For some artists we look at for these lists, it seems like every time someone covered one their songs, it turned out pretty good. Leonard Cohen was like that; the quality of the average Cohen cover is fairly high. John Prine, too.
Stevie Wonder is not one of those artists.
It’s not his fault, or the fault of his songs, but his material often gets sucked into the same cocktail-jazz muck that fellow piano man Billy Joel’s does. Nothing wrong with that sort of lounge jazz-pop when done well – and there are a few times on this list when it is – but there’s a lot of mediocrity to wade through. Stevie’s performance and production skills are so sharp that, when placed in lesser hands, his songs can come off as sentimental shlock. All the “Isn’t She Lovely”s alone are so sugary sweet you feel like you’ll get diabetes.
But here’s the good news: Covers of Stevie Wonder’s songs are so ubiquitous that, even when you weed out the bad and the just-okay, you’re still left with plenty of greatness. The fifty below span funk, bluegrass, rock, hip-hop, jam band, jazz, and into galaxies beyond. So here they are, signed, sealed, and delivered to knock you off your feet.
For this month’s Best Covers Ever, we polled our Patreon supporters. Voting among five 2000s (ish), indie-rock (ish) bands they’d previously nominated – Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The Decemberists, The Killers, Vampire Weekend – an underdog won by a single vote. Unless you scrolled so fast you missed the headline and photo, you already know who that underdog was: The Decemberists!
The Decemberists are arguably the least widely-known band of the bunch – they certainly don’t have Killers-level hits – but you wouldn’t know it from the depth and breadth of covers. Other musicians love the Decemberists, and have dug deep into their catalog to cover tracks from across their entire career. They lean a bit Americana on the whole, but some covers cross over into heavy metal, pop-punk, or even mariachi. Their songs have been covered by legends, sure – Patti Smith, Nick Cave – but even more often they get covered by under-the-radar bands, genuine fans who just happen to possess a heap of musical talent themselves.
As The Decemberists prepare to embark on their Covid-delayed 20th anniversary tour this summer, we salute their songs of crane wives and engine drivers, butchers and barrow boys, with thirty covers that were meant for the stage.
There’s plenty of good reasons that the Cars and their songs have retained their power long past the expiration date of most new wave bands. For one, though their cool-geek look was a part of their appeal, they never relied on it the way other bands had to rely on their appearance. For another, they brought together multiple influences – rock, pop, synth, punk – and created a sound with deep roots that was both edgy and fresh – no mean feat, that.
Most importantly, the songs that (mostly) Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr wrote for the band were strong and memorable, loaded with hooks and containing lyrics that take on more meaning the more you look at them – is “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” a positive or negative? What does it mean if you “needed someone to bleed”?
Their self-titled debut album is their strongest, and Heartbeat City may be their biggest, but the Cars are primarily known as a singles band, with over a dozen of them reaching the top 40. So it seems appropriate that a list of the best Cars covers should echo that. Here are the top forty cover songs of a band whose best songs won’t be tied down to any one era, preferring instead to resonate to all the generations that followed.
Who was the first band you felt truly understood you? The one who seemed to verbalize your every inexpressible thought with such pinpoint precision, who from the moment you first heard them made every other band that previously occupied your heart cease to matter? If you happened to have come of age in the ’80s, there was only one band in the entire universe that truly understood your pining and suffering. They were called The Smiths, and they totally got you.
The Smiths weren’t like the other (’80s) boys whose blonde highlights, synthesizers, and colorfully androgynous sartorial choices were dominating the pop charts and MTV. While Duran Duran and Wham! swanned on glamorous beaches and aimed themselves straight at your, uh, parts, The Smiths actively avoided the sun and made a beeline for your heart, mind, and bookcase. They didn’t care to make silly videos to promote their wares. Their metaphorical MTV was the music press and Morrissey’s eminently quotable interviews were the key pieces of catnip used to promote the band.
Of course, for all the intellect on display in the magazines, Morrissey was still an immaculately-coiffed heartthrob who knew how to work it in the pictures (Did I write him an unanswered fan letter in 1984 to tell him I loved him? Yes). But the music required no hard selling. Morrissey’s lyrics were revelatory, a magical mix of misery, humor, bitterness, and the embarrassing truth. Who among us hasn’t suffered at some point from “a shyness that is criminally vulgar” or had a “murderous desire for love” or wanted to “hang the DJ”? The union of Morrissey’s immaculate words with Johnny Marr’s chiming guitar melodies made rejection, frustration, and self-loathing sound positively majestic.
