For those that try—and that’s the operative word here, “try”—to keep up with cover songs, 2020 was kind of a nightmare. Trying to find the mental bandwidth to simply survive a pandemic, let alone keep up with the deluge of covers that emerged out of quarantine, was a mammoth task, especially when you included all the James Blakes and Ben Gibbards of the world who were, seemingly, hopping on a live stream every afternoon for months on end to just fart out singer-songwriter acoustic renditions of their favorite songs. As with trying to keep up with anything in 2020, it was hard work. So know that I did my best.
Here are the 50 Best Covers of 2020, plus a bunch of bonus ones that I dig that didn’t make it on the list. A few rules about this list! First, I didn’t include any of the Ben Gibbards or James Blakes, as in, something getting committed to someone’s Instagram Live show wasn’t enough, this had to be a (relatively speaking) “official” release. If this hurt anyone, it was Angel Olsen, who crushed the Instagram Live game this year, but there were dozens of fun covers that lived in momentary spaces and are gone forever (shout out to the holy union of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires).
Secondly, there were SO many covers that existed for one-day sales, or behind paywalls. And while I’d love for a quarter of this list to have been things I found from the Stereogum Covers compilation this year, or as scared as I am for people to @ me on Twitter asking where the much demanded Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rogers “Iris” cover is, it was important to me that this list reflect music that, as you’re reading it, you can hear. (I did give a Top 10 list of the Stereogum covers at the bottom, though, because that thing is a holy grail of covers at this point.)
So without further ado, after months of combing through cover releases to be as thorough as possible, and a year’s worth of mentally trying to hold on to some of these, here are the Top 50 Covers of 2020!
50. “Highwayman” (The Highwaymen Cover) by Ben Gibbard, Isaac Brock, Mark Lanegan, Duff McKagan, and more
This… this shouldn’t work. Like, at all. Hell, I’m not even 100% it DOES work. If you put a gun to my head and said to re-cast the Highwaymen in 2020 with indie rock-adjacent superstars, I’m not sure I’d come up with this list of artists. But this whips? I think it whips? It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but also the original isn’t really doing much but playing to our own nostalgic excitement that four legends are all on one song together. I could listen to Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock lisp and rasp his way through country classics for the rest of my life? I love Mark Lanegan as Johnny Cash? This is an opportunity for me to tell people the last Duff McKagan album is really good? I don’t fully get why Ben Gibbard would be asked to do this but I guess it’s fine? Whatever it is, it’s something and even if it defies logic, it’s decent!
49. “Star 67” (Dogleg Cover) by Worst Party Ever
Dogleg and Worst Party Ever took to some good ‘ol fashioned WWE promotion tactics on Twitter in November, trading childish barbs back and forth and dunking on each other. The whole thing was, of course, in jest, and it was leading to a fun split of the two bands covering each other. I’ll use this list to act as a referee between the two to say: I think Worst Party Ever wins this thing! It’s certainly a tight one—nothing against Dogleg, whose covers of “Road Trip” and “Ganon Main” are both great, energy-filled rippers. But Worst Party Ever gives a sad, splintered edge to the MELEE cut “Fox” and blows up the gang vocals of “Star 67” to feel like a funeral send off. That “Star 67” cover is the best of the lot! Sorry to Dogleg but also, not sorry, since it’s their song in the first place… so I guess… everybody wins? Anyway, more bands should be funny on Twitter and then cover each other, but that’s just my professional opinion.
48. “DRAKE AND JOSH Theme” by Ratboys
DRAKE AND JOSH is a bit after my time, but because I had a younger brother who watched Disney and Nickelodeon until he was far too old to be doing so, I caught just enough of it to know that this cover of the theme song whips. Part of a larger charity compilation that’s filled with other fascinating TV theme covers (one that is wholly worth your time), 2020 MVPs Ratboys deliver a home run with a just left of center cover that reinvigorates Drake Bell’s original with campfire whimsy—those that had never seen the show would be forgiven for just assuming this to be a part of the larger Ratboys cannon, it’s that good. A shout out to other stellar covers from Macseal (SCOOBY DOO), worlds greatest dad (BOY MEETS WORLD), Gully Boys (CALLIOU), and Chris Farren (ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT), among many others. TV TUNES: A RETROSPECTIVE OF TV THEME SONGS is among the best compilations of the year.
47. “Shakedown Street” (Grateful Dead Cover) by Poolside
Even though it’s not a “hit,” even by the Dead’s meager standards, you hear “Shakedown Street” a lot more places than you would ever hear, say, “Casey Jones,” or “Friend of the Devil,” or, the band’s actual hit, “Touch of Grey.” I’m shocked the song hasn’t seen a TikTok viral moment or something like that, as it feels current and modern in ways that few other songs from the Grateful Dead do. That’s especially true on Poolside’s funky, laid back take on the track, and it was true of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s excellent version back on that DAY OF THE DEAD comp in 2016. You can feel that this could go on for an extra 10 minutes in a Poolside DJ set and it’s, as the kids say, a vibe.
