20. Man Random – We Both Go Down Together
This self-described “punky power pop” band chooses a slightly faster tempo and brings a little more rock and roll to this cover. This is a good song choice. Although the original still has a violin to give us a reminder of the folk flair that is heard in a lot of songs by The Decemberists, this song is definitely more indie-rock sounding. This version keeps the wind down of the song, but, sticking with its more upbeat tempo, there is no lingering at the end. – Sara Stoudt
19. The Quill Pen Gallery – On the Bus Mall
It’s DIY-cemberists on this lo-fi cover from Pennsylvania folk-punker The Quill Pen Gallery. Like an early Mountain Goats tape, the raw recording quality adds to the intimacy. The singer strums hard and belts harder, even delivering a little trumpet-sounding solo, turning a sometimes overlooked Picaresque song into a stealth classic. – Ray Padgett
18. Kiki & Herb – I Was Meant for the Stage
Kiki & Herb is the long-running cabaret duo comprised of Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman. Across three decades of performance–countless shows in both San Francisco and downtown Manhattan; a concert film; a manic Christmas record; and, most recently, live reunions at NYC’s Joe’s Pub and Brooklyn Academy of Music–the pair have pushed the cabaret form to its farthest and most surreal reaches. Much has been made of Kiki & Herb’s wild onstage energy, no doubt a hallmark of their act. But beneath the pair’s costumes and meta-fictional backstory, Bond and Mellman are also thoughtful, unparalleled tastemakers: finding subversive undercurrents in an array of popular songs, showtunes, power ballads and ’00s indie rock deep cuts, not to mention the subliminal musical threads that connect them all. (By way of example, one must-hear medley fuses the jazz standard “Flamingo” with Ryan Adams’s “Note To Self: Don’t Die” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”)
Kiki and Herb’s Decemberists cover appears at the center of the duo’s live album Kiki & Herb Will Die For You, recorded in 2004 in a triumphant engagement at Carnegie Hall. Though Kiki (Bond) is typically at the heart of the act on vocals (and wild extended monologues), a hallmark of the show is typically a mid-set solo where Herb (Mellman)–a humble lounge lizard, normally deferential to Kiki’s whims and in quiet repose behind the keys–finally has his moment, alone, in the spotlight. This is where “I Was Meant For the Stage,” drawn from 2003’s Her Majesty The Decemberists, wisely comes into play.
Mellman makes the most of The Decemberists’ paean to performance and then some, milking the song’s epic slow build for all it’s worth. Beyond the obvious solo instrumentation, what makes this cover stand out musically are the ways Mellman plays with Meloy’s otherwise-staid vocal melody: sending it down a peg in moments of doubt or, conversely, flying up a fifth for the stanzas’ triumphant titular close. The work at the piano also feels as epic as it is loose, with Herb/Mellman riding the contours of his own deeply-felt vocal performance in real time. This “I Was Meant For the Stage” feels unexpectedly pure, honest and goosebump-inducing, rising above the whirlwind of the pair’s usual tornado energy. The cover is a high mark for Kiki and Herb — a kind of noble manifesto for Show People of all stripes, set alight on the world’s most iconic stage. – Ben Easton
17. Wakey!Wakey! – Apology Song
As the title indicates, this is a sung apology. It’s a surprisingly mundane Decemberists song in which no one gets killed or captured by pirates. Instead, it just consists of Colin Meloy apologizing to his friend Stephen for failing to lock up a bicycle named Madeline entrusted to his care, which got stolen. As it turned out, Meloy saw someone riding the bicycle a few months later and was able to return it to Stephen (who, to my knowledge, never wrote a “Thank You Song”). Later, Meloy was helping Stephen move, loaded the bicycle on the back of his van, backed up into a tree and destroyed it. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no “Second Apology Song.” There is, however, a nice cover of the song by Wakey! Wakey!, a project headed by singer/pianist/songwriter Michael Grubbs, which was recorded as part of a series of covers released online. If you are thinking, “this is what the Decemberists would sound like if Ben Folds covered them,” you wouldn’t be the first. – Jordan Becker
16. Apartment Sessions – The Crane Wife 3
It takes a village for this many-person cover from Iceland. Throughout the whole performance we get a peak at a veritable orchestra. I love the mix of guitar and banjo and the trading off between the upright bass and bass guitar. Partway through the song there is a string interlude that takes us to the hinterland. It’s soft and sweet, giving the listener an emotional breath before the full group returns to its energy packed delivery. But that’s not the end! A wicked guitar solo appears, bringing the song to a foot-stomping close. – Sara Stoudt
15. Ben Gibbard – Grace Cathedral Hill
At the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020, Ben Gibbard was among the first to dive into at-home live-streamed performances. Like many musicians stuck indoors, Gibbard’s production values were endearingly spare, and the vibes of the world beyond his humble home studio felt, to say the least, foreboding. But the memories of those early weeks of Gibbard’s performances, which were broadcast gratis online every day between March 17th and 29th, 2020, remain heartening for many. Plenty of musicians dabbled, but the prevailing feeling of Gibbard’s streams was a kind of a noble attention to craft above all: the songs, presented in a kind of daily ritual, could be a balm on their own simple terms.
