I like to think that badass lady in the artwork up there (done by our own Hope Silverman!) embodies the spirit of this year’s list. Not that they’re all CBGB-style punk songs—though there are a couple—but in her devil-may-care attitude. “Who says I shouldn’t do a hardcore cover of the Cranberries? A post-punk cover of Nick Drake? A hip-hop cover of The Highwaymen? Screw that!”
As with most good covers, the 50 covers we pulled out among the thousands we listened to bring a healthy blend of reverence and irreverence. Reverence because the artists love the source material. Irreverence because they’re not afraid to warp it, bend it, mold it in their own image. A few of the songs below are fairly obscure, but most you probably already know. Just not like this.
Some of the albums on our list were obvious home runs. Cat Power singing a tribute to a 1966 Bob Dylan concert? You know that’s gonna be great (and it is). A bunch of punk and psychobilly bands blasting through Cramps covers? Pretty much a guaranteed blast. 90-year-old Willie Nelson in the twilight of his career paying tribute to one of his personal songwriting heroes? Good luck not being moved.
Others were more surprising. Reggae David Bowie could go either way. So could free-jazz Harry Styles or indie-rock ELO. And maybe the biggest surprise of all: T-Pain covers Sam Cooke and Black Sabbath…and it’s not terrible??
As always, big names mix with some albums we guarantee you’ve never heard of. To use one of the clichéd words we see constantly in cover-album titles, uncover some new favorites below.
25. Various Artists — Stuff Your Fridge!
Stuff Your Fridge! features 30 tracks, recorded by underground bands you’ve probably never heard, covering all aspects of the Grateful Dead songbook. The covers can be at times both brilliant and/or cringeworthy. The tracks that fare the best are the ones that stray the furthest from the original recordings, such as a goth version of “Cold Rain and Snow” by Delay 77 and a prog metal rendition of “Fire on the Mountain” by Buck Pool. But the compilers saved the oddest for last. That distinction goes to “Attics of My Life” by Holey Hell. It’s a keyboard-driven instrumental, arranged as if written for the soundtrack to a first-generation ‘80s Nintendo game. One can only imagine what they would have done with Drums and Space. – Curtis Zimmermann
24. Amos Lee — Honeysuckle Switches: The Songs of Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams seems like a solitary artist despite a steady flow of collaborations with (and covers by) her many admirers–country stars, jazz giants, and arena rockers alike. So it’s a warming surprise to have a full album tribute from an artist like Amos Lee, one who has made his own sizable mark as a songwriter and who is a generation or two younger than Lucinda.
Drawing from all phases of Williams’ discography, Lee keeps mostly on the bare bones side of things, with acoustic guitar or piano supporting his soulful vocals. Certain takes may miss the emotional core of the originals, while on other tracks he brings life to songs that may have felt too downbeat in Lucinda’s delivery of them. Or not–each listener’s mileage will vary. And anyway, Honeysuckle Switches may well find an unbiased audience in Amos Lee fans who haven’t yet known the pleasure of the songs of Lucinda Williams. – Tom McDonald
23. T-Pain — On Top of The Covers
In 2019, Auto-Tune pioneer T-Pain joined the first cast of The Masked Singer in 2019, a television show where celebrities hide their identities behind costumes and sing. T-Pain ended up revealing himself at the very end, by winning, and surprising the judges. T-Pain’s cover album maintains a similar spirit, whether he is still searching for redemption after the death of Auto-Tune or finally at peace asserting his raw talent. He has chosen each song on the album to show off his vocal range and power, spanning from old standards to hits through the ages. You will hear plenty of vocal runs that assert “listen to what I can do,” but they do so without an overbearing bravado, just confidence. Instead of relying on a computer to back him up, T-Pain layers his own voice intricately throughout the entire album. You can hear it in the Glee-like chorus accompaniment in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” His choosing “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the first place makes me think T-Pain is not taking himself too seriously with this cover album. It’s a guilty pleasure song, and perhaps not one that would first come to mind for someone whose brand is “Hard&B”. – Sara Stoudt
22. Various Artists — Dead Formats Vol. 2
Pure Noise Records’ second volume of (primarily) indie rock and alternative covers is just as fun as their first edition (which was our 16th best covers album of 2022). 15 artists tackle 15 tracks, as far back in time as Elton John from the ’70s, and there are a few tracks from the ’80s and ’90s, but most are covers from the aughts. Most of the covers are straightforward, high energy performances filtered through the lens of pop punk, but a few really stand out stylistically. Less Than Jake really lean into the vaguely Caribbean air of The Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” going full ska. Lavalove appear to treat Nirvana’s “Lithium” as pop punk, but then, on the bridges, they get really playful, alternately vamping and then embracing an aesthetic similar to Nirvana at their nosiest. Mint Green slow down Incubus’ “Drive” and though they don’t deviate much from the arrangement, the female harmonies stand out from the rest of the collection. (The Linkin Park and Slipknot covers also stand out, but only because they are faithful and the only nu-metal covers here.) – Riley Haas
21. Teddy Thompson — My Love of Country
Anyone not already convinced of Teddy Thompson’s mastery of country music need only waltz into his joy of an eighth album, appropriately titled My Love of Country. It’s here that the singer (hailing from London rather than Nashville, lest you should wonder) revitalizes a trove of country standards from the ’50s and ’60s. And it’s here that he channels his 23 years of professional dalliance in the genre into one immensely satisfying, 27-minute whole.
