The 13 Best Cover Songs of 2019

Our favorite covers of the year, ranked

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The 13 Best Cover Songs of 2019

Phoebe Bridgers continued to make music this year in her various avenues, therefore it was a great year for cover songs. The singer/songwriter is practically a master in the art of covers: From including Mark Kozelek’s “You Missed My Heart” on her 2017 debut to covering The Cure for Spotify in 2018, Bridgers never stops reinventing classics. This year, she covered Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” for the Women Sing Waits compilation, plus she covered songs with both of her bands, Better Oblivion Community Center and boygenius. But the covers didn’t stop and end with “Cowboy Take Me Away”: Lana Del Rey, Lucy Dacus, Fiona Apple, Julien Baker and so many others shared fresh takes on old favorites. We selected 13 of the best refreshed, reinvented reprises from this year and listed them here.

13. RVG: “Dying on the Vine” (John Cale)

Australian rockers RVG shared a cover of John Cale’s “Dying on the Vine,” which served as the b-side to their single “Alexandra.” “Dying on the Vine” is taken from Cale’s 1985 album Artificial Intelligence. RVG take Cale’s strange, synth-laden original and give it a healthy dose of surfy guitars. Frontwoman Romy Vager bares her whole heart with this vocal performance as sorrow drips out of every nook and cranny of her voice. RVG’s guitars are just as poignant as Vager’s rough rock warble—they twinkle with a bittersweet glow. —Lizzie Manno

12. Lula Wiles: “The Pain of Loving You” (Trio: Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris)

Folk trio Lula Wiles have clearly been taking notes from other all-female folk and country groups. Their weepy, twang-fueled harmonies will take you straight back to Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces, and their cover of Trio’s (Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris) “The Pain of Loving You” will have you feeling nostalgic for the original, which appeared on the first Trio album in 1987. The song appears on Lula Wiles’ 2019 album What Will We Do and serves as a peppery mid-record mountain ballad. It’s a rather sad concept—a toxic love that brings only “misery” and anxiety—but the three women don’t sound woebegone on their cover. It’s more like empowerment in finally speaking the truth. —Ellen Johnson

11. Better Oblivion Community Center: “Dominos” (Taylor Hollingsworth)

The debut album by supergroup pairing Better Oblivion Community Center features nine songs by Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, and only one non-original: “Dominos,” a fuzzy, surreal surge of solitude with a voicemail voiceover and stacked verses about falling apart. It’s one of the most arresting songs on the record. The songwriter is Taylor Hollingsworth, an original member of Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band and a busy musician in his own right. He has solo records dating back to 2003 and, along with his wife Kate, two Fat Possum-released albums as Dead Fingers, a project that paired cheeky, metaphorical songwriting with an old-time edge to make something acoustic and warm that can’t quite be described but fits squarely on this “stomp and flutter” Spotify playlist. He’s also played with a number of bands, including The Felice Brothers and fellow Alabamians The Dexateens. —Ellen Johnson

10. Toy: “Fun City” (Soft Cell)

As one of the most quintessentially ’80s-sounding bands, Soft Cell aren’t the easiest artist to cover. On their recent covers EP, Songs of Consumption, English psych outfit Toy decided to give it the old college try with the 1982 Soft Cell b-side “Fun City.” Frontman Tom Dougall’s layered vocals are far more ghostly than the earnest pop of Marc Almond. In Toy’s version, the keyboards are more robotic and twinkly than Soft Cell’s wonky new wave, plus the hopping guitar pulses are more pronounced. While the Soft Cell’s cut is more danceable, Toy’s version is far more icy, atmospheric and expansive and—dare I say—far superior to the original. —Lizzie Manno

9. Fiona Apple: “The Whole of the Moon” (The Waterboys)”

Fiona Apple leaves an indelible imprint on everything she touches—from The Beatles to The Beach Boys to The Waterboys. Five years ago, she recorded The Affair‘s opening theme, “Container,” and last month, her peerlessly passionate vocals accompanied the series’ closing credits with a cover of The Waterboys’ 1980s classic “The Whole of the Moon.” In Apple’s hands, the song is utterly changed, and it seems impossible to hear it the same way again: Waterboys frontman Mike Scott’s ragged whine was reverent and admiring towards the artists who made him aware of the limits of his own talents, while Apple, backed by the softest of harmonies from Phoebe Bridgers, fills the song with crushing resentment and accusatory fervor. She gives us the guttural, sarcastic cry of someone who’s been demeaned, again and again, by an arrogant big shot who thinks they’ve got all the answers. When she sings “I wondered, I guessed and I tried / You just knew / I sighed, but you swooned,” it’s nothing less than breathtaking—and not just because her rendition comes as a surprise. It sounds entirely her own. If The Waterboys saw the crescent, Fiona Apple sees the whole of the moon. —Amanda Gersten

8. boygenius: “Cowboy Take Me Away” (Dixie Chicks)

2019 was the year of yeehaw thanks to Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, but that “Old Town Road” remix wasn’t the only iconic country crossover around. KEXP finally unveiled boygenius‘ 2018 performance this spring, and with it came the proper recording their radio- and tour-only rendition of “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus’ tribute to fellow trifecta Dixie Chicks is full of a melancholy yearning that makes it feel like a spiritual companion to boygenius closer “Ketchum, ID.” Trading verses about longing to be held under the stars and to stand alone under sublime skyscraper-free skies, the trio share the same conflicting desires that made them want to “dissolve the band” and “move to Idaho”: to find solitude and to find belonging, for stability and for freedom. With twinkly mandolin and violin from frequent Baker collaborator Camille Faulkner, boygenius’ “Cowboy Take Me Away” is rustic and wistful, but with an overarching sweetness, purity and even delight. From Baker’s first infectious, irrepressible grin to the giggles the moment the song ends, it seems the peace the three are searching for isn’t so far out of reach. Baker, Bridgers and Dacus are each formidable forces as cover artists in their own right, as this list attests. Together, they sound completely free—and completely at home. —Amanda Gersten

