The 10 Best Cover Songs of 2020

(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.

Best Albums of 2015

When I was a freshman/sophomore in college, I insisted that my “best albums of the year” lists were unequivocally correct. Whichever top 25 albums I listed were, by all measures, the absolute “best” of the year, no questions asked. With a little perspective, I now know that that was completely ridiculous. The 25 albums represented here are the “best” to me, according to my limited world view. I try to keep that world view as open as possible so that all albums are welcome here. I also try to take into account an album’s importance, reach, and influence on a larger scale. But ultimately, these 25 albums are the ones I loved listening to the most. I immensely enjoyed them, and I hope you did/will too.

Continue reading

Best Songs of 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 12.02.06 AM

We were provided with an embarrassment of riches in 2015. Beloved artists returned with flawless albums (Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney), artists in their peak pushed the boundaries into completely new territory (Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Tame Impala), and newcomers hearkened back to classics from days past (Leon Bridges, Natalie Prass, Tobias Jesso Jr.). This was my favorite year for music since 2012 — there were so many songs that would have qualified for this list if they had come out any other year, but the competition was just too much in 2015.

D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2015: Spotify Playlist
D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2015: YouTube Playlist

Also, special thanks to Taylor for the awesome cover art.

Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions that it killed me to exclude.

Continue reading

Five Quality Tracks: October 2015

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 10.27.39 PM

This was a feature that I used to do for the Daily Californian’s Arts & Entertainment blog. I decided to give it life again here. At the end of each month, I’ll post a feature highlighting five quality tracks released during that month.

October will probably remembered as the month that Adele said “Hello”. I thought about including it as one of my five tracks, but the idea of this post is to introduce people to songs that they maybe haven’t heard, or to songs that they can maybe appreciate in a new way. Everyone on the planet knows about “Hello,” so here are five additional songs that ruled my Spotify this month.

1. Grimes: “Flesh Without Blood”

Grimes finally announced her much-anticipated follow-up album to 2012’s Visions (which contained one of the best songs of the decade so far) — Art Angels, which comes out this Friday. Over the last year or so, Grimes has generated a lot of questions about what direction she would take on the new album, the primary question being: how ‘pop’ will it be? Last year, she released the extremely polarizing, intended-for-Rihanna track “Go”, which saw Grimes embracing full-on, drop-heavy, banger pop like never before. Would the new album go further in this direction, or was “Go” just a one-off? The questions only grew when reports came out that she scrapped an entire album because she believed it “sucked”. And it didn’t make her intentions any clearer when she denounced her own songs publicly, saying she hates “Oblivion” (which is ridiculous) and doesn’t like “REALiTi” a demo she posted on YouTube in March that I consider to be one of the best songs this year. If she hates her best songs, then what does she think is good?

ANYWAY, I’m just glad that all the speculation will be put to rest very soon. “Flesh Without Blood” is, without a doubt, another embrace of pop. On first listen, I was slightly disappointed — I thought it wasn’t as imaginative as her best work on Visions. It certainly was catchy, but it seemed a little too basic, too obvious, too simple. It just felt like all she did was provide a slight update to the guitar riff from “Since U Been Gone” — which, don’t get me wrong, is a pop masterpiece, but it’s not weird. The ultimate credit to Grimes — in both her music and her personality — is her innate weirdness. Where was the weirdness?

I was dead wrong though. Nuances and intricacies revealed themselves on repeated listens, and I realized that “Flesh Without Blood” isn’t basic at all. It’s teeming with unexpected sound effects sprinkled throughout, it skillfully adds and takes away elements at just the right time, and the various intersecting melodies are perfect. The lyrics are well-constructed and vivid: “Your voice, it had the perfect flow / It got lost when you gave it up though” and “I don’t see the light I saw in you before.” And did I mention it was catchy? This is a blast-in-the-car type of song. Art Angels looks to be very, very interesting.

Continue reading

Grimes: “REALiTi” / What Could Have Been


Grimes is a perfectionist, she cares what the public thinks, and she’s delusional. That all sounds much harsher than I mean it to be, but it’s mostly true. Grimes, who creates ingenious, enveloping soundscapes all from her computer, scrapped an entire album’s worth of songs last year, claiming that it “sucked.”

Her decision to forego the album was partially due to negative public opinion of her one-off single last year, the poppy, radio-friendly (but still radio-shunned) “Go”. Grimes originally intended for Rihanna to sing on the track, but her camp declined, so she released it herself, causing a rift among her fans between those that appreciated her new direction and those that hated it. Grimes noticed the backlash and decided to start over.

But this week, she released a demo from the “lost album” called “REALiTi.” In the video description, she calls it “a mess,” but if it’s a mess, it’s a transcendent and beautiful mess. It’s an amazing song, and it makes me REALLY want to hear the other tracks that were scrapped. Grimes is an unparalleled talent — witness it here.

Grimes – “Oblivion”

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 7.49.12 AM

Here’s my experience with Grimes’ lead single, “Oblivion”:

  • Read all the hype about Grimes, downloaded the album.
  • Heard “Oblivion” about 3 times, didn’t think much of it.
  • Watched the video, thought it was cool, then promptly forgot about it.
  • Heard the song on my iPod again on the way to work 2 weeks later, thought it was pretty dang catchy in a mysterious way.
  • Watched the video again and LOVED IT. Oh the dissonance! Oh the male/female dynamic! Oh the awkwardness of an indie geek in a jock’s terrain!
  • Watched it yet again and developed favorite moments: when she courteously allows that guy to walk through the camera shot at 0:41; the two black dudes at 0:52 who are like “This song is super weird, and this chick is SUPER MORE WEIRD, but I’m down”; the ultimate bro doing the YMCA at 1:12; the lisp at 1:39; the return of the bro at 1:46, this time with his arm around Grimes, a chick that he NEVER would have even acknowledged in high school; whatever that dude is doing in the back at 1:58; everything that’s happening at 2:55; the collision and smile at 2:57; the swag at 3:26; the black dudes’ return at 3:30, with the guy on the left looking amused, the guy on the right looking awkward, and Grimes loving every second; and the general attitude of “These people probably think I’m insane but I don’t care, this is awesome” displayed throughout the video, but encapsulated at 3:45.
  • Watched this interview, realized the lisp was not a fluke, and thought she was so weirdly cool in a natural kid of way.
  • Blasted “Oblivion” non-stop ever since. Sick song, sick video.