Category: Rhiannon Giddens


The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2019)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Covers Compilations & more!

January 5th, 2020 — 6:17pm


They say the turning of the year is symbolic, and to use it so: for reflection, a slate to be cleaned and set, restored, upon the walls of our living spaces.   In our time of need, there is solace, and a second chance built into our calendrical lives.  

And in the long, quiet hours to and from the adrenalin crises of our lives, music is our guide.   In the heartbreak rages and the long walks, it serves us.  In the peace of night, it sustains and soothes.  The discovery of it is joyful.  And the knowing of it, when it is at its best, and our need is greatest, is sublime.  

Such is our mandate, and our mission here: the comforting under the strange; the song of our hearts revealed or transformed.  Coverage.   The roots and branches of the music of the community, and the heart, in bloom, reborn.  

It’s hubris, perhaps, that brings us here – and no small bit of sheer stubbornness, to keep us coming back, for the past month and a bit, since our long, long hiatus through the majority of 2019.   We are humbled, practically imposters, after being away from the music for so long, and only so recently returned, in laying claim to anyone’s top ten, or five, or one…except our own. 

For although we were gone, the music still sustained us.   And here it is, at year’s end, the best still spinning on the tip of our tongues and ears.  

It’s good to be back with our 8th annual Year’s Best Coverfolk collection.  As always – and perhaps more than ever – it is neither definitive nor comprehensive, merely a celebration of the albums that have stuck, or stunned, or both, in a year where music was more important than ever. 

It is a list made with love and luck – at 35 songs, and almost two dozen albums, the soundtrack of our long hours of need and desire. 

Enjoy it.  Add its gems to your collections, the better to support the artists who serve our souls.  Come back, soon, for our celebration of the best coverfolk singles of 2019. 

And may your new year burn bright with possibility, too.  




The Year’s Best Covers EP

+ Emily Mure, Sad Songs and Waltzes
+ Rachel Sumner, The Things You Forgot
+ Margaret and Gregory, Songs for Loving and Dying
+ Moonlamb Project, Derivative Blues

The five tracks on The Things You Forgot, our tied-for-first Covers EP of the Year from Boston-based roots singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, enjoyed a slow release throughout the year, giving us time to steep in each song as it came, from the light cowgirl bluegrass of Josh Ritter’s Temptation of Adam in April to a surprisingly faithful layered-vox-and-strum Elliott Smith cover in October; by the time the full set came together with a stunningly sweet Simple Twist of Fate four weeks ago, we were already deeply in love.  The songs on The Things You Forgot are as unforgettable in version as they are in the originals; as a full disc, their compositional potency comes into focus thanks to clear-as-a-bell production and performance, each precious note sung and strummed a single, deliberate stroke.  The end result is a simple masterpiece, still lingering long after we first featured it in November’s New Artists, Old Songs mailbag review.  Though Sumner has roots in both the bluegrass and classical worlds, this is true-blue singer-songwriter folk through and through, too: achingly clear, and wide open to the world, with twang and tenderness enough to carry us through the fire of an unusually difficult year on its own.  

Twinned honors go to Emily Mure, another solo artist we’ve touted here before for her delightful covers of Cake’s Mexico and Bowie’s As The World Falls Down.  But Sad Songs and Waltzes catapults her to the top of any list: from the first warm chord to the rich wistful harmonies floating in air, the EP – named after a Willie Nelson classic that melts like butter in this songstress’ supple hands and voice – offers an enveloping journey through the transformed songbook of modern radio, sweet and subtle and oh so cool.  It’s the tender covers album Kate Wolf would have made, if she had been born a half century later, and raised on Radiohead, Wilco, and The Cranberries, all of whom are covered softly and well; even Coldplay’s Yellow, which has been so over-covered in the last decade, takes on new shape and meaning here, once captured in Mure’s capable, enrapturing gaze.  Listen deeply, and be comforted anew.  

Honorable mention this year goes to Margaret and Gregory, whose small, homespun, oddly diverse lo-fi folk-and-indie-rock Songs for Loving and Dying takes on Dylan, Gillian Welch, John Prine, AP Carter, and a Mr. Rogers classic: a short ride, yet wide ranging, both full of death and life-affirming; the imperfections are delightful, too, making for a delicate yet definitive celebration of the bedroom antifolk subgenre.  And although it, too, is amateur at heart, Belgian’s Moonlamb Project – a duo – has a great concept in Derivative Blues, a five-track released on Bandcamp back in May.  There’s nothing polished here: raw grit, growling accented vocals, and a grungy barroom guitar-and-harmonica blues mood lend sparse verisimilitude to tracks originally by Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Robert Plant, and gone-before-his-time Delta Bluesman Napoleon Washington, leaving us a potent reminder that the good stuff observes no boundaries.  