46. “Gouge Away” (Pixies Cover) by Nation of Language
Nation of Language have a very good debut out this year called INTRODUCTION, PRESENCE, an album that feels like the best release from The National in a few years, with mature, echoing amphitheater rockers that would crush at the Hollywood Bowl or Red Rocks (read about it via our own Adam Cash here). Their cover of the Pixies’ “Gouge Away” is decidedly playful, especially considering how intense the band’s proper debut album is, but they still make the hook of the song slightly more mechanical and stately than the manic chaos of the original. Even if it’s not quite as uncontained and explosive a performance as Frank Black, Ian Devaney really does capture a nice balance between the band’s musical style and the energy Black delivers in the original.
45. “Gold Dust Woman” (Fleetwood Mac Cover) by Julia Holter
You could make a solid-enough argument that “The Chain” and “Gold Dust Woman” on Side B of RUMORS are one of, if not the, strongest opening and closing moments of any side of an album ever, a true yin and yang situation with both songs capturing similar tones but with entirely different outcomes. “Gold Dust Woman,” of course, isn’t anywhere near the massive rock spectacle that “The Chain” is, nor did it reach similar airplay status. But it’s a helluva way to end an album nonetheless, the bluesy mirage such a striking, oddly vibey closer. Julia Holter has nailed a similar sense of hazy finality plenty throughout her excellent career, though never with such definitively psychedelic cloudiness as she does on her cover of the track. As you can imagine, some of the more conventional blues rock oomf that comes from the Fleetwood Mac version is stripped away to emphasize Holter’s vocals and the effect is similar while feeling somehow entirely lonelier. When can we get Holter to do all of RUMORS?
44. “Pretend to Be Nice” (Josey and the Pussycats Cover) by Charly Bliss
SAVING FOR A CUSTOM VAN, Father/Daughter and Wax Nine Records’ compilation dedicated to covering the works of the great Adam Schlesinger, will find a few mentions on this list, as it’s just that good—if you were to argue that 31 of the 50 spots should go exclusively to it, you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s a testament to each artist’s instincts that the song selections here are so good. That keen sonic awareness has always been true of Charly Bliss, whose past covers are often the perfect shot of pop rock. To put it a different way: Charly Bliss know their strengths, and they know what songs not only play to those strengths, but also embolden them. Josey and the Pussycats aren’t just a perfect match, there’s a healthy amount of sonic evidence that would suggest that the film and album had a direct influence on Charly Bliss’ actual songwriting and sound. To hear them paying direct homage to that influence through “Pretend to be Nice,” a livewire electropop whip crack that is over-the-top fun, makes it one of the more immediately satisfying songs on SAVING FOR A CUSTOM VAN.
43. “Lovesong” (The Cure Cover) by A.A. Wiliams
I tend to avoid haunting, slow, quiet piano covers, given how dime-a-dozen they can feel, and ultimately I’m sure this A.A. Williams take on The Cure’s “Lovesong” will be used in a David Fincher trailer and I’ll roll my eyes. But I do think Williams’ performance here is gripping, so much so that it doesn’t matter that you’ve heard a dozen different takes on it in the past. Williams released a great gothic metal record called FOREVER BLUE earlier in the year, and so that simmering, explosive, terrified energy carries this working of the song, as though it could go big at any time even if it chooses to stay unrelentingly small.
42. “Toxic” (Britney Spears Cover) by Jaguar Jonze
If you see a cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” you press play. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them. Aussie rocker Jaguar Jonze makes steamy, intense, bold alternative rock music, the kind that seems to only be coming from Down Under these days, and unsurprisingly this take on one of Spears’ most iconic songs really lands. People tend to want to go lighter when they take on the pop star’s most iconic songs, so it’s refreshing to see someone go full maximalist with the production, giving a dark rock opera bend to it. Deena Lynch is well on her way to becoming a name for people in the states, and what better introduction than with this stellar cover of one of America’s finest pop artifacts.
41. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” (The Proclaimers Cover) by Vandoliers
I’m sure the fellas in the Vandoliers would be the first to admit how funny it is that this cover of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” dropped around the moment that we stopped traveling entirely. Less funny is that I won’t get to hear this splendid take on the track live for a long time, as the brass, bounce, and “dat-dat-dat-da”s of the version are just oozing with live potential. I’m circling my calendar for 2022 when the call-and-response dreams I have for this ripper can be fulfilled. LLTV!
40. “Reelin’ In The Years” (Steely Dan Cover) by Spirit Adrift, High On Fire, Mutoid Man, and Marissa Nadler
If you haven’t fucked with Jordan Olds and Drew Kaufman’s Two Minutes To Late Night, “the world’s only heavy metal-themed talk show,” on YouTube, you’ve been missing out, as they’ve been pumping out some of the most insane and jovial bedroom covers since the pandemic started. Songs from Eno, Thin Lizzy, even Oingo Boingo in the style of Iron Maiden, with superstar lineups from the likes of Deafheaven, Mastodon, Converge, and Dillinger Escape Plan, among many others, have populated the channel over the last seven months. I’m not sure any of them have been quite as genuinely fun as Spirit Adrift, High On Fire, Mutoid Man, and Marissa Nadler doing a chaotic version of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years,” a cover so overblown it kind of just has to be seen to be understood, but they keep putting them out and I will keep pumping them straight into my veins so. If random collections of metal artists doing random covers is your kinda bag, I highly recommend it.
