Category: Best of 2017


The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2017)
A-sides, b-sides, deep cuts, one-shots and more!

January 4th, 2018 — 1:14pm


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We’re later that usual this year with our annual singles mix, but it’s not for lack of trying. For several weeks, behind the scenes, we’ve been involved in the process of sifting and surveying, mining bookmarks, tags, and the archives for this year’s best coverfolk.

It’s a joyful process. Heartbreaking, sometimes, but always joyful, too. And if we’ve rediscovered anything, it’s that great music demands listening to.

Through Christmas and the long, slow days afterwards, the conversation among us – future and past – that the resurrected and reformulated song represents served its purpose, leaving us breathless at the scope of it all, and the sheer diversity. And in the end, we emerged refreshed, reinvigorated, and triumphant with yet another 52 track mix – one for every week gone by, and as last year, a whisper in the wings of what wonders are to come.

Now it’s snowing here, and the hiss of the falling snow and the whine of the pellet stove mask the tinnitus perfectly. The children are sleeping, and will be for hours; in the corner, the tree slowly settles as it dries, branch and bauble slowly bending towards the floor. Those of us on the East Coast, at least, hunker down against a growing storm, the first of a new year, taking comfort in the fact that we are here, together, safe and ready, and sure of reinforcements.

So, take a long afternoon and shuffle through the mix with us. Savor the delight and despair, the raucous and the resonant: our subjective best of the realm that is folk, and the vast diversity of sources reinvented for our pleasure; each reinvention a gem, borne up against the world-that-is like a torch; each burning performance exquisite, and beautiful in its own way.

Download it all, that the songs might linger, and bear repeating. And if you like what you hear, follow the links, as always, to purchase and share your own favorites, the better to keep the music and the music-making going for our children, and theirs.



The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2017)
A Cover Lay Down mixtape




Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, 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 go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

Comment » | Best of 2017, Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos (2017)
Living room covers, live cuts, in-studio sessions & more!

January 1st, 2018 — 5:29pm


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By its very nature, the cover celebrates iteration over song. And our Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos collection was originally envisioned as a way to acknowledge that, by celebrating in their “native medium” those performances which truly lose something essential when what we see is separated out from what we hear – an approach which favors live and in-studio performances over produced videographic content, and generally eschews the promotional post-recording “music video”.

How we celebrate this specific source and its coverfolk has come in and out of fashion here at Cover Lay Down, growing from a single category in our Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums features as recently as 2013 to a two-parter, with separate features for our top Coverfolk Video Singles and The best cover sessions, sets, and series, in 2015. This year, any attempt to commodify just “the native ones” is further complicated by the facts that a) we’re much later than usual, and b) despite previous-year concern that stripping the visuals from these multimedia texts potentially undermines their in-the-moment intent, we did it several times this year, most often in service to themed features where the startling-yet-intimate eye-candy atmosphere of a video might interrupt or even overwhelm the tonal focus of the writing itself.

In turn, although we tried to stick to those which stood on their own as audio-only, our trend towards flattening videos into Mp3s seems driven by a prioritization of the personal over the critical here on the blog as life grows ever more complicated, and what was once a twice weekly behemoth has become a less frequent but – we hope – in many ways a more deep ethnographic exploration of the ways in which the folkways influences both artists, and us. But this, too, is not so much a problem as an artifact of what we do, exactly: to live as a coverblogger is, after all, to embody the give-and-take ownership between artist and listener, both on a mass scale and on a very personal one.

Call it an artifact of context over convenience, then. Although a few performances we originally discovered on video (including great cuts from YouTube-to-TV stars Holly Henry and Janet Devlin, frequent-flyer and indie-slash-electrofolk genre-crosser Nataly Dawn, a lovely series of 10 covers of Canadian artists presented in honor of Canada’s 150th anniversary by Bailey Pelkman, and a wonderful Outkast cover from vocal popgroup Pentatonix’ departed bass-man, all of whom will appear in our Best Singles Mix) do in the end stand up just fine as audio-only cuts, we still believe that, in the ideal sense, the very design of at least some subsection of the vast array of ‘tube-sourced recordings that populate the sharing sites beg to be experienced in their native medium. For now, anyway, and for this year.

And so – while we finish curating our Best Coverfolk Singles Mixtape of 2017 (which we intend to release soon!), and wait for the last guests to wake up, eat breakfast, and depart from for our annual early-bird New Years party – Cover Lay Down proudly presents our very subjective favorite videographic performances of 2017, an amalgamated mix of 13 favorite singles and coverset selections. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!



