There was lots of good new music in 2016, with fantastic offerings from Beyonce, Solange, Bent Shapes, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, The Pet Shop Boys, Leonard Cohen, and some of our other favorites. All of those aforementioned releases earned a place in our hearts this year.
Those albums — and the fine songs on them — also earned a lot of press from other sites, so we have opted to not rank the best songs overall. Besides, we’re still struggling with how to rank “Rogue One” in the overall pantheon of “Star Wars” films. To try to rank our favorite songs of 2016 might break our already-overtaxed brains.
But we at least have the brain power left to share our favorite cover songs of the last year. Some of these appeared on posts in our Cover Songs Uncovered series, and others will probably appear in future posts. But they are all fabulous, and you should give them all a listen.
10. They Might Be Giants, “Bills, Bills, Bills”
In lesser hands, this cover of Destiny’s Child would sound like any other “gee, aren’t I clever for playing an R&B song in a rock style” cover. But our favorite Johns have a knack at making sarcasm sound earnest, and by the end, it’s hard to tell if they thought of this as a joke or a serious tribute. Either way, we liked it.
9. Information Society, “Don’t You Want Me”
The Human League’s best known song has been covered multiple times, in a variety of styles. Our beloved Information Society doesn’t deliver the best cover of the song, not even for this list (as you’ll see as you scroll down). But the flourishes Information Society adds reminds us of how delightfully weird that group is, and we’re glad it’s still making music.
8. Hayden Calnin, “Hound Dog”
Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were just 19 when R&B bandleader Johnny Otis invited them to his home to meet singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Leiber and Stoller set to work on writing a song that suited her tough, no-nonsense demeanor, which was tough, given that they couldn’t use any expletives. They settled on the euphemism “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” which Thornton sang in a way that might as well have been, “You ain’t nothin’ but a motherfucker.” Leiber was never happy with Elvis Presley’s cover, because Leiber thought the added line “You ain’t caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine” was “inane” and confusing. But in Hayden Calnin’s tender and capable hands, that line has new resonance. Thornton and Presley sang the song with a harsh authority, but Calnin’s bare vocal style is raw and vulnerable.
7. Chris Cornell, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
The Audioslave and Soundgarden frontman had performed a stripped-down version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Sirius XM, but after Prince’s death in April, Cornell released a slightly more polished version, which played up the soaring strings. In a tribute, Cornell wrote, “Prince’s music is the soundtrack to the soulful and beautiful universe he created, and we have all been privileged to be part of that amazing world… I performed his song ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ for the first time a couple months ago. It has a timeless relevance for me and practically everyone I know… Sadly, now his own lyrics in this song could not be more relevant than at this moment, and I sing them now in reverence as I pay tribute to this unequaled artist who has given all of our lives so much inspiration and made the world so much more interesting… We will miss you Prince!!!”
6. Music Super Circus, “Don’t You Want Me”
Plow through the first half of this cover, and you’ll hear that it’s not just a folky sad bastard thinking he’s clever playing a stripped down version of a synth-heavy song. I mean, that first half is pleasant, but it’s the female vocalist who makes this version stand out. Even when she’s singing back-up, she outshines her male counterpart. Which, of course, is part of what we loved about the original “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League.
5. Portishead, “SOS”
In our post on “Mamma Mia,” we remarked how one of ABBA’s (many) strengths was its ability to produce versatile songs. So elastic were these songs that they could withstand translations into multiple genres and still sound good. Hell, two of the best “Mamma Mia” covers are by AC/DC tribute bands. In that same vein, “SOS” was able to still sound great when recast as an eery synth ballad. Of course, it helped that it wasn’t just anyone covering it; Portishead showed here that it can be just as dark and haunting as when we fell in love with its sound more than 20 years ago.
4. Sturgill Simpson, “In Bloom”
A few years ago, Sturgill Simpson turned When In Rome’s “The Promise” into a country ballad that avoided being hokey or gimmicky. It was worthy of comparison to Willie Nelson’s cover of “Always On My Mind.” It was that good. Simpson returned this year with an even better cover, giving his take on Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” off the band’s album, “Nevermind.” Like many covers of songs from “Nevermind,” Simpson’s “In Bloom” allowed you to hear the original words without the filter of Kurt Cobain’s mumbly, screaming delivery. He picked a song from one of the most recognizable bands’ most recognizable album, and managed to imbue it with something even more haunting than the original.
3. Bonnie Raitt, “Need You Tonight”
In the INXS video for “Need You Tonight”/”Mediate,” frontman Michael Hutcheance oozed sex appeal, spinning around in a black leather jacket as if he was trying to channel the ’80s version of Jim Morrison. It’s hard to think of “Need You Tonight” without picturing that confident Hutcheance, even if you’re not watching the video. But Bonnie Raitt sauntered through the song with a bluesy swagger that gives Hutcheance’s performance a run for his money. I won’t say this version is better than the INXS original, but damn, is it good.
2. Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
At the end of November, the Minnesota couple’s remake of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that went viral, getting mentions from several media outlets. It was lauded because it wasn’t just a cover of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside;” it was a complete overhaul of the Frank Loesser classic that has been criticized in recent years for its connotations of date rape. Liza and Lemanski modified every single line to emphasize sexual consent. When Liza asked, “Say, what’s in this drink,” Lemanski responded, “Pomegranate LaCroix!”
1. Fantastic Negrito, “In the Pines”
The traditional folk song “In The Pines,” which dates back to at least the 1870s, has evolved and changed in so many ways that there’s no longer one definitive version. The legendary Leadbelly recorded at least two versions, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “Black Girl.” Judith McCulloh found 160 different versions of the song when researching the song for a 1970 dissertation. Dolly Parton, Nirvana, Joan Baez, Duane Eddy, Connie Francis, and many others have all put their mark on the song. What Fantastic Negrito brings to the already storied song is a context for 2016: he intentionally changed the lyrics to “women who buried their babies… lost to gun violence.” One could listen to the song alone and be moved, but its Fantastic Negrito’s nine-minute video for the song that makes the song a must-listen. He intentionally broke up his song with vignettes of people describing the loved ones they lost to gun violence. The entire video is captivating, but it’s the scene where an older man tries to comfort a lady whose child was shot by the police before he was 12 that shows how heartbreakingly urgent the song still is today, 150 years later.
What did you think were the best covers of the year?
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