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 might seem like an obvious choice to perform a minimalist version of Peter Gabriel‘s So. Gabriel’s fifth album, and the first with its own name, So is the most ’80s of albums. It features so many of Gabriel’s career trademarks: Fairlight and Prophet synthesizers (and many others), sequencers, early drum machines, gated drums, etc. If there is any one album that captures the sound of ’80s record production, it’s So. (And that’s only fair since Gabriel invented so many of those conventions during his solo career.) So stripping it all away to focus on the songs might seem like an easy and obvious approach.
But whether or not it’s simple or obvious, “minimalist modern folk” husband and wife duo Lowland Hum has created a powerful record with their song-for-song cover of the entirety of So, cleverly titled So Low and released on May 19. The band mostly use few instruments, Daniel and Lauren’s voices, an acoustic guitar, a few loops, and a few judicial overdubs. It feels like the exact opposite approach to the material that Gabriel took when he wrote the songs.
But don’t mistake this for a record like Gabriel’s own New Blood, where Gabriel reinvented his own songs as orchestral pop. There’s way more space here and so few instruments that some moments are almost spartan. Lowland Hum play with Gabriel’s songs just enough to make some of them sound new, but mostly they adhere closely enough the originals that they are easy to place.
Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
“The Book of Love” is the Magnetic Fields’ most-covered song, and it’s not even close. Covers database SecondHandSongs reports 27 officially-released versions, and that’s not counting the hundreds or thousands that have been played live at weddings. (The second most-covered Magnetic Fields song in their database has only five covers listed). The most prominent “Book of Love” cover is probably Peter Gabriel’s 2004 orchestral version, which now has inspired its own cover – a cover of a cover.
In 2019, Cover Me wrote about more new covers than in any year in our 12-year history. I know; I checked the numbers. Our News team wrote amazing stand-alone stories on sometimes tight deadlines, adding context and research beyond “here’s a new cover” quickie. Plus, we rounded the best of the best into monthly 30+ lists, and added even more for supporters of our new Patreon. Even our Features team, who ostensibly couldn’t care less whether a cover came out last month or last century, seemed to be constantly finding new things to slip into their deep dives.
The point here is not to toot our own horn… well, that’s not entirely the point. What I want to do is emphasize just how high the bar to appear on this list has been set. Calling these covers great almost does them a disservice. There were way more than 50 great covers in 2019. In fact, we’ve already got 150 more bonus tracks lined up for Patreon supporters (which, I know I mention it a lot, but it’s how we keep this site afloat, so please consider supporting us if you like what we do). Honestly, we could throw all of the above in the trash and still come up with a pretty impressive batch of 2019 covers. But these 50 below – these are the cream of the crop, the belles of the ball, the toppermost of the poppermost.
You won’t agree. I guarantee it. As you go through this list, there will be at least one cover you hate. Maybe more than one. And if you followed cover news yourself this year, you’ll probably be outraged when a personal favorite placed too low, or didn’t make it at all. Great! That’s the beauty of these lists: It’s all opinion. Extremely educated opinions in our cases – I can pretty much guarantee that we collectively listened to more 2019 covers than any other site out there – but opinions nevertheless. So dive in and discover something new. Then help us discover something new by adding your own favorites in the comments.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, courtesy of Cover Me staffer Jordan Becker: What was the best/worst experience you have had seeing a “tribute” band?