39. “Big Iron” (Marty Robbins Cover) by Colter Wall
Hearing Colter Wall do any covers will always be worth a listen, just because that low, gravelly baritone will almost instantly bring a different texture to what he’s performing. He’s having fun with this cover of Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron,” giving a sprightly bounce to it. And I’ll be honest, “fun” and “Colter Wall” don’t immediately go hand in hand for me—pressing play on this I would’ve assumed he’d have slowed it down a bit and emphasized the murder ballad aspects of the songwriting. But the guitar and fiddle pop, and you can tell Wall appreciates and wants to honor Robbins. Mission accomplished.
38. “lucy” (Soccer Mommy Cover) by Jay Som
Jay Som and Soccer Mommy traded covers earlier in the year, which included Jay Som covering the excellent single “lucy.” The original bursts with radiant color, the heavy thwack of the guitar and the rushing highs and lows instantly a signature for Soccer Mommy. Jay Som smartly takes away all those defining characteristics, effectively offering a chopped and screwed version of it, with deep, stretched vocals and this dark, haunting linger that converts the song into something totally different.
37. “In Undertow” (Alvvays Cover) by Marika Hackman
Marika Hackman blessed us with an entire album of sparse art pop covers this year, taking on everyone from The Shins to Grimes to Air—it’s a genuine who’s who selection for indie fans, and fans of Hackman’s vocal melodies should give it a front-to-back listen, as it’s one of the more successful and fully realized covers projects of the year. If I’m highlighting one selection, I’m going to go with Hackman’s aimless, drifting take on Alvvays’ “In Undertow.” The quiet, lullabying interpretation plays perfectly to the airy sound Hackman is pushing on this record while retaining the larger base of Alvvays’ sweetly homesick sound, and while COVERS is smartly curated with songs that play to that sonic sensibility, hearing Alvvays, especially amidst several larger powerhouses like Radiohead or Elliot Smith, is refreshing.
36. “Walls” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Cover) by Angel Olsen and Hand Habits
“Walls” isn’t a particularly known Tom Petty song. I would think most people would be forgiven for not being familiar with almost any song on the SHE’S THE ONE original soundtrack, a late-‘90s Jennifer Aniston rom com where the most interesting thing about it 25 years later is the music itself (“Asshole” is a top-tier Petty song). The way Hand Habits opens “Walls,” it’s inexplicably Petty, which is jaw-dropping because the original doesn’t even have his or the Heartbreakers’ signature flairs. Years ago I saw Hand Habits open for Japanese Breakfast and Michelle Zauner, who at one point in the evening offered up that Meg Duffy is the best guitarist she knows by a country mile, and every time I hear this version of “Walls” I’m reminded of Duffy’s ear and just sensational chops, finding a way to Petty-ize a Petty song that isn’t instantly familiar. Throw Angel Olsen’s voice over that and you have the makings of something powerful beyond words (those vocal harmonies must be heard to be understood). It’s probably not going to make you a “Walls” convert, but allow it to make you a believer in the overwhelming presence of Hand Habits.
35. “Fade Into You” (Mazzy Star Cover) by Cruisers
I don’t know what the situation with Cruisers is. Their 2020 single “Hold On Tightly” is perhaps the best Slowdive interpretation I’ve heard this year. Fascinatingly, they carry that impression over to their cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” and while I do appreciate Perfume Genius’ take on the track (which you can hear over on Amazon), Cruisers’ guitar work over and throughout this version is really visceral. It’s hard to fuck up a “Fade Into You” cover, as it’s hard to fuck up perfection, but this is a really hypnotic and satisfying take on the track that makes me both excited to go listen to Mazzy Star and to check out more of what comes next from Cruisers.
34. “Lover” (Taylor Swift Cover) by Ellis
This listless take on Taylor Swift’s “Lover” is the cover I think we were all waiting for when the song dropped. Taylor Swift had several bedroom pop and even Chromatics-y moments on LOVER (Johnny Jewel, we’re waiting for your response to “The Archer” still), and the spacy, searching title track more than most tracks on the album was begging for this kind of take. Up-and-coming Canadian dream pop act Ellis do the trick nicely, true to the EP’s name delivering a stripped bedroom pop version of the song that lands really beautifully.
33. “We’ve Only Just Begun” (The Carpenters Cover) by Bat For Lashes
Bat For Lashes strip and re-channel the larger optimism that defines The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and it works. Like A.A. Williams’ aforementioned cover of “Lovesong” (see above), I’m sure this will be used in a trailer that will annoy me in the future, but this thing floats in a way that is beautifully moving.
32. “Thirteen” (Big Star Cover) by Bedouine, Waxahatchee, Hurray For The Riff Raff
“Thirteen” has been covered a ton, and rightly so—it’s a powerful song that’s decidedly hard not to do well because Big Star’s original just has that kind of magic in the songwriting. Still, hearing it sung as a trio is really a nice update, especially given how distinct the voices are here. Any single artist here could crush it on their own (I’m personally the most drawn to Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra when I hear this version), but it’s really an elevated cover to hear each of them chime in.
31. “All Kinds of Time” (Fountains of Wayne Cover) by Suzy Shinn and Charlie Brand
Songwriting and producing guru Suzy Shinn and Miniature Tigers singer Charlie Brand smartly don’t pull any punches with their take on Fountains of Wayne’s “All Kinds of Time,” not only a personal favorite of mine in the Adam Schlesinger cannon, but the one that hits the hardest after his passing. The delicate vocals really emphasize the tragedy. It’s not that there aren’t technically better covers on SAVING FOR A CUSTOM VAN—there are—but none of them punch you in the gut quite as hard. It’s a cover that could’ve gone a lot of different directions, but I appreciate Shinn and Brand’s restraint and melancholy.
