Angel Olsen dropped two terrific covers this month. Her version of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” recorded for the TV show Shining Girls, features haunting electronic textures underpinning her voice. It’s a surprisingly un-folky cover of one of Bob’s early folk songs. Her version of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road standout “Greenville” is just as good, guitar echoing behind her mesmerizing double-tracked vocals.Continue reading »
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.
I love the old chestnut that everybody who ever saw the Velvet Underground started a band. Certainly, were that the case, their shows must have been jampacked with underage punters, with children, even, since most of those in bands and who most keenly rate them and cite their influence would have been far too young. Many would have been in the wrong country, likewise. But, hey, it’s a great tale and, who knows, had they all actually been there, the band may have been a lot bigger and more successful in their lifetime.
For, undoubtedly, their imprint on rock music has been hugely out of proportion to their actual footprint. I forget, maybe it was all those who bought their first album started a band, but again, the numbers don’t really stack up until you collate the cumulative sales, decade on decade after the initial release. (Ed: It was, in fact, no less than Brian Eno who made this assertion, in 1982.) Hampered by a brace of lawsuits, relating to the copyright of some of the cover photos, the album limped out in 1967, taking some time to ratchet up many sales at all, trashed by critics and ignored by the record label publicity machine. Lyrics about sado-masochism, IV drugs and prostitution were seen as anathema to the mores of the day, and the linkage to Andy Warhol, then enfant terrible of the American art-house film movement, will have hardly have warmed them to any mainstream audience. But maybe that was the point. Be that as it may, in the half century plus since, the star of this still sometimes difficult record has shone ever more brightly. That first album was, to give it its full title, The Velvet Underground and Nico, with the iconic banana logo, and it is this record that is here recreated and revisioned, revalidated and recalibrated.Continue reading »
It would be easy to assume, on first acquaintance with the Aisles EP, that Angel Olsen is hopping on the bandwagon of artists who’ve found success making slowed-down and sulky covers of iconic ’80s pop tunes. She’s continuing a trend initiated by Gary Jules on “Mad World,” you might think, which M. Ward developed on “Let’s Dance,” Lorde on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Kari Kimmell on “Cruel Summer,” and Greg Laswell on (yes, honestly) “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” a brooding version of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” surely just around the corner.
It might also seem that Olsen is tapping into the Stranger Things-assisted revival of analog synthesizers so central to the ’80s sound, which “boy from Michigan” John Grant has done so much to bolster in recent times. But, while there may be some truth in all of this, Olsen is way too singular an artist to be remotely obvious or predictable in her reinterpretations of tracks made famous by Laura Branigan, Billy Idol, Men Without Hats, OMD, and Alphaville. Continue reading »
Alex Cameron ft. Roan Yellowthorn – Islands in the Stream (Kenny Rogers / Dolly Parton cover)
For a new single, Australian singer Alex Cameron, who has worked with everyone from The Killers to Foxygen, decided to take on two Kenny Rogers tunes written by Barry Gibb. One, “Midsummer Nights,” is comparatively obscure. The other – the one above – is not. Playing the Dolly Parton role to Alex’s Kenny is Roan Yellowthorn aka Jackie McLean, daughter of “American Pie” singer Don McLean.
Annie – Just Like Honey (Jesus and Mary Chain cover)
Norwegian pop musician Annie doesn’t release much music – 2020 saw her first album in 11 years – but she’s got a new EP out in September, Neon Nights. It features some originals and covers. One is the Dirty Dancing song “She’s Like The Wind.” Another is this discofied, but still shoegazy in a more electronic way, take on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s most often-covered song.Continue reading »
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.