If you were a sentient human in the 1990s, you know Sinead O’Connor‘s cover of Prince‘s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It’s one of the bigger, more enduring hits of the decade in part due to its iconic video. And it’s one of the most famous covers of all time. (It was such a big hit of such an unknown song that not everyone knew it was a cover.) So, for anyone new taking a stab at this song, it’s a tall order.
As regular readers know, every year, at the end of the year, we do a big year-end covers list. This tradition started in 2007 and will continue in a couple months with the best covers of 2021.
But there are so many years before 2007 where we weren’t doing year-end covers lists (and, as far as I’m aware, no one else was either). So once a year, we do a big anniversary post tackling the best covers of a year before Cover Me was born. So far we’ve done 1969, 1978, 1987, 1996, and, last year, 2000.
And for 2021, we look back thirty years, to the heady days of 1991. The days of grunge and acid house, of parachute pants and ripped denim, of The Gulf War and Home Alone. Country music and hip-hop increased their cultural dominance (or really just making their existing dominance known; 1991 is also the year Soundscan made the Billboard charts more authoritative). In a single day, Nirvana released Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory. Think that’s a fluke? The week before saw massive albums from Mariah Carey, Hole, and Guns ‘n’ Roses (two albums, no less). The week before that came Garth Brooks, Talk Talk, and Saint Etienne.
All of those trends are reflected in the list below. Many of these covers scream “1991!” LL Cool J raps Disney. Courtney Love shrieks Joni. Aretha Franklin tries to new jack swing. A spate of early tribute albums (in fact, last year I wrote a 33 1/3 book about a 1991 tribute album). Other covers are more timeless, from veteran artists doing great work several decades into their careers, or way-underground artists who never even approached the mainstream. The only criteria was quality. Thirty years later, these 50 covers Hole-d up the best.
Check out the list starting on Page 2, and stay tuned for the best covers of this year coming in December.
The list begins on Page 2.
Buzzy UK math/prog rockers Black Midi just released their second studio album, Cavalcade on May 26, 2021. As part of the release the band polled their fans about which covers they should include on a bonus flexi disc available from record stores. The results are in are the covers are
- “Moonlight on Vermont” by Captain Beefheart
- “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson
- “Nothing Compares 2 U by Prince
- “Love Story” by Taylor Swift
- “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads.
At first, Black Midi feel sound like they might be taking the piss on their”Nothing Compares 2 U”. Lead singer Geordie Greep’s falsetto is flawed and goofy, almost as if he’s doing a bad Roland Gift impression, and there’s just his voice and a synth. But, whether or not he’s goofing off, once the rest of the band chimes in and the tempo picks up, it really feels like they are trying to put their spin on it. Yes, the vocals are extremely silly, but the musicianship is great – of course it is – and the sense of fun is palpable.
After the guitar solo, things get really weird, with manic interpolations of Frank Zappa’s “Keep It Greasy” from Joe’s Garage and “Let’s Go Crazy” from Prince’s own Purple Rain. (Listen for the reference to Tim Burton’s Batman, which Prince soundtracked, during the “Let’s Go Crazy” segment.)
Yes, it’s goofy, it’s bizarre and it’s possible that the band don’t actually like the song. But it’s a lot of fun, perhaps because of the irreverence. This is pretty hallowed ground after all, and it’s enjoyable to see a band just tearing into such a famous song and not worrying about whether you like it or not. It’s not streaming anywhere, but a Reddit user preserved it on Dropbox.
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
Andrew Bird – Andalucia (John Cale cover)
Props to any musician who chooses some non-obvious tunes for their Christmas album. Even Joni Mitchell’s “River” has so often been served as the “surprise” holiday song by now that it feels pretty played out. Andrew Bird covers a few standards on his upcoming Hark! – “Oh Holy Night,” “White Christmas” (though weirdly not the hymn that gave the album its name) – but makes room for some seasonally-appropriate fare John Prine, Handsome Family, and, on the first single, John Cale.
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Nirvana has sold more than 75 million records, joining the ranks of Aretha Franklin, The Police, Journey, and Tupac Shakur among others, despite having their career tragically cut short by the death of Kurt Cobain after they’d released only three albums. The band is credited with increasing grunge music’s recognition beyond the Pacific Northwest, introducing the genre to the masses.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s live album, MTV Unplugged in New York. The performance was recorded on November 18, 1993, aired on MTV on December 16, 1993, and released as an album almost a year later, the first Nirvana release since Kurt Cobain’s death in April. The performance was filmed in one take and differed from the style of many of the previous MTV Unplugged sessions. The band chose to build their Unplugged setlist using mostly lesser known songs, including six covers out of fourteen songs, passing over their biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
This album has a variety of accolades, including a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, a number one debut on the Billboard 200, a 5x platinum certification, and the top spot on New Musical Express‘s 50 Greatest Live Albums list.
To celebrate the historic day, we’ve compiled covers spanning a variety of artists who reimagine each track.