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.
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
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.
If I say that Molly Tuttle is a name we will all hear more of in the future, I hope that sounds nothing like hyperbole. She is a genuine talent, a virtuoso on her bluegrass-tinged acoustic guitar, blessed also with a sweet yet sassy voice and a gift to pen songs that both encompass the present, whilst invoking the rich musical heritage of, whether you like the phrase or not, Americana.
Not for nothing did Tuttle win instrumentalist of the year at the 2018 Americana awards, and guitarist of the year at the International Bluegrass Awards of the year before (the first woman to receive the latter honor, and at age 24 besides). Being brought up in her family band, the Tuttles, under the expert supervision of her Dad, Jack, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and tutor himself, probably helped, but is was as she cut loose that the began to make her own name. Crowdfunding her debut, the EP Rise, gave her sufficient notice for Compass Records to pick her up, re-releasing Rise and her subsequent full length debut When You’re Ready, which dropped last year. The fact that guest vocals were provided by Jason Isbell gives an idea of her weight in music circles.
So why would she follow up these largely self-written (or co-written) projects with a covers album? And so soon? The answer is that neither did she expect to, the effects both of the coronavirus lockdown and the early March tornado that devastated her adopted hometown of North Nashville being a joint stimulus. Seeking inspiration in the absence of any live outlet, she began to revisit the records of her youth. Teaching herself pro-tools, she laid down some tracks, sending them to producer Tony Berg, who sent them on to various other musicians for them to flesh out, all working separately and remotely. Not that you can tell.
Now, with the bio thus far, is …but i’d rather be with you going to be a litany of country standards and bluegrass staples? Fear not, anything but. Tuttle’s inspirations range widely among artists as diverse as Rancid and FKA Twigs, embracing also the Rolling Stones, Harry Styles(!) and the National. The only nod to her received tradition comes from songbook of Karen Dalton, herself a far from typical Nashville denizen. As an incentive, it is also entirely safe for the banjo averse.
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!!”