We usually focus our coverage on original tunes, but this year some of our favorite artists delivered truly epic renditions of other artists’ classics. This was their gift to us during a difficult year. Now as our gift to you, we present the 33 renditions that moved us most.
Brandi Carlile – “Mad World” (Tears for Fears)
“Mad World” captures the essence of 2020. Brandi Carlile channels our collective anxiety, frustration, and heartache in ways Tears For Fears never imagined. Her emotional delivery (paired with Josh Neumann’s yearning cello) is pure, cathartic therapy.
Black Pumas – “Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman)
“I know things will get better” has been a mantra for many this year. Black Pumas singer Eric Burton and guitarist Adrian Quesada premiered during their live performance on Stephen Colbert’s Late Late Show. It’s a phenomenal, intimate take on the Tracy Chapman original. The song is featured on the deluxe version of their self-titled debut album. You can get it here via ATO Records.
Los Coast feat. Gary Clark, Jr. – “A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke)
This song’s arrival during the Black Lives Matter movement this summer struck a poignant nerve. Los Coast brought the soulful vocals while Gary Clark, Jr., brought the scorching guitar. Together they brought renewed urgency to the Sam Cooke anthem. As the world cried out, “Brother, help me please,” these Texas artists replied with a mighty uplifting rendition. Get your copy of this song via New West Records from these sources.
Sharon Jones – “Rescue Me” (Aretha Franklin)
Legend: that word is often used to describe the great Sharon Jones. Since her passing in 2018, Daptone Records has blessed fans with previously unreleased recordings. This year her album of covers, Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Rendition Was In” hit a particularly sweet spot. Her take on Aretha Franklin’s “Rescue Me” resonated with many and reminds us all what a force of nature she was. The album is available via Daptone Records from these links.
Lianne La Havas – “Weird Fishes” (Radiohead)
British soul singer Lianne La Havas has been covering this Radiohead track for many years. She performed it at Glastonbury in 2019 but never released a proper album version until this year. It is the only cover on her eponymous album from July, but what a stunner it is! Get the album here via Nonesuch Records.
JR JR – “Basketball” (Kurtis Blow)
Basketball season is starting soon, so it’s just a matter of time before we hear Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” on broadcasts once more. However, maybe we’ll hear JR JR‘s more indie approach to the track. With some really infectious synth, and vocoder drenched lyrics really make it a really fun take. It sounds almost nothing like Blow’s original, but it feels incredibly modern, and that instantly recognizable bass line is now a deep synth that sounds oh so good. They do cut some of the verses, but that really benefits the track as the Kurtis Blow original clocked in at almost 7 minutes, while JR JR’s slower pace would probably take it well over that, the cuts bring it in just shy of four minutes.
Khruangbin – “Summer Madness” (Kool & The Gang)
“Summer Madness” is probably most well known for being what the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff sampled for their iconic track, “Summertime”. However, Kool & The Gang’s original is, as the kids would call it, an absolute banger. Khruangbin’s cover of “Summer Madness” nails the summer night vibes perfectly. From the lush synth, to the smooth bass, to the guitar work, this is one incredible cover. It’s such an easy song to get lost in, whether it’s the original or the cover, so sit back and hit play.
Arlo Parks – “Creep” (Radiohead)
This year gave us another soulful take on Radiohead, courtesy of rising star Arlo Parks. The tenderness in her voice as she delivers the lines “You’re just like an angel / Your skin makes me cry” solidified our belief that Parks can do no wrong. Her debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, arrives January 29th with pre-orders here.
Soccer Mommy – “Drive” (The Cars)
A new generation of music fans discovered ‘80s legends The Cars thanks to Soccer Mommy’s take on their 1984 hit, “Drive.” The fact that a 23-year-old singer from Nashville could improve upon a classic is testament enough to Sophia Regina Allison’s talent. Her mellow, introspective delivery got us through many a stressful night this summer when road trips weren’t possible. She chauffeured listeners on peaceful sonic journeys instead.
You can get the Soccer Mommy & Friends Singles Series compilation at Bandcamp.