The Year’s Best Covers Album

+ Ben Lee, Quarter Century Classix
+ S.T. Manville, Somebody Else’s Songs
+ Unwoman, Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5
+ Corb Lund, Cover Your Tracks
+ Greg Laswell, Covers II
+ Angel Black-Orchid, Classic Beauty
+ Becky and Cloud, Decade

Relatively few full-length mass-market covers albums hit the radar this year; as such, our Year’s Best Covers Albums this year come sourced primarily from deep dives into Bandcamp and Soundcloud, where the primacy of home recording, musicians-as-producers, and indie sensibility hold sway.   But our by-a-nose favorite is one of the the exceptions: like us, Aussie indie pop rocker Ben Lee came to maturity amidst the alternative indie punk rock scene of the early nineties, even touring with Sebadoh in his late teens as part of his first band, and Quarter Century Classix, his dreamy snowed-in post-pop celebration of the soundtrack of our respective youths – Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., Guided By Voices, Pavement, and Sonic Youth among them – offers a surprisingly tender, eminently professional retelling of songs obscure yet seminal to those who share our origin story.   Session play from William Tyler and a guest spot from Petra Hayden only serve to cement Lee’s collection’s place in the great pantheon of honest, poignant tributes to a generation’s lost youth and deep influence.  And anyone unsure about whether this is folk need only check out his Daniel Johnston cover, which hits the essential sound of Dylan and the Byrds square on.

Lee’s tribute stands strong against two other 2019 collections heavy with similar trends towards the interpretation of the loud and the electric in our category this year.   The softer of these, ex-punk-rocker S. T. Manville‘s Somebody Else’s Songs, drops a dozen more modern pop punk tunes into hushed tones and a sparse, lower fidelity modality for a hazy acoustic ride through classics from Green Day, Jimmy Eats World, The Offspring and others; as we noted in November, it’s “pretty and pensive in performance”, and delightfully delicate from cover to cover, thanks to an understated approach: “quiet vocal and slow picking drone, with occasional light accents from accordion, banjo, and violin” still fill our ears, and serve us well.   

The other end of the spectrum runs raucous, and broader in its range.  Those who prefer their cover “folk” on the far edge of high stepping countrified barroom roots rock a la Wilco, Buddy Miller, or Steve Earle need look no farther than Canadian country roots artist Corb Lund, whose Cover Your Tracks – his first album in several years – is a bootkickin’ alt-country romp through some serious classics, most of which add twang and slide and otherwise hew relatively close to the energy of an unusually cohesive set of almost random originals –  from Dylan and Lee Hazelwood to ACDC and, most oddly, Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.   

We could have put experimental acousto-electric cellist, producer, and composer Unwoman, aka San Franciscan steampunk singer-songwriter Erica Mulkey, in our EP category this year, simply on the strength of November 7-track release Just Go Away, with simply shines with glitchy drumtrack joy as it celebrates Blondie, Hole, Bowie, and more.  But that smaller set was just a coda to something much, much greater: double album Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5, which covers 30 amazing soundscapes originally released and recorded for (and in many cases, chosen by) the artist’s Patreon and Bandcamp supporters over the past several years.  It’s grand and at times even orchestral, but there’s little to skip through here: the set shows an artist with poise, balance, and a sense of the complex made real and personal, celebrating and worth celebrating at year’s end and beyond.  And although it’s a little overly dramatic for our daily tastes, we’d be remiss in skipping San Diego singer-songwriter Greg Laswell, last seen on these pages over a decade ago for his cross-gender Cyndi Lauper cover, who returns to the world of coverage this year with Covers II – a dark folkpop piece, with thudding piano, stimulating strings, and the strong addition of co-vocalist Molly Jenson throughout, to capture our own darker moments. 

Honorable mention even farther beyond the punk sourcebook goes to a pair of Bandcamp-only releases: Classic Beauty, an album of oft-covered, relatively faithful reproductions of 60s and 70s classics from self-admitted session singer and circus show collaborator Angel Black-Orchid that reminds us that authentic, brashy playback is its own form of apt tribute, and Decade, which offers well-articulated folk pop fare from French duo Becky and Cloud, celebrating their tenth anniversary with aptly titled covers album taking on a familiar indiefolk sourcebook head on: hits from Poison & Wine, Damien Rice, The Weepies and The Innocence Mission up against equally familiar songs from Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles.  Neither album is truly transformative, but both offer bright voices clearly articulated, bright song choices, and a brighter sound, thanks to production choices which trend towards faithful reproduction of songs generally framed in wider berth: it’s the buskers you’d miss your bus for, and that’s a good thing, too. 




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)

+ Various Artists, Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits
+ Mercury Rev ft. Various Artists, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

For a while there, it was looking like 2019 would be a bust for compilation tribute records, at least as far as our softer roots-and-folk focus would allow: Mojo magazine, usually a go-to source for genre-pushing compilations in tribute, stuck to originals; 2014 follow-up This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson (Volume 2) turned up with Cheap Trick sounding like Cheap Trick, Martha Wainwright channeling the sixties, and even Mikaela Davis in hopping poprock flashiness; the recorded release of 2018’s live Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration concert came in far too slick; several micro-labels and collaboratives released underground tributes to outsider’s artist outsider artist Daniel Johnston after his death in early September, but they were all just as weird as the original.  

Psychedelic moodmakers Mercury Rev‘s tribute to Bobbie Gentry’s countryfolk classic The Delta Sweete gets a nod here, and not in our single artist tribute category, primarily because of how dependent the album is on a wonderfully-selected set of track-by-track guest female indiefolk vocalists, including turns from Norah Jones, Vashti Bunyan, Hope Sandoval, Lucinda Williams and others worth hearing. Still, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, however wonderful, is genre-pushing, tenuously folk at best, even in its lighter moments, most notably Laura Marling’s tense, chiming, crescendoing dream of Refractions, and the soaring wall-of-gospel Beth Orton piece that follows; the rest sounds more like a remix of U2’s Achtung Baby as filtered through the majesty of both the Moody Blues and Thompson Twins production engineers.  (Although that’s not bad, necessarily – the band pulls the whole thing off really, really well.)  

