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.
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
Dan Mangan is one busy guy. He’s a member of an increasingly large community north of the border, right at the front end of, if you will, Canadiana, a redoubtable second or third wave of artists following on from Cohen, Young and Mitchell. Hallowed company? Yes, but Mangan is worth the compliment. He’s put together a solid body of work, well worth checking out, since starting out in the mid-noughties. Whether his solo acoustica or his more experimental ensemble work, where he finds the join between avant-garde and electronica, he has also found time to write soundtrack music and to be a contributing arts editor to the Canadian version of UK newspaper the Guardian.
An accomplished songwriter himself, he has an interesting take on cover versions: “It’s a matter of sanity. I get sick of the same taste in my mouth and I need to sing someone else’s song to cleanse my palate.” And glad we are he does, as it means the release of Thief. This is a collection of palate cleansers he has slipped out over the past few years, together with some new.
Amigo the Devil – Before He Cheats (Carrie Underwood cover)
When we last heard Amigo the Devil, he was stripping down a Tom Jones song to create a haunting murder ballad. Now he does the same to another highly polished pop song – but a much more recent one. “[The original is] this very confidence-boosting, really good-feeling, power-infusing song,” Amigo’s Danny Kiranos told Rolling Stone. “I was curious what it would sound like if you took away the positive nature of it and kept the lyrics, essentially the emotions they are portraying.”
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, from staffer Jordan Becker: What’s a great cover of a cover?
Disclaimer: Our monthly “Best Cover Songs” aren’t ranked, and the “Honorable Mentions” aren’t necessarily worse than the others (they’re just the ones we had the least to say about).
Angelique Kidjo – Born Under Punches (Talking Heads cover)
Goddammit, Angelique. We spent weeks compiling our Best Talking Heads Covers post, and only days after we finish, you announce a full Remain in Light tribute album. Judging from this first single, it’s going to be pretty amazing too.