(Photo credit: Jordi Vidal/Redferns)
2020 was the year of the cover song, as artists were forced to cancel their tours and rely on ad-hoc performances from their own homes. There were so many live covers that it was impossible to keep track of the deluge of videos, but I was able to track many of the officially-released covers that emerged this year. Here were ten of my favorites (with honorable mentions for Hinds covering the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” and Jenny Owen Youngs’ take on Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”). Spotify playlist here.
10. Rostam: “Under Control”
Original song by: The Strokes
Beloved indie music blog Stereogum went independent this year, and in order to keep up with costs, they put together a fundraiser. Donors were lucky enough to receive a compilation of current artists covering songs from the 2000s. Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend and current solo artist and producer, contributed a ballad version of the Strokes’ crooning “Under Control,” replacing the guitars with tender piano chords. Rostam switched the lyric “I don’t wanna change your mind, I don’t wanna change the world” to “I think we gotta change our minds, I think we gotta change the world.” About the change, he says, “[it] felt like in 2020, we needed that.”
9. Father John Misty: “Trouble”
Original song by: Cat Stevens
Josh Tillman has built his Father John Misty brand on acerbic, witty satire, which makes his occasional turns at sincerity all the more powerful. Tillman has one of the greatest baritone voices there is, which fits Cat Stevens’ early-70s folk classic “Trouble” like a glove.
8. Fruit Bats: “Today”
Original song by: Smashing Pumpkins
Eric B. Johnson, the primary member of 2000s indie folk act Fruit Bats, had a great 2020. As a part of the folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman, he released one of the best albums of the year (“The Roving” was one of my ten favorite songs of 2020), and then covered Smashing Pumpkins’ alt-rock hit album Siamese Dream in full. Johnson drops the distorted guitars of “Today” and turns it into a lush, slow-moving reverie.
7. Marika Hackman: “Realiti”
Original song by: Grimes
“Realiti” by Grimes is a phenomenal song (some would say, the tenth best song of the last decade, even) because it’s transportive. It causes you to lose yourself as you sink deeper into it. Marika Hackman slows it down and imbues it with lonely yearning, but maintains its escapist wonder.
6. Whitney: “Strange Overtones”
Original song by: David Byrne & Brian Eno
David Byrne and Brian Eno are legends of ’70s and ’80s alternative music, but one of their best songs, “Strange Overtones,” is from their late-career collaboration in 2008. It’s an “electronic gospel” track (Byrne’s and Eno’s words), but Chicago band Whitney coat it in their style of soulful, early-’70s, AM folk rock. One of the reasons the original is so great is that it projects a certain warmth, despite its electronic quality, and Whitney is the perfect band to tap into that warmth.
5. James Blake: “Godspeed”
Original song by: Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean’s phenomenal 2016 album Blonde is filled to the brim with flashes of stunning beauty. Every listen reveals new moments tucked into the album’s folds that jump out at me and grab my attention. “Godspeed” seems to get better and better each time I hear it — it’s just strikingly gorgeous. Not just anyone can capture Frank Ocean’s unique spark, but James Blake is talented enough, and has a special enough voice, to do it successfully.
4. Helado Negro ft. Flock of Dimes: “Lotta Love”
Original song by: Neil Young
I consider myself a fairly big Neil Young fan, but I hadn’t even heard his 1978 song “Lotta Love” until digging into it after weeks of enjoying this cover version by Helado Negro and Flock of Dimes. I guess I’ve put too much of my focus into pre-1976 Neil, to my detriment. “Lotta Love” is a little two-chord ditty, incredibly catchy in its simplicity. Roberto Carlos Lange, who performs as Helado Negro, makes it a warm, soulful dreamscape, with a funky but low-key bassline and Jenn Wasner’s airy background harmonies.
3. Bedouine, Hurray for the Riff Raff & Waxahatchee: “Thirteen”
Original song by: Big Star
Almost fifty years ago, Big Star released an album containing “Thirteen,” which was never promoted as a single and hardly played on the radio, but the beautiful acoustic ballad gained appreciation and esteem over time as one of the best songs of the 1970s. Many artists have covered the song, including Elliott Smith, Wilco, and Garbage, but I have become very taken with a cover by three excellent indie artists in Aznif Korkejian (who goes by Bedouine), Alynda Segarra (who performs as Hurray for the Riff Raff and released one of my favorite albums of the last decade), and Katie Crutchfield (also known as Waxahatchee, and also had a great 2020). Their cover is very faithful to the original, not adding much in the way of new ideas, but it’s performed with such grace and charm, especially as they harmonize together.
2. Amber Mark: “Heart-Shaped Box”
Original song by: Nirvana
Amber Mark continues to be one of the most underrated artists of our time. The R&B singer has never released a bad song, coating them all with her silky voice and top-notch, all-encompassing production. Mark completely reimagines Nirvana’s grimy grunge-rock classic “Heart-Shaped Box,” making it into a sumptuous, soulful jam.
1. Lianne La Havas: “Weird Fishes”
Original song by: Radiohead
The best cover songs deconstruct their target and add new flavor while still channeling the spirit of the original. Lianne La Havas’s take on Radiohead’s equally emotive and cerebral “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” more than succeeds in this regard. La Havas starts with a nod to Radiohead’s original, as the drums come in with that frenetic tempo, but not more than three seconds in, she switches it up, cutting the beat in half to a more soulful clip. It settles into a captivating groove, before turning to some understated, yet remarkable low-register harmonies. Then in the second half of the song, defying the original, it builds and builds to one of the most satisfying climaxes you’ll ever hear.