Happily, Cover Me was on the ball when they covered Warren Zanes-produced tribute Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits twice this year: first in a short teaser post in August, then in a track by track five star review after the album’s release that claimed “instant classic” status for the record.  They’re right, of course: it’s all good, and quite good at that, from end to end a solid, strong tribute to a well-deserved gravel-voiced crooner of the downtrodden, with some of our favorite moods and voices – Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann, Roseanne Cash, Iris Dement – familiar to this type of project on the roster, and truly a canon of coverage in homage overall.  We’re especially loving the selections from newer artists, too: the simple grandeur of sister act Joseph’s title cut, which comes on so much more static, and then turns up so much more tense, when held up against Sarah Jarosz’ seemingly seminal cover of the same; Courtney Marie Andrews’ driving, high-countrified Downtown Train; Phoebe Bridger’s slow, mournful Appalachian-Celtic gospel hymn reinvention of Georgia Lee.    




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)

+ Steve Earle, Guy
+ Sudhananda with Lucia Lilikoi, Golden Slumbers
+
Janileigh Cohen, Bird on a Wire

We figured Steve Earle‘s tribute to Guy Clark – a quickly-recorded and heartfelt tribute to one-time mentor and friend, and thus, in its way, a companion piece to his previous end-of-the-decade tribute, 2009’s Townes – was going to slam this category, as long as it didn’t go too hard for folk.   Sure enough, though it certainly teeters on the edge in its louder, more bombastic tracks, the simply-titled Guy comes in loving, generous, gritty, and heartstrong in the end – a solid choice for those already invested in the world of No Depression, a high point in the alt-country roots range, and a fine reminder that Earle is still atop his own game.  

Our runners-up lie not far behind, though vastly different in sound.   First up: Golden Slumbers, a collection of Beatles covers originally intended to be instrumental lullabies, until long-haired project visionary, multi-instrumentalist, and long-time children’s music producer Sudhananda met Spanish vocalist Lucia Lilikoi.   Slow and syrupy, recorded at 432 hertz for warmth, and driven throughout by classical-sounding layers of guitar, harp, and keys, Golden Slumbers comes across as a delicate contemporary folk album – not just for kids at all, but perfect for those looking to wind down at the end of day with something that aims to be perfect, and comes damn close, from a master mixer, engineer, producer, artist, and arranger who has previously worked with Maria Muldaur and Donovan.   

Second, although its title points to but one of its subjects, we celebrate Janileigh Cohen‘s album Bird On A Wire, a tribute to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan – an odd pairing that works.  Simple, quiet guitar (or, sometimes, piano) and sweet, aching vocals go back and forth among a second string of less-and-better-covered tracks from both songbooks, revealing range and a depth of understanding that closes a gap we never knew hid in our brains, unveiling the common underpinnings of two poet-lyricist masters with delicacy and care.   It’s not complex, but it doesn’t have to be: If It Be Your Will has never felt more satisfied, or more brave; One Too Many Mornings has never sounded sadder.




The Year’s Best Tradfolk Collection

+ Tui, Pretty Little Mister
+ Thirty Pounds of Bone & Phillip Reeder, Still Everywhere They Went
+ Sam Amidon, Fatal Flower Garden

Appropriately sparse, almost atonal fiddle-and-banjo play hold sway on Pretty Little Mister, a raw collection from young old time duo Tui, whose transformation of the old sound and lyrics ring strong with timeless sorrow and Appalachian alliance.  It’s short, but so are the songs; it’s authentic, to be sure, but in a familiar, intimate neo-traditionalist mode, learned through scholarship and close collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, just right for the modern tradfolk crowd that surrounds the likes of Anna & Elizabeth, Andrew Bird, and Sam Amdion, albeit with a few more instrumentals in the mix than we generally share and celebrate.  No matter: those looking for their tradfolk to sound traditional, yet looking for something new and wonderful in the stark combination of voices and instruments, could easily stop and linger here for days.  

The drowning sounds of creaking hull and deck, droning engine, surf, gulls, wind, and a passing Coast Guard helicopter on Still Everywhere They Went, a set of well-chosen traditional British fishing and maritime songs made modern and strange by performers and fellow university lecturers in ethnomusicology Johny Lamb (aka lo-fi recording artist Thirty Pounds of Bone) and Phillip Reeder, are as authentic as they come: originally recorded aboard a moving, working 1974 fishing boat out of Cornwall, the collection of eight songs – a “mini-album”, if anything, justifying a blur in this year’s category between long and short form releases – push the shanty form into its context, making for a unique yet wonderful journey not so much crossing past and present as collapsing them into deep, crowded, almost futuristic fathoms. 

And speaking of Sam Amidon: though it’s hard for a four-track to compete with something so sprawling, his short EP release Fatal Flower Garden (officially released on 7″ vinyl) offers a small collector’s gem for year’s end: four perfect tracks, each on their own and altogether precious and fragile, warm and weary as anything.   It’s been a few years since we last saw Sam, but this tiny teaser is a potent reminder that he is at the top of his game – and the top of the craft – as a vessel and interpreter: Amidon first arranged these songs for a concert in tribute to Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and though they yaw wide, indeed, each is just perfect in its way, leaving us hopeful about the tradition and its continued survival through the respectful evolution of the masters among us.   Bonus points: with a single exception – EP-ending instrumental Train on the Island, which churns fiddle wonderfully throughout – these songs would fit just perfectly alongside aching favorites from Bon Iver, Ray LaMontagne, Iron and Wine, and the rest of the moody indiefolk crowd; indiebloggers and radio runners, take note and spread the word.    




