Top 10 Cover Songs of 2016

Rihanna, Charles Bradley, Blood Orange, and more reworked hits that stuck with us all year


Cover Girl is a monthly music column in which Associate Editor Nina Corcoran compares cover songs to the original version. As part of our 2016 Annual Report, this month’s column dives into the 10 best cover songs of 2016.

In many ways, cover songs are indicative of time. There’s a range of work represented that speaks to the year: the styles musicians choose to cover a song in, the artists whose work they pay tribute to, the lyrics a band decides to emphasize. A cover song is a chance to color as you see fit that day. The original rendition of the song is a black-and-white stenciling, and the interpretation is its own set of coloring utensils, and, like any good painter knows, the way in which it’s colored draws inspiration from direct sources outside, from the era in which they are living.

Yet, 2016 is hard to sum up by its covers. It was a year of unity if we look at all the supergroups formed to cover songs for benefit concertsThe Beach Boys, or a ‘90s revival. It was a year of scene stroking if we look at Frankie Cosmos covering Krill or intentional label inbreeding. It was a year of endless deaths if we look at tributes to honor them. This was a year of so much — so much pain, so much loss, so much love, so much change — that it’s impossible, and in that sense, naive, to think that a single trend or two could be seen within its cover songs.

So maybe that’s what sets it apart. This year was a lot. We have the cover songs to prove it. From collaborations that find hope to cover songs that take on new meeting post-election, the best cover songs of this year were ones that wedded themselves to passion, versions that were so authentic that they’re moving, even if you don’t like the genre in which it’s covered. It’s refreshing to have this much reinterpreted. Perhaps 2017 will follow in its footsteps, though hopefully with a little less done in response to death. Here’s hoping.


10. Andrew Bird and Matt Berninger — “Perfect Day” (Lou Reed cover)

Andrew Bird hosts a Facebook Live series called Live From the Great Room where he invited musicians to come over to perform with him live for people watching via Facebook. It’s quaint and exciting, like a live concert without all the waiting or feedback, particularly to see Bird loop his violin from various angles. Back in August, Matt Berninger of The National sat down with him to cover Lou Reed’s classic hit “Perfect Day”. Andrew Bird is known for whimsical whistling and moving violin work. Matt Berninger is known for his depressing vocal delivery and heavy lyrics. What better song to represent those qualities than Reed’s?

On the original version, Reed states each word like he’s recounting a story that he plans on penning in a journal once home. It’s when he gets to the chorus and the one line, “You just keep me hangin’ on,” that everything falls in line — the strings, the muffled horns, the piano chords — with a revitalized sense of happiness. It’s hard to believe the song is from 1972, and yet, if anything, that time stamp shows how much we have to look forward to — or, rather, why we shouldn’t feel hopeless when looking ahead. You’re going to reap just what you sow, but it doesn’t matter what land you’re digging in to plant that seed. It will grow. You just need to give it time.

That’s what makes Bird and Berninger’s rendition so poignant. They latch onto Reed’s hopefulness and bring a friendliness in between sections. Plucked strings lighten the piano melody. Their harmonies search deeper into Reed’s words as if they’re reliving the day’s events, not pondering about them. Bird’s whistles complement the song the way the original’s strings do. It’s two pals recounting a day — and, in many ways, a life, Reed’s life — without the ticks of a clock echoing in their head or the burden of tomorrow’s events on their mind. So when it ends, Berninger asks, “What do you think happens at the end of that day?” and Bird, without hesitating, says: “I think they go back to Jersey.” It may be a joke, but it’s an answer that would fit Reed’s narrative, hope and all that.


09. Foxing — “White Flag” (Dido Cover)

Revisit Dido’s work. Really, listen to No Angel the full way through. She’s defined by her hits, and, to some, those hits have become tainted by overdramatic film scenes, but the English singer-songwriter is more than a relaxing voice. She found a way to merge the soft delivery of folk with cold trip-hop backbeats and, in the process, shift songs about love and isolation into a realm where they flex to fit the mold of environmental and political changes. It’s atmospheric pop with super spacial production

Foxing heard that openness in “White Flag” and decided to expand upon it — before the song took on new meaning entirely. Originally, Foxing intended to use their cover’s proceeds to fund a new tour van and replace stolen merchandise, but after the results of the presidential election, they changed gears, donating the majority of the song’s funds towards Planned Parenthood and ACLU. A song otherwise heard as a promise to fight for a relationship became a song about fighting for love at large, about refusing to give up, about hope. Every prolonged piano note and despondent use of backing vocals acts as a mirror of the world’s events, a type of double-edged sword that the song’s mixer, Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, mastered the art of years ago. Their words, sung with an aching weight, act as the fight onward.