The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos, 2017


Kina Grannis: When You Come Back Down (orig. Nickel Creek)

Kina Grannis is welcome and well-celebrated here on Cover Lay Down; she was one of the very first YouTube stars, and one of our first YouTube discoveries. But Grannis has been on fire this year, releasing a mix of sparklingly well-produced single-shot video covers that trend towards the polar ends of coverage, the undone and the redone: this year’s gems include stripped-down recasts of rap and pop tracks such as Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, Jimmy Eat World’s In The Middle, and Khalid’s Young Dumb & Broke, and softer folk and indie sources such as Bob Dylan (Blowin’ In The Wind), Etta James (At Last), and Sting (Fields of Gold), which, although closer in tenderness to the originals, nonetheless leave us breathless. Here, in her final cover of the year, she takes on our favorite Nickel Creek song, joyfully and with eyes half-closed, as always – and we’re glad, indeed, that she knows it, and has the chops to do it so well.


Passenger: A Change Is Gonna Come (orig. Sam Cooke)

The thirteen coversongs that comprised Passenger‘s Sunday Night Sessions – a set of video occasionals, with takes on Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Tracy Chapman, Bill Withers, Don McLean, Joy Division and more, recorded and filmed on location as the artist and his band toured the world – comprise a would-be hands-down favorite this year in our annual look at the single-artist cover series. The songs have since been recast and released as a ten-track streaming-only covers album, and it was mighty tempting, indeed, to include the album in our Best Coverfolk Albums rundown earlier this week – but the site-specific energy of these covers are so potent an addition to their musicality, in the end, we saved them for fuller feature here.


Tallest Man On Earth: Both Sides Now (orig. Joni Mitchell)

The Light in Demos is a pensive and deeply personal acoustic video project after our own heart, produced, written, directed, recorded, shot and edited entirely by Swedish artist Saras Per Kristian Matsson, also known as The Tallest Man on Earth. Eight songs in, the set includes six reworked and unfinished originals which bring new life and resonance to the growing search and songbook of one of our favorite musical explorers, and two covers: A Nick Drake familiarity, and this, “the best song in the world”, performed barefoot and with ringing reverb that brings a layer of stillness and eternity to both song and setting.


Twisted Pine: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (orig. The Beatles)

Announced just last week as recipients of one of Club Passim’s newest Iguana Music Fund grant recipients, Boston-based production-house Red Line Roots’ Old Spruce Sessions are recorded largely in found spaces, in off-stage moments borrowed from touring artists. Unlike their previously-celebrated Locals Cover Locals collections, a Bandcamp-sourced product chock full of predominantly singer-songwriter and small folk duo-and-trio performances, their video series is heavy on the earthy and organic, chock full of bluegrass and old-timey stuff; lo-fi delights worth celebration include a multitude of up-and-coming artists’ originals, Billy Strings’ backstage take on Cocaine Blues, and two Beatles covers: a gentle take on Norwegian Wood filmed in the attic of a rural Vermont town hall, and this tense, terrific wonder from deconstructed bluegrass quartet Twisted Pine, recorded in the fields of this year’s Green River Festival.


Darlingside: 1979 (orig. Smashing Pumpkins)

We’ve shared versions of this cover before. And we’ve loved video of it, too, such as this 2015 Kitchen Sessions performance, which arguably maintains a bit more in-the-moment fast-paced energy. But this one is balanced and pristine – the perfect, grungy-yet-polished final cut we’ve been waiting for since we first heard Darlingside’s arrangement of this Smashing Pumpkins tune raw and barely rehearsed in the fields of Falcon Ridge, where we first discovered the band, perhaps the perfect ambassadors for what well may be the newest branch of folk. Subscribe to Under The Apple Tree for more strong video coverage, too, including a potent full-band posthumous cover of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ from Robert Vincent, a slow and gorgeous three-part harmony take on Dolly Parton’s Jolene, and a beautiful live take on Dire Straits tune Brothers In Arms from Xander & the Peace Pirates which almost, almost, took the place of the above.


Walk Off The Earth: Shape Of You (orig. Ed Sheeran)

Though they’re more an acoustic rock band than a folk act, the cheerful, playful work of Hawaiian video project Walk Off The Earth, whose work is almost always designed to be seen as much as heard, has thrilled us before – see, for example, their lovely cardboard video for Malvina Reynolds song Little Boxes, which we raved about five years ago, and last year’s sunny version of The Chainsmokers’ Closer. This year, tightly choreographed, highly percussive and energetic performances continued to be the norm, and along with a campfire tribute to Tom Petty, this Ed Sheeran earworm is one of their best. With over twelve million views on YouTube already, you’ve probably heard it before – but it’s catchy, gleeful, and worth hearing again.