The Year’s Best Mostly/Half-Covers Album

+ Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other
+ BAILEN, Mixtape
+ Nicolette Macleod, Love and Gold

Every year, we toy with collapsing this category, and just letting individual tracks come through in our collection of Year’s Best Singles.  But the placement of covers up against original work is its own kind of tribute, and nowhere is this more evident than in our main honorees for this year’s half-covers albums – three artists, and/or artist collaborations, who approach the issue in entirely different ways.     

First up: There Is No Other, from Rhiannon Giddens with pianist and percussionist Francesco Turrisi – an expert in the often-unacknowledged influence of Arabic and Middle Eastern music on the European “sound” which together trace and recreate a common thread among a clean and fluid mix of songs, pulling from the Appalachian tradition and far beyond, to Nina Simone, opera, and more, plus two original songs that fit so perfectly among the old, you’d have to know them to identify them as other.  The diversity of sources is enough to make There Is No Other a non-contender as a full covers or a truly traditional album – where it would have easily tied for top honors, to be sure – but it remains, as reviewers have said since its Spring release, a handbook for both the evolution of popular music, and the universality of folk, with banjo, frame drum, and cello settings, coupled with Giddens’ huge talent for song resurrection, making for something well worth celebrating everywhere.   

Meanwhile, as promised in our previous celebration of their Holiday fare, BAILEN‘s Mixtape offers an aptly titled mix of album cuts, previously-unreleased originals, and four wonderful covers which together serve to map the influences of the NYC-based trio’s hard-to-categorize, vastly diverse sound: a wonderful and surprisingly faithful live Joni Mitchell cover, a stripped down song from Billie Eilish, a soft, dreamy, high-harmony-rich cover of The Sugarcubes’ Hit, and a June Taboresque take on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, all of whom can be heard in the rich echoes of their folk-to-pop-and-back-again recordings and live shows.   And finally, from across the pond: though its covers and originals stand out as heavily vocally-driven, and in many cases a capella through and through, the soundscape created by Glaswegian “singer/songwriter, sound-designer, performer & live improvised sound maker” Nicolette Macleod on April’s Love and Gold is exquisite and fully-formed, weaving traditional British Isle folksongs with her own compositions to create a rich tapestry of song that soars and swoops like birds in a landscape otherwise ominous and still.  


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, share, and above all, follow links to purchase the music you love, the better to keep the arts – and the artists – alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a New Year’s 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 2018.

Comment » | Best of 2019, Emily Mure, Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Amidon, Tradfolk, Tributes and Cover Compilations

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2015)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Covers Compilations and more!

December 27th, 2015 — 7:26pm

Most of the other online folk and indieblogs out there have already shared their Best Of 2015 features by now, and that’s the way we like it. As our mandate reminds us, sharing and discovery are essential to the folkways; just as we depend on artists and producers to make the music, we depend on elseblogs, radio outlets and virtual magazines from Kithfolk to Paste, from Folk Alley to WXPN, and from I Am Fuel, You Are Friends to Timber & Steel, to curate it for us.

Our niche is unique, of course. No other blog focuses exclusively on the intersection between folk and coverage, though the threads are strong on both of the intersecting lineages that define us, and though several blogs, like Cover Me, include roots and Americana among the coversongs they share. But our dependence on those other sources was especially deep this year.

Which is to say: it was a pretty good year for coverfolk, in the end, and we’re glad. But for a while there, it looked like we wouldn’t be here to celebrate it.

As we’ve noted in previous posts, letting Cover Lay Down go dark from May to November was part of a larger withdrawal in face of a series of disasters that left us too drained to do more than just hang on. I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say: it’s hard to blog when you’re living in a camper on the lawn because the house is still recovering from fleas and flood, and harder, still, when the entire covers collection gets lost to a busted laptop and an archival hard drive failure.

Coming back, though, has been a revelation.

We’re not usually at a loss for words here at Cover Lay Down. But the outpouring of support during and after those dark months, in the end, proved its priority in a world still heavy with stress and the unknown, putting this blog at the top of our to-do list. Thanks, to all who donate and comment, who help spread the word, and who – in doing so – bring light to this kitchen table endeavor. It’s good to be back, and to be singing again.

Our eight-month musical hiatus makes looking back an especially apt mechanism for recovery this year. To account for this, in response to both marketplace factors and an attempt to broaden our gaze in the name of recovery, our Best Of series doubled in size, with video coverage getting a pair of features of its own; if you’ve not yet seen ’em, check out The Year’s Best Coverfolk Video Singles and The Year’s Best Coverfolk Video Sessions, Sets, and Series once you’ve finished here today.

