Baltimore’s beloved indie-rockers Snail Mail just threw the five-day Valentine Fest in their hometown venut Ottobar. The band’s Lindsey Jordan and co. performed every night with an array of special guests, and invited many of those guests up for one-night-only cover songs.
First up, Soccer Mommy joined the band on the festival’s second night to tackle Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You.” Quiet verses exploded into a sing-along chorus that had the whole crowd belting along.Continue reading »
Lucinda Williams has never had a big hit song. None of her singles have charted on the Top 40, or even on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at all. In fact, most of her songs don’t hit any chart.
You may already be thinking to yourself: Who cares! Giant pop-chart hits are not the way you measure the success of a singer and songwriter like Lucinda Williams. You know what is one possible way, though? Covers. (A few of which, incidentally, made her song hits in other hands.)
Like a few other songwriter’s-songwriter types we’ve covered in this series (John Prine, Steve Earle), the respect Lucinda gets from her peers and fans far outweighs her own commercial success. It’s probably the sort of acclaim she’d value more. Williams’ songs have been covered by her elders alongside a wide array of younger folk and indie artists. Earle, in fact, has called the album he co-produced, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.”
None other than Bob Dylan himself, when he played her take on “Change the Locks” (covered twice on our list) on his Theme Time Radio Hour, compared her to Bessie Smith, calling her “another strong-hearted spirited woman.” He added cheekily, “Time Magazine called her America’s best songwriter in 2002. I guess I was out of town.”
Below, we’ve rounded up 25 equally strong-hearted, spirited covers. Lucinda, who turns 70 today, is no slouch at covers herself – don’t miss her recent Lu’s Jukebox series. But for her birthday, we honor her songwriting and let other artists do the heavy lifting.
25. John Mellencamp – Lafayette
Lucinda Williams’ first album was a collection of covers, but her second, Happy Woman Blues, consisted of all originals, kicked off by “Lafayette” – the first of her songs about her native Louisiana, but certainly not the last. It’s about how the singer misses Lafayette and how it took leaving to appreciate it, so she’s coming back. Because Lafayette is the center of Cajun culture, the song is fittingly a country/zydeco mix, and focuses on the eating, drinking, dancing and other wild times that she looks forward to repeating. John Mellencamp’s 2003 album Trouble No More was a collection of (mostly) blues and folk covers, and his spare take on “Lafayette” is more country-blues than Cajun. His gruff lead vocals are sometimes overshadowed by the twangy female background singer, but it’s a worthy effort. – Jordan Becker
24. Jimbo Mathus – Lake Charles
Picking a single track off Solo Blues Guitar: Jimbo Mathus Performs Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road kind of defeats the purpose. As you can probably guess from that album title, it’s Mathus, of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame, performing Lucinda’s most iconic album in full (on, as the tin says, solo blues guitar). It’s a beautiful listen that you can hone in on or just let add atmosphere in the background. But, since we have to highlight one, “Lake Charles” will give you a good taste of his combination of finger picking and slide on that beautiful resonator guitar. – Ray Padgett
23. Dennis Mac Namara – I Envy the Wind
If there were a church devoted solely to unrequited love, where all those in the throes gathered to commiserate, “I Envy The Wind” would be the lead hymn in the songbook. Why this song has been covered so sparingly over the years remains a mystery. Hyperbolic hot take coming, but if ever a song was powerful and poised enough to knock “Hallelujah” off its ubiquitous and over-covered pedestal, “I Envy The Wind” is it. Dennis Mac Namera’s skeletal acoustic cover is home to a stunner of vocal performance, equal parts booming and fragile. The heartache and longing are oh so palpable, as is Mac Namera’s unabashed admiration for the song itself. Let us pray. – Hope Silverman
22. Peter Gallagher – Still I Long For Your Kiss
Lest anyone forget, Williams is every bit as much a singer and interpreter of the blues as she is of the broader country/Americana slant she is usually associated with. Check out her aforementioned first album, 1979’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, a set of largely nothing but the blues, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Johnson and the like, with a token Hank Williams for good measure. Sure, her own version of “Still I Long For Your Kiss” carries a bluesy hint, but it took this fella to strip it right back, delectably so. This fella? Peter Gallagher. You’ll know him as an actor in loads of films and TV. But, as this clip shows, he can sing, really sing. This comes from a record he made in 2005, Seven Days In Memphis, of Southern soul belters backed by a crew of the best session men that producer Steve Cropper could find. The other singer here is his TV wife from The O.C., Kelly Rowan. – Seuras Og
21. Angel Olsen – Greenville
Angel Olsen dropped two terrific covers last June. Her version of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” recorded for the TV show Shining Girls, features haunting electronic textures underpinning her voice. It’s a surprisingly un-folky cover of one of Bob’s early folk songs. Alas, it came a year too late for our Best Bob Dylan Covers list. Her version of of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road standout “Greenville” though is just as good, guitar echoing behind her mesmerizing double-tracked vocals. – Ray Padgett
Dolly Parton is a singer and a songwriter. I mention that obvious truth because these days it tends to get overshadowed by her other titles: Icon. Inspiration. National Treasure. The Only Human Being Alive Everyone Agrees On (Radiolab produced an entire nine-part radio series based on that premise). And she is all those things, but first and foremost she’s a working 9-to-5 musician who has been perfecting her craft for seven decades.
Parton says she wrote her first song as a five year-old in 1952. She hasn’t stopped writing songs since. She once estimated she’s amassed 10,000. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the verifiable numbers speak for themselves: 52 studio albums, 25 Number One songs, 100 million records sold worldwide. Just as important a tribute to her gifts, though, are how often her songs get covered. Not just the obvious ones, the “Jolene”s and “I Will Always Love You”s (though plenty of those, lord knows), but the album cuts, the singles that didn’t top the charts, and the songs she didn’t write herself but made into Dolly Parton songs anyway.
Some of the below covers sound a little bit like Dolly’s own music. Most do not. She considers herself straight country, not, as she made clear when first nominated for the Rock Hall earlier this year, rock and roll. But, in this list, she is rock and roll. And folk and pop and hip-hop and soul and a whole host of other genres. Dolly Parton may indeed be the only human being everyone agrees on. What a way to make a living.
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.
Dave Richardson – Bright Phoebus (Lal & Mike Waterson cover)
Vermonter Dave Richardson digs deep into folk-rock history on his new album Palms to Pines, covering the title track of Lal & Mike Waterson’s 1972 album Bright Phoebus. Deeply obscure at the time – only 1,000 copies were initially pressed – it became known as “folk music’s Sgt. Pepper” among the very, very few people who actually heard it. The record has seen a recent resurgence with champions like Arcade Fire and Jarvis Cocker leading to a 2017 re-release on überhip Domino Records. Richardson makes it sound like a classic all along.Continue reading »
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.