Two things I’ve thought frequently while running through this list of the 50 Best Covers of 2021:
- A number of these covers could be the best cover of a different year. That’s just how it goes sometimes!
- A half-dozen Angel Olsen covers this year and not one made the cut.
If you’d told me either of those facts a year ago, I’d simply have not believed it. Look I’ll just level with you: I’m not sure if it was because 2020 felt like an off year of livestream recordings and quarantine jitters, but 2021 had almost too many great covers. Look no further for confirmation than the number of big albums we had this year—THE METALLICA BLACKLIST, I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR: A TRIBUTE TO THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO, ITALIANS DO IT BETTER, 10 YEARS OF DOUBLE DOUBLE WHAMMY, etc. The list goes on. Hell, my honorable mentions list is unwieldy, and filled with tracks that at some point in the year were on the main Top 50. It’s a bevy of riches, to be sure.
Per usual, a few important notes about this list. First, I don’t include live recordings (unless officially released and professionally recorded), nor live streams. And anything that largely isn’t overly accessible online wasn’t considered. That said, there weren’t a ton of artists for whom that dinged as compared to 2020.
50. “Karma Police” (Radiohead Cover) by Kelly Clarkson
I don’t watch THE KELLY CLARKSON SHOW, if you can believe that. I’m not really in the show’s target demo and, well, I have better things to be doing (like writing this list). But I will say, if you’re a massive pop star who doesn’t use your production resources on daytime television to just randomly cover songs you like, what the fuck are you doing? That rules! “Kellyoke” as it’s colloquially called on the show has seen Clarkson body some awesome covers over the last year, which is largely why she’s getting this spot at #50—more a PSA of a random weird thing that’s pretty cool than a specific shout out to one cover. “Welcome To The Black Parade,” “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” “Driver’s License,” all great. And sure, Clarkson isn’t really taking a ton of massive swings with the curation of these covers—again, I am not in her target demo—but the girl can sing! Radiohead have to date been a two-time offender on THE KELLY CLARKSON SHOW, the better of the two ‘90s cuts being “Karma Police,” an all meat, no fat two-minute take on the song that she brings a brightness to. Let it be known, the Clarkson covers will probably not stop, and they’re worth a listen!
49. “Lose Yourself To Dance” (Daft Punk Cover) by Jon Batiste
Spotify’s recent run of studio sessions at Electric Lady have yielded decidedly mixed results based on the artist; the Japanese Breakfast take on Weezer is one of those cringy, lazy takes that people are forever going to tell you is good because they simply like the artist involved, Natalie Bergman and The Raconteurs each put forth marginally more interesting takes on Jimi Hendrix and Richard Hell respectively, but nothing that feels definitively great. The few covers that have worked through that Spotify series have really worked, so the jury remains out, but it’s an idea worth continuing to check out should it continue into 2022.
Among those covers that work well is Jon Batiste taking on Daft Punk’s “Lost Yourself To Dance.” Admittedly it takes a second to find its footing, operating largely as Batiste singing over the equivalent of a Vitamin String Quartet version of the RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES highlight, but the further the track goes, it turns into a showcase for some slick horn solos. The original’s robotic dance floor hypnosis becomes more analog the longer the song goes on in a satisfying way. Like Batiste’s role as band leader on THE LATE SHOW, the cover exists to play nice with older and newer generations alike, and it does it interestingly enough to toss on your next dinner party playlist.
48. “When I Come Around” (Green Day Cover) by Nap Eyes
“When I Come Around” is such a straightforward and well-known rock song that as a cover experimentation should be the focus. Nap Eyes don’t go too crazy here—the slowed down, folksy take isn’t even very original, really—but Nigel Chapman’s earnest vocal performance elevates everything. Coolly detached, against the bending hum of a slide guitar, Chapman finds a slacker indie rock energy in a massive mainstream hit.
47. “Just the Two of Us” (Grover Washington Jr. Cover) by Lady Dan
Some covers are built for syncs, and that’s okay! It’s a necessary part of the musical ecosystem. Funnily, I’m not sure Lady Dan is yet big enough to be making songs for AMERICAN HORROR STORY teasers (although she should be), but that’s for sure where this cover of Grover Washington Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us” should go. It’s got everything, pitched-down, drifting vocals, glitched-out mechanical production, some healthy screams in the background; it’s a unique and fun take on a staple you’re probably a bit tired of. Whatever horror film gets to it first, bully for you.
46. “Reckoner” (Radiohead Cover) by Peter Frampton
Look, I don’t know why this thing exists, but if I’ve been blessed with glorious knowledge, I must share it with you. To level with you, I don’t give a shit about the song. It’s Frampton noodling across a surprisingly by-the-books take on Radiohead’s IN RAINBOWS classic “Reckoner.” It’s fun, in a “Hey dad, wanna see something weird?” kinda way. I can promise you it’s not bad!
