It’s been an unusually sparse year here at Cover Lay Down, with several personal issues cutting into our awareness of the folkworld at large, and keeping us from blogging regularly. Of these, sadly, most have been ongoing: the elderchild still struggles to adapt to a life of pain and medicine; my students still struggle to take ownership of their education; my ability to remain whole as I try to balance family, work, volunteerism, and blogging remains shaky at best.
Add this to February’s unexpected server shut-down, which cost us a month of stress and five years of archives, and account for Kottke’s recent suggestion that blogs are dying, or at least, have taken a “diminished place in our informational diet,” and damn, it’s amazing that we’re still here at all, let alone ready to share our year’s best.
That we come to you at all for this annual ritual is startling enough to begin with; naming the “best” of anything is a dubious pursuit. As noted last year, we have a strong resistance to the hierarchical urge to rank and file. Though our lens may sometimes seem narrow from the outside, both coverage and folk come in many flavors and subtypes, and each can be done well; our focus on the breadth of musical expression often leans harder towards emergence, promise, and artist evolution than the next big thing because that’s the honest expression of how I think and hear. We find comfort and joy in so broad a mandate, and ultimately, take more delight in discovery than digs. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes.
In that sense, we generally encourage others to accept the entirety of our year’s blogging as our recommendations list for the year: if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. If you’re not a regular reader, and you’ve been directed here by recommendation or accident, we highly recommend taking the time for your own skim of the archives sometime, the better to experience the miracle of craft and interpretation that is the modern folkways in all its glory.
To go through the motions of capturing, compiling and celebrating our favorite albums of the year after such a fragmented, disruptive pattern of listening seems like an exercise in hubris. To do so when we have always eschewed both the critical lens and the hierarchical trend seems doubly so.
But Cover Lay Down will not go gently into that goodnight – and in many ways, the larger context makes this year’s Best Of 2013 sets more needful than ever. For as long as music serves as salve and salvation, then we must also accept that the ongoing search for new artists, new collections, and new transformations is part of the human pilgrimage – and that each new discovery serves the soul both spiritually and medicinally.
In this sense, the annual archival sift that prepares us for our end-of-year pursuit is an inherent part of the journey – a recentering, that helps us revisit and recover tribute albums and cover compilations otherwise too easily lost among the detritus of a life lived in chaos. The mere act of listening closely again, and struggling to identify that which transforms the various parameters each song, album, and collection sets for itself to become something new, and wonderful, is worthy, indeed.
As a bonus, stepping back to view the year all-at-once reveals new trends, new patterns, and new paths which we may not have seen from week to week, as we steep in the new, and descend into the focused themes upon which we have set our store. In this case, such a process is especially beneficial, as it helps us reconstitute the unusually scattered plot that has resulted from an exceptionally scattershot year. And, as always, this affects the categories we use to frame and represent our favorites: this year, for example, we have decided to distinguish between multi-artist mass market tribute albums and blog-curated tributes, the better to feature larger, less polished collections which focus on lesser-known artists and decidedly lo-fi production values.
And so, though the process is corrupted, and though we still find our conflicted or even confused by the tendency of other blogs to criticize as well as celebrate, this week, we present our annual two-volume year’s end review of the best folk, roots, indie, and Americana coverfolk of 2013 – starting, today, with a comprehensive categorization of those albums, EPs, and collections which rose to the top of our playlists and hearts.
A final note, before we delve into delight: because it is borne of personal stress and sorrow, the collection that follows comprises not so much of the albums that stuck through us with the year, but a strange combination of the ones we wish we had time to listen to more often, and the ones which we played incessantly, for weeks upon end, when we most needed comfort in the midst of chaos. More than ever, it is incomplete, subjective, and in some ways, accidental; indeed, for the first time, a significant portion of the albums mentioned below went unblogged in the first place – a testament to our corrupted ability to track the release calendars, and attend to the constant mailbag stream. But the final product stands as another testament, nonetheless: to the albums and EPs which stayed with us through thick and thin, made all the more glorious for the rocky path we took to get here.