But our annual two-fer still serves as the main course. So join us as we count down the final hours of 2015 with our favorite coverfolk recordings of the year – with our annual omnibus album feature today, and our typically unranked, purely subjective celebration of the year’s best singles, deep cuts, and B-sides to follow sometime just before New Year’s Eve. Oh, and fair warning: there’s 59 songs on this year’s list; you might want to download them all first, and read along as you listen.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist)
+ Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell, Sing Into My Mouth

+ Watkins Family Hour, The Watkins Family Hour
+ Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow Is My Turn
+ Robert Earl Keen, The Bluegrass Sessions
+ Grey Season, Undercover

Cover albums comprise a highly competitive category this year. Even the also-rans were strong, from Shawn Colvin’s unsurprisingly poppy but eminently listenable Uncovered to the twee, unrelentingly cheerful sounds of NYC-based 80’s cover band The Delorean Sisters on their self-titled debut. Martha and Lucy Wainwright’s sister album Songs In The Dark, which we touted last month, was ultimately a little unfocused; Shovels and Rope pushed past the boundaries of folk into alternative rock on Busted Jukebox Vol.1, and much of Tomorrow You’re Going, a kickstarter-funded collaborative effort from lifetime favorites Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, was a little too honky-tonk for our tastes. All are highly recommended nonetheless, and contain great cuts worth pursuit; look for their choicest tracks in our upcoming Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles mix.

But the big news this year was the collaborative album. And sure enough, like Busted Jukebox, Songs In The Dark, and Kaplansky and Shindell’s Pine Hill Project, four of the five picks in the single artists covers album category share the same conceit: though released under a single name, each, in their own way, depends on musical partnership for its success.

Our highest honors goes to Sing Into My Mouth, the musical one-off collaboration of Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses. There’s a huge diversity of source material here, from the titular Talking Heads track to songs by Sade, JJ Cale, and Pete Seeger, but nary a skip-cut or mediocre cover on the album: the performances here are stunning, with the songs not so much transformed as translated into an atmospheric echo with an alt-country twang, and flourishes of pitch-perfect Pink Floyd psychedelics and CSNY harmonies.

Second place is shared by The Watkins Family Hour and Rhiannon Giddens project Tomorrow Is My Turn – two albums which diversify through deep collaboration of their own. In the first, Sean and Sara Watkins, plus Fiona Apple and a 4-piece house band familiar to those who have seen their frequent live shows at LA’s famed venue The Largo, took over a house for three days to record a record designed specifically to evoke their live shows; the result is broad and diverse, playful and wonderfully intimate, and well worth steeping in entirely.

Meanwhile, Giddens – a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who has recently gone solo – weaves her beatboxing and multi-instrumentalist Chocolate Drops compatriots throughout her debut solo disc, plus members of the Punch Brothers and several strong session players, to reimagine a number of traditional and country and pop standards in her inimitable style, a process which she discusses at length on her website. The result is quite diverse, as you might expect, in influence and in sound, but the record holds beautifully, thanks to that stunning voice and potent production from T-Bone Burnett, as does “session leftovers” EP Factory Girl.

Grey Season’s Undercover, a free download featured recently as part of our Berklee College of Music showcase, is the sole “band only” covers album in our top five, but it hardly needs the help; as noted back in November, the album is funky and fine, perfect for fans of that fertile soil where grungy Americana and roots music, grassy country, and folk rock meet. And we’d be remiss without special mention of Robert Earn Keen’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, a departure from the usual fare from this Texan singer-songwriter, in which Keen’s plaintive rasp pairs beautifully with a well-tuned, full-bore bluegrass session band for a delightful album that runs from gentle rambles to rambunctious jams. A good year, indeed.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artist)
+ Various Artists, Yellow Bird Project: Good People Rock
+ Various Artists, From Cover To Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk (tie)

The multiple artist covers album is generally the wheelhouse of labels big and small; last year’s category winners included a Bloodshot Records’ 20th anniversary covers album, and sure enough, our runner-up this year celebrates 30 years of the Canadian label that made household names of Sarah McLachlan, Coldplay, The Be Good Tanyas, and Barenaked Ladies.

In 2015, however, our favorite “various artists” collection comes straight from the heart of the artisanal hipster branch of the folkmarket to match one of my absolute favorite records of the year. Yep: a tie. We couldn’t be happier with the result.

For a decade, Montreal-based Yellow Bird Project has created and distributed band t-shirts for artist-selected charities in partnership with indie folk and alternative musicians like Bon Iver, CHVRCHES, Devendra Banhart, The Decemberists and The Shins, though they’ve recently branched out into tote bags, coloring books, and the occasional vinyl pressing. Producing and curating Good People Rock, a project in which YBP artists who have been featured on their shirts cover other YBP artists who have been featured on their shirts, is just as quirky a concept, and with artists like Andrew Bird, Hayden, and Elvis Perkins on the roster, we’re not surprised it works.

As noted above, Nettwerk Music Group’s January 2015 covers sampler, released in celebration of their 30th anniversary, gets an easy and triumphant share of first place honors in an unusually small category. The overall setlist here is a mixed-bag; with electro-pop and sadcore in the mix, this is hardly a folk album through and through. But several stunning covers stand out, including amazing, delicate Coldplay and Sarah McLachlan covers (we shared William Fitzsimmons’ cover of McLachlan’s Ice Cream back in January), a dreamy indie folk take on Barenaked Ladies favorite deepcut Jane, Hey Ocean! frontman Dave Beckingham’s transformation of a Be Good Tanya rambler into an atmospheric, icy folkpop gem complete with horns and organ, and Joshua Hyslop’s delightful Weepies interpretation, a track which – in many ways – sets the standard for the year in coverage.

