Anyone who was paying attention to cover songs a decade ago will remember The A.V. Club’s “Undercover” series. In the vein of the BBC Live Lounge and Triple J Like a Version, the entertainment web site would bring bands into their Chicago offices to cover a song. The concept, though, was the site started with a masters list of songs and the band had to pick one. The later they came in, the fewer song choices remained. It went on for years and the covers were ubiquitous (we must have posted a million of ’em). Practically every indie band of the era stopped by (many several times), and they often delivered something great.
The Band Of Heathens ft. Margo Price – Joy (Lucinda Williams cover)
Promoting her new album That’s How Rumors Get Started, Margo Price has been on a great covers kick. She recently tackled a political country classic at the Grand Ole Opry, Bob Dylan on CBS, and John Lennon from her house. Now she’s teamed up with Band of Heathens to cover a Lucinda Williams classic. To quote Lucinda on Instagram, “Get to Slidell, girl!!”
Anais Mitchell & The Staves – Strong Enough (Sheryl Crow cover)
For a few years now, long-running French video company La Blogothèque has been filming a series they call “One to One” at Bon Iver’s various European festivals. They blindfold one audience member and bring them into a private room for a concert for one. Bon Iver did one, and Damien Rice’s is a must-watch. Personally, that experience sounds more awkward than enjoyable – especially with all the cameras in your face – so I’d rather just watch someone else’s personal concert on video. This one is a gem, feature The Staves with Anais Mitchell delivering a gorgeously-harmonized Sheryl Crow cover.
Two things strike me as I scan through our list this year. This first is that many of the highest-ranking covers are tributes to recently-deceased icons. No surprise there, I suppose. But none actually pay tribute to artists that died in 2018. They honor those we’ve been honoring for two or three years now – your Pettys, your Princes, your Bowies. Hundreds of covers of each of these legends appeared in the first days after their deaths, but many of the best posthumous covers took longer to emerge.
Good covers take time. That principle – the cover-song equivalent of the slow food movement, perhaps – holds true throughout the list. Sure, a few here appear to have arisen from sudden moments of brilliance, flash-arranged for some concert or radio promo session. But many more reveal months or even years of painstaking work to nail every element. Making someone else’s song one’s own isn’t easy. These 50 covers took the time to get it right.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Start the countdown on the next page…
April was the best month for covers of the year so far. There’s no particular reason for that, I suspect. These things just ebb and flow. But the fact remains that it was a proverbial embarrassment of riches, as the length of the list below confirms.
As always, there’s no quality difference between the main picks and the honorable mentions; a cover’s categorization is only determined by how much I had to say about it.
On the new music podcast I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, frontman John Darnielle and host Joseph Fink (Welcome to Nightvale) are discussing every song on the Mountain Goats cult classic 2002 album All Hail West Texas. Each episode concludes with a new cover of the song in question, one of which – Loamlands’ “Fall of the High School Running Back” – we already named one of the best covers of the year this week.
The new episode features The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn tackling the album’s fifth track, “Fault Lines.” Like every song on the album, the original is a solo acoustic recording, offering a blank canvas for Finn to work on. He says his lush, orchestrated cover was inspired equally by both The Walkmen and Van Morrison. It’s a far cry from the original, although – crucially with any Mountain Goats song – the lyrics stay at the forefront.