But really, this song is making the list for the music video, which is… simply stunning? A work of art that people should write essays about? Maybe one of the worst things I’ve ever seen? Simultaneously something I would love to never watch again and something I think about constantly? All of the above? It opens like something out of THE ROOM, with Frampton looking in a journal, shot in black and white, staring longingly at the words “Was It Worth It?” before ripping the page out dramatically. Progressively the vibes get worse and worse, the most cursed section being him playing in front of a green-screened lake while a black and white version of him nods along in the background. The video almost reads as a PSA against listening to Radiohead, an anti-drug ad psyop in subtext alone. It must be seen to be believed.
45. “There’s An (Everlasting) Light (Over At The Frankenstein Place)” (The Black Keys & ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW Covers) by Sidney Gish
Sidney Gish refuses to provide a proper follow up to 2017’s excellent NO DOGS ALLOWED, so we have to take what we can get from the gifted indie pop writer. Her contribution to I’m Into Life Records’ CREEP COVERS comp is quite clever, a fusion of the Home Depot chug of The Black Key’s “Everlasting Light” and the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW cult classic cut “There’s A Light (Over At The Frankenstein Place).” The song is far too much of a vibe to feel comfortable yelling “Slut!” and “Asshole!” during it, but as far as fascinating tweaks go, Black Key’ing up a cult film classic is a fascinating and exciting move.
44. “Mr. Blue Sky” (Electric Light Orchestra Cover) by Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem
All Muppets covers are good, and Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem rule. And like, while the Muppets have, at times, bitten off more than they can chew in terms of covers that feel organic, them doing “Mr. Blue Sky” makes so much sense I’m kind of surprised they’ve never attempted it before? You need Animal yelling “So long!” in the chorus, even if you didn’t know it. Bands should, by and large, not take on this song. But the Muppets can do what they want and this is extremely fun. The video is obviously a must-watch.
43. “The Ship Song” (Nick Cave Cover) by Nell Smith & The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips are a cover act that have played themselves out in terms of creative viability; they’ve done enough full-album takes at this point you know exactly what you’re getting, both a blessing and a curse, depending on the source material. Alongside a 14-year-old fan named Nell Smith, the Lips have found a way to subvert some of those established expectations. Coyne, ever the Willy Wonka of psychedelia, chose Nick Cave as a subject because Smith had never heard any of his music. As such, WHERE THE VIADUCT LOOMS has a guileless energy, particularly on “The Ship Song,” much of the broken bravado of the original replaced with a carefree airiness. Most Flaming Lips side projects tend to feel like novelties these days, but their work with Smith is fittingly earnest and worth a listen despite the burnout.
42. “Hella Good” (No Doubt Cover) by Just Friends
Just Friends’ version of “Hella Good” has the energy of a Girl Talk cut, the production siloed in a way that feels like a DJ overlaying disparate party elements on top of each other; each moment is a shot of adrenaline in its own right, but a house party on fire together. The band’s original material frequently fuses together funk, hardcore, emo, and pop into one bombastic package, so one of No Doubt’s most explicitly pop-leaning turns becomes a perfect canvas to watch the band go nuts. If they’re playing “Hella Good” live these days, you can guarantee it blows the roof off the joint.
41. “All I Need” (Radiohead Cover) by Puma Blue
It is, perhaps, low-hanging fruit for Puma Blue to spin “All I Need” into a gooey PBR&B jam—it’s the Radiohead song that’s the most primed to take on the energy of that genre in the first place. As such, this take on the IN RAINBOWS staple feels immediately right, accentuating the slow roll energy of the original with quiet, hushed whispers. Puma Blue’s smoky, after hours lounge sound spills out into an empty room; the reasonably stripped down interpretation of an already sparse track maximizes the zoned-out freefall. It’s a late night treat.
40. “Sugar & Spice” (Hatchie Cover) by 2nd Grade
It’s simply remarkable to hear every ounce of dream pop sucked out of a song, and I mean that as a compliment. Philadelphia power pop rockers 2nd Grade turn Hatchie’s deliciously sticky “Sugar & Spice” and turn it inside out, with the results being a lanky dance party that recalls Johnathan Richman or The Feelies. It’s a deeply rewarding rework of an entirely different song, and as someone who deeply misses AV Undercover, I adore the fact that the song on paper is something of a square peg in a round hole that ultimately fits in spite of that.
39. “Fade Into You” (Mazzy Star Cover) by American Football feat. Mia Follick
If you record a slow motion, twinkly Midwest emo version of “Fade Into You,” it’s probably making this list. Even if Mazzy Star’s yearning hit has been tirelessly covered numerous times over the last decade (more people should be trying “Halah” or “Common Burn,” they have so many great deep cuts), there’s a reason for that. The tasteful horns, Mia Follick’s vocal harmonies, the elongated rise-and-fall guitar parts at the close of the track, a lesser emo band would’ve failed to understand the nuances needed to make this track feel wholly reinvented. Fortunately, American Football are pros, and their keen eyes for detail make the track shimmer.