The Year’s Best Covers EP (single artist)
+ Sean Rowe, Her Songs

+ William Tyler, The Lagniappe Sessions
+ Marissa Haacke, Acoustic Covers, Vol. 1
+ Infamous Stringdusters, Undercover

What could have been a lighthearted conceit by basso profundo Sean Rowe, who was recommended to me by Chuck and Mira of The Sea The Sea when they kicked off our new house concert series this Fall, offers instead a deep dive into bare-bones gender-bent coverage: tender and low, round and resonant, drowned in that booming, syrup-thick voice. The six single-take tracks and accompanying videos represent a perfect 45-to-33 who’s who of female alternative singer-songwriter fare, too, with songs from Feist, Cat Power, Neko Case, Regina Spektor, and – yes, again – Sade, who seems to be popular this year. A Troy, NY-based singer-songwriter who also offers foraging and wilderness skills classes on his website, Rowe is reportedly just as powerful in person; he also wins for best accolade of 2015: upon hearing his rendition of her “Soldiers Song,” Lucinda Williams apparently proclaimed “This is the best cover of any of my songs that anyone has ever done. I am completely moved.”

From somewhere between country rock balladry and John Fahey primitivism comes our second place set, a mostly instrumental foursome of songs originally by Ry Cooder, Blaze Foley, and Blue Oyster Cult from true-blue Nashville boy William Tyler, commissioned, recorded and released via Aquarium Drunkard as part of their Lagniappe Sessions way back in January. Tyler, who has produced a precious handful of records of his own, is best known as a member of indie blog darlings Lambchop and the Silver Jews, but as these sessions prove, he’s got chops and roots in equal measure; he’s also played with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Charlie Louvin, and Candi Staton.

Perennial favorites The Infamous Stringdusters turn in relatively faithful but entirely gleeful one-take jamgrass takes on well-known songs from Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Pink Floyd in Undercover, a fun diversion recorded while in the studio for their next big album, due in February. And finally, as its name implies, Acoustic Covers Vol. 1 is simply put: an iTunes release from September which features exceptionally young singer-songwriter Marissa Haacke solo and without airs. There’s a deceptively simple sameness to these songs, too, in part due to their sheer simplicity, and a pristine recording quality. But despite her girlish voice, as heard in her wistful, innocent take on Footloose soundtrack song Holding Out For A Hero, Haacke has depth, and shows promise enough to mention; here’s hoping that this girl from the Rocky Mountains will keep singing, and gladly.

The Year’s Best Covers EP (multiple artist)
+ Various Artists, Polaris Sessions No. 1

+ Various Artists, Decoration Day, Volume 4

Three songs recorded live in studio in 2014 but released as a 10″ in 2015 make for an unusually sparse but utterly delightful program, kicking off a new cover series from the folks who bring us the Polaris Music Prize, and in the process bringing us our favorite multiple artist covers EP of the year. The A-side is a grungy, electric roots cover of New Pornographers from Whitehorse; I’ve come back to the B-side, featuring Great Lake Swimmers covering Sarah Harmer and Sarah Harmer covering Caribou, over a dozen times since discovering it last month.

Meanwhile, on the experimental front, comes Decoration Day, Volume 4, featuring songs about home from perennial favorites Mason Jar Music, who produces a new thematically-grounded covers EP every year for Decoration Day, and hits the ball out of the park every time. As in volumes 1-3, the set yaws wider than folk allows, but a number of delights come in especially dear: Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae pull old Sam Cooke favorite Bring It On Home To Me way back into hollow living room folk, and you’ve never heard Bjork the way banjo player Taylor Ashton interprets her.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)
+ Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield, …Sing Elliott Smith

+ Plainsong, Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina
+ The Hillbenders, Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
+ Girls Guns & Glory, A Tribute To Hank Williams – Live!
+ Asleep At The Wheel, Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Yes, yes; Ryan Adams’ full-album tribute to Taylor Swift is nothing short of a miracle. But it isn’t folk, truly; we’ve a separate category for mixed-genre tributes for a reason, and we’ll let Adams share top honors there.

Luckily, it was an unusually diverse year for single artist tributes in the folk, roots, and Americana realms. Honors in our single artist tribute category go to five very different projects from five sets of artists, each of whom represents a distinct branch of the folkworld.

At the top of our list, pulling back from the string-fed sounds of his work with The Avett Brothers, we find Seth Avett alongside Jessica Lea Mayfield, just bass and guitar and the hollowness of the songbook. Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith was panned by Pitchfork for its reverence, and a suspicion that these explorations do little to plumb the true depths of the songs, but we disagree – Smith’s songbook is raw enough; to imagine it plainly and gently, letting the songs speak, is an admirable approach in our book, and Avett and Mayfield’s voices mix beautifully, both on the album and in later live covers added to the set in performance, like this exquisite take on Miss Misery.

Second honors go to Plainsong, whose tribute to Richard Farina Reinventing Richard is a true homage to a seminal figure lost too soon, and a great showcase for the work of a three-piece British folk rock band whose founding members came from Fairport Convention and “poetry band” The Liverpool Scene, and still maintain strong strains of the tradition in their arrangements and harmonies. Meanwhile, Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, The Hillbenders full-album cover of The Who’s rock opera, is actually much better than it should have been; though this one could have easily yawed into the realm of self-parody or, worse, the mellow sameness of pseudo-anonymous “Pickin’ On” series, we are treated to a fun-loving session from a well-tempered band that clearly loves to hoot and holler.

