Earlier this year, Brandi Carlile memorably covered John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” at the Grammys. Shortly thereafter a studio version surfaced, from the upcoming sequel to the phenomenal 2010 tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine. At the time, details on Volume 2 were scarce, but now there’s a release date – October 8th – and a second cover: Sturgill Simpson’s “Paradise.”
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Nirvana released its first single 30 years ago today. Well, today-ish. That single was the first installment in the now-legendary Sub Pop Singles Club, so I imagine its “release date” was whatever day it landed in the mailbox for the 1,000 lucky people who got it (you can get it too, but you’ll have to drop $3,300 on Discogs).
And what was that very first Nirvana single? Whaddya know, it was a cover! The band launched their recording careers with “Love Buzz,” originally by Dutch psychedelic-rockers Shocking Blue. Not the most obvious start for the most iconic band of the ’90s (apparently it was Krist’s idea). Already a staple of their raucous live show, “Love Buzz” did represent, according to Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, “an indicator of some of their direction in songwriting.”
Three decades on, that songwriting has generated a few covers of its own. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has of course been covered thousands of times, but some other Nirvana songs aren’t as far behind as you might think. “Lithium,” “Come As You Are,” and “In Bloom” remain perennial cover selections, and “Territorial Pissings” seems surprisingly popular. (“Rape Me,” not so much.) Heck, half the artists we hear covering David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” or Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” seem to really be covering Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged versions.
So today, we continue our Best Covers Ever series by whittling down the moshing masses of Nirvana covers to the best thirty. Here we are now. Entertain us!
Honorable Mention: Nirvana – Lithium
No, not that Nirvana. The 1960s British band of the same name covered “Lithium” when they reunited in the 1990s. A cute nod, made less cute when you realize this older group had sued over the grunge band’s use of the name only a few years prior (Sub Pop reportedly had to pay them $100,000). At any rate, this Nirvana’s cover is not that good, but this psych-pop spin on “Lithium” perhaps paved the way for a much better version in the same vein a few years later. But we’ll get there…
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…
“Country pop.” “Slick country.” “Bro country.” All terms, of varyingly negative connotation, used to describe the current landscape of country music. It can be hard at times to put your finger on exactly what makes a song with some twang, electric slide and a rock beat fall into the “pop” camp or the alt-country camp, but that fine dividing line often causes consternation among listeners who prefer one over the other. Sturgill Simpson seems to get lumped into the “outlaw” or “alternative” country camp, but however you describe the up-and-coming country star he can belt out a tune, as we saw when he cracked our top 5 best covers of 2014.
Follow all our Best of 2014 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
A few months ago, I read an interesting interview with an artist named Nouela. You probably haven’t heard of her, but you may have heard her music. She’s become a specialist in a weird but growing niche: covers recorded for movie and television trailers. Whether doing a piano “Sound of Silence” to promote a new HBO show or a brooding “Black Hole Sun” to promote Liam Neeson punching people, she’s found a quickly-growing way of getting her covers out there.
It struck me as part of a growing trend we’ve seen. More and more great covers seem to come from unexpected places. Sure, you’ve got still your standby sources, your b-sides, tribute albums, and radio shows. But new avenues for covers have increasingly crept in. This year saw a Sam Smith cover that is only available to hear under Grey’s Anatomy dialog (thankfully he’s recorded a few live versions too) and a whole covers album recorded to plug a Canadian TV show. Brands have fully embraced covers too, most recently My Morning Jacket’s “This Land Is Your Land” recorded for North Face ads, or Charli XCX and Bleachers trading covers for Kia.
We don’t care where they originated when we make our year-end lists, though, and we would up with some of everything. In our top five alone, we’ve got a live radio session, a deluxe-edition bonus track, and a cover hiding in plain sight on one of the most acclaimed country records of the year. You have to keep an eye on more places than ever to spot the best covers these days. Wherever they come from, we’re glad to have ’em.
Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)