Molly Tuttle – “Fake Empire” (The National)
Folk & bluegrass singer-songwriter Molly Tuttle released a fun LP of covers this year called …but i’d rather be with you. It featured a folkified cover of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero”, it featured a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Standing on the Moon”, and the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”. However, the track that stood out most was her take on The National’s “Fake Empire”. It builds on both Tuttle’s strengths and the strengths of the original. It still feels like a National track, but between its pristine production and Tuttle’s vocals, it feels more like one from 2020, than one off of 2007’s Boxer.
The National – “Never Tear Us Apart” (INXS)
This time last year Australia was besieged by raging bushfires. The world watched as flames caused more than $103 billion in destruction across 46 million acres. Australian singer Julia Stone teamed up with other indie artists to raise funds for rehabilitation efforts with Songs For Australia. The National excelled at covering the INXS hit “Never Tear Us Apart,” infusing it with a tenderness to match the tone of this year.
Julia Stone – “Beds Are Burning” (Midnight Oil)
No one can accuse Julia Stone of being too on-the-nose with this one. She replaces the anger of the Midnight Oil original with urgent desperation. Every note is a plea for action, each more haunting than the last. Songs For Australia is available from these sources.
Another album of covers arrived this month from half a world away. Aussie darlings Quivers first captured our hearts when they covered R.E.M.’s “Me in Honey” last December. Now they have finally released a full reworking of the band’s 1991 album, Out of Time. Their harmonies are impeccable; their talent is immense. What more could you want? One of the year’s best surprises. Out of Time is out now on Bandcamp.
Steve Earle – “Harlem River Blues” (Justin Townes Earle)
This year brought more than its share of heartache, especially in the music industry. When Nashville-based Americana star Justin Townes Earle died suddenly in August, no one expected his father to cover one of his songs. But that’s exactly what Steve Earle did, sharing “Harlem River Blues” just three months later. Have tissues handy when you listen. It’s a fitting yet bittersweet tribute from the upcoming Steve Earle & The Dukes album, J.T.
It arrives digitally on January 4th (which would have been Justin’s 39th birthday), and on CD/vinyl on March 19th via New West Records. Pre-orders are available here. All proceeds from album sales will go to Justin’s three-year-old daughter, Etta St. James Earle.
The Foreign Resort – “Stand Back” (feat. Anna Bouchard of Drowner) (Stevie Nicks)
For nearly a decade, The Foreign Resort have been making Gothic, post-punk, darkgaze into a mesmerizing, foreboding experience. When Mikkel B. Jakobsen (vocals/guitar), Steffan Petersen (bass), and Morten Hansen (drums) released a handful of covers in the summer, they showed a different side to their art. Teaming up with Anna Bouchard of Drowner, Copenhagen’s finest transformed Stevie Nicks’s classic, “Stand Back”, into an anthemic, synth-pop spectacle. It is like New Order collaborating with The Killers and Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso, and it is spectacular. It is one of the rare covers, like all of them on this list, that matches if not exceeds the original.
Jason Isbell – “Hello in There” (John Prine)
John Prine was easily one of the most influential country/folk artists of the modern era. His death in April from COVID-19 stunned the music world, including his friend and frequent collaborator, Jason Isbell. Many have covered “Hello in There” over the years yet few could capture Prine’s essence the way Isbell did here. This version is included on an Alzheimer’s Association compilation. Music Moments features many more artists, including Sting, Niles Rodgers, The Head and The Heart, Joan Jett, and more. Stream the entire album here: https://soundcloud.com/user-376802948/sets/music-moments
Sharon Van Etten – “If My Love Could Kill” (Lucinda Williams)
Another track from the Music Matters compilation comes from Sharon Van Etten, whose provided a heartfelt spin on a very personal song. Lucinda Williams wrote “If My Love Could Kill” about her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, so the weightiness of the subject is already moving. Van Etten amps up the emotional charge here in ways she is known for, creating a very moving experience for listeners.
Phoebe Bridgers – “If We Make It Through December” (Merle Haggard)
Phoebe Bridgers has had a successful year. Between her multiple Grammy nominations, a standout album, new label, and a popular cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” with Maggie Rogers (see below), she has been ubiquitous. But her take on Merle Haggard’s 1978 ballad caught some fans by surprise. What isn’t surprising is the intimacy of her rendition on the four-track holiday EP of the same name. Hers is a voice made for melancholy, so this is the perfect track to wrap up this year. Album proceeds will benefit the Los Angeles Downtown Women’s Center. Get it here.
