For months, veteran Washington State indie label Kill Rock Stars has been trickling out tracks from its thirtieth birthday comp Stars Rock Kill, but over the holidays that trickle became a flood. After a bunch more singles dropped in December, the full album landed on New Year’s Eve. It’s 63 tracks long, all new covers of songs by the label’s artists. Leading the pack was Elliott Smith, who got covered thirteen separate times. And in a sign of the depth of his catalog, every single artist picked a different song.
While it’s odd to categorize a new album as a teaser, it’s hard not to consider Closer To Grey, today’s surprise release from Chromatics, to be just that. In 2015, the band announced that a new album titled Dear Tommy was on the way, going so far as to offer an official track listing. Though several tracks earmarked for it have trickled out since then, the album itself has never been released. Stories of all copies being destroyed have led to comparisons with the the poster child of all that is unreleased, The Beach Boys’ Smile. In this day and age of stand alone song releases and mix tapes, an unreleased album being regarded with such reverence and anticipation is a rarity, and in the case of Chromatics, deserved.
aeseaes – Realiti (Grimes cover)
Bandits on the Run – Back to Black (Amy Winehouse cover)
Jackson C.Frank was what you would call a musician’s musician. While his stark, windblown folk sound was revered and respected by his peers during the ’60s, he was for the most part utterly invisible and unappreciated by the general public.
He is primarily remembered as a peripheral character in the lives of far greater known artists. Paul Simon produced his first and only album in 1965. Nick Drake covered no less than 4 of his songs. Sandy Denny, the legendary Fairport Convention vocalist, was romantically involved with him for several years and one of her finest recorded moments is a song about their relationship.
AURORA – Across the Universe (The Beatles cover)
The first of a couple Beatles covers this month, AURORA’s “Across the Universe” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just removes a few spokes. The Norwegian singer-songwriter strips everything away but keys and a bunch of voices (there’s a guitarist too, though barely audible). It’s all the song needs.
Follow all our Best of 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
I didn’t realize it until I began laying out our post, but this year’s Best Cover Songs list shares quite a few artists with last year’s. And some that showed up here the year before that. Jack White’s on his fourth appearance. And Jason Isbell and Hot Chip not only both reappear from last year, but have moved up in the rankings.
Though we’re always on the lookout for the new (and to be sure, there are plenty of first-timers here too), the number of repeat honorees illustrates how covering a song is a skill just like any other. The relative few artists who have mastered it can probably deliver worthy covers again and again.
How a great cover happens is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as I’ve been writing a series of articles diving deep into the creation of iconic cover songs through history (I posted two of them online, and the rest are being turned into a book). In every case the artist had just the right amount of reverence for the original song: honoring its intention without simply aping it. It’s a fine line, and one even otherwise able musicians can’t always walk. Plenty of iconic people don’t make good cover artists (I’d nominate U2 as an example: some revelatory covers of the band, but not a lot by them). Given the skill involved, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who can do a good cover once can do it again.
So, to longtime readers, you will see some familiar names below. But you’ll also see a lot of new names, and they’re names you should remember. If the past is any guide, you may well see them again next year, and the year after that.
Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)