30. “Today” (Smashing Pumpkins Cover) by A.G. Cook
I rolled a die to pick which cover would go on this list from A.G. Cook’s 7G. I’m technically only half-kidding, as all of them are compelling in their own way and the list could’ve featured any of them. Taking the hyperpop aesthetic to songs by The Strokes or Tommy James and the Shondells is absolutely fascinating, but, for me, Cook’s version of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” is the most immediately defined and head-scratching (which I mean as a compliment). The vocals here obviously lack Billy Corgan’s signature life-or-death intensity, but it kind of bullishly moves forward anyway, the cold, mechanical pop production delightfully superseding the surrealness of this fit for Cook. The other covers somehow almost make more sense on 7G, at least I think, but the “Today” one is the one I continue to come back to because… what?
29. “Fake Empire” (The National Cover) by Molly Tuttle
Molly Tuttle’s covers album …BUT I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU features a take of Rancid’s “Olympia, WA,” which makes it immediately worth listening to, but its best track is its opener, a hollowed-out, folksy, impassioned take on The National’s “Fake Empire.” Tuttle’s vocals, which feel more urgent than Matt Berninger’s, are captivating, and the spellbinding rhythm section that closes out the song does justice to the original. Tuttle nails covers from the Rolling Stones and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among others, but kicks things off instantly with a great take on one of The National’s best.
28. “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” (Caroline Polacheck Cover) by Squirrel Flower
My theory on “So How You’re Hurting My Feelings” and why so many of us are attracted to it, even by comparison to other songs on PANG, is that it’s the song that obviously could’ve been a Chairlift track in a different lifetime, and thus there is kind of an instant classic quality to it. There were a number of covers of that track this year, the best of which came from Squirrel Flower, who slow it down and do a Squirrel Flower-y thing to it, removing the bright pop nature of the original and making it a heartbreaker. It’s both a testament to the source material and how good Squirrel Flower are at revealing the sun amidst the clouds in their music.
27. “Sometimes Always” (The Jesus & Mary Chain Cover) by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Hatchie
The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Something Always,” a track that ostensibly works as a duet with Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, mind you, shouldn’t be as much of a ripper as it is. And certainly the beginning of the song, an upbeat and jaunty desert drive, is a conventional enough dream pop track. But every time a guitar solo starts, you step back and have to reassess that you’re still listening to the same song because there is just a burst of energy you’re not prepared for. That energy carries a lot of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Hatchie’s interpretation of the song, which feels bigger in every way, a much louder, hazier, fuzzier shoegaze take in great ways—far more a winter drive with a warm blanket than the sweaty isolated original. Hatchie and Kip Berman’s chemistry is a perfect update for the song, a duet I’d love to see more of in the future.
26.“Tugboat” (Galaxie 500 Cover) by Kiwi Jr.
This cover had long been flagged as one worthy of throwing on the list, and then I felt like great up-and-coming Canadian slackers Kiwi Jr. were @’ing me on Twitter when they casually Tweeted “why do artists doing covers get so much publicity these days?” Well, hopefully this list speaks for itself. Throughout 2020 we saw a slew of excellent Galaxie 500 covers, and I have to say the best of the bunch is Kiwi Jr.’s jaunty, upbeat take on “Tugboat” off of the band’s best album (I said it) TODAY. That line “I don’t wanna vote for your president,” especially in the recording Kiwi Jr. offer, lands with a bit more jovial emphasis, but that’s just the way Kiwi Jr. do everything, oftentimes for the better. The entire set of covers has plenty of gems, including Real Estate doing “Plastic Bird” and a wild and instantaneous acapella take on “Parking Lot” from Mark Robinson and Evelyn Hurley. Long live Galaxie 500.
25. “About A Girl” (Nirvana Cover) by Bully
When I listen to this cover of “About A Girl,” all I can think about is when musicians do that thing on-stage where they spit in the air and let it shower over themselves. Why do they do that? It clearly comes out of ‘80s hardcore and ‘90s grunge stage anticts, but it’s needlessly gross even by those standards? Like, it’s badass, to some sliver of a degree, but the grossness far outweighs the badassness 95% of the time. I’ve never seen that happen and felt compelled to clap or egg the band member on. And this isn’t even a COVID comment, although of course now it seems extra gross. It was weird before and it will be weird after.
Anyway, this Bully cover is the 5% of the time that that trick works in one three-minute package.
24. “Moonchild” (King Crimson Cover) by Marissa Nadler
The 12-minute “Moonchild” is part conventional songwriting, part meandering prog rock tomfoolery, and easily IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING’s most experimental cut. Marissa Nadler, always a compelling cover artist due to her propensity to bring out a harrowing intensity in whatever song she tackles, makes “Moonchild” dizzyingly straightforward with the help of some amazing pedal steel courtesy of Milky Burgess. Nadler’s sparse vocals reverberate with a striking psychedelia, one that I’m sure would make King Crimson proud. At only five minutes, it expands upon the original’s opening and finds the surrealness in the words to be more interesting than the song’s tinkering back half; while the original is a fascinating experience, it’s far less instantly listenable than Nadler’s cut-to-the-quick interpretation. Nadler has carte blanche to cover whatever she wants as, like with “Moonchild,” she traditionally crushes it.