Today, then, we are proud to present Cover Lay Down’s annual compilation of the Year’s Best Coverfolk Collections, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking, to be followed closely, as always, by a mixtape of the best coverfolk singles of the year. Both we offer with undying thanks to the labels, the artists, the fans, and you, for holding us up, and in, and close, when the world keeps spinning right round, like a record.
COVER LAY DOWN PRESENTS:
THE YEAR’S BEST TRIBUTE ALBUMS AND COVER COLLECTIONS
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists, CD release):
Reason To Believe: The Songs of Tim Hardin
Though other categories blossomed this year, it was a relatively sparse twelvemonth for mass market multi-artist tribute albums, with several solid collections emerging as early contenders in the first few months only to remain on top of the heap as the year trickled onwards. As is often the case for tributes, anniversaries, illnesses, and death dates were the primary drivers of artist homage, but it was also the year that Peter Gabriel reciprocal covers project I’ll Scratch Yours finally came together as a cohesive collection, legitimizing Bon Iver’s dreamy, layered take on Come Talk To Me two years after it hit the blogs…and reminding us that when it takes three years to release an album, there is often a good reason.
Live albums in this category were also less successful, though certainly just as well-intentioned; Nick Drake tribute Way To Blue and Sing Me The Songs, which records a concert celebrating the works of Kate McGarrigle, each contain a couple of tracks worth mentioning, but overall, the heavy stamp of consistent performers and the usual challenges of live soundboard mixing make for too little diversity, and too much sameness. Pity, that – though there are plenty of Drake tributes to pick from in the wider world, we’ll hold out hope that time and temper will lay a better foundation for a proper McGarrigle tribute.
But of the studio collections, two stand out for their breadth and beauty, proving the test of time after jumping early out of the proverbial gate. The first, The Music Is You: A Tribute To John Denver, is “a powerful addition to the canon of coverage,” with more than a few tracks standing out as achingly perfect visions and revisions of the artist’s lifework, and a solid mix of contributions from old standbys such as Evan Dando, Dave Matthews, Mary Chapin Carpenter and new, younger favorites like Barnstar, Josh Ritter, Amos Lee, and Brett Dennen bringing a yawing but startlingly successful breadth to the collection. Reason to Believe: The Songs of Tim Hardin, on the other hand, with its primary focus around a stable of artists on the indie and indiefolk line, is both beautifully broken and more consistent, making it deeper in its way – a fair measure of single artist tribute, and thus deserving of top honors.
The Year’s Best Tribute Collection (multiple artists, free/streaming):
Long May You Run, J. Tillman Revisited
As noted above, we’re splitting our multi-artist tribute category this year – a strategy we’d ordinarily reserve to account for an unusually bountiful harvest. But in this case, the split we’ve chosen is natural: there’s a vast difference in curation between label-driven tribute albums and blog-solicited collections. And so we turn, distinctly, to those tributes populated by relative unknowns favored by the individual blogger who envisions, solicits, and puts the compilation together; it often sprawls far past the typical size of an album intended for hard-copy release, and may include multiple versions of the same song. And our access to the two types is vastly different: the former is generally for sale, with but a sample or two available for blog posting; the latter are generally free and/or stream only, populated as they are by truly independent players on the margins of genre, giving newfound meaning to the term “indie” after years of subsumption by the mass market.
This new category is no novelty: in past years, solicited collections have appeared on Stereogum, Pitchfork, and Paste; this year’s also-rans include a well-curated double-set tribute to The Postal Service album, and arguably, the Herohill-curated tribute to Leonard Cohen, which topped our list last year, would count in this category as well. But the shift in style and sound which springs from the fan-curated album at its best is exemplified by the clear winners in this category this year, Slowcoustic’s lovingly curated double-sized tributes to J. Tillman and Damien Jurado. In our original reviews, we called Long May You Run, J. Tillman Revisited, Slowcoustic’s emergent homage to Tillman’s oddly titled seminal sophomore solo album, “a triumph of curation and performance: appropriately imperfect, definitively Tillman, and shockingly diverse,” and we stand by that measure, though we also highly recommend the overstuffed Jurado tribute as well, for much the same reasons; taken together, they practically define a tiny quietfolk subcommunity at the heart of modern folk experimentation.