38. “You Are A Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” (Wolf Parade Cover) by Porridge Radio
As we established on last year’s list, Porridge Radio just can’t help but bring a fire and brimstone energy to whatever source material they tackle. The band have released quite a few covers this year, each with a degree of surprising fervor and intensity—the usually innocuous 2000s mixtape staple “New Slang” contains a life-or-death quality to it that is kind of amazing to behold. Porridge Radio taking on Wolf Parade makes a similar degree of sense to them taking on Leonard Cohen, and they similarly go full Old Testament on it. Dana Margolin bodies this performance, and the slowed pacing and backing vocals perfectly compliment the original’s sharp, harsh, possessed qualities in a totally different way.
37. “Born This Way” (Lady Gaga Cover) by Orville Peck
The Orville Peck sound will likely wane at some point, and I don’t doubt 2022 will see it bend or break depending on what happens with his next album. That being said, it is a shtick that will continue to work in the right context, and a Lady Gaga cover is an easy layup in this regard. A stomping, impassioned anthem, Peck’s mysterious honky tonk sound is decidedly less Lynchian against a mainstream hit than it felt back on PONY, but that’s probably for the best. It’s a perfect marriage sonically and whatever pop ambition Peck is chewing on here is probably something to study for his upcoming releases.
36. “Save Yourself” (Sharon Van Etten Cover) by Lucinda Williams
Covers tend to be presented to us in three ways:
- Younger artists covering older artists, often those who were clearly an influence on their careers
- Older artists looking back on the music that made them, often deceased or obscured artists from the past
- Artists of all ages taking on a current pop song, often for the algorithm
This, of course, isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s refreshing to hear Lucinda Williams, with all the gravitas and wisdom in her voice, channel herself into one of Sharon Van Etten’s earliest and best songs. So often covers ignite a sort of youth into something old, so to hear a life lived being channeled into a (relatively) recent song, one written through the lens of youth, is just a treat. Williams’ unique blend of blues and alt-country heaviness makes “Save Yourself” sound like a staple of the American songbook, and with this cover maybe it should be.
35. “Use Somebody” (Kings of Leon Cover) by dvsn
Canadian R&B duo dvsn’s take on “Use Somebody” is fire—I could make more direct jokes about how they sexed-up the wrong Kings of Leon hit, but I’m above that kind of thing. Their genre flip breathes a considerable amount of new life into one of the 2010’s most overplayed songs, the use of guitar and explosive chorus recall something like what Miguel was toying with on his excellent WILDHEART. Any slightly different version of “Use Somebody” was likely going to improve on the original, but it’s tremendous how listenable dvsn’s version is by comparison.
34. “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” (Fleet Foxes Cover) by Faye Webster
We return to Electric Lady (see: #49). In all the ways that Japanese Breakfast’s irony muddled, undercooked Weezer cover doesn’t work, Faye Webster’s quiet, emotive Fleet Foxes take does. “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” was the highlight of CRACK-UP back in 2017, and she treats Robin Pecknold’s focused writing as a sacred text. Webster herself is a songwriter who similarly attempts to reckon with the personal and the universal in tandem, and so hearing her strip back the song delicately highlights not just how great she is bringing this kind of writing to light, but how essential the original is years later.
33. “Warning Sign” (Coldplay Cover) by Hovvdy
Look, I really wanted to put Hovvdy’s cover of Paramore’s “The Only Exception” on this list, since I will tell anyone who will listen that it’s one of the best radio ballads of the last 25 years. But alas, their most compelling cover this year was a take on Coldplay’s A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD’s “Warning Sign.” With a slightly sped-up tempo, Hovvdy turn the deep cut into a hollow shuffle, the skittering, pastel production accentuating those cooing bedroom vocals into something special. “Warning Sign” was a top shelf Coldplay cut, and more indie cred being dedicated to it will only help affirm its place as one of the band’s best.
32. “Army of Me” (Björk Cover) by Julia Jacklin and RVG
There is no trip hop flourish to what Julia Jacklin and RVG are doing with this Björk cover, but that’s for the best. Their interpretation of the chorus of “Army of Me” recalls different ‘90s icons, ones closer to the mainstream center like The Cranberries or Garbage. The result could be Evanescence if it wasn’t just inherently cooler through the very nature of existing. There is a buzzsaw quality to the synthy rhythms, but Jacklin and RVG’s rock flourishes mean the fierceness is toned down—given how unmatchably intense Björk is on the original, that’s for the best.
31. “Pride (In The Name of Love)” (U2 Cover) by Dierks Bentley, The War & Treaty, and Larkin Poe
The discourse seems to have turned on the awards show group singalong cover, and we can probably rightfully blame the Grammys for that. But I still think there is some inherent value in seeing all your favorites up on stage singing along to the classics—bring on more covers of “The Weight”—and as such I’m into this country fried take on U2. The presumed optics of putting it together for a televised broadcast I am largely uninterested in at this point in human history, but the recording itself? Pretty fun! The War & Treaty are a tremendous live act, and feel like they’re rightfully the heart and soul of this cover, but Dierks Bentley is serviceably putting himself out there for it.