23. “Lucky” (Britney Spears Cover) by Dizzy
We’ve come a long way from Fountains of Wayne doing “…Baby One More Time,” especially given how many artists in the indie sphere grew up on Spears as a pop powerhouse. Whereas Schlesinger’s covering of the song may have come from a place of respect (especially given his status in the pop music world writ large), the result was undoubtedly a place of comedy. But the varied Britney Spears covers we’ve seen in recent years are filled with an immense respect for what it is Spears meant to the culture at the time of her rise, be it as a sex icon or as a pop artist. “Lucky” especially leans more on the latter aspect of her persona, a winning radio smash with heart. Dizzy’s take on the track isn’t really that far removed in actuality from the original, even if its slower tempo and “basement” designation would correctly signify an immense tonal shift. The tweaks when you listen to the songs back-to-back actually feel less glaring, two songs of the same energy even if it results in “Lucky” going from a soaring melancholy summer hit to a forlorn ballad real quick, a result of leaning into those lyrics no doubt. The great Spears covers are still to come, I’m sure, but Dizzy do a fantastic job here.
22. “Heart of Gold” (Neil Young Cover) by Christine and the Queens
Christine and the Queens’ cover of “Heart of Gold” was the first GREAT quarantine cover. That fact took me a while to realize, as the release of the song and all those that reported on it featured prominently that image of Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier standing in front of that microphone. And in my mind I went, “great, another stripped-back, vocal-only take on a famous song”—James Blake and Ben Gibbard single handedly ruined that aesthetic over the last nine months. But much to my immense delight, this is a full-production, detailed, layered cover, and the only thing that seems to have been filmed was, yes, Letissier’s moment in front of the mic. It’s a rousing, heartbreaking cover, one that’s been done too many times it could be argued, but the electronic elements fusing with the massive vocal harmonies puts this thing over the top in a really satisfying way.
21. “Heart of Glass” (Blondie Cover) by Miley Cyrus
Miley’s best trait as a covers artist is knowing when to add a bit of youthful bite to a song. That performance tactic carries her cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and then some, going hard in the paint on Debbie Harry’s cool, breezy vocals to match the beefed-up and heavier rhythm section and the stadium rock sound. One of 2020’s most exciting cover artists (see: below), this take on “Heart of Glass” is a solid reminder of how compelling MIley’s vocal performances can be with other people’s words.
20. “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” (Louis Prima and Phil Harris Cover) [JUNGLE BOOK] by Psychedelic Porn Crumpets
Disney covers are something that shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, Disney shouldn’t be allowed. Adult Disney fans shouldn’t be allowed, and certainly adult Disney fans who make music and choose to cover a Disney song shouldn’t be allowed. Those covers are almost always bad and cheeky, with the gist of the track being “Hey, we’re covering a song for children, isn’t that funny?” But, I suppose, rules are meant to be broken and if they’re gonna be broken, they may as well be broken by Aussie psych freaks Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, who just wanna take Louis Prima’s iconic “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” and turn it into a towering, dark fuzz rock song. Psychedelic Porn Crumpets live are loud… very loud… and appropriately this cover feels loud. It’s an exception to the rule but this would fit alongside anything on their most recent albums and totally work.
19. “Say It Right” (Nelly Furtado Cover) by Tame Impala
My Nelly Furtado hit of choice is “I’m Like A Bird,” but her much bolder, sexual period on LOOSE proved what a powerhouse icon she could be—one of many albums that would go on to show what a massive influence Brittney Spears’ early 2000s run, most notably hit single “Toxic,” actually had.
I read the last sentence in a Patrick Bateman voice but, fortunately I’m (as far as I know, at least) not planning on murdering anyone. Anyway, Tame Impala give their slick psych polish to “Say It Right” and it’s quite good, more polished and glossy than the original. Kevin Parker does Kevin Parker-y things to the vocals, and it works fine, but the chillwave bounce to the track is the sound of summer in a nutshell. This would be kind of insufferable to see blow people’s minds at Coachella, not because it isn’t good but because it’s the kind of festival fusion of artists that is meant to mentally break dumb people. Dumb people be damned, this is a lot of fun.
18. “My Favorite Mistake” (Sheryl Crow Cover) by Esther Rose
Esther Rose’s four-song covers EP, MY FAVORITE MISTAKES, is filled with lots of classic navel-gazing, from Nick Lowe to Roy Orbinson to Hank Williams. But the best cover is the one from which the EP’s title comes from, and it comes from an artist whose rise came decades after the aforementioned artists. Sheryl Crow covers aren’t as common as those previously mentioned—though I’ll be quick to point people to Screaming Females’ take on “If It Makes You Happy.” But I think in indie rock and DIY spheres in particular, covers of Crow have been growing at a steady clip, her place as a legacy artist growing by the year. Case in point, Rose’s quiet take on “My Favorite Mistake,” which really lets that pedal steel guitar emphasize the country backbone of the original song, with the vocals placing it on a more reserved, hushed barstool compared to Crow’s obviously massive pop rock arena energy. Rose’s love of the song (and all the songs on MY FAVORITE MISTAKES) is clear, and we can only hope that various country-fried takes on Crow’s music continue to come throughout the rest of time.
