The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos (2019) Living room covers, live cuts, in-studio sessions & more!
For a good portion of the last century, the audio recording held sway as the primary source of song for the masses. Radio helped, of course – but from a financial perspective, at least, if we wanted to control what we heard, we had to buy the record, tape, or CD, and settle in to listen, with nary but a sleeve or insert to help us picture the performance.
The birth and rise of MTV in our respective youth reshaped exposure through audio-visual means, of course. And as long as home instruments and music venues have remained a steadfast part of the landscape, live performance has always been there for us – though the re-establishment of the small hall and house concert as a viable means of connecting physically with artist and fans add a layer of intimacy and access which have helped sustain the journey of the small label performer, and the amateur. But like radio, these venues retain playlist control – there, the artist, and/or the DJ, determines what is worth playing. And behind it all, we knew, the rubrics of the popular and in-demand influenced the choice of song, and setlist, stifling the listener, prioritizing the produced and played over the player, leaving us nothing but the archival mixtape to control our own soundscape.
Which is to say: Once we listened in our bedrooms, on record players in bright colors of our choosing; once we listened in cars, accompanied by the visuality of the drive. Once we listened, period, in ways determined, for the most part, by the tastemakers, and their raw technology, and the industry of style. Finally, we watched, but vastly: our watching was voyeuristic, and still not ours to mod or mood.
But the post-millennial rise of YouTube shifts time and space. We become privy to the artist’s home, if they so choose; we can access the concert hall from states away; we can see and enjoy “live” sessions from the radio, which once would have been lost to the ages, in streaming real-time and – perhaps more importantly – in archival form. The visual playlist is ours to compile, giving us new access to performance – not just recording – as a means for our own expression. Versioning – in which an artist can demonstrate and display the demo-level cut, and show the evolution of a particular song in their mind and hands – becomes an artifact of the new tech: when it is that easy to spread each individual performance, the same song comes at us in ways that echo the many spaces and moods in which it is performed, making the beloved not just discoverable, but mutable, to match our own needs and desires.
How lucky we are to have lived in a decade where the performance of song can be shaped by the artist, and driven into our living room, to curate and shuffle as the listener wills it. How lucky to be able to choose which take, and which performance, we might prefer to loop into infinity. How lucky, indeed, to have the privilege of replay for the whole performance, eyes and ears together, at our fingertips – and in doing so, to rebuild, reframe, and retain the intimacy that once existed between and among singer, song, community, and listener.
Not all video performance is created alike, of course. Although all offer a glimpse into the world of their craft beyond the audible studio or rare live recording, we are most interested, in our year’s end reflection, with those videos that close the gap through the video portrayal, giving us not just insight, but relationship, with the artist as they play. As we’ve said for years: to strip these latter performances of their native multi-medium is to miss something essential about their incidence. And thus, correlatively, to celebrate them is to celebrate the space between us all.
Join us today, then, as we celebrate the very best native video performances, sets, sources and series from the wide and wonderful world of 2019, framed in a loose compilation of arbitrary categories designed only to best hold and hearken to the good stuff in a semblance of manage-ability. Let the performances herein offer insight, and a close companion, as the year comes to a close. And fear not, as we enter the new millennium: we’ll be back soon – give or take a day or two – with more coverfolk from the wide-open world, including our annual compilation of favorite cover albums and tributes from the year gone by.
Best Ongoing Live Video Series: Live From Here
Now in his third year at the helm of the now-rechristened radio series originally established by writer Garrison Keillor in the previous millennium, mandolin prodigy and all-around nice guy Chris Thile, rightly named one of just four artists of the decade over at a newly-revived No Depression magazine, has absolutely found his footing in Live From Here, a weekly set of songs, musical guests, stories, and loose comedic play which he celebrates with the same respect, awe, engagement and delight that made Keillor’s original hosting voice such a perfect medium for our own close connection. Not all of it is coverage, of course, but regular features keep ’em coming – including shortform covers and full-length tributes to great artists from all genres in his weekly survey of Musician Birthdays, and a penchant towards “everyone on stage” coverage a la previous Year’s Best Videos celebrant e-Town to end the show.
The video connection is strong here, too. Though produced first and foremost for the radio, Thile’s delightful Live From Here sessions are now all recorded and archived for the web in what has become a trademark blue-wash light; you can hear the glee on NPR, of course, but watching him grin that trademark grin through each act adds a whole new layer of love to performances from ongoing regulars Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive, a house band made from members of Punch Brothers and other wonderful newgrass compatriots, and other co-conspirators both rare and wonderful (including, recently, a Crooked Still reunion, and guest spots from John Prine, Paul Simon, They Might Be Giants, The Pixies, Dawes, The Tallest Man On Earth, and Sara Bareilles). Here’s a sampling to get you started: O’Donovan paying tribute to a Joni Mitchell classic, and Jarosz with just one of many, many sweet covers performed over the last year or two with her long-time mentor and friend Thile.