Asleep At The Wheel’s playful, guest-heavy celebration of the music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys plays it straight as a true-blue Texas swing album, with uptempo hillbilly arrangements that bring the talents of Carrie Rodriguez, The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Amos Lee, Willie Nelson and more into a full-bore ensemble setting; it’s hard to hide the distinctive voices of Lee, Lovett, and Nelson, but who would want to? And the country and western blues Girls Guns and Glory and friends bring to the songs of Hank Williams is simply divine.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)
+ Various Artists, The Joy Of Living: a Tribute to Ewan MacColl

+ Various Artists, Cold And Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins
+ Various Artists, The Brighter Side: a 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression
+ Various Artists, Physical Graffiti Redrawn

It was a strong year for tribute albums, too, with a smashing if genre-busting Mojo Magazine tribute to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and no more than three Beatles tributes topping the mass market list. Our deeper dig reveals our own favorites, underdogs which shine next to these good but ultimately uneven releases (though we can’t help but give a nod to Hiss Golden Messenger’s Led Zeppelin cover, and in doing so, celebrate with an honorable mention a mixed Mojo freebie better than most, with cuts by Sun Kil Moon, Michael Kiwanuka, Laura Marling and others on the good-stuff radar).

As for our favorite? Two-disc tribute albums are often a risk; too broad, too long, and too heavy with deep cuts. But Ewan MacColl tribute The Joy Of Living, which mixes UK folk contemporaries Norma Waterson, Dick Gaughan, Kathryn Williams, Karine Polwart, Martin Simpson, Eliza Carthy, and others with a host of more distant musical cousins, from Bombay Bicycle Club to Steve Earle, who can claim a lineage influenced by the inimitable MacColl, is a glorious exception: it works, in spades, thanks to a seemingly endless songbook, and tender, authentic treatment given with love.

Our second place tie goes to two albums that celebrate the roots and margins of folk simultaneously. Cold and Bitter Tears, a suitably swampy, bluesy, bar-room two-step of a tribute to the legendary Venice Beach street performer Ted Hawkins, is chock full of deep-south covers from Mary Gauthier, Gurf Morlix, James McMurtry, Danny Barnes, Kasey Chambers and more. And well-tuned cover curation-house Reimagine Music’s 2015 offering, an alt-country and indie rock reinvention of seminal 1990 Uncle Tupelo debut album No Depression, is breathtaking: taking on such a genre-defining album is daring, but this set comes in swinging and doesn’t stop, proving the viability and variance of the alt-country set on today’s musical map, from the cloudlike shimmer of Mikaela Davis’ harp and voice to the mellow chill of Wooden Sky to more rugged, amped-up alt-Americana from Crow Moses, The Last Bison, and other bands you should know.

The Year’s Best Tribute EP
+ Wharfer, Broken Land: Songs of the Flatlanders

+ Glen Hansard, It Was Triumph We Once Proposed…Songs of Jason Molina
+ Various Artists, Unsung: Songs: Ohia Covers Compilation

For a while this year, two EP-length tributes to the works of Songs:Ohia founder Jason Molina this year – one from Glen Hansard, the other a live tribute radio show hosted by Philly wheelhouse Folkadelphia – looked like they were competing for top honors in the Tribute EP category, which often attracts the indie set. And both are worth the listen, in the end: Hansard’s awkwardly titled It Was Triumph We Once Proposed… Songs of Jason Molina thanks to a slow, respectful softness; Folkadelphia’s Unsung if you like grungy, metal-tinged rock, though a few exceptionally strong, haunting cuts, like the Laura Baird cover below, save the day.

But we’re not above championing the unknown. And in this case, it’s an easy decision handing the crown to Broken Land: Songs of the Flatlanders, a dark horse slowcoustic freebie released via Soundcloud by Wharfer, aka Brooklynite by way of Scranton Kyle Wall. Hissy, creaky, and yet perfect in its deconstruction of the Flatlanders songbook, it’s a diamond in the darkness, evoking the hours before sunrise from prairie to fire escape with tuneless whistles, a tender croak of a broken voice, and an urgent hand on a gentle guitar.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album
+ Sam Lee and Friends, The Fade In Time

+ Spuyten Duyvil, The Social Music Hour, Vol. 1
+ Anna & Elizabeth, Anna & Elizabeth
+ Gigspanner, Layers of Ages
+ Forest Mountain Hymnal, Dear Balladeer
+ Lindsay Straw, My Mind From Love Being Free

Some serious competition this year, in a category often dominated by the sparse and Appalachian – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But our top pick, Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee and Friends’ The Fade In Time, isn’t an album so much as it is a complete experience, a journey through the gypsy traditions of rural England filtered through exotic folk strands as far-flung as Japan and Tajikistan. Singer and song-collector Lee is a master arranger, and the collage effect is potent; ultimately, the album both honors the more traditional ethnomusical exploration that informed his 2002 debut Ground Of Its Own, and plies it, gathering from the world as it travels through.