Gibbard played many Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service fan favorites, deep cuts and dozens of exciting covers across his initial 13 streamed performances. His cover of The Decemberists’ “Grace Cathedral Hill” holds a rarified place above all of these: only the fourth cover to be performed in the months-long livestream run, elevating the song to land among the higher ranks of more obvious subjects like New Order, The Monkees, and Radiohead. In the March 19 stream, Gibbard prefaces his performance with an off-the-cuff tribute to Colin Meloy and co., expressing admiration for his fellow Pacific Northwesterners. The performance itself, humble and distilled, crystalizes what Gibbard did best through these early pandemic livestreams: it was simple songs like The Decemberists’ that could offer moments of honest connection, in spite of the wild circumstances. – Ben Easton
14. Still Crater – Make You Better / Crane Wife 3
What originally began as a brooding song ends up with a more “crying in the club” vibe in this electronic cover. With the steady beat and the synth turned to an organ sound, we end up in a “Make You Better” trance for awhile, but then the “and I will hang my head, hang my head low” repeated refrain from “The Crane Wife 3” appears. With about a minute left the beat drops and now we’re fully in dance-club mode for a bit. The song closes with the same music box piano that it started with, leaving you feeling like “wow, who knew electronic Decemberists could work so well?” – Sara Stoudt
13. Blanket Music – Red Right Ankle
We first posted this one way back in 2008! This Portland, Oregon group pays tribute to their hometown heroes, making “Red Right Ankle” sound like a lullaby with hushed harmonies and what sounds like a toy piano. Blanket Music actually have a closer connection to The Decemberists than most; Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee both guested on their 2004 album Cultural Norms, which came out shortly before this cover.– Ray Padgett
12. Patti Smith – Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect
Like many a Decemberists song, this one is a little odd, focusing on a series of dreams, including one that might relate to a concentration camp, a possibly incompetent architect, and a Spaniard. It’s one of Colin Meloy’s favorites—he once said, “It was really groundbreaking for me at the time. I felt like it was a concise, Fleetwood Mac–y pop song. You set out to write songs, and sometimes you hit the mark and sometimes you don’t. On this one, I hit as close to a mark as ever I’d set for myself. It’s got a nice, meandering verse-melody but a simple chorus. The whole thing has got two chords, which I think is cool.” Patti Smith recorded it for her Twelve cover collection, but it didn’t make the cut, getting released instead as the B-side of a single called Two More. It isn’t groundbreaking, and sounds like a Patti Smith song, which in and of itself is fine. It’s been discussed at least twice before on Cover Me (not by me), with one writer complaining that “the style doesn’t really fit her voice” and another calling it an “absolute delight.” So, listen and decide for yourself. – Jordan Becker
11. Davis Henry – Summersong
Davis Henry helpfully lets everyone know this cover is Power Pop with the YouTube title, but within seconds it’s clear what you’re getting. There’s nothing wrong with a straightforward translation of some hit song into power pop, and, for some, those versions have acted as a gateway into the world of cover songs. Henry’s version of “Summersong” makes the cut as one of the best Decemberists covers not just because it hits all the staples of a power pop cover, but because it does them all to perfection. Henry’s vocal runs and harmonies in particular really recall the original. The upbeat tempo makes the song feel even shorter and more intense than the 3-minute runtime would have you believe. – Mike Misch
All well and good, but how does this not include Aimee Mann’s Engine Driver?
Hey I’m Josh Belville, aka Here Lies Laika. Thanks so much for putting me on this list! I am shocked and honored. I kept getting notifications of people buying the track on Bandcamp all of a sudden and I couldn’t figure out why, haha. Truly honored, thank you for appreciating my silly little pop punk cover.