Phoebe Bridgers & Maggie Rogers – “Iris” (Goo Goo Dolls)
Twitter’s most valuable contribution to the world is without a doubt Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Roggers collaborating to cover the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”. On Election Day, Bridgers tweeted out “If Trump loses, I will cover Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls”. Within minutes, artists offered to get involved, including Maggie Rogers. When it was all said and done, Trump lost, and Bridgers along with Rogers recorded the cover, and the result is surprisingly amazing. “Iris” has been transformed from one of the cheesiest and overplayed tracks of the 1990s into a Phoebe Bridgers song that wouldn’t feel out of place next to “Georgia” or “Funeral”. The song was eventually released on Bandcamp to raise money for Fair Fight, led by Stacey Abrams to assist with the elections in Georgia.
Josh Ritter – “Brothers in Arms” (Dire Straits)
Folk singer-songwriter Josh Ritter shared an EP of rare and unreleased tracks in August. See Here, I Have Built You a Mansion combines originals and a faithful execution of the Dire Straits classic, “Brothers in Arms.” His reflective tone is ideally suited for a modern re-telling of this tale. You ache along with him as he sings “Let me bid you farewell / Every man has to die.” He plucks strings of instruments and hearts here.
Marika Hackman – “Phantom Limb” (The Shins)
Not many artists would attempt to cover Beyonce, Elliott Smith, Grimes, and The Shins on one album. Fortunately for music fans, Marika Hackman is equally fearless and talented. Her languid version of “Phantom Limb” on her new Covers album is a breathtaking reprieve from the year’s stress.
Ben Harper + Rhiannon Giddens – “Black Eyed Dog” (Nick Drake)
Nick Drake had a way of making listeners feel less alone. His 1986 ballad about depression offers comfort thanks to his bluesy acoustic guitar. His “Black Eyed Dog” got a rootsy makeover when Ben Harper teamed up with Rhiannon Giddens for a string-heavy rendition. Their voices shine with a cozy warmth that take Drake’s original to new heights.
MUZZ – “Fade Into You” (Mazzy Star)
A late entry into the covers list comes from MUZZ, the indie supergroup comprised of Paul Banks (Interpol), Matt Barrick (The Walkmen), and Josh Kaufman. Artists who attempt to put a fresh spin on Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” tend to come up short. Recreating the magic of the original is no easy feat, yet Banks pulls it off with his deep baritone that pairs wells with the slow-burning, twanging guitar.
Fruit Bats – “Today” (Smashing Pumpkins)
One final cover is an unexpected gem from one Chicago band covering a fellow Chicago band. Were we surprised to hear Fruit Bats reimagining Smashing Pumpkins? Maybe a little. Were we pleased by how perfect “Today” sounds when Eric D. Johnson sings it? Absolutely. Many of us haven’t been able to say “today is the greatest” about most of this year, but this version is so full of hope that we feel assured those words will be on our lips in 2021.
Amigo The Devil – “Before He Cheats” (Carrie Underwood)
“Before He Cheats” has been a white girl karaoke anthem for over a decade. It’s an infectious country-pop breakup earworm that’s one of the 2000’s best-selling tracks. But what happens when it’s re-imagined by a musician & songwriter who describes his music as “murder-folk”? Well, that’s where Amigo the Devil comes in. His acoustic, fireside version of the Carrie Underwood song turns the whole vibe on its head. Slowly finger-picked guitar while Amigo the Devil sings about takin’ a Louisville slugger to both headlights creates a fairly intense moment. The bridge adds to the brooding energy of the cover as well. It’s an interesting, and dark take on the song. It fits in well with Amigo’s catalog, which will add a new record, Born Against which will be out in 2021.
Bedouine, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Waxahatchee – “Thirteen” (Big Star)
Bedouine, Hurray for the Riff Raff and Waxahatchee are three of the most significant songwriters out there today. From Hurray for The Riff Raff’s vivid and diverse storytelling, to Bedoine’s captivating voice to Waxahatchee releasing one of this year’s best record, it’s amazing to see these three come together. What’s even more amazing is they’ve come together to re-create one of Rolling Stone’s greatest songs of all time, Big Star’s “Thirteen”. The result is truly beautiful, its lush harmonies, its delicately picked guitar. Each of the three sing a verse, and hearing each voice come in with their unique qualities, it absolutely makes this stand out among many, many covers of this song.