Foxing’s cover of “White Flag” is a rally cry that manages to uplift while submerged in depressing chord structure and cold note echoes, and they took that rally cry to Facebook upon releasing it: “We know that we are just a band, and in the grand scheme of things our reach is very limited, but this has to start on the ground level and it has to start now. There is no time to live in defeat; the other side is not waiting for us to organize.”


08. Rihanna — “Same Ol’ Mistakes” (Tame Impala cover)

Tame Impala fans were just as surprised as Rihanna fans to hear her cover the Australian psych rock giants on this year’s ANTI. It’s hard not to fall in love with the heady instrumentals on Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, nevertheless the rest of Currents. Turns out Rihanna heard it and found herself as smitten with it as the rest of the music world was.

Shortening the title to “Same Ol’ Mistakes”, Rihanna got to work on their song. But it didn’t happen how you may expect. She reached out asking to use the band’s song, and frontman Kevin Parker assumed that meant she would sample a clip or two. With the song’s fragments in hand, she and her production team got to work, but then wound up reassembling a finished product almost identical to the original. She airs out Parker’s lyrics, belting them with an airiness that’s brighter than his own tone, getting lost in the mix. “She was spearheading the whole thing,” Parker told MTV News. “She just wanted to do something with the song. I didn’t really know what it was. It was pretty surreal.”

But Rihanna doesn’t just dub over the original. She plays with levels, turning it up so that the band’s iconic headiness gets even more weighted, inserting a different type of druggy daze into her music. If we didn’t know better, we would start calling our local radio stations and ask them to play this song, if only so psych rock can then sneak onto the radio shortly after. It’s about time the two form a tighter bond.


07. Weaves — “Drag Me Down” (One Direction cover)

Even as a four-piece, One Direction still climb their way up the radio charts with ease. They’re one of those bands who wiggle into your ears even if you’re actively trying to avoid them. Their music is made for mall hallways, for summer road trips, for clothing store airplay, for anywhere in the world where you’re supposed to feel happy. If you exit your room, their music will reach you — and that’s not a bad thing. After all, they’re responsible for one of the best songs to sing obnoxiously at a friend. One Direction figured out how to make feel-good pop, and they’re still riding that wave, as they very much deserve to.

Because One Direction’s songs are written with expected progressions and uplifting melodies, others can tap into those for improvisation, and few new acts do reinvention better than CoSigned Toronto band Weaves. The art rock group throw glitter and silly putty all over “Drag Me Down”, elongating the chorus so that it becomes a wad of bubblegum stuck in your hair. It’s twisted. Don’t listen to it expecting a straightforward cover. But that off-putting interpretation is what makes their version so fun. It starts off with a slow roll, like some soda-fueled belch, before it fills the space between down notes. The percussion doubles in time, the bass goes for a few funk notes, and guitar starts spazzing out. It’s overwhelming in the most addictive way.

One Direction’s version has over half a billion (!) views on YouTube alone. If their fans found out about Weaves’ version, it seems like they would realize how much cooler pop can sound when its gimmicky structure is bent and pushed, warped into something that’s demonic and, because of that, makes its drops feel so much better. Creativity should be rewarded, and when it results with a cover this imaginative, it deserves a standing ovation from a crowd as large as One Direction’s.


06. Mothers — “The Heat Is On” (Glenn Frey cover)

There’s plenty to debate about when it comes to the Eagles, but let’s just agree that Glenn Frey is missed. After passing away at the start of this year, he was one of many legends lost, his contributions occasionally overlooked though fondly remembered. The founding member of the Eagles brought plenty to the table. Even when he went solo after the band’s dissolution in 1980, he continued to find success. Does his songs hold up today? Eh, again, debatable.

CoSigned act Mothers tackled one of Frey’s big solo hits, “The Heat Is On”, for AV Club’s video series A.V. Undercover, where bands pick a song to cover off a pre-written list by the staff. The original is campy. After all, this was 1984 and written for Beverly Hills Cop. Saxophones offer a soft bridge into its chorus, a rush of guitars and stacked vocals, and Frey sings the whole thing with gusto that never quite feels justified. But he commits, which is all that matters. Mothers do, too, but they elevate the whole song in an unexpected way, leaving Frey’s hit in the dust to rot in its campy overdose.