Katie Ferrara: Tangerine (orig. Led Zeppelin)

We featured LA busker and bar-singer Katie Ferrara back in July, celebrating her “convertible-top-down folk-pop powerhouse” EP with “a well-produced, subtly sensational, and eminently summery doozy of a Creedence cover” that matched in-studio recording shots with dreamy images and video from a recent flight from Miami. But there’s something lovely and intimate about Ferrara’s new Lemon Cat cover sessions, appropriately filmed against a yellow background, and all from December. Click through for more, including an electric take on Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low, and – as if to justify our late entry into the universe of 2017 – her sultry version of Aerosmith’s Crazy.


Jeffrey Foucault: Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) (orig. Bob Dylan)

Like a few others on this year’s Best Videos list, we shared this cut first via our Facebook page – in this case, way back in February, along with another of Jeffrey Foucault’s political covers, originally by Danny O’Keefe by way of Chris Smither, which seems to exist only on the etherial social space, and thus confounds our ability to embed it here. But these stark, faceless, sepia-toned videos from the current champion of dustbowl despair ache with angst and anger, offering perfect settings for the songs themselves. They still haunt us, and they should.


Mark Broussard: Sweet Baby James (orig. James Taylor)

A slow-release February-into-March mostly-covers session with his father Ted playing alongside him converted us, instantly, into fans of the soulful Marc Broussard – and sent us scrambling to collect the entire set, including their takes on Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Loggins and Messina classic House at Pooh Corner, and a slam-dunk version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow dedicated to a very special lost soul. Simple yet nuanced, this bluesfolk is bare and bare-bones, as it should be….and should Broussard decide, after all, to record a for-charity children’s lullaby album, we’ll be one of the first in line to help push it into the world.


Rus Reppert: Fly Like An Eagle (orig. Steve Miller)

It’s dark, and cavernous – like the deserted warehouse in which it was filmed – and maybe that’s the point. And it’s a loop cover – which, for the uninitiated, means it’s built live from the ground up, just one man and a solo guitar, and a set of pedals to control it all. For all these reasons and more, this December-filmed, February-released Steve Miller cover from West Virginia songwriter Rus Reppert absolutely, positively belongs here on our Best Videos collection; strip the visuals, and you’d lose both the darkness and the intimate immediacy of it all. Follow the threads, too, to Candyrat Records, which is chock full of utterly stunning live acoustic fingerstyle covers and originals, most without lyrics.


Upstate Rubdown: I’m Looking Through You (orig. The Beatles)

We made some wonderful new discoveries and a host of great memories at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival this year, but it was hard not to love Upstate Rubdown, a down-to-earth all-acoustic “big band” from New York’s Hudson Valley region whose music fuses folk, roots, funk, swing, and more, and every performance is a party and a half. We named this video one of our Year’s Best the moment we found it, and we don’t regret the early call one bit.


I’m With Her: Send My Love (To Your New Lover) (orig. Adele)

This bass-and-vox cover from indiefolk supergroup I’m With Her, recorded live on their American Acoustic tour over the summer, was released “on all streaming/downloading apps” as a benefit recording for Thistle Farms, a Nashville-based nonprofit that heals, empowers and employs survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction. Switch out the video, though, and you’d miss both the intimacy of the performance, and the way the high, stark contrast of black dresses and blond wood stage reflects this every-note-counts homage to Adele.


The Sea The Sea: I’ll Keep It With Mine (orig. Bob Dylan)

A transformed Dylan tune filmed and recorded live mid-year by way of introduction to old friends (and now married couple) Chuck and Mira’s newly expanded foursome, still playing under the The Sea, The Sea moniker. A tight, controlled percussive sound and lush vocals that nonetheless retain the careful and sparse arrangements typical of their performance. After this fishbowl fantasy – and a lovely tree-side Concert Window session of holiday songs and carols that filled our own living room the night we brought our own tree home – we’re looking to have them back to our Unity House Series as soon as we can find a date.



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, 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 go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

Comment » | Aoife O'Donovan, Best of 2017, Darlingside, Ed Sheeran, James Taylor, Jeffrey Foucault, Kina Grannis, Passenger, The Sea The Sea, YouTube

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2017)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Compilations & more!