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist):
Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie Prince Billy, What The Brothers Sang
It was the Year of the Everly Brothers, with three full-album tributes on the docket: a sister act, two indiefolk mavericks, and Norah Jones and that guy from Green Day. Of these, we were surprised to like the Norah Jones/Billy Joe Armstrong collection, and pleased to hear favorite second-generation singer-songwriters The Chapin Sisters slick their hair down so faithfully; both, in their own way, are worthy of a second listen. But the deconstruction wrought by Faun Fables frontwoman Dawn McCarthy and indie maverick Bonnie “Prince” Billy on What The Brothers Sang is too potent and too precious: Oldham’s broken baritone and McCarthy’s warm alto establish a complex tapestry of sound, and their tendency towards languid arrangement and more obscure set pieces is quite something. The album is flexible in its treatment of the songbook, with each song rebuilt as a discrete genre expression with respect and not a little experimentation, making for a diverse and deeply intimate, but often tense and broken resurrection well worth repeated listening.
Honorable mention here goes to Noam Pikelny and Chris Thile, who used their time off from Punch Brothers touring to interpret two vastly different collections from almost diametrically opposed ends of the musical spectrum. We wrote about master mandolinist Thile’s all-classical, all-Bach album in July; Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – the banjo player and bandleader’s cover album of a cover album, which treats Baker’s seminal set of Bill Monroe tunes reverently – passed us by when it first came out, but the bluegrass purist in me loves it dearly.
The Year’s Best Tribute EP:
Nathan Edwards, The Music of Stephen Foster
With 8 tracks, Nathan Edwards’ celebration of the music of Stephen Foster is a hybrid album, almost – but not quite – too long to be an EP. But it remains a powerful high point in an otherwise sparse category, and since we put it just fine first time around, we’ll merely note that the warm vocal tones, exquisite instrumentation, and loving research which underlie this small-yet-ambitious project provide a unifying force that transcends mere songbook commonality…the result is seamless: a truly transformative yet eminently honest set that succeeds in its promise of updating the old songs for modern ears, finding the indiefolk, Americana, country and soul in songs long embedded in our national psyche. Amen.
The Year’s Best Covers Album:
The Big Bright, I Slept Thru the 80′s
We first featured two pre-release covers from The Big Bright last year, including their INXS cover in our Year’s Best Singles, and noted an EP-length pre-release floating out in the the ether more than a few months ago, making for an exceptionally long tease up to a December 2013 release for the fully realized album those smaller bursts claimed to anticipate. But in the end, the anticipation only made the final product sweeter. I Slept Through The 80′s is exactly what it promises to be – a loving deconstruction of 30 year old MTV new-wave and brit-pop hits, reimagined as soft, supple acoustic dreampop lullabies, with guitar, folk harmonies, and a hazy atmosphere of memory – and we’re thrilled to have it.
Lissa Schneckenburger’s simply titled but exquisitely sensitive Covers album, which we celebrated in May, makes for a very close runner up: every note counts, and every note lingers. Tie for third place goes to new albums from Hurray For The Riff Raff and Scott Matthew, whose broken voices and simple piano and guitar arrangements chill and comfort. And if we’re going all the way to fourth, we’ll put in a bid for Mara Levine’s Jewels And Harmony, a warm, contemporary post-revival singer-songwriter covers-with-friends folk album.
Even with five records topping our list, these favorites edge out among a surprisingly strong field. Yet another covers record from Mark Kozelek, and folkpop cellist Ben Sollee’s free Noisetrade release The Hollows Sessions, both of which went personally undiscovered until Cover Me included them in their own year’s end list, garner honorable mentions for eminently successful if increasingly formulaic approaches to coverage, mostly because we just love how Sollee and Kozelek break down and rebuild. Mud, Blood, and Beer, the third album by acoustic britfolk covers band The Bad Shepherds, is surprisingly listenable for an album of punk favorites. And although we were thrilled to find his second volume of Fan Chosen Covers in the mix, having made this list three years running, Eef Barzelay is hereby disqualified for future consideration despite the successful Kickstarter-driven promise of a Sound of Music EP to come in the early months of 2014.
