Since the fourth season of Stranger Things premiered back in May, Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up that Hill” has been absolutely everywhere in North America. And it’s not going anywhere. Billboard currently has this 35-year-old song as the #5 song in their “Songs of the Summer” rankings and no, I did not make that up. After numerous faithful covers of “Running Up That Hill” since young people realized it was a song that existed, we’ve now entered the gimmick phase of the rediscovery of this song (that was already really famous in the UK,). I, for one, am pretty happy about this.
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.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
It all started forty years ago today. On October 28, 1981, in Los Angeles, a Danish tennis player turned drummer by the name of Lars Ulrich met with guitarist James Hetfield for the first time. The two formed the basis for the band that would become Metallica.
In the ‘80s, the thrash metal quartet released four of arguably the greatest metal albums of all time: Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice for All. That was just a warmup.
In 1991, the band released a self-titled album that would change their entire destiny, not to mention the history of metal. Dubbed simply Metallica, but otherwise known as The Black Album, the record became one of the best-selling hard rock albums in history. The record earned the band legions of new fans. It also triggered countless old ones, who were perturbed that the ultimate purveyors of thrash had gone “soft.” The record transformed Metallica into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. It’s a moniker they’ve carried ever since, even if their pace of album releases has slowed considerably.
Over the years, the band’s music has inspired numerous cover songs across multiple genres. Jazz, pop, rock, country, bluegrass, and numerous classical artists (not to mention countless metal bands) have taken on Metallica’s tracks. Adding more fuel to the proverbial cover fire, this year, to mark the 30th anniversary of The Black Album, the band commissioned an extensive tribute record dubbed The Metallica Blacklist. The album features cover songs by the likes of Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma, Darius Rucker, Miley Cyrus, My Morning Jacket, and Kamasi Washington.
So why has Metallica’s music inspired so many covers? Underneath the layers of distortion, hard-pounding double bass drums, and barbaric yowls, the band’s music and songwriting are strikingly complex. Listening to their original recordings, one can hear classical-style melodies, virtuosic guitar solos, and extended jams, as well as elements of classic, punk, and prog rock.
With the lyrics, one finds the band tapping into a deeper universe as well, exploring the lines between life, death, and spirituality. Their songs are filled with numerous biblical and religious references. Perhaps most famously, on “Enter Sandman,” the band quotes the prayer “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” turning a child’s plea for salvation into a rumination on the horrors of the night.
Since their inception, Metallica has always been striving for something more profound. Many artists have heard the bells of inspiration toll. Here’s a list of 40 of the best Metallica covers from the last 40 years. – Curtis Zimmermann
The list begins on Page 2.
Brandi Carlile – We Belong (Pat Benatar cover)
Cheating a little as we missed this one in July, but if you too haven’t heard the acoustic “We Belong” Brandi’s been playing on tour with The Twins, it will be worth the wait. “We belong together” takes on a whole new meaning as we (try to) come out of quarantine.
There are just an absolute slew of Metallica (the album) covers appearing these days, as part of the build up to The Blacklist, the forthcoming “Black Album” tribute album. Ten of the tribute’s covers–count ’em, ten–are of the song “Nothing Else Matters.” Arguably the most commercial song Metallica had yet written, it was a marked departure for the band when Hetfield wrote it. (Apparently he didn’t initially write it to record with Metallica.) It’s since become Metallica’s best-selling song, and it’s perhaps most accessible to softer treatments of any song in their catalogue.
There’s long been a bit of a baroque feel to the softest parts Metallica’s music. As early as Ride the Lightning, the band introduced acoustic guitars that had a baroque feel. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise when Phoebe Bridgers‘ new cover of “Nothing Else Matters” opens with piano (backed by something like a plucked cello?) that could almost recall baroque music.
The song is basically the same tempo, but is considerably softer. It builds slowly and softly with additional strings entering and some double-tracked vocals on the refrain. At around three minutes, electronic percussion comes in to give the song a little more heft. But even with the limited percussion, the vibe is still soft and somber.
Perhaps it’s a bit obvious, as going softer than the original is the easy route. But it’s an extremely pretty version, and Bridgers shows a lot of restraint with the arrangement. Check it out below: