The best covers of 2020, a year defined by them.

Melissa M. Munoz
Miley Cyrus and Norah Jones.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via The Howard Stern Show/YouTube and Norah Jones/YouTube.

In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate music critic Carl Wilson emails with fellow critics—this year, Rolling Stone staff writer Brittany Spanos, New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, and special guests Ann Powers, Jack Hamilton, Chris Molanphy, and Julyssa Lopez—about the year in music.

Hello dear Music Clubbers!

I’m writing from pandemically wrecked Nashville, at the moment I put fingers to keyboard the epicenter of the worldwide pandemic. Which, as you can imagine, has me cringing in a corner when I’m not lashing out, virtually, about the deep cultural crises that have pushed America, and particularly its various heartlands, here. (I recommend the two trenchant albums the Drive-By Truckers released this year if you want to know more about that.) Yet as I place my latest order for curbside-pickup groceries and anticipate my daily dog-led three-mile walk—virtually my only venturing forth since March—I’m seized with the perverse desire to not mourn but to celebrate one aspect of this hellish year. Inspired in part, Lindsay, by your generous reading of Bob, Bruce, and Tay’s polishings of their own iconic facades, I’d like to declare 2020 the Year of Archival Awakenings: a time when, despite or maybe even in dialectical tension with the politically motivated blinderism that destroyed so much, many artists and thinkers took care in looking back and learning.

Carl, you asked what music writing might become as the social-media Dynamo continues to erode time, space, and attention spans. Part of me says, “Learn all the skills. Commentary and discovery and power-wielding can happen across all media.” But part—the heart behind my very long year-end essay for NPR Music, an attempt to do some serious personal accounting while still reaching for connections—answers, “Music writing still needs to be writing.” What’s happening on TikTok and YouTube or in most chatty podcasts helps “blow up new acts,” to quote a headline that makes clear the sports-stats/gamer ethos prevalent in such sectors. As its own new form of cultural commentary, more akin to television punditry than anything else, I’m all for it. But writing’s value lies in its careful relationship with the word and the world. The education scholar Rebecca Luce-Kapler describes the writer’s process as an ecology: a way of making relationships grounded in close observations, awareness of what has come before and what might come later, and strong connections to a community made of other writers, subjects, and texts. (In our case, songs, personae, performances.) The writer walks carefully through the forest of signs. The work may take different forms; Hanif Abdurraqib’s meditative sound-essays in this season of KCRW’s Lost Notes podcast come to mind, as does a film like Lovers Rock, as you’ve elucidated, Carl. Its essence, though, is that care. Something that requires humility and time and a willingness to go both inside and beyond the self. All of those necessities, it turns out, found some nourishment within the hardships of the pandemic.

Musicians have led me to these thoughts. Pretty early on, watching livestreams like that Sondheim birthday party Carl noted, I realized that these hardest-hit and most precious inhabitants of our shared ecosystem were going to help me survive through their exemplary creativity, curiosity, and love. I’m getting flowery, so let me cut to the chase: one thing that kept music alive in 2020, and me too, was an explosion of archival exploration, an endless stream of cover songs that add up to a new archive, a new canon.

One thing that kept music alive in 2020 was an explosion of archival exploration, an endless stream of cover songs that add up to a new archive, a new canon.

In part, this simply further develops a trend already audible for decades in clubs that feature karaoke and weekly tribute nights, and of course, in hip-hop, an art form that reconstructs its own archive with every sample-heavy release. It’s also an echo of what popular music mostly was, before the auteur theory reshaped its mythology starting in the 1950s: For decades before that, most recordings were in some way cover songs, written by one or two people for someone else to play or sing. There’s a practical reason covers were so big this year, connected to that old Tin Pan Alley economy (and resonant in Taylor Swift’s business plan): Unable to support releases of their own new material through touring and conventional promotions, many artists interpreted others’ work to keep their creative juices flowing. Covers made for great and popular livestreams, too. Ask Norah Jones, whose uber-homey, covers-defined piano sessions—starting with a version of my fave Guns N’ Roses song that had me weeping into my tea—were the third most-viewed of any streaming series this year.

Covers mattered in 2020, though, because they epitomize so many elements of quarantine life. As thousands posted pics of the fruits of their baking and home-improvement jobs, musicians taught themselves new skills, and cover songs were the proud result. My favorite such effort came from bluegrass-grounded Nashville guitarist and singer-songwriter Molly Tuttle, who mastered Pro Tools while making the eclectic, exquisite album … But I’d Rather Be With You. Her playfulness as a learner shows in her startlingly original takes on songs by everyone from FKA Twigs to Arthur Russell to Rancid to the Grateful Dead. My favorite is the album’s final cut, an aching version of Cat Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You” that took me back to my childhood and, through Tuttle’s meticulous playing, made me realize that this song was the origin point of my own love for fingerpicked acoustic guitar.

Covers do prey on listeners’ nostalgia, but they’re just as much about surprise. Musicians in 2020 reconstructed the pop canon by casting light on obscurities or reimagining stale chestnuts. Listening, I often did a spit-take realizing just what was turning me on. Madison Cunningham, another ace young guitarist and singer-songwriter, who like Jones kept her fans happy by posting a weekly cover on YouTube, released an EP of her best in November. I came for the pathos of my man Tom Waits, but stayed for the shockingly (to me) relevant John Mayer ballad “The Age of Worry,” a tune I’d literally never thought about before, in which I suddenly heard my whole world. Mayer’s fellow brunette rock idol Billie Joe Armstrong tapped his own No Fun Mondays streaming series for an album that plays like his own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, elevating lesser-known greats like Bay area punks the Avengers and power-pop sensei Adam Schlesinger (who died of COVID-19 in April) alongside the Clash and Prince. His set caromed me back into my own adolescence with an adorable take on my lifetime crush Billy Bragg’s “A New England”—not long after Bragg challenged the confines of folk-punk by covering (as Carl mentioned) his new friend and “kindred spirit” Taylor Swift.

That’s another way 2020’s cover songs were pandemic-perfect: They became bonding tools for musicians, just as we were all engaging in the year’s Great Zoom/Slack/FaceTime Experiment. This included real-life collaboration—Zoom choirs are a thing, as are money-raising unexpected pairings made possibly by isolation’s way of freeing up stars’ schedules—but also that writerly outreach Luce-Kapler describes: soul-melding through song itself. I’m thinking about all the women who covered Radiohead this year—a striking number, most English and young enough to have known that band’s body of work from the cradle. Make a playlist: Lianne La Havas jazzed up “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”; Arlo Parks found a cool defiance in “Creep”; Holly Humberstone made a lullaby of “Fake Plastic Trees”; Marika Hackman turned the ephemeral “You Never Wash Up After Yourself” into a cyborgian motet. Rosie Carney released a full-length folkification of The Bends. Returning to the work of the 21st century’s definitive rock band through women’s consciousness, I was able to hear how Radiohead has always been, in its own way, defiant of the genre’s gendered presumptions—a kind of entryway into the non-binary sounds of now. (I don’t use that term casually; this was an extraordinary year for genderqueer and other nonconforming artists. There’s even an official Spotify playlist to prove it!) My favorite of all the covers leading me into this new way of hearing is “Arpeggi” by Kelly Lee Owens, a fully electronic take on that hybrid experiment from In Rainbows that engenders it anew.

Musicians have always played with their own personae through unexpected repertoire choices, and plenty of that happened this year. Some lived up to the challenge posed by legends: Emma Swift’s exquisitely cool album-length Dylan tribute, Blonde on the Tracks, is a prime example. Others followed the genre-busting trajectory of current pop to expand their own home bases: A favorite, for me, is country up-and-comer Tiera’s tender take on Halsey and Marshmello’s banger-ballad “Be Kind.” Jazz players, working in that genre’s usual interpretive mode, refreshed baby boomer anthems (young pianist Christian Sands truly reanimated Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”), country weepers (Fred Hersch accomplished the impossible, dissolving decades of sentimentality accrued to Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”), and folk favorites (recorded before the pandemic hit, the version of “La Llorona” on 82-year-old Charles Lloyd’s live set 8: Kindred Spirits bestowed the healing I needed this fall). Other releases proved revelatory by firmly placing artists within certain lineages. The Mavericks’ En Español, a mix of originals and covers that made NPR Music’s 50 Best Albums list, made the Latin origins of Raul Malo’s much-loved country croon absolutely clear. Colombian-American experimentalist Kali Uchis kicked off her first Spanish-language album with “La Luna Enamorada,” a bolero she’d loved as a child, swearing her allegiance to old-fashioned pop romance. And Pursuance: The Coltranes, an extraordinary set by alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, answered the question “What happens when the young woman leading the band came to jazz’s great power couple through the woman’s work—the spiritual compositions of Alice Coltrane—and only then learned about that man named John?”

As I’m sharing all of these favorite recordings, I’m glancing at my notes and realizing I could go on and on. I haven’t even addressed how reinterpretations of the classics of modern protest played a key role in this year’s great political reckoning, from the crowd-stirring surge created by Resistance Revival Choir (who do originals as well as covers) to Devon Gilfillian’s thoughtful and earnest reimagining of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I’ll just point out that a key element of that reckoning itself is a confrontation with America’s racist history prompted by deep dives into archives, especially the New York Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer-winning examination of slavery’s DNA strands within American nationhood, the 1619 Project. Cover songs may seem like small pleasures next to this kind of historical work, but  when their makers are politically minded, they often grow from the same bloody ground.

I often asked myself, in this year of so much fire and other damage, what is worth pulling out of the wreck? The wreck of our culture, so divided, so often out of touch with its own origins. The wreck of my life, which to be honest is fairly intact on the surface, but which feels upturned on a psychic level. It sounds flip to say this, I know, but one survivor who’s inspired me this year is Miley Cyrus. The queen of the high-profile blunder and the human-scale recovery, Cyrus found herself again figuring out how to rise from the ashes generated by her own mistakes. And though I like Plastic Hearts, the synth-rock throwback album officially announcing this year’s Miley Resurrection, she mostly won my heart again through cover songs. She put a Joan Jett spin on Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”; she gave lost, lamented Dolores O’Riordan her fury back with her version of the Cranberries’ “Zombie.” And finally, telling Howard Stern (of all people) that she had barely rehearsed Hole’s “Doll Parts” before performing it on his show, she read Courtney Love’s manifesto against patriarchy’s damage with such subtlety and grace—and, finally, rage—that her voice became a wound, opened it wider, and healed it all in one screamed chorus. Learn something new, the wellness blogs told us as we all just tried to remember how to breathe. Miley had the idea. Learn yourself by taking in something already there for you.

Brittany, I regret not getting into how the women rappers you’ve so rightly celebrated build an awareness of hip-hop history right into their audacious self-assertions. I wonder where you saw musical lineages resurfacing this year? And what felt completely new?

I’ll be here waiting, later and later,

Ann

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