December 28th, 2017 — 11:44pm





Every year at around this time I take a moment to reconsider: both how we do this, and whether to do it at all.

But although the folkgenres are slippery, and the question of what and what is not folk enough for the blog continues to elude clear delineation, there is still this love inside me: for the way a song recreated can tie together the memory, the culture, the heart, and the mind. It’s like a form of meditation, an approach to wholeness. The urge remains.

And so, here we are, at year’s end again, sifting through a year of that aching in the chest, the surge of joy and gladness, the still moment by the hearth or in the sun, that sudden song on the radio that hits you so hard you have to pull over, panting and sobbing, into the nearest grassy patch, and just feel.

Which is to say: it was a wonderful year for coverage, if not always for blogging it. The soundtrack of our struggles and sorrows, our travels and triumphs, was spiked with hope and beauty, empathy and grace. And coming back to it at year’s end again brings closure, of a sorts, even as it reminds us to keep our love near and dear, and cherish that which has made us, and will make us whole once again, lest it fade into the night, and be lost to the world.

And so we embrace the pensive purpose of Winter by sharing with the world our wholly subjective pleasures, once again carefully curated and celebrated, the better to bring the community closer, and the music more sustainable.

From the smooth to the ragged, then. From the delicate to the deep. From the bringers of light to the media of our melancholy; from the hoot and holler to the hushed and harmonic. From all corners of the broad tent that spans the folkways, shading it from the harshest of weather and whim.

Cover Lay Down is proud to present our Best Of The Year, starting with our very favorite folk, roots, bluegrass and Americana tribute albums and covers compilations of 2017 – with thirty five albums and over fifty songs in all, and all beloved. May your winter, too, be filled with the light of a year gone by.



The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist)
+ The Wailin’ Jennys, Fifteen
+ Mark Erelli, MIXTAPE!

+ The Sumner Brothers, To Elliot: In Remembrance of Wolf
+ Misner & Smith, Headwaters
+ Travis Knapp, Wintery Mix 2018
+ Ane Brun, Leave Me Breathless
+ Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet
+ Eric Brace, Cartes Postales

It’s nice to see familiar faces atop this year’s solo artist list. Reassuring, too, to recognize that though their sounds are distinctive in every case, all six of the artists whose covers albums lingered longest and – as a consequence -
were loved most here at Cover Lay Down in 2017 define themselves as folk in one way or another.

But after winnowing down past a strong field of honorable mentions, our final solo-artist Best Covers Albums list for 2017 is also notable in that it is representative, in its way, of the two separate threads which intersect here at Cover Lay Down. For in just four albums, we find both the vast breadth and diversity of contemporary folk – itself a mode or subgenre hard to define – and a pitch-perfect spread of the various approaches to considering source material in choosing coverage for the covers album, most especially as an increasingly de rigueur mid-career movement in the artistic community.

Call it a tie for first, then. On the one hand, The Wailin’ Jennys, still at the very peak of their sound fifteen years after their founding (and five since we featured their coverage in full): a deliberately lush, gentle, sweetly arranged trio of voices in tender treatment of well-beloved sadsongs, celebrations, and ballads from Patty Griffin, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, and other beloved songwriters of the folk-and-beyond community. On the other, local hero and Americana troubadour Mark Erelli, whose Kickstarter we celebrated a few months ago, wringing raw, almost primal soul from Mixtape, his thirteenth outing, an oddly comforting spread of popular songs from Richard Thompson to Phil Collins rebuilt from the inside out – technically not fully released until mid-January, but easy to preorder, and too amazing to hold back on now. Taken as ethnographic mile markers, they offer a field tender and intimate, triumphant and torn: albums to take us anywhere, and back.

A strong second this year goes to another surprisingly representative pairing from a slightly younger generation which also matches slow and broken with upbeat precision. First, Headwaters, the fifth album from California duo Misner & Smith, and their first covers compilation; a homespun collection that finds Sam and Megan, a pair of actors-turned-folk rock/Americana band, yawing wide as they bring diverse songs and influences from The Talking Heads and Dr. Dog to Gram Parsons and The Lovin’ Spoonful into their own sharp and distinctive harmonic register. Alongside it: Vancouver alt-folk band The Sumner Brothers, whose traded vocals drip with Van Zandt heroin and dust as they meander through a host of slower alt-country songs on To Elliot: In Remembrance of Wolf, wringing hoarse depth and angst from Springsteen’s ghosts, Warren Zevon’s western saloon town, Hank Williams’ morose guitar, Jolie Holland’s timeless bluesfolk, and more. Both Headwaters and To Elliot are short – just 8 tracks – but cohesive, easily transcending the brevity of the EP format, providing a full and immersive experience for new listeners and long-time fans the respective duos.

And those honorable mentions? Almost too many to mention – it was, in the end, a banner year for coverage. Favorites include wonderful albums from Travis Knapp (whose tenth annual Wintery Mix, released just last week, offers a perfectly imperfect collection of bedroom folk covers of Anais Mitchell, Marc Cohn, Amos Lee, Chris Stapleton and more, on piano, banjo, and guitar), Ane Brun (whose Leave Me Breathless does, with a dreamy folkpop vibe that fans will find both comforting and crystal clear), Eric Brace (whose Cartes Postales, released last month on Red Beet Records, is a fun, jazzy, squeezebox-and-clarinet driven croissant of a tribute to the French-language favorites of his father’s generation) and Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne (some of whose slippery country fried rockers, like the hard-edged Nirvana classic Lithium, hardly count as folk, though overall, Not Dark Yet – the first collaboration between these siblings – is a true-blue delight). Ah, such riches.




The Year’s Best Covers EP (single artist)
+ Genevieve Racette, Covers
+ Erin Drews, Caught, Kept
+ Mia Mallet, Chapter One / Chapter Two
+ The Chinworth Brothers, Six Songs
+ RM Hubbert, Recovery (EP1)
+ AJ Lee, Aj Lee

Sometimes, simple is best. Take, for example, Caught, Kept, a precious four-track released way back in February from Minnesotan amateur Erin Drews – a perfect teaser for her full album of originals, released in May – which captured our heart and ears with throaty voice, etherial harmonies, and the gentle strum of the singer-songwriter diamond in the rough. Or Montreal-based Genevieve Racette’s pitch-perfect transformations of Bonnie Raitt and Nirvana, Dylan and The Beatles, hushed and lush, tense and true, with sparse synths over floating indie guitar and sweet, supple voice. Or Parisian songstress Mia Mallet’s two tiny, gorgeous, hollow lo-fi covers EPs, with their ringing piano and airy, layered voices that leave us weak.

If it was, as they say, a very good year for the shortform covers collection, it was thanks primarily to a spate of independent Bandcamp sets like these, from a host of bright rising stars, previously undiscovered. Like The Chinworth Brothers, who turned in a six song powerhouse, split evenly among soaring-yet-earnest traditionals and startlingly non-traditional indiefolk-and-more treatments of Elliott Smith, Phil Ochs, and Sashatchewan singer-songwriter Andy Shauf. Or Glaswegian RM Hubbert’s “sincere and melancholic” EP Recovery, a broken, rusted artifact from the anti-folk junkyard which broods its way into our psyche.

In the end, of all these amateur and truly indie tiny loves, it is Racette’s Covers that edges out ever so slightly over the rest – if only for the diversity of sound it packs in so tight a space, and the poise it manages to maintain between pristine and purposeful as it takes on the small canon. But all of these small albums deserve our respect and celebration, nonetheless.

Still, let us not forget, at least in passing, our one exception to the Bandcamp trend this year: young California bluegrass breakthrough AJ Lee’s self-titled EP, an eagerly awaited delight “paying tribute to…the founding voices of [the] California cosmic country sound” via songs by Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Gillian Welch, and Bob Dylan which arrived in hard copy. Tight and highly produced alongside a four-piece band, the songs evoke the rich summery sound of the originals, with perfect Grateful Dead vibe and harmonies on Herb Pedersen’s Wait A Minute the crowning glory of a still-growing career. A rich field, indeed – like folk, and like the songs it brings together.




The Year’s Best Covers Compilation (multiple artists)
+ Burst And Bloom 50
+ Sad! A Barsuk Records Compilation for the ACLU

As has sometimes been the case – see, for example, last year’s Best Of collections, which featured covers albums from Fast Folk, tribute-house American Laundromat Records, and a third iteration of Locals Covering Locals from production house Red Line Roots – digital-only label-driven navel-gazing held sway in the world of mixed-bag covers compilations again this year, a trend which pushes the boundaries of our focus on folk, and on the very concept of album. We say this not to denigrate the category – there’s much to celebrate here – but mainly to warn those lulled into a sense of delicacy by the previous category winners that folk is a wider tent, and the alternative crowd is where the labels often live and breathe great coverage.

Enter exhibit A: Burst and Bloom, a small, independent record label and book publisher based in the increasingly hip seaside town of Portsmouth, NH, which came out of nowhere this year to blow us away. We’ll see more of their loving curatorial work in our Best Tribute Albums below, too, thanks to a 2 CD tribute to Brown Bird. But here, in our compendium of mixed-artist covers albums, it is Burst & Bloom 50, a loving tribute to the label’s own roster in celebration of their fiftieth release, which nets our highest honors, as a stunning, raw gem, with 25 covers, no more than one per original record, comprising a discomforting set which vibrates on the edge of freakfolk, alternative grunge, and other underground sounds associated with but not always squarely under the folktent.

And who cares if we don’t know the originals or recognize most of the original artists? The Burst & Bloom collection serves its purpose, sending us into the back catalog, starting with 2009 release ‘All My Friends Are Right Here With Me’, a CD compilation of fringefolk artists covering songs by the indie-folk collective Tiger Saw, 2012′s Lucky Numbers, a tribute to indie DIY rock and soul legend Viking Moses, who has toured with Jason Molina, Phosphorescent, and Devendra Banhardt, and of course Through The Static and Distance, their marvelous 2015 posthumous tribute to Jason Molina.

Barsuk’s smaller collection Sad!, a glitchy 7 song indie-slash-alt-folk collection spearheaded by Mates of State, David Bazan, Nada Surf, and Maps & Atlases covering fellow labelmates John Vanderslice, Pedro The Lion, Death Cab For Cutie, Ra Ra Riot, and more, comes up roses, too – both for its strong musicality, and its unabashedly political bent, arriving as it did on the eve of a new presidential ascension, with all work donated by the artists in solidarity, and all proceeds from the dollar-a-track release going to support the ACLU ” in defense of the civil liberties of all Americans”.




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)
+ Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Best Troubadour
+ Old Crow Medicine Show, 50 Years of Blonde On Blonde

In a year where long-awaited Dylan tributes from Joan Osborne and Old Crow Medicine Show ran closer to sultry radiopop and R&B and brash twangy roadhouse country rock than folk, respectively, it was hard to figure out whether we should collapse the single artist tribute album category or simply let it go. A sigh of relief and a tip of the hat, then, to indiefolk maverick Bonnie “Prince” Billy, whose usually broken voice is surprisingly melodic and aptly troubled on his category-saving Merle Haggard tribute Best Troubador, a May 2017 release which flew under our radar for months before earworming its way in via an unexpected encounter with radioplay late at night on a fleeting local college station.

It’s a thread we’re glad to have pulled. Regular readers may note that we have long had a love-hate relationship with the artist formerly and sometimes also known as Will Oldham, though we did name his last tribute album, a tribute to the Everly Brothers recorded with Dawn McCarthy, atop this same category in 2013. But this collection is redemptive, with guest vocalist A.J. Roach, fiddler Cheyenne Mize, and singer and flautist Nuala Kennedy, and other underground luminaries lending their talents to a fitting tribute to a lost soul whose earnest honesty and iconoclastic outlook have, clearly, deeply influenced Oldham’s approach to music and the universe. The Bonnie “Prince” gets full marks for an especially intimate tribute to both Haggard himself, and to the ache of the country.




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)
+ Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story
+ A Light I Can Feel: A Tribute To Brown Bird
+ Treasures of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard

The multi-artist tribute album is so often imperfect. Even our favorite homages generally have a weak spot: a track or two to skip as well-intentioned artists and songbooks find their mismatch. The potential for trouble doubles down when artists have the sheer unadulterated chutzpah to take on recreation of a seminal album, such as Brandi Carlile’s 2007 release The Story; it triples when it is the original songwriter herself who solicits and curates the album. And surely, it’s pushing our luck to name an album featuring both Pearl Jam and Adele as a folk tribute, let alone our favorite multi-artist tribute of the year.

And yet. Adele performing Brandi Carlile’s Hiding My Heart with nothing but solo acoustic guitar is folk, for sure. The Avett Brothers, the Indigo Girls, Shovels & Rope, Old Crow Medicine Show and Dolly Parton turn in stellar performances. The Secret Sisters are now our new favorite female duo. Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story shouldn’t work, at all, but in the end, the syrup of Kris Kristofferson, the psychedelic jam of Jim James, and the fully typical fuzz of Pearl Jam are anomalies on what is otherwise a strong survey of modern Americana and Roots performance. And Brandi Carlile earns our respect over again, over a decade after we first fell in love with her – and then once again, for using this album to highlight the plight of children in war-torn regions of the world.

A close second, as noted earlier, comes by way of A Light I Can Feel, a tribute from label Burst & Bloom that simply overflows with warm friendship and respect for beloved RI-based folk duo Brown Bird, whose co-founder David Lamb passed from leukemia in 2014. Originally conceived of as a fundraising venue for Lamb’s treatment, the sprawling 32 track tribute was released posthumously in March, with proceeds to benefit others through the Sweet Relief charity organization, and “to continue to share the music of Brown Bird with the world.” Chock full of raw performances, each mesmerizing in its way, the album pulls off what it aims to, and more: a triumph of scale, and a tender homage.

Third place honors go to the predominantly country side of folk represented on Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard – not the first such folk tribute to Mark Heard, but the first in 20 years, which explains just how many newcomers appear on the album. Like previous folk tributes to this undersung, unabashedly Christian singer-songwriter who passed from an on-stage heart attack in 1992 on the cusp of greater glory, this collection offers both Buddy Miller and a mixed bag of good-to-great performances of a songbook cut short, predominantly gathered from Heard’s final three releases, with the worst suffering from a touch of the same overproduction that typified their original contemporary folk radioplay era. Still, with strong coverage by Birds of Chicago, Sean Rowe, Amy Helm, Sierra Hull, Over The Rhine and more, the collection is worth pursuit and ownership.




The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album
+ Max Godfrey, Before The Ice Melts
+ Offa Rex, Queen Of Hearts
+ Nathan Lewis Williams, Across The Water
+ Lindsay Straw, The Fairest Flower of Womankind
+ Jayme Stone, Jayme Stone’s Folklife
+ Alathea, His Eye Is On The Sparrow
+ Ranky Tanky, Ranky Tanky

As both the year’s archives and the huge list above anticipate, it was, in many ways, a gold standard year for traditional folk recordings from across the globe, from the Gullah strains of newly-formed jazz-meets-roots quintet Ranky Tanky (featured back in July, in anticipation of its well-celebrated September release) to The Decemberists and Olivia Chaney, collaborating together as Offa Rex, in a faithful but still sweet retro turn on the UK tradfolk canon, as channeled and strained through both the arrangements and the influence of the “genre heavyweights” of 60′s folk and rock revivalists Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Colin Meloy fave Shirley Collins, and more, with clear echoes of Maddy Prior, June Tabor, and Sandy Denny in the mix thanks to powerful, nuanced vocals from Chaney.

But in the end, if I prefer the polished quietude of the canon, why, here were joys enough for days: delicate, broken balladry selected and arranged to emphasize lyrical gender empowerment by Iguana Fund recipient and local hero Lindsay Straw, whom I very much hope to catch live at this year’s Boston Celtic Music Fest towards the end of January; the soft, almost faerie-found strains of Glastonbury’s Nathan Lewis Williams and Caelia Lunniss; Jayme Stone’s next generation Folklife album, a follow-up to his 2015 Lomax project, which sees the bandleader and archive revivalist taking on a wider swath of cultural catechism alongside Moira Smiley of tune-yArDs, Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops), Felicity Williams of Bahamas, and more luminaries on a musical journey through the Appalachians, the Sea Islands and the Caribbean; Christian folk duo Alathea’s His Eye Is On The Sparrow, a bright, often boisterous crowdsourced collection of hymns noted earlier this month in our first holiday coverfolk feature.

Our surprise frontrunner, though, comes from sifting through precious gems from the amateur set: Max Godfrey’s Before The Ice Melts, which mixes tradsongs (and one Dylan cut, and a 1920s hit later revived by Bessie Smith and others) with new lyrics and a few licks, is truly down to earth, a fine sophomore outing from an artist just now making the traditions his own. Just for fun, and because Godfrey makes them sound so…well, traditional, we’ve shared just the non-trad tracks here; download the rest to see just what that creaky, timeless voice can do with the truly traditional canon.




The Year’s Best Tradfolk EP
+ Thom Ashworth, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

English folksinger and bassist Thom Ashworth is just starting his career, but two small releases this year promise big enough things to make it worth sustaining a category despite a single entry. If the first, January 2017′s 4-track EP Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, is the feature here, it’s only because November’s second release, Hollow – also a 4-track – is a half-and-half, with two originals and two traditional songs arranged by Ashworth himself. Both are worth pursuit, however, and bookmarking, too, as we watch for Ashworth’s continued output with bated breath.




The Year’s Best Half-Covers Album
+ Laura Baird, I Wish I Were A Sparrow
+ Brock Simpson, The Gardener Child: Scots Songs Both New and Traditional
+ Red Molly, One For All & All For One

The two records which top our final folk category this year are similar in many ways: sparse neo-traditionals, perfectly balanced, with little in the way of flourish and a lot in the way of authenticity. Our by-a-hair favorite is Laura Baird’s simple, unadorned tribute to the fiddle-and-banjo tunes of her own Appalachian youth, her first full-length solo outing after years of performing with her sister Meg, and an even-steven six-and-six split of covers and originals that intermingles her own work with the songs of her Great-Grandfathers’ hills so smoothly and successfully, we had to keep the liner notes handy.

Toronto teacher-musician Brock Simpson’s The Gardener Child is a similar but blurrier halfling: simple and elegant solo stuff, framed with but a winsome, sensitive voice and gentle guitar. Here, too, unlabeled tracks had us scurrying to figure out which was which, until we realized that – as with Baird’s delight – what matters most is the sound, and the consistency of sentiment.

Our third-place finisher in the half-covers category couldn’t be more different in its approach to its respective canon, a four-and-two EP with energetic close harmonies familiar and fine recorded and released as part of Red Molly’s swan song crowdsource project, designed to drive the production of solo albums from all three band members. I’ve heard two of three of these albums so far – and am proud to announce that Laurie MacAllister’s delightful contemporary all-covers album The Lies The Poets Tell will be the first album of 2018 to grace these pages in the new year, and may well be our earliest contender for a following-year Best Of award in the history of our nominal countdown. In the meantime, we’ll include a favorite from what well may be Red Molly’s last record, at least for a while, as we bid our own list adieu.




The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Covers Album
+ Various Artists, Don’t Stop Now: A Collection of Covers
+ Love + War, Nine Lives

+ Various Artists, Cha Cha Cha: The Songs of Shotgun Jimmie
+ Various Artists, Failed Tribute Bands 2

If you come here for the folk and only the folk, now would be a good time to skip to the last few songs below; we’ve winnowed out the best and folkiest of this year’s mixed-genre covers collections, and if they’re all you want, we won’t hold it against you.

But true cover-lovers know that sometimes the very best tracks come from surprising sources. And so we present our annual coda: four albums which are decidedly NOT folk records, but which provide so much more in the way of breadth and beauty, we just had to mention them.

Our utter tie-for-favorite here is sprawling, indeed: a 37-track collection, released on Inauguration Day 2017 just like the aforementioned Barsuk collection, and – like it – a decidedly politicized collection, pre-emptive and angrier in its way, designed to support the ACLU. But where both Burst & Bloom and Barsuk produced covers albums which were at least nominally folk, Don’t Stop Now is unabashedly mixed-genre, with plenty of potent indiefolk tracks plus retro-alternative rock, post-punk, and hopping, hopeful otherstuff taking on songs from Joy Division to Harry Chapin.

Meanwhile in an unusual turn, a solo artist appears atop the category, at least on paper: Nine Lives, a covers collection from Nashville-based writer-producer team Coury Palermo & Ron Robinson, aka love+war. Glitchy electro-soul and grungy folkpop tracks mix oddly well in this covers album, pushing it to the top of the list as a second strange bedfellow. Drowning in tape hiss and lush with click-track reverb, with pitch-perfect guest vocalists like Angel Snow – the very first artist featured here, ten years ago, in our New Artists, Old Songs series – the entire thing, from covers of Prince and Springsteen favorites to hits from Terence Trent D’Arby, Depeche Mode, and The Eurythmics, is a guilty pleasure, with emphasis on pleasure.

Honorable mention? Easily Comin’ Around Records’ lovely lo-fi tribute to the songs of Polaris Prize nominee and art school student Shotgun Jimmie – a mixed bag, but with some solid tracks from familiar North-of-the-border fringefolk standbys like Old Man Luedecke and Woodpigeon, all to raise money for the Dawson City Music Festivals’ Songwriter in Residence Program.
And Failed Tribute Bands Two!, which earns its emphatic punctuation easily: by the time you get to the fifth track, it’s hard to figure that there’s going to be anything approaching folk here…and then, suddenly, Allysen Callery, whose recently completed 12 Days of Covers Soundcloud series is a bonus trove of DIY ghost folk treasures.




Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, 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 go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

1 comment » | Allysen Callery, Angel Snow, Best of 2017, Infamous Stringdusters, Mark Erelli, New Artists Old Songs, Old Crow Medicine Show, Red Molly, Shovels & Rope, Sierra Hull, The Wailin' Jennys, Tributes and Cover Compilations

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