The Athens four-piece bring his song into a world of jagged guitars and racing drums. Instead of feeling like a jovial song, it gets angry, storming forward and looking for prisoners. Frontwoman Kristine Leschper delivers his words with intensity, singing verses with a quiet delivery and then leading other notes in with extended howls, exaggerating his words. The otherwise overlooked saxophone parts get picked up by guitars. It’s gritty and terse, reviving a Glenn Frey classic so that it feels way more ballsy than it ever imagined. Apparently, “The Heat Is On” was born to be a post-punk song. Frey just didn’t know it. Thankfully, Mothers did.


05. Chelsea Wolfe — “I Love You All the Time” (Eagles of Death Metal Cover)

The world can never look at Eagles of Death Metal the same way. After November 13th of last year, the day when the terrorist attacks at Le Bataclan took place in Paris, the music world changed. Seeing your favorite band became an act warranting fear. Performing music meant you could endanger your life. Loving music became a passion deemed punishable. There was no reason or logic to the Bataclan attacks, nor are there ever in terrorist attacks, but the world scrambled to understand why. There was no answer to be found. Instead, there was love, and it has no end.

Eagles of Death Metal released “I Love You All the Time” mere months before the attack on 2015’s Zipper Down. The song took on new meaning after the attacks, though, especially given they sing several lines in French (“Ce soir c’est le soir et toi avec moi/ Et tu viens me voir, tu viens ouh la la/ …Tu ne réponds pas, ah dis-moi pourquoi/ This ain’t au revoir, together voilà”). This was a song about endless love no matter what the circumstances are. Paris and the world at large agreed, silently, to love with a similar endlessness, too.

Yet for all the tribute covers that were recorded and performed after the attack, none stood out quite like Chelsea Wolfe’s. The gothic drone and folk musician reeled things in for a ghostly cover that haunts long after it ends. She sings as she always does: full of trembling notes, low pitches, and melancholic longing. When paired with her half-speed version, her voice becomes a romp in bed, something keeping her up late at night with equal parts devastation and inspiration. “I would beg if I thought it would make you stay,” a line that gets a bit buried in the original, feels unbearable here, and the way Wolfe repeats it allows her to claim this cover as her own, deviating from the joy of the original into a territory that’s necessary in its haunting, no matter what context in which it’s listened to.


04. Caroline Says — “No Name #3” (Elliott Smith cover)

Sometimes a cover sounds good because it sounds exactly like the original, in which case, well, you may as well listen to the original (Sorry, Beach Slang). At first, that seems to be the case with Caroline Says’ cover of “No Name #3” by Elliott Smith. Structurally, the original and cover are pretty identical. They both drag on, they pluck the guitar with slow fingers, and they sing in high falsettos. But listen closer, and Caroline Says brings something that Smith didn’t.

This year saw another bout of musicians covering the singer-songwriter, but this time for a new compilation album: Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith. J Mascis, Amanda Palmer, Julien Baker, and more tried their hand at his work, but it’s Texas act Caroline Says, a relatively unheard of band, that hits the mark. By doubling up on the vocal tracks and softening the production, she’s able to record a rendition that channels the warmth of Smith’s heart and turns it on blast.

The reason Elliott Smith’s music still feels brand new is because of his authenticity. He sang and performed like he was in his bedroom, even when he dove into heavier rock numbers so that anyone who listened became privy to not just his thoughts but his feelings. Caroline Says comes out of left field with a cover that falls in step with the original. It’s bare and honest, full of sadness that feels desperate, almost hopeless, but is still singing because it’s the only thing that makes sense. I’ve returned to it consistently since the record came out and feel gutted every time by her delivery the way I’ve only ever felt when hearing Elliott himself sing it. If only we were lucky enough to get more covers that did the same.


03. Charles Bradley — “Changes” (Black Sabbath Cover)

Everything Charles Bradley does is serious, but not with a straight face. He opened this year’s Changes with “God Bless America” not because he could, but because he really meant it. It’s free of irony. He sings of love and he sings with love and he sings for love. He’s grinning, overwhelmed with passion, and he’s able to do it so boldly that listeners feel it, too. That’s how he approaches most music, and when taking others’ work, he makes sure to sing with the love that made him fall for the original.

On “Changes”, Charles Bradley takes Black Sabbath’s song and fills it with soul — what he does best. Organ hums gently, starting things off with a blip before warming the bed on which Bradley will lay to belt each note. His voice scratches and soars, at one point ditching words altogether just so he can let the feeling escape him. Horns blaze in sympathy. Bradley does what he does at his shows: he holds everyone in an embrace while he relives — really, truly relives — the words he sings.

