band play with tempo and dynamics and give this relatively sparse rock arrangement just as much power and drama as the original. The mid-song vamp, where they stray furthest from the original, is particularly effective. It’s one of those covers where it actually sounds like the original could have been intended for this style; there’s no hint of the elaborate production, but just as much verve. – Riley Haas

11. Neko Case – Be and Bring Me Home (Roky Erickson cover)

As lyric writers, Neko Case and Roky Erickson are surprisingly kindred spirits. You can hear it in the way she sings Erickson’s “Be and Bring Me Home,” a song first recorded in 1974 (a particularly tormented period for him). Case makes everything she sings sound like a song she wrote a few moments before, fresh and unique. The yearning and conviction in her voice is well suited to Erickson’s music, in part because those qualities are not as vividly present in Erickson’s voice. Case’s singing can bring listeners closer to the heart of the song than Erickson himself had the chance to. – Tom McDonald


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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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