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.”
In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.
Vermont singer-songwriter Henry Jamison addresses a difficult subject on his new album Gloria Duplex: toxic masculinity. “When I was in college 10 years ago, we were just horrible,” he told the New York Times on the subject. “People in their 20s are examining these issues in a way that feels very natural.”
Jamison’s gift with melody makes these weighty topics levitate. Nick Drake meets The National on these twelve songs, with Jamison working with major-league collaborators including St. Vincent’s right-hand man Thomas Bartlett on production and Bon Iver collaborator Rob Moose of yMusic arranging the strings. Hear a taste on single “Boys”:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his talents, Jamison knows his musical history. It’s a rare musician at this point who doesn’t choose a single song anyone else has, but Jamison digs deep. No “Hallelujah” or “Hurt” here. He also continued confronting toxic masculinity at its worst, having to banish an R. Kelly cover we once also adored (not to worry, Henry’s substitute pick is great too). Let Henry introduce you to some new favorites below.Continue reading »
Last year, in preparing to release his experimental new album 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon held a one-time-only festival/art performance in Berlin. He brought a number of his favorite musicians to hang out and collaborate, performing new music in the round. The festival just posted videos of many of the performances, including a wonderful “Folk Circle” session that features Vernon trading folk songs with Damien Rice, Sam Amidon, Erlend Øye, O, and Ragnar Kjartansson.
Norwegian composer (and half of Kings of Convenience, who released our favorite cover of 2009) Erlend Øye covers The Moore Brothers’ 2004 song “New For You,” followed by our buddy Sam Amidon leading the crowd in a singalong of Appalachian folk song “Johanna The Row-di.” A French singer who goes simply by O sings a traditional French song, Damien Rice breaks the covers theme by playing his own “The Professor & La Fille Danse,” and then we get to the piece de resistance. Vernon plays a song from the man he calls “my favorite songwriter,” John Prine.Continue reading »
Follow all our Best of 2016 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
2016 in music will be most remembered for one thing: death. It seemed like an unprecedented list of major musical figures left us this year: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen. The list, sadly, goes on and on.
Prominent passings affect many aspects of the music world, but the impact is particularly clear in the world of cover songs: When an artist dies, a lot of people cover his or her songs. The world was hardly hurting for Prince covers before April 21, but afterwards, to paraphrase the man himself, we went crazy. Bruce Springsteen alone became a one-man tribute machine, covering Bowie, Prince, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, and Suicide’s Alan Vega after they died (it’s a shame his tour ended before Cohen passed because he’d do a great “Everybody Knows”). Our list this year features a number of these tribute covers – though both the Cohen covers listed were actually released before his death, proving there’s no need to wait to honor one of the greats.
Our list also features fantastic final covers by the recently departed, brilliant song-interpreters like Sharon Jones and Allen Toussaint. The fact that they died may add extra meaning to these new songs, but they’d make the list regardless. Whether they performed wonderful covers or wrote wonderful songs for others to cover, we miss these artists because they were great. They don’t need any “death bump.”
The year wasn’t all dire though. Our list features many covers by and of artists who are alive in every sense of the word. Kendrick Lamar and Drake represent the new world of hip-hop, Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson in country, Animal Collective and Joyce Manor in indie rock, and in too many other genres to name. Jason Isbell currently holds a streak here, making his third consecutive appearance this year.
We also have plenty of artists whose names I won’t highlight here, because you probably won’t have heard of them…yet. We’re not in the business of predicting fame – the music industry is far too fickle for that – but some of our past best-cover winners have gone on to big things this year, like Chance the Rapper (2014 winner) and The Weeknd (2012 winner). Hell, Sturgill (#3 in 2014) just got an Album of the Year Grammy nomination!
Those early covers may have helped kick off such success. A revelatory cover song can help a musician attract early attention. When I interviewed Mark Mothersbaugh recently, he said no one understood what Devo was doing until they covered “Satisfaction.” A familiar song done Devo-style finally made the connection for people. “Whip It” and other original hits would not be far behind.
Maybe some of this year’s under-the-radar names will go on to Weeknd-level superstardom. But even if they don’t, all these covers, by household names and Garageband geeks alike, deserve recognition. We’ll miss all the great musicians who left us this year, but it’s gratifying to see so many promising younger artists coming in to fill their shoes.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)
PS. Last year in this space, I mentioned I’m writing a book about cover songs. Well, Cover Me (the book, that is) is finished and will be out next year! In addition to the aforementioned Mothersbaugh, I interviewed Roger Daltrey about “Summertime Blues,” David Byrne about “Take Me to the River,” and many more. Follow our Facebook for updates on preorder, etc. Now, on to the countdown…
Preparing for this past weekend’s “Day of the Dead” concert – the all-star band rendition of The National-lead Grateful Dead tribute album of the same name at Bon Iver’s Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin – I interviewed a handful of involved artists and kept asking a question that no one knew exactly what to do with. My question: “Given the legacy of the Dead as a live band, what is going to be different about playing these covers live, as opposed to recording them for a tribute album?”
After a thoughtful silence that may have been tinged with a little bit of puzzlement, everyone said something about it being a terrific opportunity to harness the additional energy of having a live crowd.
“No [it’s not going to be harder],” Megafaun’s Phil Cook told me, “mostly because people are just stoked as shit to hear a Dead cover. Whenever people in the audience recognize it, they just lose their shit. They’re so happy that you’re doing it. It’s a completely welcome enterprise.”Continue reading »
Last July, I drove three hours to meet my brother in Eau Claire, Wisconsin for the inaugural Eaux Claires festival. Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and Michael Brown — the festival’s co-creators — were explicit about their desire to challenge the festival format, one typically designed to gather bands like vendors hawking wares at a marketplace in such a way that explicitly and implicitly pits them against one another, reinforcing genre differences and emphasizing the consumption of music more than its creation and enjoyment.
To those ends, Eaux Claires creators and designers set out to dissolve some of the barriers that typically separate the people who make art from the people who witness it. Festival goers were encouraged to engage with art installations, to experience performance in three interactive and innovative domes, and to journal about their experiences in field guides that were distributed upon admission. Likewise, performers were encouraged to jettison the sorts of festival behaviors expected of rock stars, to collaborate, to take risks, and to be fans of each other. Given my pet theory that covers are such a specific musical pleasure precisely because they become sonic artifacts that merge the roles of making and enjoying art, I expected the creators’ interest in similar mergers to create a fertile ground for covers and collaborations that changed songs in some of the same way covers do.