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.
The title More Than A Whisper – Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith probably says it all, given the disproportionate heft of the footprint left behind by this self-effacing singer. Her mild and bookish persona, all ankle socks and cardigans, might suggest a small town librarian or primary school teacher, but what she gave, and what you got, was so very much more. A consummate writer of literate story songs (she called them folkabilly), Griffith could captivate any an audience with her Texas charm and sweet/sour voice, attracting the best musicians to play by her side. Both as a writer and an interpreter, she lived and breathed the characters in songs she made her own, several of which are well on the to becoming standards. Her run of albums, from her 1978 debut There’s A Light Beyond These Woods through to Storms, a decade and a bit later, was little short of astonishing, the traction of the one building on the next until she became quite the star. And if she became, latterly, drawn, or possibly led, more to the mainstream, with the country hayride honed down a little, still the songs remained the same, elegant constructions, meticulously put together. Illness quietened her workload this century, her last album made in 2012, before her death in 2021.
It is fair to say that most of the songs on More Than a Whisper come from Griffith’s imperial phase, 1987-9, a time where she could do no wrong, touring constantly, with new material pouring out of her. I must have seen her two or three times during those years; she always included the UK and Ireland in her itineraries. I was never less than enthralled by the show she and her Blue Moon Orchestra would put on, falling, always, a little more in love. And, lest you feel this project of such appeal as to bring back singers from the dead, this album has been several years in the gestation, it fitting, and vital, that it should include one singer always very closely associated with her. You’ll know who I mean. Continue reading »
The big story in 2022 covers came from a song that’s almost 40 years old: “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God).” After Kate Bush’s classic had its Stranger Things moment, every week we got a half dozen new covers. It’s been six months since the show came out, and they’re still coming! This entire list could have been “Running Up That Hill” covers if we’d let it.
We didn’t, and it isn’t. The song makes one appearance, as do a number of other trendy 2022 items: Wet Leg, GAYLE, and Beabadoobee; the latest Cat Power covers project; posthumous releases (Dr. John, Levon Helm); songs that tie into coming out of pandemic isolation.
But, as always, a joy of our list is all the covers that tie into nothing, and that you won’t find anywhere else. Doom-metal Townes Van Zandt? Bluegrass Eminem? Ska Eddie Murphy? Folk Björk? Psych-rock Groucho Marx? Those are just five of the fifty killer covers on this year’s countdown. So run up that road, run up that hill, run up that building, and read on at the link below.
If you missed the whole brouhaha when Steely Dan dropped Aimee Mann as their opening act, it’s too long to recap here. To skip to the end, Mann tweeted, “All is forgiven if Donald [Fagan] just tells me what Brooklyn is about.” And he did! So, at a recent show at City Winery, she covered it. All does indeed appear to be forgiven.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.
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.