Black Country, New Road – Time to Pretend (MGMT cover)
If you’re expecting the “Time to Pretend” you knew and loved a decade ago, think again. UK post-punkers Black Country, New Road, one of the buzziest bands of the new year, deconstruct the song entirely. It starts pretty sane, then gradually veers off the tracks into chaos. By the end there’s a free-jazz sax solo leading a wall of noise only barely identifiable as this, or any, song.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.
It’s hard not to look at everything in 2020 through the mirror of the pandemic, and a few of the records on our list can be traced directly to it. One artist used her time in lockdown to cover every song on Radiohead’s The Bends, while another did the same thing with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. An indie label pulled together a tribute to one of the many great artists tragically taken by this goddamn virus, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner’s long-in-the-works T. Rex tribute album wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with current events, but Willner, too, died of COVID-19 in the spring.
That being said, the majority of the albums on our list have nothing to do with the news. Any year’s a good year for covering obscure Neil Young songs. And if you want to try to tie 28 different bands covering Blink-182’s “Dammit” to 2020, good luck. Even the klezmer-cabaret artist who recorded an album covering the recently deceased released it March 13, just before she’d unfortunately have many more names to add to her list.
In a way though, the whole concept of the covers record is appropriate for a bleak year. They’re all about paying tribute in some way or another, lifting up influences or even guilty pleasures, honoring those that came before. You can listen to these through that prism if you like. Or you can just take a break from thinking about such things and listen to 28 covers of “Dammit.”
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.”Continue reading »
Marika Hackman kicks off Covers with a rendition of Radiohead‘s “You Never Wash Up After Yourself,” a pretty clear indication that the album is born from the ennui of lockdown. We hear flies buzzing, and a slow intake of breath, before Hackman languidly sings over a sparse synth soundscape:
I must get out once in a while
Everything is starting to die
The dust settles, the worms dig
The spiders crawl over the bed.
With her multi-tracked harmonies, Hackman brings an intimate, desolate beauty to this short and simple song of hopelessness. And she makes you wonder where the hell she is headed. Continue reading »
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
It’s 20 years today since Radiohead first perplexed us with the lyrical mantras, “Everything in its right place,” “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” and, of course, “There are two colors in my head.” It’s a significant anniversary, as who could forget the first time they heard track 1 of Kid A?
“Everything in Its Right Place” was, in the absence of a single to promote the fourth Radiohead album, the initial indication that the most revered British rock band of the ’90s had not only downgraded coherent lyrics, but also guitars, traditional song structures, crescendos, and anything, really, that might sound good in the car with the windows down. Now they were hellbent on something altogether different. Something introspective, hypnotic, and electronic. Something composer Steve Reich and cover artists from Frightened Rabbit to Robert Glasper would demonstrate to be not so much rock, as minimalism, indie-folk, and jazz.
The song has traveled a rocky road to classic status as a result of its unclassifiable nature, while spawning in the region of 25 cross-genre reinterpretations. To the multitudes previously won over by “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police,” and the whole angsty, proggy majesty of 1997’s OK Computer, it was a shock. To adherents of the band’s earlier, surging, arena-friendly hits like “High and Dry,” “Just,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and particularly “Creep,” it was a kick in the teeth. For while there was nothing new in witnessing a rock group go nuts from the pressure of huge commercial success and fame, as had Nirvana on the brutal In Utero opener “Serve the Servants” in 1993, none had appeared to cast off their fairweather friends by dropping practically all of their most powerful musical weapons. None had sought to express what they really felt by taking up synthesizers, adopting a strange time signature, and singing about sucking lemons.
“Everything” alone divided the critics in 2000, who quite reasonably assumed it to be a Thom Yorke affair rather than a group project, with the singer indulging a new love for digital technology in collaboration with producer Nigel Godrich. It’s a “weirdly hymnal dreamscape of ambient keys,” said one reviewer (a good thing, I think). Another asked, “Whose crackling old keyboards were those?” (bad). Then there was the accusation that it was a “messy and inconsequential doodle” (definitely bad). But once the furor died down, it was obvious that Yorke and co. had set a new bar with the song, having instilled it with plenty of meaning and significance, thank you very much. Continue reading »