On their new live cover of “Under Pressure,” indie power-pop auteurs Field Music head straight to the source. The dexterous cover of the Queen & David Bowie classic was filmed for Celtic Connections’ Roaming Roots Revue (fittingly lockdown-themed “Songs For Survival”). Brothers David and Peter Brewis inhabit the Mercury and Bowie leads respectively, nailing each iconic riff and wail with a glorious urgency. The ensemble, too, revs up the anthem with the majesty of Queen in their prime.
Dave Richardson – Bright Phoebus (Lal & Mike Waterson cover)
Vermonter Dave Richardson digs deep into folk-rock history on his new album Palms to Pines, covering the title track of Lal & Mike Waterson’s 1972 album Bright Phoebus. Deeply obscure at the time – only 1,000 copies were initially pressed – it became known as “folk music’s Sgt. Pepper” among the very, very few people who actually heard it. The record has seen a recent resurgence with champions like Arcade Fire and Jarvis Cocker leading to a 2017 re-release on überhip Domino Records. Richardson makes it sound like a classic all along.
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
There is no Queen without Freddie Mercury. On a fundamental level, we all agree that is true. But, if you want to be literal about it, there is Queen without Freddie Mercury. Thirty years after Freddie’s death, the show must go on, and so the band still exists. Adam Lambert now sings Freddie’s parts on tour, just as Paul Rodgers did before him. The Bohemian Rhapsody movie included some new vocal recordings – not by star Rami Malek, but by Canadian singer Marc Martel. And then of course there are the many singers who fronted Queen at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, broadcast to an audience of up to one billion people. (If you haven’t watched George Michael singing “Somebody to Love” or Annie Lennox joining David Bowie for “Under Pressure,” go do that now, then come back.)
Suffice to say, millions if not billions of people have heard Queen songs sung by singers other than Freddie Mercury. But none of those we just mentioned are covers, strictly speaking, since they feature most or all of the band’s three surviving members. Bassist John Deacon has since departed – and his joining Queen fifty years ago this month, solidifying the lineup, marks the anniversary we’re pegging this post to – but guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor have kept the Queen name alive. No doubt, when touring becomes a thing again, Queen will be back on the road once again.
The forty actual covers on our list do not feature any members of Queen. As such, they’re free to roam much further afield than Adam Lambert or George Michael, turning the band’s hits and the occasional deep cut into genres from polka to punk, a cappella to acoustic instrumental. Queen dabbled in so many different genres during their time – I mean, “Bohemian Rhapsody” alone! – I think they’d appreciate how malleable their songs can be. Even when they’re not the ones performing their songs, Queen will rock you.
Or, in one case, polka you.
The list begins on Page 2.
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.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Ashley McBryde – You’re Lookin’ at Country (Loretta Lynn cover)
The Country Music Hall of Fame recently presented a video series called Big Night at the Museum, getting modern country and Americana artists to cover Hall of Famers. Lucinda Williams did Johnny Cash, Miranda Lambert did John Prine, and a bunch more. Best by a blonde-streaked hair was Ashley McBryde, a performer who skirts the line between country, Americana, and brawny rock, proving her bona fides on Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country.”
With the stress of election day now behind us, everyone in the US and beyond is blowing a collective sigh of relief (well, not everyone). Until the result was announced, the tension seemed almost at boiling point. Karen O and Willie Nelson’s duet cover of Queen’s classic hit “Under Pressure,” released just recently, attempts to provide a cool salve to the psyche.