17. “Dress Down” (Kaoru Akimoto 秋元薫 Cover) by Ginger Root
Ginger Root, the SoCal funky chillwave artist who’s been making what is self-described “aggressive elevator soul” music for the past several years, had a nice little covers run on YouTube (and you can now find them on Bandcamp) as part of a series called TOASTER MUSIC. VOLUME 3 is easily the most polished of this series, closer to what Ginger Root’s sound has eventually blossomed into, and it’s a delightful collection of songs that ranges from Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” to Britany Spears’ “Toxic.” The best gem in here is the not often covered 秋元薫 city pop classic “Dress Down,” a song any music fan will be aware of, but one that, admittedly, is a hard sell for a cover. Cameron Lew admits in the notes on the track that he isn’t familiar with Japanese, but there is nonetheless a confidence to his vocals here, and the farty synths and basement dance party groove of the cover is beyond charming, enough to make up for whatever Lew thinks may be lacking on the vocals front. Everything on TOASTER MUSIC V3 is delightful, but to hear this jam given a new spin is really truly a delight.
16. “Fake Plastic Trees” (Radiohead Cover) by Phoebe Bridgers and Arlo Parks
I mean, Phoebe Bridgers doing “Fake Plastic Trees” in an empty church with nothing but a piano kinda just says everything you need to know about the cover. Arlo Parks, whose latest is already sure to be the perennial album of the year walking into 2021, on the keys is a nice treat, and their brief vocal harmonies are delightful. Really, there is no overthinking this one and it’s for the best.
15. “Apocalypse” (Cigarettes After Sex Cover) by Sarah Shook and the Disarmers Cover
I can take or leave the entirety of the Cigarettes After Sex v i b e, which to me was always bland and boring. But Sarah Shook and the Disarmers are the opposite of that energy in almost every way, among the best outlaw country acts making music today, and a fascinating artist to take on “Apocalypse,” certainly giving it a shot of life, the wail of the guitars, Shook’s weary vocals, and the distinctly midafternoon drunk haze of the country flip doing wonders for the song. Lyrically and stylistically it’s a cover built for quarantine, and Shook capitalizes on it in a great way.
14. “Let It Be” (The Beatles Cover) by Tim Heidecker
I grew up spending my summers at a church camp in northern Arizona. For me, The Beatles’ “Let It Be” is as much a part of Christian music canon as “Here Comes My Sunshine,” and the energy displayed on Tim Heidecker’s version relays that I’m largely not alone in associating the song with raggidy church basement pianos and mid-sermon choral numbers. A country lilt to the guitar, with those Weyes Blood backing vocals, is warming and familiar, rechanneling the power of the original into something more inviting and worldly. It’s a trick that’s happening across most of Heidecker’s FEAR OF GOD, but especially with this cover you can smell the cheap wine and wafers. It’s immensely effective.
13. “KIM” (Eminem Cover) by LINGUA IGNOTA
There are a lot of words in “KIM.” Hell, there are a lot of words in most Eminem songs—that’s kind of his thing. Smartly, experimental noise artist LINGUA IGNOTA doesn’t really care about those words. For Kristin Hayter, the power comes from stripping down the hateful words found on one of Eminem’s earliest signature songs and reworking its essence. “KIM” thusly transforms into a noisy, sonic embodiment of Marshall Mathers’ misguided anger and misogyny, the hopeless entrapment of male toxicity personified. Hayter’s vocals are operatic and heartbreaking over slow-rising static. It doesn’t resemble “KIM” much at all, and that’s largely the point—it’s a well-executed statement, and a powerful one at that.
12. “Dammit” (blink-182 Cover) by Hot Leather
Was 28 covers of blink-182’s “Dammit” too many? Speaking as the secretary for the DUDE RANCH fanclub (I bring the cookies and take the minutes—we meet on Thursdays!), I say no. The BLINK-155 podcast released a pretty extensive covers comp comprised exclusively of previous guests of the pod, and it has an excessive number of, we’ll call them fascinating, takes on the band’s earliest hit (not listed but included in my runoff extras below, the fascinating lullabye-esque modular take on the track from @wipeyadocsoff). I’ve seen Hot Leather perform here in LA and I can confirm that this cover, in all its wild chiptune glory, is kind of what that set was in a nutshell, this high-energy, bombastic, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Hot Leather + “Dammit” was something I think I probably just assumed lived somewhere in a section of the internet I don’t live, but regardless, to see it appear on this covers comp was a real treat.
11. “About Today” (The National Cover) by Bartees Strange
SAY GOODBYE TO PRETTY BOY, Bartees Strange’s tremendous homage to The National, is as dominant a series of covers as was released in 2020. The release of the EP now feels very distant in my memory, mostly because it was immediately overshadowed by his powerful debut, LIVE FOREVER. I suppose there’s a chance this cover of the painstricken “About Today” might be much higher on this list had I not been instead spending so much time with “Boomer” and “Mustang,” but things worked out the way they did for the best I think. It’s hard for me to recall an artist putting this impactful an impression on another artist’s work in recent memory, and just about any song on the EP could be looked at as more than worth it to be on this list—that delicate but driving take on “Mr. November” is quite something. The production on “About Today” warps and bends The National’s and Strange’s sensibilities into one, a fusion of sounds that keep the flickering lullaby energy but in a way that ascends rather than grounds. Heartbreak feels like plainspoken hope coming out of Strange’s mouth, and it’s a nifty trick to come out of one of The National’s most conventionally depressing songs. Strange becoming a dominating force in 2020 was tremendous to watch, and those early days watching these covers come out one by one became a powerful signifier of what was to come.