7. MIIRRORS: “Gunshot Glitter” (Jeff Buckley)

New Chicago group MIIRRORS did the impossible: successfully covered Jeff Buckley and gave the song the production it always deserved. With Matt Johnson, original Buckley studio and touring drummer in tow (he notably left the band before the Sweetheart the Drunk sessions and now tours with St. Vincent), the band do a very convincing job giving “Gunshot Glitter” the life it never had. Covering Buckley is a near herculean task—Buckley had one of the biggest vocal ranges in music history, after all—and MIIRRORS pass with flying colors. But nothing is known about MIIRRORS. This is the band’s first ever single, and outside of a few basic facts, their publicist has kept his mouth zipped up despite my repeated questions. Here’s what we know: “Gunshot Glitter” was recorded at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio and mixed by Brian Deck, and MIIRRORS are set to release more singles starting in January. —Steven Edelstone

6. Empath: “Drunken Angel” (Lucinda Williams)

Indie acts have really enjoyed covering country songs in years of late—boygenius famously tackled the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away” at KEXP this year, whereas Maggie Rogers did a number on Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw” for Spotify in 2018. Now, Philly noise-rockers Empath, arguably the farthest thing from country a band can be, have shared a take on Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel,” from the rebel singer/songwriter’s 1998 classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It may seem like a left-field decision for Empath to cover the red-dirt Americana rocker, in which Williams memorably eulogized fellow musician Blaze Foley, the Texas country singer who was shot and killed in 1989. But they pull it off without a hitch. They spout the lyrics in a frenzy, shooting off every “Drunken angel, you’re on the other side” with a hurried shout and a gnarly guitar solo while feedback and synth nearly overtake the other sounds before the cover warps into a four-minute jam session which they’ve titled “The Other Side.” In other words, they Empath-afied this song. And it sounds totally badass. —Ellen Johnson

5. Julien Baker: “The Modern Leper” (Frightened Rabbit)

Undoubtedly the highlight on the Tiny Changes Frightened Rabbit tribute album—a record that was almost finished before lead singer Scott Hutchison’s tragic death and one that took on a completely different meaning by the time of its release about a year later—Julien Baker slows down the Midnight Organ Fight album opener, turning the upbeat rock song into something much more her own. Beginning with the guitar atmospherics that dot the entirety of her own material, it proceeds to build to a huge crescendo, only to completely lose almost all the instrumentals for the final chorus. Where the original’s finale seems hopeful that maybe, just maybe, Hutchison’s ex will give him one more chance (“You should sit with me and we’ll start again / And you can tell me all about what you did today”), Baker’s version knows the answer and you can hear it in her voice, distant and longing. —Steven Edelstone

4. Lana Del Rey: “Doin’ Time” (Sublime)

Before she released “Doin’ Time” on her 2019 album NFR!, Lana Del Rey’s setlist at a Dublin, Ireland, show included an alluring, smooth live cover of the Sublime song, complete with backup dancers and a backdrop depicting tropical palm trees. Sublime’s iconic 1996 hit features a sample from the 1934 George Gershwin classic “Summertime.” Del Rey’s cover is featured in Sublime, a recent documentary about the ska-punk rockers. —Marissa Matozzo

3. Phoebe Bridgers: “Georgia Lee” (Tom Waits)

Hearing Phoebe Bridgers sing is always an emotional experience, but seldom more so than on her rendition of “Georgia Lee,” off Tom Waits’ Grammy-winning 1999 masterpiece Mule Variations. Her voice is drenched in sorrow as she sings, “Why wasn’t God watching? / Why wasn’t God listening? / Why wasn’t God there for / Georgia Lee?” —Scott Russell

2. Sir Babygirl: “Praying” (Kesha)

Kesha’s commanding performance of her #MeToo anthem “Praying” at last year’s Grammys felt like a nuclear bomb. She wrote it about her former producer Dr. Luke, whose several-year lawsuit continues to rage, and when she brought on Camila Cabello, Bebe Rexha, Cyndi Lauper and other big-name female musicians to perform it with her in front of the most powerful suits in music, it became a literal embodiment of speaking truth to power. Understandably, it would be hard for any singer to do this song justice. However, when emerging Father/Daughter artist Sir Babygirl took on the song, it truly captured the liberated spirit of the original. Kelsie Hogue’s vocals dig into the deepest part of her soul, and she emerges with heartfelt passion, evading any sense of inhibition. Paired with programmed drums and electric guitar, this stirring version is the perfect display of solidarity with Kesha. —Lizzie Manno

1. Lucy Dacus: “La Vie En Rose” (Édith Piaf)

Of all the covers on Lucy Dacus’ 2019 EP, “La Vie en Rose,” shines brightest and is such a refreshing take on the old standard that, at first, I forgot it was a cover and nearly lumped it in with the originals. Dacus dives headfirst into romanticism—a rare occasion on an album that tends to regard most special occasions with a winking knowingness—with a persistently plucked guitar that will make your heart race. As the song builds upon ebullient piano and synth, your heart is sure to swell, too. —Clare Martin

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