The Year’s Best Covers EP:
Hannah Read and Charlie Van Kirk, Covers EP
Lots here, too – and much of it free to fans, from the joyful transformations on Levi Weaver’s mailing-list gift Antipodes to the just-released new installment in Okkervil River’s Golden Opportunities occasional covers EP series, which is a bit raucous for folk, but ends on a mellow note with a track sure to feature in Vol. 2 of our series.
In the final countdown, we ended up favoring two albums, each powerful in its own way. The Stray Birds huddle close harmonies around a single microphone to take on their favorites from the countryfolk world, and come off sounding crisp and clear, a tradfolk trio inhabiting their favorite songs to play out triumphs and tears with aplomb. And although the build on Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain is too good not to share here, Hannah Read and Charlie Van Kirk’s cover of MGMT’s Kids is truly definitive – which is really saying something, given how often the song has been covered. Add in a powerfully reconsidered, eminently deconstructed version of Nick Drake’s Riverman and an utterly haunting Radiohead cover, plus free Bandcamp download, and we’ve little choice but to give Read and Van Kirk the edge.
The Year’s Best Streaming Covers Series:
Al Lewis, The Covers EP, Vol. 1
The five-song Al Lewis soundcloud series titled “The Covers EP, Vol. 1″ would have made the EP covers category above, but sadly, it was technically ineligible, as it was released first as a series of singles, and only later retracked as a streaming EP by the artist himself, without title and in the same sequence as our own. No matter: it’s a good year for new categories, and a fair deal to acknowledge an ongoing shift in how artists release covers overall to nominate slow-release EP-length covers sets.
And though the pandora’s box that this category creates can be a slippery slope, restricting ourselves to finite sets of covers released in a single year provides a clear second place winner, too. Though the Morning Benders have changed their name to the aggressive and less memorable POP ETC since their bedroom covers collection first slammed the blogs back in 2007, the raw, organic four-set of covers posted on Soundcloud this year, started as a distraction from studio recording and ultimately touted as a series, delight as much as those long-ago covers did, reminding us just why we loved them so much to begin with. Honorable mention goes to Bess Rogers, whose pay-what-you-wish occasionals series Songs Other People Wrote drifted too far from folk after starting pure languid Kathleen Edwards-ian popfolk with a Gin Blossoms cover that rocks pretty, indeed.
The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album:
Jackie Oates, Lullabies
Perennial category favorite Elizabeth Mitchell released several covers albums this year – including a co-bill with fellow kindie icon Dan Zanes and a tribute to Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Christmas collection – and both will find plenty of play in our house, though the kids have moved on to tweenpop. But Jackie Oates blew us away: the English folk singer and fiddle player was new to us, as are so many of the British-born lullabies and sleep songs she lovingly interprets on Lullabies, but the combination is rich and beautiful, delicate and sweet, with harmonies and drones echoing in the head, leaving an impression of something like the Unthanks for the slumbering set (and it turns out Jackie was a founding member, so no surprise).
The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album (single artist): Sam Amidon, Bright Sunny South
It was a surprisingly rich field in the tradfolk category this year, from sea shanties to civil war collections to other collections that target time and place – and so, again, we split the category three ways, presenting single artist tradfolk albums separately from multi-artist concept albums and EP-length sets, as we have done for years in other categories, the better to distinguish between single artistic visions both small and large, and curatorial cohesion unified by genre, theme, or origin.
Single artist tradfolk albums are often heavy on the traditional, and more about saving the old sounds and celebrating the hand-me-down tradition; these albums do not so much celebrate artistic vision though interpretation as they celebrate authenticity through recreation – a valid and valuable pursuit, but less interesting to us as ethnographers of the covering folkways. But though it does tuck Mariah Carey and Tim McGraw covers in among the mix, Sam Amidon takes the tradfolk vein several steps farther, winning deserving kudos for Bright Sunny South, an album that represents the full maturation of his sound, with stunningly smooth, shimmery production finally allowing the frail and often meager instrumentation that Amidon brings to his interpretations to finally sound less lo-fidelity and more deliberately broken. As we said in our original entry, call it a thinker’s album, and give him the Grammy already, for nowhere else this year have we heard such intimacy, such clear recognition of the myriad paths of shapenote hymns and old-timey folk brought forcefully into the 21st century.