10. “Purple Rain” (Prince Cover) by Inter Arma
Every cover on Inter Arma’s GARBERS DAYS REVISITED is fantastic, especially since Inter Arma are really just aiming to add some heavy, gripping riffs to songs they love more than entirely reworking these songs. When you look at the slate of songs they decided to take on, filled with already massive heavy-hitters like Neil Young or Nine Inch Nails or Tom Petty, using classics to throw haymakers is far more satisfying than fundamentally changing the framework of the songs—see, 2020’s best guitar solo on the back of their version of “Running Down A Dream.” That brings us to the best song on GARBERS DAYS REVISITED: “Purple Rain.” In the wake of Prince dying, it felt odd we didn’t see more immediately great covers of his work. I’m speaking in generals of course, but covering Prince is hard. Not only do you have to potentially nail some of the greatest guitar playing ever, point blank, you have to channel unparalleled performance. Somehow Inter Arma do both on this cover, the guitar solo is, not better, of course, but we’ll call it as good, which I’m sure the boys in the band will more than take, and they slay the vocals and presence on what should in all honesty an unrecoverable song. Like, sure, it could be done, but should it? Inter Arma said fuck it and turn up with one of the best Prince covers ever.
9. “Lift” (Radiohead Cover) by Skullcrusher
Los Angeles singer-songwriter Helen Ballentine released one of the best EPs of the year as Skullcrusher, filled with quiet, devastating vocal harmonies and a dark whimsy. Any cover of Radiohead with banjos is, I think, designated as a war crime by the Geneva Convention, but let’s all agree not to snitch of Ballentine, whose take on beloved OK COMPUTER-era deep cut “Lift” makes tasteful, restrained, and interesting use of banjos in general. Skullcrusher could take on any Radiohead song and make it kind of compelling, and in a year with dozens of Radiohead covers (something was in the water), this one has maybe gotten a bit more lost in the shuffle. But it’s a tremendous version of one of the band’s best songs, and hopefully it’s helping draw people to Skullcrusher’s music.
8. “All Star” (Smash Mouth Cover) by Future Teens
Probably because it’s been memed to the sun (where it presumably walked) and back, Smash Mouth’s “All Star” is more a joke than a song at this point, a piece of music that even people who aren’t living in the confines of internet message boards and Twitter can recognize the supposed humor in. But “All Star” isn’t actually that funny… the things the internet has done to it, sure, kind of, but I think that’s what makes Future Teens’ very earnest, dare I say powerful, take on the ASTRO LOUNGE cut so impressive. It’s the great cover that, if you don’t know it’s being played, requires you to take 20-30 seconds to confirm and re-confirm that yes, indeed what you’re hearing is Smash Mouth. The rock-a-bye rising guitar solo baked into the middle of it is nothing short of remarkable, as is the massive melancholy finish—absolutely every section of this cover feels painstakingly thought about, and it’s all the better for it.
7. “Drive” (The Cars Cover) by Soccer Mommy
Sometimes covers don’t need to be overthought, and such is the case with Soccer Mommy lending her voice to a cover of The Cars’ iconic ballad “Drive.” The swirly, slowed-down gallop of the song mixed with Sophie Allison’s hushed vocals is an instant match, a glossy update to one of the band’s most singular and iconic songs. Allison could do this kind of cover in her sleep, but that doesn’t make it feel any less satisfying. In a year that saw Soccer Mommy taking over the world, the few covers she dropped along the way were simply further proof of that domination.
6. “Just The Girl” (The Click Five Cover) by Remember Sports
There are a lot of things colliding at once on Remember Sports’ cover of The Click Five’s “Just the Girl” on the Adam Schlesinger cover compilation SAVING FOR A CUSTOM VAN. First is that reminder that, oh, right, Adam Schlesinger wrote this song. Effectively a one-hit wonder for the Boston, MA teen pop act, it feels like a relic of a bygone era more than most songs released in the mid-2000s. Remember Sports nails a reworking of the song, a twitchy bedroom pop approach, removing a lot of the overt, brimming optimism and replacing it with a pining, yearning cry that Remember Sports are so good. Carmen Perry’s vocals over that slow-building mix of drum machines and synths transform the song into something fresh. It’s one of the more adventurous takes on SAVING FOR A CUSTOM VAN and, as a result, one of the most endlessly listenable as well.
5. “Teenage Dream” (Katy Perry Cover) by Jenny Owen Youngs
Jenny Owen Youngs’ take on “Teenage Dream” starts off conventionally enough: the light, pillowy fluff of a drum beat, Youngs adding a dry, reserved take on the opening to Katy Perry’s finest pop song. Even if the cover simply did that, it would be baseline good—the GREAT pop songs, as is even highlighted on this list, can be warped and reinterpreted every which way ‘til Tuesday and still be great because the song is just fundamentally bulletproof, and that’s “Teenage Dream” to a tee. But there is a slow build to the cover here, the percussion evolves, the lilting guitar that hovers in the background becomes more pronounced, and everything just grows and pulses until we hit that final chorus. Youngs finds a way to live in the song and brings a simmering, vivacious intensity to it that becomes more pronounced the longer the song goes on. You never forget you’re listening to “Teenage Dream,” but that’s perhaps part of its greatness.