Teddy has the voice for it, of course, which is as strong, deep, rich, and emotive an instrument as it’s ever been. He also has the necessary conviction to deliver tracks previously made famous by George Jones, Buck Owens, and Ray Charles, as well as the skill to forge a magnificent country cut out of a whiskey-soaked number penned by his famous folky dad, Richard, in 1974: “I’ll Regret It All in the Morning.” He further has the help of an impeccable range of musicians to bring the fine period detail, including Charlie Drayton (drums), Byron Isaacs (bass), Jon Cowherd (piano), and producer David Mansfield (violin/accordion/pedal steel/most other things). That’s not to mention sublime harmony singers in the vein of Logan Ledger. But the ultimate reason Thompson makes “A Picture of Me Without You,” “Cryin’ Time,” and “You Don’t Know Me” sound so heartfelt and effortless is from having been immersed in these songs for much of his life. “That’s the real key,” he says, “having them in your body for a long time.” Amen to that. – Adam Mason
Experimental Elvis. Surf-rock Kraftwerk. Garage-rock Roger Miller. Stoner White Stripes. Twee Beach Boys. Heavy-metal Townes Van Zandt. Retro-soul Merle Haggard.
There was no shortage of ambition, or wild genre-crossing ideas, among this year’s cover albums. Here are the best of the best.
25. Otu Fuzzy Tunes
Finnish doom metal outfit Otu stay on theme (“fuzzy”) throughout this covers album without ever getting boring. Each of the tracks is of a metal or hard rock song, but the style of cover varies each time. Album opener “No One Knows,” a Queens of the Stone Age cover, doesn’t stray terribly far from the original, just a bit heavier and fuzzed out. This is followed by a version of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” that sounds almost like an early Nirvana track; the guitar is tuned low enough to sound like a bass, or else it’s a bass guitar playing the main riff. Track 3, a cover of “Iron Man,” is the first on the album to really sound like a true “doom” cover. It reveals that, while the other styles help keep the album from being too one-note, Otu’s strength is the slow, down-tuned, guttural sound of classic doom metal. “Holy Mountain” and “War Pigs” are strong tracks similarly drenched in towering, droning guitars. It’s a fun way to hear some classic tunes and you’ll get the most bang for your buck on this album with some good headphones or loud speakers. – Mike Misch
24. Various Artists Todo Muere SBXV
Todo Muere SBXV celebrates 15 years of the industrial, gothic, experimental record label Sacred Bones (that info will help to decipher the “SBXV”). Things get loud, as when a trio of metal acts Thou, Mizmor, and Emma Ruth Rundle road through Zola Jesus’s “Night.” They also get dreamy, as when ambient artist Hilary Woods warbles “In Heaven” from Eraserhead (that’s right, David Lynch is a Sacred Bones artist).
Even if you don’t know many of the original songs – and, unless you’re deep in this scene, you probably won’t – the cumulative effect is mesmerizing, moving, and at times a little harrowing. In a good way. – Ray Padgett
23. Jason McNiff Tonight We Ride
Jason McNiff may not be the best known of names, but this hard-working singer and guitarist has hewn himself quite a place in the annals of that awkwardly-titled genre, UK Americana. McNiff earned a degree in French and Russian, but the lure of his first love proved too strong. He immersed himself in the fingerpicked guitar of folk and blues, in particular the work and style of the late Bert Jansch. McNiff spent his COVID lockdown hunkering down with weekly online gigs, dubbed the “Sundowner” sessions. Exhausting both his own repertoire of songs and those he already loved by others, he had to learn a whole new catalog of material. Tonight We Ride was the logical conclusion: eleven songs encompassing artists McNiff holds the most in reverence. Sure enough, that includes two Jansch songs, alongside The Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), Leonard Cohen (“Moving On”), and a couple Dylan tunes too. – Seuras Og
22. AWOLNATION My Echo, My Shadows, My Covers, & Me
The opener clearly reveals this album as also pandemic-born: “how can we dance when our earth is turning? how do we sleep while our beds are burning?” The genre of this song is closer to that of what you might expect from modern-rock hitmakers AWOLNATION, but that’s where my predictions of what would happen next faltered. AWOLNATION provides a soundtrack for the full pandemic roller coaster featuring just as much electro pop as their signature rock approach, as well a variety of guest collaborators.
Feeling down? Jump right into “Take A Chance On Me,” where you might find yourself second-guessing, “wait this is the ‘Sail’ group?!?” Need to refresh your workout mix? There is “Maniac.” Other mood boosters are “Just a Friend” or “Flagpole Sitta,” which you might never have expected to appear together in an album setting. Lest you think this is only a tongue-in-cheek album, introspective choices are woven throughout, like “Wings of Change” and “Alone Again (Naturally)”.
