Anyone who was paying attention to cover songs a decade ago will remember The A.V. Club’s “Undercover” series. In the vein of the BBC Live Lounge and Triple J Like a Version, the entertainment web site would bring bands into their Chicago offices to cover a song. The concept, though, was the site started with a masters list of songs and the band had to pick one. The later they came in, the fewer song choices remained. It went on for years and the covers were ubiquitous (we must have posted a million of ’em). Practically every indie band of the era stopped by (many several times), and they often delivered something great.
It’s a strange circumstance: What has been awful for humanity at large has been pretty good for the world of cover songs. Even we would say that’s a terrible trade-off!
Nevertheless, we’ve been grateful that so many musicians have taken to Facebook, Instagram, etc to share their music and, in many cases, cover favorite songs that are helping get them through. So, for the fourth time and certainly not the last, we’re rounding up some of the best we’ve seen recently and encouraging you to add your own below.
One note: There are some obvious names you won’t see here. John Prine. Bill Withers. Adam Schlesinger. Kenny Rogers. So many wonderful covers are emerging to pay tribute to artists no longer with them that we’ll be rounding them up separately. We did the first set for Prine here.
In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.
Tomorrow, veteran rock band Local H releases its ninth album, the Steve Albini-produced LIFERS. It is a weird time to be releasing an album. Many major artists have postponed releases, with no way to properly promote them. One of the best live rock bands out there, Local H can’t play any shows to support it. So tonight they’re doing a live streaming show on their Facebook page tonight. Guarantee it will rock a little harder than the acoustic guitar’d singer-songwriters dominating the quarantine streams.
LIFERS doesn’t include any covers, but frontman Scott Lucas has been covering a new song every day on that same Facebook page. He has a different cocktail for each one, and even dresses up for some of the performances, from yacht-rock leisure to the Tiger King. It’s a long way from the self-serious stereotype of the ’90s grunge band. But even when Local H was a ’90s grunge band, they always had a sense of humor (see “Eddie Vedder,” “All the Kids Are Right”). And they’ve outlasted most of their peers, continuing to record killer albums to an extremely passionate fanbase. LIFERS is the perfect album title.
So we decided to ask Scott about his own favorite covers, which he ranked from number five to number one. Here’s what he said:
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.
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Coming in at 40 tracks, our third ‘Best Ever’ countdown is our longest yet. This feels appropriate; Pink Floyd’s songs tend to be a whole lot longer than Talking Heads’ or Fleetwood Mac’s. A band whose default length was set at “epic” deserves a list just as winding.
Luckily, the covers community has obliged, allowing us a list as discursive as Pink Floyd itself. A band that, for better or worse, can get pigeonholed into a specific sound and era, gets transformed into a whole host of other genres and moods. Psychedelic rock is represented here, of course, but so is bluegrass, soul, and disco. One cover even includes a “featuring Tupac Shakur” credit, which is probably not what Gilmour or Waters envisioned. Though the latter would certainly appreciate the walls being torn down.
Twenty-minute tracks that might seem intimidating to some don’t phase these artists. Some turn them into tight four-minute pop songs. Others, if you can believe it, extend the songs further. So strap in, and set the controls for the heart of the cover…
Follow all our Best of 2014 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
A few months ago, I read an interesting interview with an artist named Nouela. You probably haven’t heard of her, but you may have heard her music. She’s become a specialist in a weird but growing niche: covers recorded for movie and television trailers. Whether doing a piano “Sound of Silence” to promote a new HBO show or a brooding “Black Hole Sun” to promote Liam Neeson punching people, she’s found a quickly-growing way of getting her covers out there.
It struck me as part of a growing trend we’ve seen. More and more great covers seem to come from unexpected places. Sure, you’ve got still your standby sources, your b-sides, tribute albums, and radio shows. But new avenues for covers have increasingly crept in. This year saw a Sam Smith cover that is only available to hear under Grey’s Anatomy dialog (thankfully he’s recorded a few live versions too) and a whole covers album recorded to plug a Canadian TV show. Brands have fully embraced covers too, most recently My Morning Jacket’s “This Land Is Your Land” recorded for North Face ads, or Charli XCX and Bleachers trading covers for Kia.
We don’t care where they originated when we make our year-end lists, though, and we would up with some of everything. In our top five alone, we’ve got a live radio session, a deluxe-edition bonus track, and a cover hiding in plain sight on one of the most acclaimed country records of the year. You have to keep an eye on more places than ever to spot the best covers these days. Wherever they come from, we’re glad to have ’em.
Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)