Covers were such an important part of the musical landscape in 2020. I’d say this was most evident in the spring and summer, when bands started launching video series in which individual members would record their parts remotely and piece them together to create one bittersweetly fractured whole. I hope you were following Butcher Brown’s Mothership Mondays during that time. So good. Another great series was Erin & the Wildfire’s, and I spoke with Erin Lunsford about those clips for a piece that didn’t end up being published. She encapsulated the meaning of these videos beautifully:
“We miss each other a lot,” the group’s leader and vocalist Erin Lunsford said. “And it’s really hard to collaborate on original material when we’re not together, because that’s usually where our good ideas come to light — when we’re jamming and fleshing stuff out in a group setting… But these covers feel really good. It feels like we’re still doing something creative.”
Some of the cover albums listed below were motivated by that same drive to create in the face of unprecedented challenges. Others, like the Aquarium Drunkard comp, were already in the works. But all of these albums reminded me of the determination it took to make it through 2020 as a musician, and of the ingenuity I saw and so admired.
Lambchop — TRIP
You had me at “13-minute version of a Wilco song.”
Wesley Schultz — Vignettes
Lots to enjoy here, from Springsteen to Sheryl Crow, and Schultz does a characteristically excellent job of tugging at heartstrings throughout, but his rendition of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” is a tour de force. It’s one of Mrs. YHT’s favorite songs, and she and I had a conversation while listening to this version in the car about the decision to drop the tempo and highlight the story’s mournful side. Doing so makes the most of lyrics like “The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings,” and while Schultz did some editing to keep the length down on an already-long song that’s been slowed down, what’s left is a take on the song that feels essential — something that needed to be in the world.
Various — Lagniappe Sessions Vol. 2
Aquarium Drunkard was a crucial sanity-maintenance agent during this bonkers year we’ve just had, and it’s gotten to the point where you can sign me up sight-unseen for just about anything they write about or make, Lagniappe Sessions very much included. Picking a song from the Lagniappe Vol. 2 comp to embed below was very, very tough. I’m in awe of Joan Shelley’s take on “I Would Be in Love (Anyway),” and I’m a sucker for just about any recording of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but I love it when a cover song brings me closer to an artist I’d been hoping to learn more about or understand better, and that’s what Erin Rae’s version of Scott Walker’s “Duchess” has done.
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings — All The Good Times
Back in September I wrote the following in a review of Elkhorn’s The Acoustic Storm Sessions:
The most compelling music I’m hearing these days reflects the moment we’re experiencing, not just by addressing current challenges and opportunities lyrically, but also by letting our broken, unvarnished humanity show through. Whether it’s a collection of covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment, or experimentation with new techniques and tools, I’m finding the most fulfillment in music that dares to document — faithfully — who we are after we’re knocked down but before we’re back on our feet. That’s certainly where I find myself these days.
All the Good Times is what I had in mind when I typed that part about “covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment,” and it’s a big part of what helped that idea crystalize. Feeling overrides precision for a listening experience that echoes the countless unseen acts of creativity and endurance that have helped us make it through the year, from songwriting to sourdough starters. Speaking of unseen, one of the clear highlights here is “Hello in There.” Rest in peace, John Prine.
Whitney — Candid
I’m not typically one to suggest certain songs are “off-limits” when it comes to covers, but “Hammond Song” gets close. The vocals that are as distinctive as they come, the production makes brilliant use of understatement… how do you add to that? (Did y’all know Robert Fripp produced the Roches’ self-titled album? I didn’t until just now.) But Whitney succeeds by grounding their version in their own falsetto-focused vocal distinctiveness, and by gently building outward to fill in some of the areas in the arrangement the original version intentionally left blank. High risk, high reward — and they nailed it.
Other cover albums I enjoyed:
Christian Lee Hutson — The Version Suicides (no longer available online)
Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman (sort of counts as a cover album, but its rightful spot is on another one of these lists)
Sam Gendel — Satin Doll (more to come on that one as well)