Bonus: This isn’t Dierks Bentley’s first go-around with “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” he covered it back in 2010 as well with a similar but pluckier version featuring Punch Brothers and Del McCoury!
30. “I Believe In You” (Neil Young Cover) by Hand Habits
I think FUN HOUSE is one of the best 2021 releases. Meg Duffy is one of the best guitarists on the planet and the album reinforces that notion with some of their biggest rock hooks to date. It’s so good that I pleaded on Twitter that Duffy should simply release 10-minute versions of some of the tracks, because nothing would delight me more than a Hand Habits jam album. One of the responses, fortuitously or not, responded cleverly with “Meg Duffy & Crazy Horse,” which would A- fucking rule and B- seems to have been semi-spoken into existence with this cover of Neil Young’s “I Believe In You.” Now, this of course won’t satisfy your guitar noodling thirst—even if AFTER THE GOLD RUSH is the best Neil Young album, it’s not known for huge riffs—but it does still fucking rule. Along with John Andrews, SASAMI, King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas, and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner, Duffy’s assembled group of tinkering indie rockers make for a DIY version of THE LAST WALTZ and quietly stomp and crash along to one of Uncle Neil’s more underrated songs.
29. “drivers license” (Olivia Rodrigo Cover) by Middle Kids
“drivers license” was one of the 2021’s most covered songs—it even saw the Kidz Bop treatment, which is how you know things have gone off the rails. At times it felt like it was Olivia Rodrigo’s world and we were all just living in it, which perhaps makes the fact that only one cover ended up on this list a little surprising. Nonetheless, Middle Kids were the right band for the job it turns out. They bring a rousing, anthemic chaos to the track in their triple j session, the knife-twisting pain of the original appropriately captured through Hannah Joy fighting to be heard within the mix. Making the song bigger-sounding, especially in contrast to what a massive hit the original was, pays dividends in a satisfying way.
28. “Kyoto” (Phoebe Bridgers Cover) by Small Black
Our cultural obsession with Phoebe Bridgers hit a new unprecedented level this year, and that continued even after the whole Saturday Night Live “controversy” threatened to derail her status as a newly minted mainstream pop figure. I think I speak for a large sect of music Twitter when I bluntly say: It’s not that we don’t like Bridgers anymore, it’s that we’re extremely exhausted by the same antics that once charmed us. This caveat seems important, since not one but two covers of “Kyoto” appear on this list. The first comes from Small Black, whose breezy chillwave take hones in heavily on the original’s already bouncy, dreamy melodies, speeding up the vocal delivery against the rushing drum machines while elongating a spacy, cavernous atmosphere. Any cover of “Kyoto” has to nail that nostalgic yearning in Bridgers’ voice, and Small Black do that just as much through the actual vocal delivery as they do through the vibey production. One of 2020’s finest singles, it’s a track that rightfully has cast a spell on those who hear it, including this cover.
27. “I Can’t Tell You Why” (Eagles Cover) by Jess Cornelius
Timothy B. Schmit only wrote one true Eagles hit, “I Can’t Tell You Why,” which in retrospect feels blanketed by the weight of finality the band was about to experience. It’s a late-career ballad that feels like it’s capturing the end of the ‘70s, and it’s a slow burn. I’ve loudly been yelling about how good Jess Cornelius is for a minute, a songwriter and performer with formidable rock chops. Her breathy, dark take on Schmit’s is nowhere near as smooth—that gravelly guitar and the light organ sound reverberate around the track before the drums really make themselves known, ultimately feeling like a cavernous pit of emotional despair (she similarly does this on another solid 2021 cover of The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”). It’s a beautiful flip emotionally, especially for one of the Eagles’ prettier tracks. While you’re here, go read about Cornelius’s tremendous album DISTANCE.
26. “Hard To Explain” (The Strokes Cover) by Touché Amoré
Two seconds of any Touché Amoré song is more impassioned than anything Julian Casablancas has delivered in his entire career—and that’s no shade towards The Strokes, we love their slick, coolly detached energy. But Jeremy Bolm has one speed, and that speed is to give it his all. The Los Angeles punk band offered a pair of covers this year, including a fun take on Guided By Voices’ “Game of Pricks” with Joyce Manor’s Barry Johnson that’s worth your time. The superior of the two is this sweat-pouring hardcore take on “Hard to Explain,” which like the best Touché Amoré songs makes you want to run through concrete walls. The playful indie rock melodies are kept largely intact against Bolm’s furious delivery, which make for a surreal but engaging energy.
