The 10 Best Cover Songs of 2016

Music Lists Best of 2016
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The 10 Best Cover Songs of 2016

For better or for worse, tribute songs prevailed in 2016. Our heroes covered our heroes, and sometimes even covered dearly departed David Bowie’s “Heroes.” But even outside of honoring those many artists we lost this year, 2016 proved to be ripe with strong covers. Contemporary artists interpreted their peers, as well as their forebears, and classic rock mainstays reminded us why they’d earned those titles. After polling our writers and editors, we’ve compiled the 10 best cover songs of 2016.

10. Bruce Springsteen, “Purple Rain” (Prince)

In the wake of Prince’s passing, many musicians offered written, tweeted, and performed personal tributes. The Boss, for example, opened his two Brooklyn shows with this cover of “Purple Rain,” while purple stage lights swathed the E Street Band. Springsteen’s version assumes his typical rallying bombast, but is tempered by the tragedy of Prince’s untimely death. Although fan footage can be found online, a fine-tuned audio version of the cover—as part of the entire three-hour concert—is available for purchase via Bruce Springsteen’s website. —Hilary Saunders

9. Prince, “Heroes” (David Bowie)

After so many huge musical losses in 2016, David Bowie’s January death almost feels like ages ago, and given the fact that Prince died tragically himself a few months later, it’s understandable that some people might forget His Purpleness’ stunning tribute to the recently departed Bowie from his Piano & A Microphone Tour. But during a set where fans cheered, danced and sang along to reworked versions of their favorite Prince classics, the rapt silence while he performed his take on Bowie’s “Heroes” spoke volumes; the crowd at his Atlanta show was (rightfully) mesmerized by the way he paid homage while simultaneously making it his own, slowing it down, adding a spoken-word breakdown (“We are still standing, standing for what we believe”). —Bonnie Stiernberg

8. Father John Misty, “Closer” (Nine Inch Nails)

The unholy Father took to covering “Closer,” arguably Nine Inch Nails’ most popular song, on his recent North American tour. I heard him do it—he introduced it as his favorite love song, deadpanning, “It’s a little sappy.” The cover actually makes a mountain of sense. Lyrically, the self-loathing-laden, intensely sexual “Closer” could pass for a Father John Misty original. Misty’s take on the track retains its pulsing, electronic menace, but replaces Trent Reznor’s guttural growls with Misty’s reedy, almost wistful vocals, which ripple with pathos on lines like, “Help me get away from myself.” It’s an unforgettable collision of unlike songwriting sensibilities that gave Father John Misty the perfect excuse to flex his Rock God muscles. —Scott Russell

7. Rihanna, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” (Tame Impala)

In their 2015 album Currents, Tame Impala ended this third album with “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” a bold, hazy change from the rest of the trippy album. In a similar way, Rihanna’s ANTI was also quite a change for her this year. Rihanna’s eighth album featured more soul and straightforward pop and R&B, mostly staying away from the more dance-y material of album’s past. In that context, Rihanna’s cover of the Tame Impala song—changed to “Same Ol’ Mistakes”—makes perfect sense. If ANTI is Rihanna rediscovering herself, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is her becoming a completely new entity. Rihanna doesn’t change Tame Impala’s original at all, simply getting rid of Kevin Parker’s vocals in exchange for her own, but it almost works better as a Rihanna song. It’s hard not to hear the lyrics and think of her past relationships, or to marvel at the fact that—holy crap!—Rihanna is covering a Tame Impala song. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is such a welcome surprise from Rihanna that shows the depth and range of her tastes and influences. —Ross Bonaime

6. Julien Baker, “Ballad of Big Nothing” (Elliott Smith)

Julien Baker and Elliot Smith are something like musical cousins separated by a couple of decades. They sing chillingly bleak lyrics, many about drugs and self-loathing, to hushed guitar accompaniment. Naturally Baker would cover her predecessor. “Ballad of Big Nothing” is the story of a man in self-imposed isolation who sinks deeper into heroin addiction. In the original version—dry, energetic, with wryly-delivered vocals—the chorus (“You can do what you want to, whenever you want to / You can do what you want to, there’s no one to stop you”) seems to reference the man’s self-destructive embrace of his independence. While not unsympathetic to the character, Smith is still scornful of him, whereas Baker’s mournful voice and echoing electric guitar emit nothing but pity for the man; she seems to regret that “there’s no one to stop you.” Smith’s version is darker, while Baker’s is sadder. As covers should, this rendition addresses old material with a new tactic: Smith gave us the man’s internal dialogue, and Baker adds a perspective to the story—that of a lamenting bard sharing his tragedy with the world. —Monica Hunter-Hart

