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.

The 15 Best Live Performance Videos of 2017

 
Our year-end coverage continues here, with the 2nd annual installment of the best live performance clips of year. We already covered the best songs of 2017, and check back here for the best albums of 2017, coming soon.

Before proceeding, I want to give quick honorable mentions to both Moses Sumney’s and Jay Som’s exquisite Tiny Desk Concerts, the War on Drugs owning the stage in Amsterdam with an epic version of “Under the Pressure,” and Rae Sremmurd bringing energy to the Ellen Degeneres Show and making white people dance in hilariously awkward fashion to “Black Beatles.”

Alright, let’s go.

15. Japanese Breakfast (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Michelle Zauner went atmospheric on her newest album, but all the production is absent during her Tiny Desk Concert. Zauner brings in a string quartet to help round out her arrangements, which are emotionally resonant and deeply beautiful.

 

14. Slowdive: “Sugar for the Pill” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Slowdive, who came back in 2017 to release their first album in 22 years, inhabit the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn to play “Sugar for the Pill.” They have no trouble filling the large, empty space with their dreamy soundscapes.

 

13. Anderson .Paak: “Am I Wrong” (Live on Ellen)
In January, the human ball of talent named Anderson .Paak stopped by the Ellen Degeneres Show to play “Am I Wrong” from one of last year’s best albums, Mailbu. Paak sings, dances, hypes, jumps, and plays drums tremendously, and then tops it off by bringing his cute son to bust some moves at the end.

 

12. Bon Iver: “8 (circle)” (La Blogotheque: One to One)
All Justin Vernon needs is a guitar and an echoey room to enthrall just about anyone (emphasis on the “one”). In a new series from La Blogotheque called “One to One,” artists play a song for just one person. Here, Vernon plays a stripped-down version of “8 (circle)” from last year’s anything-but-stripped-down album, 22, A Million. Watching him bare his musical soul to one person seated inches away is a bit awkward, I’m not going to lie. But the unimaginable beauty of Vernon’s voice and guitar makes it worth it.

 

11. Mac Demarco: “Still Beating” & “This Old Dog” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
La Blogotheque has recorded their “Take Away Shows,” where artists play in unconventional settings in and around Paris, for about a decade now. My favorite offering from them this year was by the eminently chill Mac Demarco. Demarco takes his acoustic guitar on a cloudy stroll through a noisy park, complete with kids playing and yelling, birds chirping, sirens blaring, and multiple French dudes hilariously deciding it was a good idea to talk to/sing at him while recording, which Demarco engages with affably. Even through the funny distractions, the beauty and intimacy of his introspective songs still shine through.

 

10. Frank Ocean: “Nikes (Rehearsal)” (Live from Frank’s Tumblr)
Frank Ocean’s voice is the eighth wonder of the world. The noted recluse finally released his amazing, long-awaited follow-up album Blonde last year, which featured the trippy, almost psychedelic opening track “Nikes.” Luckily for us, Ocean decided to post a video to his Tumblr of him rehearsing the track, with nothing but an electric piano to back him. His voice soars and swoons. There’s no auto-tune or studio trickery to improve it — it’s just there, bare and emotive, conveying the weariness inside of him with every note.

 

9. Alabama Shakes; Nas (PBS: American Epic Sessions)
PBS recently produced a series that explores music in the early 20th century, when folk and blues artists were being discovered by major labels. T Bone Burnett and Jack White used the only recording system still working from the 1920s to capture modern artists covering old blues standards, resulting in the “American Epic Sessions.” Alabama Shakes come in to play a bouncy, delightful rendition of “Killer Diller,” satisfyingly pleasing in its historical accuracy. Nas then does a fun hip-hop-style cover of “On the Road Again,” originally by the Memphis Jug Band in 1928. Watch the Alabama Shakes clip followed by the Nas clip (along with narration) below.

 

8. Hurray for the Riff Raff: “Rican Beach” & “Pa’lante” (Live at SXSW)
The talent of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra cannot be overstated. She writes songs that are both musically engaging and lyrically powerful, and has a stellar bluesy voice. Segarra brings the heat on “Rican Beach,” a song dripping in sweat that tackles gentrification: “Well you can take my life, but don’t take my home.” She really brings it home on “Pa’lante,” which already sounds like a ’70s standard even though it just came out this year. Starting out as a somewhat slow piano ballad, it eventually builds steam until it hits you in the gut.

 

7. Spoon: “I Ain’t the One” (Live on KEXP)
Spoon stopped by the KEXP studios in Seattle to play “I Ain’t the One,” a cinematic, brooding, extremely cool song from their latest album. The track’s intensity lends itself to soundtracking some legendary slow-motion movie scene. Throughout the song, Britt Daniel motions to whoever controls the sound to make certain instruments louder or softer — at first, good-naturedly, but then you can sense his exasperation at not getting the sound levels just right. Even though the situation is clearly annoying him a little bit, he’s a great multitasker, because he still delivers his vocal performance with tenacity and passion.

 

6. Sampha (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
All of the clips on this list are amazing, but not all of them feature perfect singing. Even some of the best singers falter once or twice in a live setting. Sampha’s voice, however, is perfect. And not only is it perfect, but it’s unique. No one in the world sounds like Sampha. The singer-songwriter from south London comes to the NPR Music offices to enchant us with powerful songs from his latest album, with the spare and gorgeous “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” (a top 5 song of the year!) as the centerpiece.