25. “Sad But True” (Metallica Cover) by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
24. “Nothing Else Matters” (Metallica Cover) by My Morning Jacket
I’m going to use this opportunity to more generally sing the praises of THE METALLICA BLACKLIST, which for a number of reasons I think is a flawed masterstroke of mythmaking, marketing, and musical approach. Generally speaking, 53 Metallica covers is probably too many covers, especially when the source material itself is only 12 songs and is structured in an uneven way—hope you’re ready for 12 versions of “Nothing Else Matters” and just one “Of Wolf And Man.” And yet there is a brilliance to hearing each song worked and reworked over and over, tweaked by genre and generational approach. The album’s ‘too big to fail’ quality is in service of Metallica’s legacy alone, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter that a lot of the covers across THE METALLICA BLACKLIST are pretty benign metal cosplay for artists that otherwise don’t get an opportunity to explore the genre—who are you to argue with over 50 of the most important musicians of the last 40 years, big and small, all agreeing that METALLICA is one of the most important albums of all time?
There are a number of pretty thrilling takes here—shouts to Diet Cig, Rina Sawayama, Moses Sumney, and Kamasi Washington. Two in particular understand how to bend Metallica in ways that are entirely their own while also adding a lot of fresh listenability to the songs: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit take “Sad But True” and turn it into a bat-outta-hell barnburner, plucky country rock that rightly borders on psychobilly insanity, while My Morning Jacket turn “Nothing Else Matters” into a late-night dance, an ascending lilt in their cosmic Americana R&B turn. Particularly when nestled amongst a lot of rinse-and-repeat straight ahead covers, you have to respect that Isbell and MMJ, among other artists, were able to make the track entirely their own.
23. “Losing A Whole Year” (Third Eye Blind Cover) by Chastity
Chastity aren’t necessarily doing a ton to rework Third Eye Blind’s “Losing A Whole Year,” but their dog-eared emo sound offers just enough to further a case for why millennials will continue to overlook Steven Jenkins’ overt douchiness and instead focus on the immaculate pop rock production. Most Third Eye Blind songs only need the dial turned a smidge to the left to land emo brilliance, and Chastity’s cheeky, yet straightforward, take does just that, unlocking an unspoken theory we’ve seen proven in covers past. It’s just loose enough, just strung-out enough, and just whiny enough to properly represent a truly lost year.
Bonus: Not the only solid cover of “Losing A Whole Year” from this year, as it would turn out! Shouts to this great Field Mouse take.
22. “America!” (Bill Callahan Cover) by Squid
Bill Callahan’s wry delivery is the kind of specific idiosyncrasy that could make covering him difficult. Squid’s Ollie Judge similarly has a distinctive vocal cadence, though it’s far more edged and explosive than calm and stoic. You’d think this would make the buzzy Brighton post-punkers take on Callahan’s “America!” something of a non-starter, an unmovable force colliding with an immovable object. But instead the song unfolds as a brilliant sounding of the alarm, Judge yipping “And things could get tense around the Bible Belt” from the frontlines of a country on the brink of collapse rather than safely on tour thousands of miles away. It is an urgent, angry update, bursting with the grievances of the decade that’s passed since Callahan’s meditation APOCALYPSE was released.
21. “I’m Every Woman” (Chaka Khan Cover) by Tinashe & TOKiMONSTA
Somewhere between a Fashion Week runaway song and a true deep house rework, Tinashe and TOKiMONSTA’s take on Chaka Khan’s eternal classic “I’m Every Woman” is a slice of detached dance pop bliss. Inherently less explosively gripping than Khan’s original, the production here pivots to something far slicker. Tinashe aims for cooly captivating and hits her mark—given how few artists have ever come close to capturing the hot energy of Khan, it’s a smart pivot. Rather than over-the-top disco balls shining off dance floors, “I’m Every Woman” reverberates off the concrete floors and softly lit walls of a hip European club, and while it may be nowhere near as fun, it is a hotly engaging new version.
20. “I’ll Be Missing You” (Diddy, Faith Evans, and 112 Cover) by BTS
This history of “I’ll Be Missing You” is fascinating. Released in tribute to Biggie on a compilation for Bad Boys Records, it samples (among other songs) The Police’s 1983 hit “Every Breath You Take,” and feels lyrically and stylistically pretty locked into the moment it was in service of—lest we forget, Faith Evans was married to Biggie after all. But the song is instantly memorable, not just because the sample is, in the loosest sense, just the original song as a backing track sans Sting, but also because of how deeply earnest it is.
What BTS’ connection is to any of this delicate history I don’t know—Jungkook wasn’t even born until about three months after “I’ll Be Missing You” was released. That mystery enriches their fascinating cover for the BBC which, at times, carries the dramatic gravitas of “We Are The World.” BTS bring the vocal harmonies in a way that only they can, a rich tapestry of voices all stacked on top of each other, and the band bolster the Police’s original song to feel fuller and brighter. The question of why this cover exists goes a long way towards building the charm, but BTS crushed the execution.
