Black Country, New Road – Time to Pretend (MGMT cover)
If you’re expecting the “Time to Pretend” you knew and loved a decade ago, think again. UK post-punkers Black Country, New Road, one of the buzziest bands of the new year, deconstruct the song entirely. It starts pretty sane, then gradually veers off the tracks into chaos. By the end there’s a free-jazz sax solo leading a wall of noise only barely identifiable as this, or any, song.Continue reading »
Today, Willie Nelson releases his 71st – yes, you read that right, 71st – album. It’s a set of Frank Sinatra covers called That’s Life. We’ll have a review of it next week.
But while we prepare to hear more covers by Willie Nelson, we thought it was a good chance to look at covers of Willie Nelson. Because those 71 albums include hundreds and hundreds of songs Willie wrote himself, from classics like “Crazy” and “On the Road Again” to a plethora of deep cut gems just waiting to be discovered. And you can’t spell “discover” without “cover,” so we’ve put together thirty ways for you to discover some songs you don’t know and new interpretations of some songs everyone knows.
Because Willie’s discography is so deep and times convoluted, we set a few ground rules for this list:
We only included covers of songs Willie himself wrote, rather than songs he just popularized. That knocks out a few of his big hits: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and “Always on My Mind” among them.
The first recording of a Willie song doesn’t count as the cover – even if that first recording wasn’t by Willie himself. Remember that before you get mad that Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is not on this list. Subsequent versions of those songs are of course fair game.
An artist can’t cover themselves. That normally goes without saying, but Willie’s recorded in so many different bands and configurations, the same songs sometimes come up repeatedly. So The Highwaymen singing an older Willie song doesn’t qualify as a cover.
Okay, caveats and disclaimers behind us, let’s dive in! Click onward for the 30 best Willie Nelson covers ever…
Our first song kicks off what will be a theme here. A lot of these came out at the very top of the year (or the very end of 2020) to kick a garbage year to the curb and hope for something better. Shires said: “’That’s All’ is a song that I have played a lot on tour. The song defines 2020 for me. It’s a true Covid anthem and I dare you to not dance to my version when you hear it!”Continue reading »
“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
Surprisingly, the Pixies’ most famous superfan – the man who said he should be in a Pixies cover band – never covered the Pixies. Nirvana were rarely shy about covering their influences, from the Vaselines to the Velvet Underground, but maybe the Pixies were just too obvious. Every Nirvana song, Kurt might have thought, was just a Pixies cover a few degrees removed.
That line of thinking didn’t stop many other artists, though. Pixies covers abound, both from obvious acolytes in the ’90s alt-rock scene to musician fans in other genres who found a way to make Pixies songs sound like bossa nova or doo-wop. We’ve narrowed it down to the best thirty for our list, below. We hope you la la love it.
PS. The artist for this month’s list was selected by our Patreon supporters. To have a say in who we tackle next, sign up for our Patreon here.
Typically, the world of cover songs does not change that much year-to-year. You can point to big shifts across decades, sure, but the difference between cover songs in 2018 and 2019, broadly speaking? Negligible. But 2020 was – in this as in everything else – very different.
As concerts ground to a sudden halt, musicians turned to live-from-quarantine home performances, first on their social media, then, once some kind of business model got built up, on various paid platforms. And cover songs were a big part of that. Some musicians did themed covers nights, like Ben Gibbard on YouTube early on or Lucinda Williams’ more produced Lu’s Jukebox series more recently. Others just felt the freedom in such an intimate environment to try things out, spontaneously covering influences, inspirations, or even songs they only half knew. We collected dozens of those early home covers in our Quarantine Covers series, and still only hit a small fraction.
Musicians eventually settled in, and productions got a little more elaborate than the staring-at-your-iPhone-camera look. Witness the heavy metal comedy series Two Minutes to Late Night, which transitioned from a long-running live show in New York City to a series of YouTube covers with dozens of metal-scene ringers covering songs from their couches, corpse paint and all. Witness Miley Cyrus’s endless series of killer cover locales, from a fire pit to an empty Whisky a Go Go. Or witness long-running radio covers series like BBC’s Live Lounge or Triple J’s Like a Version – often the source of a song or two on these lists. First they had musicians tape special covers from home, then, in the BBC’s case, they moved to a giant warehouse studio for suitable social distancing. (Triple J’s pretty much back to post-coronavirus business as usual – sure, Australia, rub it in.)
There’s one other major way covers reflected 2020, and it’s almost too painful to think about, so I’ll just list their names. John Prine. Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner. Charley Pride. So many musicians taken by this virus, many reflected in some of these covers (Pride’s death happened after our list was finalized, but tributes are already rolling in). In a year filled with tragedies, covers offered one place for musicians and fans to find solace.
Many of the songs on our year-end list reflect this terrible year in one way or another. But you know what? Many don’t. Because covers can also offer a fun respite from all the stress. Doom metal Doobie Brothers? Post Malone on mandolin? A viral TikTok hit by a guy who calls himself Ritt Momney? Those have nothing to do with anything! But they’re what we live for.
It’s hard not to look at everything in 2020 through the mirror of the pandemic, and a few of the records on our list can be traced directly to it. One artist used her time in lockdown to cover every song on Radiohead’s The Bends, while another did the same thing with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. An indie label pulled together a tribute to one of the many great artists tragically taken by this goddamn virus, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner’s long-in-the-works T. Rex tribute album wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with current events, but Willner, too, died of COVID-19 in the spring.
That being said, the majority of the albums on our list have nothing to do with the news. Any year’s a good year for covering obscure Neil Young songs. And if you want to try to tie 28 different bands covering Blink-182’s “Dammit” to 2020, good luck. Even the klezmer-cabaret artist who recorded an album covering the recently deceased released it March 13, just before she’d unfortunately have many more names to add to her list.
In a way though, the whole concept of the covers record is appropriate for a bleak year. They’re all about paying tribute in some way or another, lifting up influences or even guilty pleasures, honoring those that came before. You can listen to these through that prism if you like. Or you can just take a break from thinking about such things and listen to 28 covers of “Dammit.”