Close seconds go to Brooklyn roots revivalists Spuyten Duyvil, whose cheerful faces and rugged, ragged high energy sets are well known to denizens of the Falcon Ridge Folk crowd, and who bring the blues and then some on The Social Music Hour, Vol. 1; they’re followed closely by a tearingly sparse, gorgeous Appalachian self-titled sophomore outing from historians and song-finders Anna & Elizabeth. And runners-up honors keep our list going long, with Forest Mountain Hymnal’s ongoing project Dear Balladeer, which, although still unfinished, has delivered a deep and rejuvenating delve into the collected ballads of John Jacob Niles, a gentle debut from honey-voiced Boston-based bouzouki and guitar picker Lindsay Straw, and British psychedelic folk rocker Peter Knight and his band Gigspanner, whose album Layer Of Ages – heavy, earthy, haunting and hollow with drones and drum – isn’t beautiful, and isn’t meant to be. A rich field for the traditional set, indeed.

The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Tribute Album
+ Ryan Adams, 1989

+ Moa Holmsten, Bruised Arms And Broken Rhythm: Songs by Bruce Springsteen
+ John Vanderslice, Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs
+ Bill Wells & Friends, Nursery Rhymes

Ryan Adams is a no-brainer here; his track-by-track tear-down of Taylor Swift album 1989 is an accomplishment realized, with NPR feature status and over ten million hits on YouTube alone. More surprising is our second favorite: as Paste noted earlier this month in their own 10 Best Cover Songs of 2015, Moa Holmsten isn’t even a fan of Bruce Springsteen, making her fifth album, which covers his canon, an unusual choice. But the conceit works wonders: although the resulting dark, glitchy, beautiful pop album from this Swedish wunderkind has little connection to folk in its tracklist, this single sample is perfect for the contemporary folk set, with high production, shuffling drums and horns, and a mellow harmony vocal that aches with longing.

We can’t help but celebrate a last-minute contender in the form of late December release John Vanderslice Plays David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, new from cover label Reimagine Music. The album resets David Bowie’s 1974 concept album in a variety of genres and settings, from quiet to disquieting; the result is no mere diversion: psychedelic folk, alternative pop, and country rock merge in an album that totally reinvents Bowie’s original, renaming, rewriting, and reworking the arrangements to create something new and precious. (Hint: Juvenile Success is really Rebel Rebel in disguise.)

Finally, though our kidfolk category disappears this year due to a dearth of material, our mixed-genre plate is the perfect setting to mention Bill Wells & Friends’ Nursery Rhymes, which features settings of well-worn classroom and playground classics. Wells isn’t folk, and a cast of familiar experimentalists from multiple genres, from Syd Straw to Yo La Tengo, doesn’t make it so; it’s more like a slippery, sparse contemporary jazz, tightly arranged: a bit complex for kids, but a wonderful digression of an evening with friends.

The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album
+ Eef Barzelay, EP 1 (I Don’t Even Want To Know)

+ Barnstar!, Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

Eef Barzelay just doesn’t quit. His fourth fan-chosen covers album was already a favorite; the December release of EP 1 (I don’t even want to know), with five more covers and two originals a coda to a great year, pushes him easily over the edge. Like all of Eef’s work, the songs here are raw and coarse and devotional; their tunelessness and discordance shudder in the ear, each one a live and nakedly intimately experience wired directly into the psyche; you’ve never heard a more exhausted, tender King of Carrot Flowers; when that troubled, primitive voice resolves into purity as the chorus kicks in on Don’t Dream It’s Over, the heart lifts, and the world is sunny again. Listening to one is a journey; listening to the whole EP at once risks adrenalin exhaustion, a long walk on the edge of music’s uncanny valley.

Meanwhile, Boston-based roots-and-bluegrass supergroup Barnstar! continues their trend towards half-covers albums, with perfectly summery, grassy romps on songs by Josh Ritter, The Hold Steady, Patty Griffin, Cat Stevens, and The Faces alongside sweet originals by band members Mark Erelli, Jake and Taylor Amerding, banjoist Charlie Rose, and bassist Zachariah Hickman. Just another more cover or two, and new albums from perennial cover artists Pharis and Jason Romero and Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem would have been mentioned here, too; keep an eye open for their work in our upcoming Best Singles mix.

The Year’s Best Covers TV Soundtrack
+ Various Artists, Grey’s Anatomy, Season 12

Our final category this year is a bit specious, I suppose; it’s increasingly rare for TV soundtracks to be released as full albums. But twenty-something television is a constant source for wonderful coverage, leading to constant moments where I turn a corner into a cover, and have to watch the credits to find out which artist I just heard. And through shows such as Scrubs, The OC, Parenthood, One Tree Hill, and more, the medium has served us well, as a potent showcase for indie artists looking for ways to get their songs heard.

And so, as in past years, the shiftings of the marketplace of ideas brings forth a new category for our consideration: the soundtrack collection. And no program has been so persistently great with delightful indiefolk coverage this year as Grey’s Anatomy, which my kids have begin watching religiously after their own struggles with illness lent them a new curiosity about the inner workings of hospitals. From the relentless, insistent pace of Freedom Fry’s Oops I Did It Again to the sterile, echoing piano of Scars on 45 and Sleeping At Last, it’s an indiefolk paradise of mood and meaning.

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year 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 gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unblogged covers from 2014-2015.

Comment » | Best of 2015, Clem Snide, Iron & Wine, Rhiannon Giddens, Ryan Adams, Sam Lee, Sean Rowe, Spuyten Duyvil, The Avett Brothers, Tributes and Cover Compilations

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