“Golden Slumbers” is one of the more over-the-top moments from the famous medley which closes the Beatles’ Abbey Road. It’s not really a song so much as a song-fragment and, in the medley, it’s sequenced between the brief but complete song “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and the fragment “Carry That Weight.” “Golden Slumbers,” like most Beatles songs credited to Lennon-McCartney, was actually an adaptation by McCartney of a poem by Thomas Dekker.
To come up with our year-end list, we listened to thousands of covers.
That’s not an exaggeration, or loosely throwing around “thousands” for effect. My iTunes tells me I personally listened to and rated 1,120 new covers in 2021. And I’m just one of a dozen people here. Many of those thousands of covers were very good! But “very good” isn’t good enough for our annual year-end Best Cover Songs list. So when we say these 50 are the cream of the crop, we mean it.
They, as usual, have little in common with each other. A few tie into current events: Artists we lost, social justice concerns, live music’s fitful return. Most don’t. But does a doom metal cover of Donna Summer really need a reason to exist? How about African blues Bob Dylan, New Orleans bounce Lady Gaga, or organ ballad Fleetwood Mac? Nah. We’re just glad they’re here.
So dive into our countdown below – and, if you want us to send you a couple hundred Honorable Mentions culled from those thousands, join the Cover Me Patreon.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
It feels like a cliché these days to start one of these year-end lists writing about “the times we live in,” but, as you read and listen to our picks, you’ll find the specter of the coronavirus and lockdown pretty unavoidable.
One of these albums is titled Songs from Isolation; another is Awesome Quarantine Mix-Tape. Even on some albums where it’s so blindingly obvious, it’s there. Aoife Plays Nebraska is a recording of a quarantine livestream she gave. Los Lobos envisioned Native Sons as a balm for being stuck at home, unable to tour. And then there’s the tribute to John Prine, the long-awaited sequel to 2010’s Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, inspired by his death from the coronavirus last year.
But many of these albums recall better times too. Two are belated releases of in-real-life, pre-pandemic tribute concerts, one to Leonard Cohen and the other to Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes (well, I guess both of those subject are kind of bummers, in different ways…). Tributes abound to other recent deaths – Andy Gibb, Justin Townes Earle, Roky Erickson – but we have plenty to artists still with us too, like Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, and a host of underground psych-rock bands you’ve never heard of.
Then there are those that don’t fit any narrative. An artist felt inspired by an unconnected bunch of songs, decided to cover ’em, and brought them all together into a cohesive record. What do Vampire Weekend and The Supremes have in common? Lauren O’Connell’s beatifully intimate imaginings. How about Allen Toussaint and Calexico? Robert Plant and Alison Krauss harmonizing all over ’em. Whether it’s a quote-unquote “lockdown record” or just someone saying, “hell, why not get a bunch of folkie weirdos to play Phish tunes?,” every album on this list brought something meaningful to – ugh – the times we live in.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
The list starts on the next page…
There’s a whole lot of Beatles gift-giving, and crate-digging, going on this holiday season. This past weekend saw the streaming release of The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary series that dives deep into hours of new archival footage from the Let It Be sessions. The mondo series purports to shine a more constructive light on what has previously been agreed upon to be a sour period in the band’s arc.
For nearly three decades, Halloween has been one of the biggest occasions of each year for Phish. The jam titans have presented a handful of legendary sets on October 31st in
“musical costume,” performing classic records in sequence: The Who’s Quadrophenia, The Beatles’ White Album and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, among others. In recent years, the band have seemingly moved on from just covering existing records for the occasion, instead using the vaunted Halloween night for some even more mischievous musical stunts — sewing together their own fully original “musical costumes.” The band have, in essence, gone from reliving the classics to “covering” bands that… don’t exist. The ramped-up theatrics have only grown more exhilarating with each year. Feast your eyes, for example, on this Halloween’s Dune-meets-Power Rangers space suits (pictured above), which the band donned for ninety minutes in the guise of their 2021 costume: a “band” called Sci-Fi Soldier, who performed their “album” Get More Down from the year… 4680.
The particulars of whether Phish’s maximalist musical stunt as Sci-Fi Soldier constitutes a Full Album Cover are, for the purposes of our publication, a bit murky. Thankfully though, the band built up to this year’s Halloween show with plenty of “regular” covers in the mix too. Across their four-night run, including Halloween itself, at MGM Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Phish littered their sets on October 28th, 29th and 30th with some epic a la carte tributes (and dropped a few subtle musical hints about the Halloween hijinx that were to follow).
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.