Emily Reo – “Gila” (Beach House)
There’s an obvious influence in Emily Reo‘s music from Beach House. The synths and dreamy vocals suit both artists well. Reo’s take on Beach House’s “Gila” really stood out on a fantastic compilation of in-house covers put out by Carpark Records called No Cover to celebrate their 21st anniversary. It’s a compilation that featured The Beths covering Over The Atlantic, Madeline Kenney covering Palm, and even a cover of Emily Reo’s “Strawberry” by Erin Anne. Reo’s version of “Gila” starts faithful to the original, but it feels even more dreamy. The ending goes into some big places, and that’s where this cover really shines.
Hinds are a band that’s out there challenging norms and having fun. While they’re pop at heart, they have always carried a punk edge. The Clash also challenged norms, as a genre-bending band that seemed to always be pigeon-holed as a punk outfit. Add in the fact that Hinds are from Spain, it makes the connection to the lyrical content of “Spanish Bombs” even deeper. Their cover of the London Calling track sounds more punk rock than the original. Distorted vocals, each member taking a line or two adds to the feeling of the track as well. It’s also fun to hear native Spanish speakers interpret Joe Strummer’s broken Spanish. Overall, it’s a fun cover of one of The Clash’s greatest songs.
Lambchop have never been a band to play things safely. The ever-evolving Nashville-based band’s sound has gone from folk, to surreal electronics, and everything in between. Perhaps it’s no surprise they took some big risks with their newest record, Trip. It was a record where their lead songwriter, Kurt Wagner tried to remove himself completely from the songwriting process. The result was an album that opened with a 13 minute cover of Wilco’s “Reservations”, yes, the closer from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What a stunning cover it is, though. Hearing Wagner sing Tweedy’s lyrics in his distinctive manner is wonderful. The closing few minutes are sparse, but create an ethereal feel, with just piano chords and drums.
Patricia Lalor – “Present Tense” (Radiohead)
Fourteen-year old Patricia Lalor has dazzled us all year with her gripping vocals and versatile art. Artists twice her age haven’t extended themselves as much as this young phenom has, who has done everything from intimate, acoustic folk to imaginative alternative indietronica. To showcase her immense and limitless talents, she covered Radiohead’s “Present Tense”, from the legends’ A Heart Shaped Pool. Whereas Thom Yorke had Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Philip Selway, Lalor handled this cover all her own. As stunning as the original is, Lalor transforms it into a haunting and alluring ballad. She did something that was unimaginable – making her rendition even more spellbinding than the original.
Real Estate – “Plastic Bird” (Galaxie 500)
Despite their short time together, Galaxie 500 are legends in indie-rock. Their influence can be heard in countless bands, including New Jersey’s Real Estate. What makes this cover of “Plastic Bird” really stand out is how Real Estate really did make the track their own. It feels so much like something off of their self-titled first record. It doesn’t quite have the rocking edge of the original, the ending has been transformed from big-rock-ending, to a dreamy closing with some hypnotic guitar work and synth, in a truly wonderful fashion.
Rosie Carney – “High and Dry” (Radiohead)
For more than two years, Rosie Carney has made our knees buckle over and over again with her heavenly voice, vulnerable stories, and breathtaking dream-folk and dream-pop approach. She has an innate ability to turn melancholy into unforgettable cinema. Earlier this month, she covered the entirety of Radiohead‘s genre-busting The Bends (streaming links here), which included a gripping and beautiful version of “High and Dry”. The cover embodies all the traits that make Carney one of the most promising, young artists around the globe. It’s breathtaking yet haunting, intimate yet bold, and unforgettable. You might forget what the original sounded like after listening to Carney’s version, which is the biggest compliment we can give to a cover.
Willie Nelson & Karen O – “Under Pressure” (Queen & David Bowie)
Quick show of hands: who had Willie Nelson singing a Queen song on their 2020 bingo card? Anyone? Yeah, us either. We certainly did not expect him to team up with Yeah Yeah Yeahs front-woman Karen O for a stripped-down version of “Under Pressure.” Yet their collaboration is nothing short of magical. The chuckle Willie gives listeners as he sings, “gets me higher, higher, high” is an added benefit, as is the addition of Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio) on pedal steel, piano, and production.
Get your digital copy of the song here.
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