Technically, Bradley released a cover of the song in 2013 as the A-side to a 7″, but this newly recorded version appears on his album of the same name and, with it, a new angle. “Changes” is no longer about losing someone, but about losing at large. And boy, does that feel true now. This year was the year of loss, be it a loss of icons, a loss of rights, or a loss of hope. Bradley’s cover should feel like a song of mourning, but instead it feels like an acceptance, a peaceful welcoming of what change means, even when it feels impossible to do so.


02. Blood Orange — “Metamorphosis: III” (Philip Glass Cover)

How do you cover a minimalist song and make it your own? Better yet: How do you cover Philip Glass and do him justice, or maybe even raise the bar? The composer turns 80 next year and will continue to do what he does best: create the most influential music of the 20th century, at the very least in classical music. His use of repetitive structures could be described as a handicap, but Glass makes it an art. He transcends minimalist limitations by leaning into repetitions differently each time, varying what should, on paper, be entirely the same.

In the late ’80s, Glass turned towards symphonic music and began writing operas. During this time, he wrote several iconic piano pieces, one of which was Metamorphosis. It’s a collection of five movements adapted from a theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Errol Morris’ 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, all chronicled on his 1989 release Solo Piano. The third of these pieces is perhaps the darkest. Glass plays as if trouble is nibbling on his toes and he can’t quite shake it, the thought of the subtle pain consuming his brain.

During a performance at SiriusXMU this October, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange decided to do a left-field cover by tackling “Metamorphosis III” on the piano. Though it’s nearly impossible to do, he makes it even darker. Hynes stomps on the keys, letting them shake as they ring out. The lower register becomes a space of stress. He slows the number down slightly, but plays with passion nonetheless, giving him room to speed when need be. It’s clear Hynes respects Glass deeply. No note is out of line, but he plays with equal parts ode and devastation, putting himself in the shoes of the composer to live his work in ways few pianists can.


01. Regina Spektor — “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (The Beatles Cover)

You don’t have to pick a Beatle, but everyone does anyway. All four members of The Beatles brought a characteristic style to the band’s songwriting that’s easy to trace when and how it influenced the direction of the band [insert joke at Ringo’s expense here]. It seems George Harrison winds up being the go-to pick, and, really, you can’t fault people for that choice. He was the quiet one, uncommon for the youngest in a group, but that meant his words, when he did speak, felt exponentially brighter because he kept an observant eye. He avoided the drama. His solo work was fascinating. He played sitar. Harrison was the refined pick.

At this point, people often turn to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as single-handed justification. The 1968 Beatles song will never sound dated. Here, people credit George Harrison since he wrote the song (though a good chunk of people extend that credit too far, praising Harrison for the lead guitar part that was, in fact, played by Eric Clapton). He managed to comment on relativism in the East, the band’s disharmony at the time, and the passing of time without getting too heavy. Even the organ adds an element of hope though instrumentally it should suggest otherwise. It’s a complex song done up for easy listening. It’s quiet, simple, and observant — classic George.

If you’re going to cover the most popular band of all time, it should be done seriously, but The Beatles’ catalog is particularly great at letting people experiment. As previously noted, pop songs allow for flexibility, and theirs do generously. But “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” necessitates certain sections remain as is; tampering with them would lose the song’s true finesse. Regina Spektor abides by that in her cover, and yet she expands Harrison’s way of thinking in exponential ways.

If you’ve seen Kubo and the Two Strings, one of the year’s best stop-motion films, the use of Japanese lute shamisen makes sense. If not, let it overwhelm you. Dario Marianelli arranges the strings here, and they sweep beneath her and the soloing three-string instrument. It’s complex yet faithful, adding inspirational energy to the song without changing keys or lyrics. There’s a solemn piano outro that’s quintessential Spektor, but what makes this stand out is her voice. Hearing Spektor sing — no frills, no animal sounds, no vocal gimmicks — shows the depth of her vocal abilities. The song doesn’t mandate expansive range, so she brings a heartiness to every note, occasionally changing notes that Harrison keeps singular. Sometimes she layers her voice. But there, at the focal point, is the chorus. No matter what time you hear it, the way she scales “I don’t know how” is beautiful. It sends chills up my spine comparable only to the first time I heard this song as a child, and now, done up in Eastern instrumentation and full vocal delivery, the song breathes with freshness nearly 50 years later.