4. “Who by Fire” (Leonard Cohen Cover) by Porridge Radio
The most daunting part of assembling this list was going through every Leonard Cohen cover, for which there was a seismic number—easily 2020’s most covered artist, with everyone from Father John Misty to Aimee Mann getting in on the fun. The best of the best, though, and arguably a cover that could be sitting at #1 right now, goes to 2020 breakout stars Porridge Radio, who make a remarkably strong case for whatever is going to come next on their striking and powerful cover of “Who by Fire.” The track has some fascinating idiosyncrasies, from Cohen’s iconic vocal melodies to those terse, violent strings that close out the number. And like many covers did this year, Cohen can easily be tackled with a guitar and some soothing vocal production with ease, especially given he’s one of the great songwriters of all time. But Porridge Radio treats the track as a fire and brimstone full-band sermon—one that almost feels like an exorcism by the end. That’s made all the more powerful by where they’re filming the cover, an empty St. Giles’ Church in Camberwell. It’s an intense listen, and their skills as live performers are stunning on video, a Big Thief late night energy coming off the performance which is the highest praise I could give in 2020. In a sea of decent Leonard Cohen takes, Porridge Radio takes the cake.
3. “Weird Fishes” (Radiohead Cover) by Lianne La Havas
Who would’ve guessed that 2020 would be a year that would give us not one, but two takes on Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” and that neither would be on a compilation or a single, but actual integral parts of full albums. It’s harmoniously serendipitous, and while Kelly Lee Owens’ take on “Arpeggi” is also very good, Lianne La Havas’ version is next level good. The drums on this thing are absolutely amazing, start to finish. They play with tempo and give a jazzy, edgy sonic repurposing to the original’s tight rhythm section, but that finale is monstrous, a soulful, explosive, violent collision. Radiohead covers, especially late career covers as their music became more complex, are tough, but Lianne La Havas owns this track in a way that feels deeply essential. It feels like anything else on her excellent self-titled release. It’s a spectacle.
2. “Zombie” (The Cranberries Cover) by Miley Cyrus
I certainly went back-and-forth on which of Miley’s many covers was the best this year, and I’m sure I’ll probably never decide if The Cranberries cover or the Blondie cover (see #21) was better fully. But to me, the “Zombie” cover takes the cake for a few reasons. First, it far better embodies Miley’s current “rock” period, even if more in spirit than sound. Secondly, as far as 2020 covers go, one recorded at the Whiskey for a Save Our Stages benefit is just such a perfect summation of the 2020 cover writ large. But I think thirdly, and this is the point I keep coming back to, is that more than “Dreams” or “Linger,” which we’ve seen effectively covered in the past, absolutely no one should be able to cover “Zombie.” Like, even after Dolores O’Riordan tragically passed two years ago, no one was trying to offer “Zombie” tributes because the performance she gives on it is just way too perfect, too singular, too impressive. So for Miley to nail it? Not only pay respect but kind of make it her own, with that heart glam metal guitar stuff at the end? That speaks not only to how powerful SHE can be on a song, but just how it’s a cover you have to hear to almost understand just how hard it must’ve been to do. Miley Cyrus has long been known as one of the great cover artists working in pop, but in 2020 she really made that known loud and clear.
1. “Lotta Love” (Neil Young Cover) by Helado Negro and Flock of Dimes
I’m just not sure there’s another cover more appropriate than “Lotta Love” in 2020. I’m tired. You’re tired. We’re all just ready for a better future to start. And that future feels, despite the lows of the year, closer than ever. Neil Young has been singing about that future in some capacity, be it a damnation of the past or a hope for what’s to come, his whole life. The song, released in 1978 both by Young, who wrote the song, and by Nicolette Larson, feels like something that would’ve been written at the height of the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Movement, but that of course speaks more to the essential timelessness of Neil Young than anything else, and the fact it’s a well-covered song, with everyone from Dinosaur Jr. to She & Him to Red Hot Chili Peppers trying a hand at it, is further proof. This cover might be better than any of those, a tender, smooth interpretation that really does feel like a peace cry more than anything else. I’ve made a career screaming about how excellent Jenn Wasner is at covers, and this is certainly no exception, her background cooing and vocal harmonies with Helado Negro are beyond beautiful. The song turns Young’s peace, love, and happiness cries and gives them a sleek Marvin Gaye groove. Of every cover mentioned here, this is the only one that feels optimistic and inspiring. It’s a stunning and timely update and the rare cover 2020 needed.
Top 10 Save Stereogum Covers:
10. “Goodbye Girls” (Broadcast Cover) by Wye Oak
9. “Imitation of Life” (R.E.M. Cover) by Strand of Oaks
8. “With Every Heartbeat” (Robyn Cover) by Pure Bathing Culture
7. “Maps” (Yeah Yeah Yeahs Cover) by Thou
6. “Walk Idiot Walk” (The Hives Cover) by White Reaper
5. “Commissioning A Symphony In C” (Cake Cover) by Sad13
4. “Lips Of An Angel” (Hinder Cover) by Lucy Dacus
3. “I’m With You” (Avril Lavigne Cover) by Half Waif
2. “Hollaback Girl” (Gwen Stefani Cover) by Charly Bliss
1. “An Honest Mistake” (The Bravery Cover) by Shamir
You can find a playlist of the available Top 50 here on Spotify.
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