If I had to pick a pair of favorites, one fun and one more serious, they would be AWOLNATION putting the MMMBop in “Material Girl” with Taylor Hanson and “Eye in the Sky” with Beck (not a song I was familiar with before, but now a tune I can’t get out of my head). – Sara Stoudt
21. Various Artists Stór agnarögn
If you’re Icelandic, you probably know these songs. Ásgeir Trausti’s 2012 album Dýrð í dauðaþögn was a sensation in his home country, the best selling debut ever in the country (sorry, Björk).
But statistically speaking, you are probably not Icelandic. So you don’t know the original versions of these ten songs – and if you do, it’s probably via the John Grant-translated English versions. No matter. Sigur Rós became sensations without anyone understanding what they were saying. Ásgeir’s songs have beautiful melodies, frequently soaring into Bon Iver-channeling falsetto, and they work wonderfully in this collection of his countrymen-and-women’s covers. Even if you don’t understand a single word (I don’t!), the music will carry you away. – Ray Padgett
To come up with our year-end list, we listened to thousands of covers.
That’s not an exaggeration, or loosely throwing around “thousands” for effect. My iTunes tells me I personally listened to and rated 1,120 new covers in 2021. And I’m just one of a dozen people here. Many of those thousands of covers were very good! But “very good” isn’t good enough for our annual year-end Best Cover Songs list. So when we say these 50 are the cream of the crop, we mean it.
They, as usual, have little in common with each other. A few tie into current events: Artists we lost, social justice concerns, live music’s fitful return. Most don’t. But does a doom metal cover of Donna Summer really need a reason to exist? How about African blues Bob Dylan, New Orleans bounce Lady Gaga, or organ ballad Fleetwood Mac? Nah. We’re just glad they’re here.
So dive into our countdown below – and, if you want us to send you a couple hundred Honorable Mentions culled from those thousands, join the Cover Me Patreon.
It feels like a cliché these days to start one of these year-end lists writing about “the times we live in,” but, as you read and listen to our picks, you’ll find the specter of the coronavirus and lockdown pretty unavoidable.
One of these albums is titled Songs from Isolation; another is Awesome Quarantine Mix-Tape. Even on some albums where it’s so blindingly obvious, it’s there. Aoife Plays Nebraska is a recording of a quarantine livestream she gave. Los Lobos envisioned Native Sons as a balm for being stuck at home, unable to tour. And then there’s the tribute to John Prine, the long-awaited sequel to 2010’s Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, inspired by his death from the coronavirus last year.
But many of these albums recall better times too. Two are belated releases of in-real-life, pre-pandemic tribute concerts, one to Leonard Cohen and the other to Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes (well, I guess both of those subject are kind of bummers, in different ways…). Tributes abound to other recent deaths – Andy Gibb, Justin Townes Earle, Roky Erickson – but we have plenty to artists still with us too, like Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, and a host of underground psych-rock bands you’ve never heard of.
Then there are those that don’t fit any narrative. An artist felt inspired by an unconnected bunch of songs, decided to cover ’em, and brought them all together into a cohesive record. What do Vampire Weekend and The Supremes have in common? Lauren O’Connell’s beatifully intimate imaginings. How about Allen Toussaint and Calexico? Robert Plant and Alison Krauss harmonizing all over ’em. Whether it’s a quote-unquote “lockdown record” or just someone saying, “hell, why not get a bunch of folkie weirdos to play Phish tunes?,” every album on this list brought something meaningful to – ugh – the times we live in.
As regular readers know, every year, at the end of the year, we do a big year-end covers list. This tradition started in 2007 and will continue in a couple months with the best covers of 2021.
But there are so many years before 2007 where we weren’t doing year-end covers lists (and, as far as I’m aware, no one else was either). So once a year, we do a big anniversary post tackling the best covers of a year before Cover Me was born. So far we’ve done 1969, 1978, 1987, 1996, and, last year, 2000.
And for 2021, we look back thirty years, to the heady days of 1991. The days of grunge and acid house, of parachute pants and ripped denim, of The Gulf War and Home Alone. Country music and hip-hop increased their cultural dominance (or really just making their existing dominance known; 1991 is also the year Soundscan made the Billboard charts more authoritative). In a single day, Nirvana released Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory. Think that’s a fluke? The week before saw massive albums from Mariah Carey, Hole, and Guns ‘n’ Roses (two albums, no less). The week before that came Garth Brooks, Talk Talk, and Saint Etienne.
All of those trends are reflected in the list below. Many of these covers scream “1991!” LL Cool J raps Disney. Courtney Love shrieks Joni. Aretha Franklin tries to new jack swing. A spate of early tribute albums (in fact, last year I wrote a 33 1/3 book about a 1991 tribute album). Other covers are more timeless, from veteran artists doing great work several decades into their careers, or way-underground artists who never even approached the mainstream. The only criteria was quality. Thirty years later, these 50 covers Hole-d up the best.
Check out the list starting on Page 2, and stay tuned for the best covers of this year coming in December.