Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” became a hit as the theme song to the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy when covered by fellow songwriter Harry Nilsson. Whereas Neil’s originally is fairly traditional confessional folk, with a bit of a country affect, Nilsson’s version is pure ’60s folk-rock; there’s a wall of sound behind Nilsson’s iconic vocal, featuring an orchestra and other instruments. It was Nilsson who introduced the wail that became the song’s main hook, and the famous climatic, soaring “leave.” (Check out our “That’s a Cover?” article on “Everybody’s Talkin'” for more info.)
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…
Arlo Parks – Redondo Beach (Patti Smith cover)
I’ve wanted to do a “Full Albums” on Patti Smith’s Horses for years. But it, and she, gets covered less than you’d think. This beautiful piano “Redondo Beach” gets me one step closer. Though, admittedly, I already had Courtney Barnett’s recent cover for that slot. Someone cover “Break It Up” already!
With their surprise success “Africa,” Weezer delivered easily the biggest cover-song news of 2018. And they similarly seemed poised to dominate this year’s cover-album news when they dropped a full set of similar songs in January (that album’s not on our list, because it is – and I say this as a fan for going on 20 years – terrible).
Thankfully, that album got forgotten about five minutes after its release. A slate of other high-profile cover albums took its place, and delivered more staying power. Angelique Kidjo, Morrissey, and Juliana Hatfield all released covers albums, and a host more stars contributed in one way or other to tribute compilations, from Norah Jones and Margo Price covering Bobbie Gentry to Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile tackling Wilco. Some of the aforementioned made our list and some just missed it, but all are worth investigating.
That’s to say nothing of the many lesser-known artists who came out of nowhere, amazing covers records by bands and singers I’d never heard of before. Covers albums can offer a wonderful entry point for discovery, and I’ve now got a lot of new favorite bands to dig deeper into. Hopefully you’ll find a few here too.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Ashley O [Miley Cyrus] – Right Where I Belong (Nine Inch Nails cover)
The second-most-bonkers cover of the month (just wait ’til we get to “Spicy”) comes from – who else – Miley Cyrus. On a new episode of Black Mirror, she covers/parodies angsty Nine Inch Nails songs as the most insipid of pop jams. Trent Reznor, for one, says he is very much on board (given the lyric changes, these covers required his legal approval). Miley’s songs in character as Ashley O are outrageous and borderline offensive, which is kind of the point. “On a Roll” (FKA “Head Like a Hole”) has gotten most of the attention, but “Right Where I Belong” is more listenable. Marginally.
Long before Disney began remaking its animated classics into live-action films famed director Robert Altman made Popeye. The 1980 musical starred Robin Williams as the spinach-eating sailor and Shelley Duvall as his love interest Olive Oyl. Upon its release, the film underperformed at the box office and earned mixed reviews from critics. Time has been kinder though, as some have praised it in recent years. “Altman imbues in Popeye a madcap mania that bares more than a few ‘Felliniesque’ touches, with its own intricate orchestration of audio-visual chaos, animated sound effects, breakaway props, and frenzied pratfalls,” writes Screen Mayhem.