Foo Fighters have taken the World of Cover Songs by storm with a pair of incendiary news announcements this month. The first (and only slightly more believable of the two) concerns a cover that premiered in the Foos’ recent return to live concerts on June 20th. Playing for a vaccinated/full-capacity/sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, the Foo Fighters offered up a late-set debut of Radiohead’s “Creep” — featuring, in a drop-in of unrivaled proportions, Dave Chappelle on guest vocals. At best, the cover feels like live-band karaoke, albeit scaled up for The World’s Most Famous Arena. Chappelle alternates between “aw shucks” glances at the crowd, and hamming it up with sing-along choruses for the cheap seats. Any honest attempts at artistry aside, however, the pure, sloppy joy radiating from Chappelle, the Foos and the totally-psyched crowd — not to mention the FOMO radiating through my computer screen — couldn’t feel more potent.
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 deliberately slow solo piano version of a peppy pop song is a covers cliché, especially with online covers. But in the right hands it can still have power. We’ve profiled A.A. Williams’ forays in this style throughout the pandemic. Now she’s collected all of these covers on an album, Songs from Isolation; a very appropriate title given the mood of the songs and her sole presence on the recordings.
Most of the songs here are indeed solo piano renditions of rock songs, at a slower tempo, and most of the songs are quite famous. So the album does at least flirt with the internet cliché. But both Williams’ performances and the context she recorded them in give weight to these versions in a way that some random YouTube piano cover usually doesn’t.
There is no shortage of covers by Radiohead’s “Creep.” From a classic cover by Tears for Fears to a less-than-classic medieval cover by Hildegard Von Blingin last summer, the song has impacted the masses. Now, Ally Cribb makes a strong debut into the music world with her new cover of the Radiohead classic.
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.
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