Runners up honors go to indie alt-folk collective Vandaveer for their murder ballads collection Oh, Willie, Please…, a stealth record that crept up on us unawares and then…wow.
The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album (multiple artists):
Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War and The Beautiful Old: Turn-Of-The-Century Songs (tie)
No pirate albums here, especially given how scattershot Hal Wilmer’s second volume was in the end. But we do have two decidedly different yet equally honest tributes to time and place in Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War and The Beautiful Old: Turn-Of-The-Century Songs. The former is more South than North in tone, and heavy on the bluegrass players, with country and folk around the edges, and an essence that’s honest and true; the latter, which catalogs its songs chronologically from 1805 to 1918, is a bit more diverse, but with some strong performances from Jolie Goodnight, Carrie Elkin, Richard Thompson and others who know.
The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers EP:
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
In a category often populated by small sets produced on a whim, Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads stands out as a hands-down winner this year. We named the collection, a close collaboration between two exceptionally talented players already at the top of their game, the go-to winner in this category way back before Spring; since then, numerous otherblog end of year lists have cited the album among the best, period. And we were right for all the right reasons: as we noted then, the album is fluid, engaging, clear as the running streams and lakes of its myriad stanzas, and equally adept in mournful darkness and moral tale, in its exquisite treatment of both the easily recognizable (Tam Lin) and several unusually obscure and under-covered selections…rightfully on its way to being regarded as masterpiece, a showpiece for how modern solo and duet forms can still find life in the sourcebook.
The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album:
The Quiet American, Wild Bill Jones
When we created this category several years ago, we envisioned it as a way to honor those artists who saw coverage and interpretation as such a core component of their craft that they included multiple covers among the songs on a single album, the better to pay homage to their influences, and show their output as grounded in history.
Several fine albums fit the mold this year. Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, who found fine fortune on these pages for both their debut duet release in 2011 and this year’s Midwinter, returned with Fire & Fortune, in which Clarke’s mature, deceptively simple interpretation of timeless traditional laments and original ballads, Walker’s stunningly subtle fretwork, and inspired settings of low winds, gentle piano chords, and soaring strings combine marvelously, making a fragile atmosphere that welcomes even as it warns. And Night, a mixed-genre varietal, with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and folk artist Tift Merritt trading off genre origins from classical, pop, jazz, and original sources, is a vast and vindicating tour de force of artist and genre crossover. Both deserve year’s end recognition, and huge compliments.
But it is Wild Bill Jones, a stunning triumph from home-grown modern folk revival The Quiet American, that justifies this final category’s existence, and then some. The concept album by husband-and-wife duo Aaron and Nicole Keim is a tour de force, an utterly perfect concept album that collects and transforms traditional songs, timeless originals, and Daniel Johnston’s True Love Will Find You In The End into a seamless sepia-toned narrative of loneliness, loss, and love so smooth, you’ll need the liner notes to piece apart the sources. Kudos to the pair for validating our ongoing pursuit of coverage as folkways so well, showing just how valid and valuable the mix of original works and tradition can become in the hands of masters.
The Year’s Best YouTube Covers Series:
Discovered while searching for popcovers to populate a YouTube feature, young Honduran-Canadian singer-songwriter Daniella Andrade stole our heart with a perfect pure voice and a gentle way with a guitar. She’s been recording and releasing videos since 2008, but this year was a killer; most recent cuts include several amazing collaborations, and a sexy, girlish cover of Santa Baby that sends us to the showers. Someone get this girl a label.
Daniela Andrade: The A Team (orig. Ed Sheeran)
Daniela Andrade & Gia Margaret: Summertime Sadness (orig. Lana Del Rey)
Daniela Andrade x Jon Lawless: Hold On, We’re Going Home (orig. Drake)
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.
And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2013 covers otherwise unblogged.