To come up with our year-end list, we listened to thousands of covers.
That’s not an exaggeration, or loosely throwing around “thousands” for effect. My iTunes tells me I personally listened to and rated 1,120 new covers in 2021. And I’m just one of a dozen people here. Many of those thousands of covers were very good! But “very good” isn’t good enough for our annual year-end Best Cover Songs list. So when we say these 50 are the cream of the crop, we mean it.
They, as usual, have little in common with each other. A few tie into current events: Artists we lost, social justice concerns, live music’s fitful return. Most don’t. But does a doom metal cover of Donna Summer really need a reason to exist? How about African blues Bob Dylan, New Orleans bounce Lady Gaga, or organ ballad Fleetwood Mac? Nah. We’re just glad they’re here.
So dive into our countdown below – and, if you want us to send you a couple hundred Honorable Mentions culled from those thousands, join the Cover Me Patreon.
Alex Cameron ft. Roan Yellowthorn – Islands in the Stream (Kenny Rogers / Dolly Parton cover)
For a new single, Australian singer Alex Cameron, who has worked with everyone from The Killers to Foxygen, decided to take on two Kenny Rogers tunes written by Barry Gibb. One, “Midsummer Nights,” is comparatively obscure. The other – the one above – is not. Playing the Dolly Parton role to Alex’s Kenny is Roan Yellowthorn aka Jackie McLean, daughter of “American Pie” singer Don McLean.
Annie – Just Like Honey (Jesus and Mary Chain cover)
Norwegian pop musician Annie doesn’t release much music – 2020 saw her first album in 11 years – but she’s got a new EP out in September, Neon Nights. It features some originals and covers. One is the Dirty Dancing song “She’s Like The Wind.” Another is this discofied, but still shoegazy in a more electronic way, take on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s most often-covered song.Continue reading »
We’re not generally in the practice of publishing reader mail at Cover Me (doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate getting it!). There’s no Letters to the Editor page like you’d see in an old magazine. The comments section and social media serve that function well enough. But today, we’re making an exception.
Last summer, a German reader named Karsten Schroeder wrote in offering to share some cool covers he liked by German bands. We said sure – we’re always looking to discover new stuff, after all. We didn’t hear much after that and, to be honest, forgot about it. Then, a full ten months later, he emailed an exhaustive look at the covers scene in Germany. Across 123 songs, Karsten explored covers spanning punk – his favorite genre – to hip-hop, folk to pop to a few genres that are Germany-specific (“Fun-Punk,” “Deutschrock”). It was so rich and detailed, full of amazing covers that we – and, I expect, you – had never heard before that we asked him if we could publish it.Continue reading »
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.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em” might be one of the most recognizable choruses of the last 50 years. Even people who don’t know the song “The Gambler,” know those lines.
On March 20, the world learned of the death of the singer most associated with those words, Kenny Rogers, who passed away at the age of 81. As with a star of his caliber, his death was greeted with a major outpouring of condolences across the celebrity world and lengthy obituaries in most major news outlets. Very few publications mentioned the one tidbit we here at Cover Me are most interested in: the fact that Rogers’ version of “The Gambler” was a cover.
Many musicians, unable to go on the road, have taken to performing concerts in their home in the past week. Personally, I have spent a huge amount of time watching various these live streams. The performances have been moving and powerful, an unusually intimate way to see some of your favorite musicians.
Many such shows have included covers, songs that feel right to sing right now, like John Lennon’s “Isolation” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” So I decided to round up some of my favorites below.
Unfortunately, many live stream platforms don’t archive the content, so if you miss it live, it’s gone (another reason to watch these streams!). But plenty of great covers have remained online. Check ’em out below, and let us know in the comments what others we shouldn’t miss.Continue reading »