We kick off this month’s list with not one but two Harry Styles covers! And both performed for the BBC Live Lounge, no less, which clearly went all-in on promoting Harry’s new solo album. First up is Arcade Fire, also currently doing the promo rounds for their own new album, tackling Harry’s new song “As It Were.” It speaks to how much classic-rock Styles has in his DNA that the song fits perfectly in Arcade Fire’s anthemic-rock template. Never ones to not go out, the cover features multiple twelve-string guitars and a dude playing a giant rack of tubes with a hammer.Continue reading »
When we began our Best Covers Ever series a little over three years ago, Bob Dylan was about the first artist who came to mind. But we held off. We needed to work our way up to it. So we started with smaller artists to get our feet wet. You know, up-and-comers like The Rolling Stones and Nirvana, Beyoncé and Pink Floyd, Madonna and Queen.
We kid, obviously, but there’s a kernel of truth there. All those artists have been covered a million times, but in none of their stories do cover songs loom quote as large as they do in Bob Dylan’s. Every time one of his songs has topped the charts, it’s been via a cover. Most of his best-known songs, from “All Along the Watchtower” to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” didn’t get that way because of his recordings. In some cases fans of the songs don’t even realize they are Bob Dylan songs. That’s been happening since Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and it’s still happening almost sixty years later – just look at the number of YouTube videos titled “Make You Feel My Love (cover of Adele)”.
So needless to say, there was a lot of competition for this list. We finally narrowed it down to 100 covers – our biggest list ever, but still only a drop in the bucket of rain. Many of the most famous Dylan covers are on here. Many of them aren’t. The only criteria for inclusion was, whether iconic or obscure, whether the cover reinvented, reimagined, and reinterpreted a Dylan song in a new voice.
With a list like this, and maybe especially with this list in particular, there’s an incentive to jump straight to number one. If you need to do that to assuage your curiosity, fine. But then come back to the start. Even the 100th best Dylan cover is superlative. Making it on this list at all marks a hell of a feat considering the competition. (In fact, Patreon supporters will get several hundred bonus covers, the honorable mentions it killed us to cut.)
In a 2006 interview with Jonathan Lethem, Dylan himself put it well: “My old songs, they’ve got something—I agree, they’ve got something! I think my songs have been covered—maybe not as much as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Stardust,’ but there’s a list of over 5,000 recordings. That’s a lot of people covering your songs, they must have something. If I was me, I’d cover my songs too.”
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.
It’s hard not to look at everything in 2020 through the mirror of the pandemic, and a few of the records on our list can be traced directly to it. One artist used her time in lockdown to cover every song on Radiohead’s The Bends, while another did the same thing with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. An indie label pulled together a tribute to one of the many great artists tragically taken by this goddamn virus, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner’s long-in-the-works T. Rex tribute album wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with current events, but Willner, too, died of COVID-19 in the spring.
That being said, the majority of the albums on our list have nothing to do with the news. Any year’s a good year for covering obscure Neil Young songs. And if you want to try to tie 28 different bands covering Blink-182’s “Dammit” to 2020, good luck. Even the klezmer-cabaret artist who recorded an album covering the recently deceased released it March 13, just before she’d unfortunately have many more names to add to her list.
In a way though, the whole concept of the covers record is appropriate for a bleak year. They’re all about paying tribute in some way or another, lifting up influences or even guilty pleasures, honoring those that came before. You can listen to these through that prism if you like. Or you can just take a break from thinking about such things and listen to 28 covers of “Dammit.”
Given the slow, unsteady cadence of the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings release schedule, their many followers take delight in news from either one of the pair. (They always come as a pair, though they are not always billed that way.) Even if a new offering is not new, original material—even if the songs are covers, and older ones at that—it’s newsworthy.
So here’s what’s new: All the Good Times, a collection of 10 covers, some of their “favorites,” recorded during the pandemic lockdown. It’s their first such collection, and the first album in their 25-year career to be credited as “Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.” The partners share the billing because, for the first time, they split the vocal duties right down the middle.
And here’s what’s old: Everything else about the release. (That’s not a diss.) Welch/Rawlings apply the same tried-and-true formula they’ve honed for a quarter century now: all-acoustic, duet-style, singing into a single mic. Even the recording method is antiquated: they dusted off a reel-to-reel to capture these songs; no DAT or hard drives for these two. (On one track, the tape reel runs out well before the last verse is over. It’s one of the more charming technical glitches in recent memory, a bug shrugged off as a feature. For a few seconds there I thought my laptop died.) Continue reading »