19. “Kyoto” (Phoebe Bridgers Cover) by Bartees Strange
We already knew Bartees Strange was a tremendous cover artist, so that’s nothing new, but his work here on Phoebe Bridgers’ “Kyoto” (which we already discussed back at #28) is perhaps his best to date. There’s a lot happening here, an itchy art rock energy that crescendos into a rising scream-along anthem, both sublimely familiar and titillatingly fresh. Bartees’ intensity on the opening lines feels unsustainable for the entire song, but lo and behold that impassioned performance only gains steam. The chaos of the ending is an arguable improvement to the original, closer to what we’ve seen Bridgers do with the song live and almost stylistically similar to the close of another ace PUNISHER cut in “I Know The End.” Bartees Strange covers are a must listen, and “Kyoto” only reaffirms that.
18. “Days” (Television Cover) by Real Estate
DAYS is simply one of the best albums of 2011—we said as much not that long ago on our top albums of the 2010s list. Cheekily, the band dropped a supremely blissful cover of Television’s song of the same name earlier this year, smoothing out the edges as only they can do. Television’s sound is the reason music writers still use the word “angular” to describe guitars, so Real Estate, ever purveyors of listlessness, are a natural fit to subvert that idea ever so slightly. They take “Days” and build castles in the air with it; Martin Courtney’s breezy vocals, as well as the soft focus sway of the rhythm section, ultimately fill out the original more than anything. It’s a reasonably faithful rendition that happens to feel extremely right in Real Estate’s hands.
17. “Crush” (Jennifer Paige Cover) by Hatchie
If you saw the pairing on paper, you’d rightfully assume that Hatchie would bolster Jennifer Paige’s one-hit wonder “Crush” into this big, soaring dream pop spectacular. But zigging where you’d think she’d zag, Hatchie brings the tempo down, turning Paige’s yearning club banger into a dark ballad. There’s an industrial flourish to the resulting production, exploring the dark underbelly to the dazzling lights of the original. It’s a hot, sweaty, breathy interpretation worth celebrating.
16. “Margaritaville” (Jimmy Buffett Cover) by Tobacco City
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve given up hating on “Margaritaville.” Some things are simply too big to hate without wearing yourself out, and tragically Parrotheads are ubiquitous to a lifestyle I now wish to unironically fall into some day. And while I don’t think I could ever fully come around on “Cheeseburger In Paradise,” a crime against humanity, “Margaritaville” in all its corporate tie in splendor and lazy idealism is Jimmy Buffett’s legacy in a nutshell; if I ever want to just smoke weed on a boat with people who have never heard of any of the bands on this list, empty head with no thoughts (other than when to refill my frozen alcoholic beverage), I better start respecting it.
Tobacco City have one of the best albums of the year (read about it here), and recently offered the most listenable version of “Margaritaville” I’ve ever heard. Somehow more on island time than Buffett’s original, there is a Hawaiian sway to the breakdowns here. The male-female vocal harmonies on the chorus bolster an inviting feeling, the equivalent of a leis being placed around your head as you listen. Throw in that crooning, seabreezy pedal steel and you have a sublime cover ready to catch the ear of whoever you invite to your next backyard summer hang.
15. “Running Up That Hill” (Kate Bush Cover) by Car Seat Headrest
Admittedly, we don’t need more takes on Kate Bush’s all-timer “Running Up That Hill,” which is part of what makes it a divisive cover, for some. But the upward Niles Rodgers-style guitar Will Toledo brings to this take is a lot of fun, almost making me think a full-on disco cut of the track would pay huge dividends. Toledo is no stranger to forcing his Car Seat Headrest idiosyncrasies into covers, and that’s likely the source of a lot of the negative opinions on this cover (as well as the other covers on the MADLO: INFLUENCES EP). But I appreciate Toledo’s vocal ticks and squirming indie rock being forced into Bush’s original; of the canonized versions of “Running Up That Hill” we’ve all accepted (Chromatics, Placebo, for those in the know, Wye Oak), each of them play with Bush’s euphoria and existentialism in the music. Car Seat Headrest are focused on making this a groovy dance song, and they nail it, Fuck the haters.
14. “Sad 2” (Frankie Cosmos Cover) by Lomelda
Frankie Cosmos’ best song is about a dead dog. It closes out her debut, ZENTROPY, and has seemingly become a kind of strange, depressing footnote to the beginning of her now prolific indie rock career. So the idea that this cover exists at all is kind of miraculous, and yet Lomelda is the ideal candidate to cover it, coming in with a ramshackled take that accentuates a teary, bittersweet emptiness. The original still feels more devastating, ultimately, but Lomelda of course lays into lines like “Dad made the appointment / To kill my best friend / There goes my fear of death” with damning conviction. 10 YEARS OF DOUBLE DOUBLE WHAMMY is lovingly filled with true artist-to-artist indie rock appreciation, and this is a tender display of it.