Over the years, The Smiths have become something of a code word used to describe the first band that became your friend, the first that looked you straight in your misty eyes, clutched both your hands to their chest, and said “I feel the same way.” This is why the band continues to be covered at such a relentless clip by artists old and new. And it’s why the songs being chosen to cover aren’t confined to the usual cluster of greatest hits. When it comes to The Smiths, it’s just a little more personal.
The Smiths are never, ever getting back together. The years of inter-band sniping far exceed the number that the band was actually together. Hell, as we were finalizing this list this week yet another Moz-Marr dustup occurred. But that’s okay. We don’t need more than they’ve already given. Let’s just celebrate the good times. We now present the 40 most triumphant and charming Smiths covers in the universe. Ready, handsome devils? Let us begin…
It all started forty years ago today. On October 28, 1981, in Los Angeles, a Danish tennis player turned drummer by the name of Lars Ulrich met with guitarist James Hetfield for the first time. The two formed the basis for the band that would become Metallica.
In the ‘80s, the thrash metal quartet released four of arguably the greatest metal albums of all time: Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice for All. That was just a warmup.
In 1991, the band released a self-titled album that would change their entire destiny, not to mention the history of metal. Dubbed simply Metallica, but otherwise known as The Black Album, the record became one of the best-selling hard rock albums in history. The record earned the band legions of new fans. It also triggered countless old ones, who were perturbed that the ultimate purveyors of thrash had gone “soft.” The record transformed Metallica into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. It’s a moniker they’ve carried ever since, even if their pace of album releases has slowed considerably.
Over the years, the band’s music has inspired numerous cover songs across multiple genres. Jazz, pop, rock, country, bluegrass, and numerous classical artists (not to mention countless metal bands) have taken on Metallica’s tracks. Adding more fuel to the proverbial cover fire, this year, to mark the 30th anniversary of The Black Album, the band commissioned an extensive tribute record dubbed The Metallica Blacklist. The album features cover songs by the likes of Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma, Darius Rucker, Miley Cyrus, My Morning Jacket, and Kamasi Washington.
So why has Metallica’s music inspired so many covers? Underneath the layers of distortion, hard-pounding double bass drums, and barbaric yowls, the band’s music and songwriting are strikingly complex. Listening to their original recordings, one can hear classical-style melodies, virtuosic guitar solos, and extended jams, as well as elements of classic, punk, and prog rock.
With the lyrics, one finds the band tapping into a deeper universe as well, exploring the lines between life, death, and spirituality. Their songs are filled with numerous biblical and religious references. Perhaps most famously, on “Enter Sandman,” the band quotes the prayer “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” turning a child’s plea for salvation into a rumination on the horrors of the night.
Since their inception, Metallica has always been striving for something more profound. Many artists have heard the bells of inspiration toll. Here’s a list of 40 of the best Metallica covers from the last 40 years. – Curtis Zimmermann
“I usually come in second to Dylan,” Paul Simon once said, “and I don’t like coming in second.” Indeed, he’s had to deal with it literally ever since he was born, in 1941. We already celebrated Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday in May, and today we turn to the man Dylan has called “one of the preeminent songwriters of the times,” Paul Simon, as he hits his own 80th. Simon’s in the rarified air of someone whose songs get covered almost as much as Dylan’s (ugh – second place again), so for this month’s Best Covers Ever, we’re diving into covers of the entire Paul Simon catalog, both solo and with Simon and Garfunkel.
Another thing Dylan once said about Simon, in relation to his own music, is this: “I’m not Paul Simon. I can’t do that. My songs come out of folk music and early rock n’ roll, and that’s it. I’m not a classical lyricist, I’m not a meticulous lyricist. I don’t write melodies that are clever or catchy.”
False modesty aside, Dylan hits on some of what makes Simon’s work so beloved by other musicians. His melodies are clever and catchy. His lyrics are meticulous. In both words and music, Simon can use a little to say a lot. His songs have strong cores, but leave a lot of space for other artists to play around with. So it’s no surprise that the list below spans genres from punk, dance music, gospel, and more. You’ll hear every sound except one: Silence (sorry). No matter how afield the songs roam, though, they still sound like Paul Simon.
So enough talk about Simon being a perennial silver medal winner. His craft and his talent have earned him and his songs a place at the top of the medal podium, and these fifty covers prove it.