 

5. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, & Nico Muhly: “Mercury” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Sufjan Stevens has been on a tear ever since releasing the best album of 2015, what with the live album, the B-sides and outtakes album, and, most notably, his team-up with Bryce Dessner of the National, classical music composer Nico Muhly, and drummer James McAllister to record an album about the solar system called Planetarium. NPR Music recorded the Planetarium group playing “Mercury” at an NYC studio, and it is simply gorgeous. The four elements — piano, viola, electric guitar, and Sufjan’s ethereal voice — combine to form a full-sounding, picture-perfect blend of classical, folk, and post-rock that is glorious to behold.

 

4. Chance the Rapper: “How Great” & “All We Got” (Live at the Grammys)
Chance the Rapper’s star is rising fast, recently hosting SNL, appearing on Sesame Street, and playing at President Obama’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the end of last year (while Sasha mouthed every word). Back in February, Mr. The Rapper played at the Grammys and absolutely killed it. It takes a special ability to command attention from such a large audience, both in person and through the TV, but Chance succeeds with his intensity and earnest desire to reach out and uplift (not to mention, his incredible backup gospel choir).

I was able to find the performance divided into three parts on YouTube — below, you’ll find Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the four and a half minute performance. If you want to listen to the whole thing uninterrupted, here’s audio of it. I recommend watching it though for the full effect.

 

3. Lorde (Live at Electric Lady Studios)
Lorde is one of the most interesting, compelling pop stars we have. She has an energy that is entirely captivating, making it hard to look away when she’s performing. Lorde recorded a series of intimate performances at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York — each of the six videos feature a stripped down version of a track from Lorde’s oustanding new album, Melodrama. All of the songs are presented in a unique way and they each sound incredible, enhanced by Lorde’s visible passion amid the candle light. My favorites are “Sober,” “Homemade Dynamite,” and “Supercut,” though they are all excellent. Watch a playlist of the videos below, starting with “Sober.”

 

2. Tuxedo (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Live music is enticing when it either demonstrates skill, poignancy, fun, or some combination of the three. Tuxedo’s Tiny Desk Concert falls squarely in the “fun” category, though not without some obvious skill as well. Mayer Hawthorne (a D-Brad Music favorite) and Jake One, the duo that make up Tuxedo, assembled a mini-band to play their late-’70s/early-’80s-era funk and it’s extremely enjoyable. Of all the pleasing moments (including a button that goes “HO!” and the realization that a cassette is playing the drum beats), my favorite is during the chorus of “2nd Time Around,” when Hawthorne and backup singer Gavin Turek break out their simple but synchronized dance moves. It’s awesome to see them clearly having such a good time.

 

1. HAIM: Valentine (Short Film, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
HAIM teams up with with the illustrious film director Paul Thomas Anderson — the brain behind some of my all-time favorite movies, including There Will Be Blood and this year’s Phantom Thread — to deliver a stunning portrait of a talented band at work. Anderson captures HAIM in the studio performing three songs off their recent sophomore album: “Right Now,” “Something to Tell You,” and “Nothing’s Wrong.” He uses very few shots, opting for long takes where the camera moves about the studio, training its lens on each member of the band in turns. But though Anderson should be commended for the way he captures the band, the three Haim sisters are the stars of the show. Their playing is impressively taut, their voices (especially that of lead singer Danielle Haim) are incredible, and their overall musical prowess is immediately apparent. Every drum hit, every guitar lick, every vocal line sounds crisp and fresh, authentic and vibrant.

Five Quality Tracks: March 2017

March was ridiculous. Somehow, after all this, I failed to include new songs from Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Fleet Foxes, and Real Estate. That’s honestly a crime, and I apologize. All indications point to Kendrick dropping an album (or at least something) on April 7th, and Fleet Foxes will release their long-awaited follow-up album in June, so they’ll still have a chance to make it on here. And so, without further ado, five quality tracks for March.
 
 
1. Lorde: “Green Light”

A friend of mine recently asked me who makes more ‘anthemic’ songs — Taylor Swift or Lorde? Lorde’s celebrated debut album from 2013, Pure Heroine, was exceptional, full of quietly encouraging, relatable songs (“Team” is an all-time favorite), but I wouldn’t characterize it as anthemic, necessarily. Swift may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but singles like “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Bad Blood” are as conducive to late-night, impromptu sing-alongs as anything. So, after judging their musical output as a whole, my answer was Taylor Swift. BUT, on a song-by-song basis, the most anthemic track either of them have ever done is easily Lorde’s new single, “Green Light.”

After four fairly quiet years since Pure Heroine, Lorde, the New Zealand phenom who first deservedly captured our attention at the age of 16, is returning to us with her sophomore effort in a couple months. For her new album, Lorde tapped Bleachers and fun. member Jack Antonoff to produce and help with songwriting. Antonoff has production experience with some of the biggest names in pop, including Taylor Swift, Sia, Rachel Platten, and Sara Bareilles, so I was interested to see how his influence would manifest itself with Lorde.

I was immediately taken aback by “Green Light,” and not exactly in a good way. It is very pop in a reach-for-the-stars kind of way, which is not what I expected from Lorde and her more brooding, subtle style. But the more I heard it, the more the various parts stuck with me, like that enticing rhythmic piano in the lead-up to the chorus, or Lorde’s pitch-perfect lyrics, like her sneer directed at an ex, singing “She says you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.”

Previously, Lorde deftly straddled the line between electro-indie and pop in a way that was unique at the time. So to hear “Green Light,” which is very much a full-fledged pop song, was a bit jarring at first. But the thing is, “Green Light” aims big — that’s the whole point — and it succeeds tremendously. Taylor Swift has written timeless anthems, but if I were to drive around with the windows down late at night with friends, the first song I would want to hear is “Green Light.”

 
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