13. “Chasing Cars” (Snow Patrol Cover) by Lucy Dacus
It would’ve been pretty difficult for Lucy Dacus to mess up a cover of “Chasing Cars.” The song itself is already such a tearjerker staple of 2000s alt-radio, that Dacus putting even an ounce of her magic on it would pay huge dividends. Surprisingly Dacus’s vocal performance here is not the focus—she gives a steadfast and focused delivery of the song that is commanding but not over the top. The highlight really is the tweaks she and her band made to the instrumental body of the song, accentuating the slow-motion gallop of the original and pushing the dizzying, quiet sadness to a new level. While Dacus could’ve made the track a powerful vocal showcase, her steadiness mixed with the refreshing shifts to the song itself end up being equally powerful.
12. “Love Galore” / “Broken Clocks” (SZA Cover) by Milan Ring
Fusing the two exemplary CTRL cuts together, Milan Ring ultimately brings the damaged R&B of SZA to a soulful indie rock boil. The guitar solo at the end of this unique fusion of “Love Galore” and “Broken Clocks” is chillingly great, arguably the best singular moment of any song on this list. Milan Ring, like the rest of us, has been living with CTRL for far too long, and as such her performance here feels well studied. The way she circles back to “Love Galore” as the song begins to gain steam is gripping. Hearing newly worked versions of these songs should be enough to tide us over until there is actual new music.
11. “Tonight Tonight” (Smashing Pumpkins Cover) by MUNYA
MUNYA could fuck with any number of Smashing Pumpkins songs and absolutely body them. MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS in general has some of the Pumpkins’ more head-on shoegaze exploration, and while “Tonight Tonight” leans more into swelling baroque stadium rock, you don’t have to squint too hard to see why giving it a dreamier facade would rule. Stripping it of the overt seriousness Corgan brings to all of his songs helps that dream pop overhaul feel refreshing, but MUNYA’s overall playful bump and shuffle should rightfully get the cover into a future coming-of-age storyline on an HBO show.
10. “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” (Michael McDonald Cover) by Local Natives
There are covers on MUSIC FROM THE PEN GALA 1983 that on paper are exciting (who doesn’t love Roxy Music or 10cc). And while we all love doing Michael McDonald impressions—it’s one of life’s small joys—the boys in Local Natives are restraining quite a bit with this take on the ‘80s hit “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near).” Taylor Rice’s vocals are so clean and pure that it brings a resting energy to an active song; the outlandishness of McDonald’s yacht rock sound contrasting Local Natives’ smooth, detailed production, makes it the most interesting take on the EP. As fun as it would be to hear them go full McDonald, a far more earnest take that rests on the band’s engrossing vocals leads to some of their finest work.
9. “Only Wanna Be With You” (Hootie & The Blowfish Cover) by Post Malone
Seeing a headline like “Post Malone covers Hootie & The Blowfish for the Pokémon 25th anniversary” is enough to make you think you’ve lost whatever sliver of sanity you had left, but to realize this is actually pretty solid? Well. That’s insane. But it whips, I don’t know what to tell you. Post Malone’s psych-lite pop production style probably isn’t going to change your mind on Hootie & The Blowfish, or the dirge of post-grunge radio garbage from the late ‘90s. But as someone who likes that garbage? Let the kids have their fun.
8. “Hot Stuff” (Donna Summers Cover) by Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs (feat. The Lovely Eggs)
Let’s not overthink this one at all. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, ever determined to quirkily sludge up their own metal riffs, nail dirtying Donna Summers’ eternal disco hit with gusto. They bring an entirely different degree of heat to the classic—big melting guitars and hair metal gang vocals syncing perfectly against the pop framework of the original. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs are already such an eccentric metal act that the looseness of this take is to be expected. It recalls GWAR’s many AV Undercover appearances, a high compliment if there ever was one. Hot stuff, indeed.
7. “Fisherman’s Blues” (The Waterboys Cover) by Dawes
Is this good? It’s an earnest question. Dawes would be far from my first pick to cover The Waterboys, let alone a song as chaotic as “Fisherman’s Blues,” and yet this mellowed-out, plodding take totally works. A traditional cover would’ve been hard to pull off for any band (although back in Dawes’ more straightforward folk rock days they might’ve been able to pull off something interesting). Ultimately the decision to make a slowed-down, synthy ballad out of it is a firm left turn you can’t anticipate and that’s why it works. Not unlike Local Natives covering Michael McDonald (see: #10), Taylor Goldsmith’s silky vocals also help shine a new light on the song, chilled yet authoritative. Despite being the most divisive execution and pairing on this list (outside of Post Malone, I suppose), you have to respect every choice made on this cover, from the song selection to the execution. We’ve had a number of great takes on “The Whole of the Moon” in recent years, a song that has become more important to the indie zeitgeist than anyone could’ve forecasted, but The Waterboys’ superior follow up album (which itself has a tremendous take on Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”) often gets overshadowed. Why Dawes would work on a blissed-out take on “Fisherman’s Blues” is beyond me, but it rules.
