When covering a song, changing the speed can completely change the vibe of the track. There’s no better example right now than The Chats and Genesis Owusu’s cover of the Talking Heads‘ hit ‘Psycho Killer’, performed on the Australian music show The Set.
Taking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” is so subtitled because it was drastically simpler than the music they had been making for the past few years. For “This Must Be the Place,” the band simplified things considerably, in part because of a gimmick: a few of the members alternated instruments, forcing them to play simpler music. The result is one of the most direct Talking Heads songs of the era.
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
Love Me Til My Heart Stops is Order of Operations’s reimagination of Talking Heads in the backdrop of 2020. In it, four Talking Heads tracks have been transitioned from rock ballads into electronic synth-pop tunes. Order of Operations is Brooklyn-based artist Alain Paradis’s solo project. Paradis claims to have wanted to make Love Me Til My Heart Stops as “another pulse to place alongside your own—-and that will never stop making sense.”
The EP opens with its lead single, a cover of “Psycho Killer.” Sharp electronic synths transform the song, although the synth doesn’t quite capture the same essence of the original’s guitar solos or the idiosyncrasy of live drums. This leaves the door open to showcase Paradis’s vocals, which are brought forward against the instrumentals. Attention to detail in the production is obvious, with the subtle use of reverb and panning to create a fuller sound with a repetitive beat. The underlying beat may feel repetitive, but overall, the effect is a bright translation of the song into an electronic dance anthem.
Dizzy is a band from Ontario made up of singer Katie Munshaw and three brothers: Alex, Charlie, and Mack Spencer. You could call them alternative pop, indie pop, dream pop, maybe even Ontario indie. Munshaw and Charlie Spencer met in high school, and their debut album Baby Teeth chronicled the roller coaster that is being a teenager. This album won them the Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year in 2019 and gave them a wider audience. Earlier this year they released their second album The Sun and Her Scorch, this time with inspiration from being 20-somethings. The pandemic cut their tour for this album short, but during quarantine Dizzy has been keeping busy posting covers to YouTube. Basement Covers is an EP meant to collect their favorites.
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.