Dec 182020
 

Follow all our Best of 2020 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

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.

– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief

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Dec 142020
 

Follow all our Best of 2020 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.

best tribute albums 2020

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.”

– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief

The list starts on the next page…

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Aug 142020
 

Blonde on the Tracksjenn champion the blue albumPutting together a cohesive, flowing covers album has always been no small feat – even more so in the age of streaming and playlists – but it can be done. Proof of this has recently been provided by Bob Dylan, who spent the mid-to-late 2010s releasing a series of Great American Songbook cover albums that, once he had finished with them, sounded like he could have written them himself. Now, Nashville-based singer songwriter Emma Swift has taken on a similar challenge with eight of Dylan’s own songs, for her new album Blonde on the Tracks.

The title references two of Dylan’s most famous records, 1966’s Blonde On Blonde and 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, but it’s the spirit of the latter album that comes through the strongest. Like Blood on the Tracks, Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks seems to be a snapshot of the end of a relationship. Also like Blood on the Tracks, there is sense that the story is being told out of sequence, with past, present and future melding into one.
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Jun 242020
 
Emma Swift

Bob Dylan just released his 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways and in case you haven’t heard, it is very, very good. “I Contain Multitudes” was the LP’s second single and remains one of its undeniable highlights. Upon first listen, the song feels very stream of consciousness, with Bob reeling off, well, absolutely everything rumbling in his head about his life from the seemingly trivial (“I eat fast foods”) to the profound (“I sleep with life and death in the same bed”) and listing the sounds, pages, and images that have enveloped and defined it. And yes, the sound you just heard was Bob explaining the meaning of life in under 5 minutes because unlike the rest of us, he can just do that.

Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift has recorded an album of Dylan covers titled Blonde on the Tracks which is set for release in August. And the first track she opted to release was not a familiar classic but a stunningly warm, heartfelt version of “I Contain Multitudes.” She serves it up as a hypnotic, melodic hymn, very reminiscent in style of vintage Gillian Welch, resulting in something exceptionally beautiful.
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