Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Let’s start with the chorus. “Where Eagles Dare” by the Misfits has one of the most insanely catchy choruses ever written, one that demands to be sung at the top of one’s lungs. Ironically, it’s a chorus that you’ll never hear on commercial radio, what with its using swear words (no matter what Archie Bunker says). But when you do hear this song, whether in a club or a set of headphones, just try not to bang your head or punch the air.
Seeing as how it’s impossible not to sing along, you can be sure it’s not impossible to find covers of “Where Eagles Dare.” Many of them are musical soundalikes, landing their punches just as hard as the original did (and does). But, as always, the ones we’re most interested in are the ones that take the song to another place. Of these…
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
We’ve done a Best Cover Albums list every year since 2009. That list usually ends up being a reasonably even mix of various-artist tributes and single-artist records. But in all those lists, our number-one pick has been, without fail, a single-artist album (for those keeping score at home, we’ve awarded The Lemonheads, Peter Gabriel, Baaba Kulka, Neil Young and Crazyhorse, Xiu Xiu, Andrew Bird, and Bob Dylan – who didn’t turn up to accept our prize either).
This single-artist streak is no coincidence. It is naturally easier for one artist, if he/she/they are good enough, to maintain consistent quality control over 10 or 15 tracks. Whereas even the best mixed-artist tribute records usually have one or two dud tracks. Take the National-curated Day of the Dead, certainly this year’s highest-profile tribute album. Some of these Grateful Dead covers were so good they’ll appear on next week’s Best Cover Songs of 2016 list. Many others were dreck, filler, or superfluous. So we ranked the record – spoiler alert – at #20, sort of an honorable-mention position.
Even various-artist tributes comprised of uniformly good covers typically don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. For example, we ranked MOJO Magazine’s Blonde on Blonde tribute pretty high this year because we liked just about every one of the Bob Dylan covers on offer. But there’s little common ground between an aggressive electronic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and a tender folk “I Want You.” The record is more a bunch of great cover-song fodder for mixes and playlists than a truly great and unified album.
I sound like I’m being critical, but again, these are among the best cover albums of the year. This is usually the most a various-artist tribute album can aspire to: more good covers, few bad ones.
But this year, for the first time in our eight years making these lists, a various-artist tribute album rose so all the way to the top. This album was not only good top to bottom, but it felt like a real album, not just a collection of covers. It ably walked the finest of lines: showcasing diverse approaches to the source material while just remaining cohesive enough to stand together as a complete listen.
I don’t want to give away what that number-one album is just yet. We’ll get there, and there’s already enough of a tendency with year-end lists to skip straight to #1 and ignore the rest. I no doubt have not helped by hyping this magical album that broke our eight-year streak. But every one of the twenty albums we picked offers something worth hearing.
We’ve got jazz-sax forays through prog-rock and twee-pop covers of vintage punk tunes. There’s a ’60s New York icon honoring her then-competitors in the British Invasion, and a band from that same British Invasion honoring their American inspirations. There are tributes to great musicians who died this year, and tributes to long-dead musicians who there’s no news hook for honoring now, just great songs.
This list itself is as “various artists” as it can get, a whole array of genres and styles with one common thread: musicians honoring their inspirations and influences. Let’s dig in.
The Replacements‘ “Bastards of Young” is an undeniable indie-punk anthem and the worst song you could cover. Walk into any opening set at Baby’s All Right and some hyped up indie-new-wave, Simpson-wave, or I-want-fall-asleep-this-is-so-meh-wave band will butcher this classic and will sound almost as bad as your lame alternative folksinger friend trying to cover “Skinny Love” with a tuba. If you’re going to cover The Replacements, pick a better song off Tim.
However, Katy Goodman (La Sera and formerly Vivian Girls) and Greta Morgan (Springtime Carnivore) covering “Bastards of Young” is newsworthy and worth your time for two reasons. One, it’s off the duo’s upcoming covers album, Take It, It’s Yours (August 26 via Polyvinyl Records), featuring covers of punk and new wave songs from The Stooges, The Jam, Blondie, Bad Brains, and more – check out Pitchfork for the full tracklist. Two, Goodman and Morgan actually manage to do something interesting with a song that’s been covered to death. They take out the yells and and the fight-or-die guitars and bring in poolside tremolo guitars and keyboards and soothing harmonies to highlight the surprisingly strong lyrics. It sounds like a Real Estate song in the best way possible, and it’s an example of one of the golden rules for covering songs: If you’re going to cover a massively beloved hit, it’s best to do something different and interesting.
Here’s Goodman in a statement about the upcoming album:
“On the surface a song like [Bad Brains’] “Pay to Cum” seems really masculine, but to me, the lyrics are really more about freedom. You have the right to sing, you have the right to dance. When you have two girls harmonizing on these songs, they take on a new meaning, because you’re listening in a different way. … These songs helped shaped who we are. They gave us the songs, and now we get to give them back as our thank you.”