6. “Yellow” (Coldplay Cover) by IAN SWEET
Chris Martin’s vocal delivery on “Yellow” is so immediately striking and memorable that you’d be forgiven for not connecting with IAN SWEET’s opening; the melody becomes slightly off-kilter, the original’s pop boldness replaced with a worn-down hesitancy—it’s a fascinating artist choice. But every decision within this version of the Coldplay classic is perfect, and only amplifies how brilliant the chorus ultimately is: the zooming lead guitar, the galloping padded drums, the pulsating twinkle of the accompanying percussion. If someone were trying to reimagine “Yellow” as a fantastical, nonsensical dream, this does the trick in wonderful fashion. IAN SWEET are always a band to watch closely, but this “Yellow” would be the best in any other year, and makes me wish they got more covers across the line.
5. “Drive” (The Cars Cover) by Bleachers
In the month I’ve been narrowing down, assembling, and writing this list, I frequently get to Bleachers’ cover of “Drive” and think to myself “Surely I’ve overrated this.” Be it Jack Antonoff fatigue or an inability to connect this artist with this song, If you haven’t heard it, I understand whatever your theoretical hesitancy. But it really is that good. Antonoff plays the entire song close to the vest, offering a rare, quiet affair by his standards. The vocal performance is just unwieldy enough—a rare balance between three-beers-in Karaoke and an under-attended Monday night gig. The brass, decidedly understated, flourishes throughout the mix but never goes for the rafters like Bleachers’ other music. It’s just an unbelievably nuanced performance across the board of such a specific and unique ‘80s ballad. You don’t have to do a ton to “Drive” to make it feel fresh, and yet everything done in this version of the song amplifies what a sublime piece of songwriting it is. Surely I’ve overrated this, but for now I’m okay with that.
4. “Time To Pretend” (MGMT Cover) by Black Country, New Road
Stripped of all its shining indie pop brightness, “Time To Pretend” sounds downright apocalyptic coming from Black Country, New Road. Those melting horns play as a funeral dirge, and Isaac Wood’s passionate delivery of “But there is really nothing, nothing we can do / Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew” becomes a prescient cry for the end times. It’s natural to want to compare this cover to the band’s contemporaries, Squid, and their similarly doomsday-ish take on Bill Callahan’s “America!” (see: #22), but the distinct difference is that Squid are actively experiencing the end while Black Country, New Road have already gone down with the ship. Even if they could bring this energy to just about any song and be successful, watching them strip MGMT for parts is brilliant. I don’t doubt we’ll see more of this from them in 2022.
3. “Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman Cover) by Jamila Woods
We’ve had quite a few “Fast Car” covers in recent memory, starting with Black Pumas last year and then with !!! and Jamila Woods this year. Woods could read the phonebook and find a way to make it listenable, one of the most captivating artists of the last decade, yet even with that in mind her cover of “Fast Car” is next level. A few of the covers on this list have existed as pseudo-modern updates to the original source material, and that feels especially true here—Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit is a singer-songwriter classic that sonically exists in the transition from the ‘80s into the ‘90s, and Woods brings her eternal songwriting into 2021. The sparse interpretation, largely built around what amounts to a click track and some impressive bass playing, finds Woods at the captivating center, whispering and belting Chapman’s lyrics with a palpable freedom. It’s a perfect re-telling of a classic.
2. “Lonely Weekend” (Kacey Musgraves Cover) by NNAMDÏ
The full breadth of NNAMDÏ’s endless talent exists in this version of Kacey Musgraves’ “Lonely Weekend.” Especially given how much rabid love there is for GOLDEN HOUR (including on this site), turning the song into a playground for original creative ideas should be a big swing. And yet, even if it’s not the by-the-books version we might have wanted, there is an earned confidence throughout NNAMDÏ’s work that makes this cover compelling right off the bat. Part free jazz, part art rock, part folk ballad, part frollicking guitar odyssey, it’s not only an entirely unique version of the song, at a certain point it ceases to be a Kacey Musgraves cover and turns entirely into a NNAMDÏ orchestration. It’s something worth studying for years to come.
1. “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (Dolly Parton Cover) by Waxahatchee
Of the many great covers released in 2021, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” was, perhaps, the only one that captured the very specific optimism that came when the pandemic theoretically “wound down” at the end of March. While I, too, am tired of relating COVID back to all aspects of our broader pop culture, this cover being released at that moment felt important—an effervescent, morning glow brought to an already sterling piece of songwriting, meant to see the world anew. And sure, the pandemic has proven to be far from over. But Katie Cruchfield, through one cover, found a way to capture that first maskless breath of air a lot of us experienced before the realities of the world came crashing back down around us. Now, nine months after its release, amidst new restrictions and variants, it still feels important that we got to experience that moment collectively at all. Crutchfield brings a tired hopefulness to the vocals that Dolly’s buoyant original simply doesn’t have—the song feels like a focused manifestation rather than an observed proclamation, and throughout 2021 the light of a clear blue morning was all we needed to get by.
You can find a playlist of the available Top 50 here on Spotify.
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