5. Brand New, “Sprained Ankle” (Julien Baker)

“I’ve never heard this before,” and “Is this new?” are comments than can be heard as Brand New began their sixth song during an early November concert. Despite the anticipated new album speculated to come out this year, the song was in fact “Sprained Ankle,” the eponymous track from the immensely talented debut album of Julien Baker. Though written by Baker before even turning 21, it is a song characteristic of the angst Brand New has been writing about since forming in 2000. While Baker usually plays the song looped over finger-picked melodies, Brand New’s Jesse Lacey sings over strummed chords, allowing the song’s poignant lyrics to essentially sing itself. The song is a simplistic masterpiece when sung by Baker but when Lacey performs it, it becomes a gut-wrenching portrayal of the process that is emotional healing. —Jaimie Cranford

4. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Brown Eyed Woman” (The Grateful Dead)

A live staple of the Dead’s shows for 20 years that was never committed to a studio album, “Brown-Eyed Women” has no definitive version. Rather, it exists in the ether—another song in a never-ending setlist, another story in the Dead’s mythological America. But that gives Hiss Golden Messenger an opportunity to imagine how it might have sounded on American Beauty or Working Man’s Dead. The drums move the song along at a breezy barnyard-funk clip, with M.C. Taylor supplying a guitar solo lovingly excerpted from a thousand hand-labeled bootlegs. What truly distinguishes the song from the 58 other covers on Day of the Dead is that soaring sing-along chorus, which is not only a beautiful hook, but a testament to the power of music to get us through hard times. —Stephen Deusner

3. Car Seat Headrest, “Ivy” (Frank Ocean)

Only a few weeks after the release of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo started performing “Ivy” as an encore at their shows. This year, Toledo made plenty of covers part of his live show, with David Bowie, Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens, but none quite as spectacular as “Ivy.” Toledo follows Ocean’s lead by keeping the original’s simplicity, leaving his band behind for the final song. But it’s Toledo’s flair on the song that makes it better than his other covers, changing the lyrics slightly, then pitching his voice to almost a scream at times. With only a guitar and an empty stage, Toldeo does Blonde’s stand out song justice, while still making it sound distinctively like a Car Seat Headrest song, as well. —Ross Bonaime

2. Sturgill Simpson, “In Bloom” (Nirvana)

On Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he dutifully reimagined When in Rome’s 1988 hit “The Promise,” softening its synth-sharp edges with a balladeers perspective on bumbling romantic miscues. It was a bright spot in an album full of them, so it should come as no shock that Simpson’s recast of a seminal teen-angst anthem in Nirvana’s “In Bloom” achieve such rigorous and satisfying transformation. Adding the line “to love someone” following the lilting Cobain refrain of “knows not what it means” is a stroke of resolve in the face of the apathetic “meh” of the original, turning a classic touchstone of ‘90s IRSgrunge into something altogether cheerier. A cavalcade of peppy horns and lap steel pad the song’s crescendo, accentuating the epiphany of compassion and patience and the importance of both while growing up in a weird, cold world. Cobain himself probably would have approved of such artistic liberty. —Ryan J. Prado

1. Charles Bradley, “Changes” (Black Sabbath)

I was recently informed that Charles Bradley’s “Changes” is, in fact, a cover, and a Black Sabbath cover, no less. That shocked me; Bradley’s version feels like an original, a touching ode to loss and regret that the Screaming Eagle of Soul makes every bit his own. Bradley first recorded the cover while his mother Inez was dying in 2013, further deepening the mournfulness of lines like, “It took some time to realize / I can still hear her last goodbyes / But now all my days have turned to tears / I wish I could go back, mama, and change these years.” “At first, I couldn’t sing [“Changes”],” Bradley has said. “Every time I do it, I want to cry.” It’s hard not to have the same reaction as a listener, especially in light of Bradley’s recent stomach cancer diagnosis, which lends yet another new layer of heart-rending sadness to the song. In a year that saw more than its fair share of changes, no one captured all that anguish quite like Bradley, who speaks for us all near the end of “Changes” when he howls, “It hurts so bad … ” Despite the stupefying power of its raw emotion, this song—Charles Bradley’s song—is a reminder that pain is a part of being human. What can we do except raise our voices and face it? —Scott Russell