Best One-shot Video Series: Songs for Winter Walk 2019
Boston’s annual Winter Walk, a stroll-for-action which takes place in the cold of early February, is an anomaly even in the kind world of worthy causes: the event itself raises money and awareness of and for the Greater Boston homeless community not just through the distant celebration of those lucky enough to be able to help, but through companionship, as homeless folks and families march the two miles to Copley Square side by side with over a thousand supporters, ending with a shared meal and stories of the streets. Last year, as the date grew close, a playlist of contributing Boston-area musicians playing “original songs or versions of beloved songs of compassion, togetherness, community, and action” grew to help raise awareness of the walk and the community it supports; all are videos, most are covers, and the vast majority are filmed in intimate spaces – artist homes, snowy glades, and small dark studios – making for a set of performances just stunning in their solidarity, tenderness and pain.
Listen to a pair of favorites below from singer-songwriter Dan Mills and Naseem Khuri of Boston-based band Kingsley Flood, and then click through to the Songs for Winter Walk 2019 archives for more – including Lake Street Dive covering Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend, both Lori McKenna and Mark Erelli and Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards covering REM’s Everybody Hurts, Parsonsfield covering a traditional hymn by the woods’ edge, Anais Mitchell singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow cold in the snow, originals from Josh Ritter and Session Americana, and a host of other arrangements and reinventions from some of our very favorite locals gone or going big enough to matter to the world.
Best Small Studio Video Covers Series: stories
A house “band” of acoustic six-stringers and a rotating set of both up-and-coming and more established YouTube stars such as Nataly Dawn and Çasey Abrams reinterpret popular songs and standards from Drake and Billie Eilish to John Denver, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith and more in decidedly low-key folk ballad mode in stories, a new yet highly prolific series which sprung up in late October and has been filling our ears with regular delights ever since. It’s hard to find a flaw, here; though the settings remain the same, each artist is given the space to create their own mood and moment amidst the sepia tones that characterize the recording space, and we’ve enjoyed pulling the threads as we go, making of the series a who’s who survey of what’s new and noteworthy among the wonderful world of native online artistry. We’ve chosen a familiar voice and a pair of new ones, to represent the spectrum, but there’s dozens more where that came from, and the whole rabbit-hole is worth the hours.
Best Independent “Living Room” Cover Videos: Josh Turner/ Carson McKee / Reina del Cid
A Cantor friend turned us on to both Josh Turner (the guitarist, not the country singer) and Minneapolis-based independent artist-and-band Reina del Cid early this year, and we’re glad he did – and equally glad that from there, we followed the tracks to Turner collaborator Carson McKee, who sealed the deal with a growing number of songs recorded under his own name and channel, both with and without the aforementioned. Though of the three YouTube cross-posters, Turner & McKee are more typically on the same screen, if only due to geographical proximity and their work together as “The Other Favorites”, it’s no shame to celebrate the three artists all together, both for their ongoing association and collaborations and for their solo work, and claim their path to glory as central to our mandate: together, they represent a movement, and (as with our previous-year’s celebrations of Boyce Avenue, Nataly Dawn, Kina Grannis, Megan Davies, and Walk Off The Earth) the best of yet another crop of newly-hot, not-so-fast-to-fame singer-songwriters plying their work as interpreters and songwriters on the back of the streaming service via coverage – in many ways the core reason why we began posting year’s end covers to begin with.
Here’s a triplet of full trio collaborations from the year, each nominally fronted by a different artist, plus a duo set, a rare solo cut from del Cid’s long-running “Sunday Morning” covers series, and a late-entry solo track from McKee just released last week to whet the proverbial whistle for much, much more; listen, and then 1) dig deep into the archives for many more covers from all three and each, and 2) join the crowd by subscribing to their prospective YouTube pages so you’ll never miss a cover.
Best Produced Cover Video: Jacob Collier ft. dodie, Here Comes The Sun
We could have easily included an audio-only version of this Beatles cover in our year’s end compilation of single-shot coverage, instead of here; after all, there’s nothing “live” about the delightfully rich performance of Here Comes The Sun, a one-shot collab from rising star wunderkinds dodie and Jacob Collier which was officially released as the second track from Collier’s stunning Djesse Vol. 2, which also features Sam Amidon, Herbie Hancock, members of Take 6, and an incredible micro-tonal a capella cover of Moon River which is in the running for a Grammy this year. But two videographic aspects say otherwise: the jumpy outdoor garden-play of the singers themselves, which so aptly mirrors the song and its arrangement, and the split-screen portrayal of vocal layering, which doesn’t just measure up to the complex vocality of the performance, but portrays it, making real our potent introduction to Collier’s nuanced and new genre-smashing sound…and serving as a perfect companion to the delicate quietude of dodie’s own near-perfect 2019 bedroom Beatles cover, which we’ve included for comparison.
Honorable Mention: The Year’s Best Single-shot Live Coverfolk Videos
All in all, it was a wonderful year for the videographic acoustic-and-roots coverlover: far too much for us to manage here, though surely, as always, a few more video-origin tracks may well find their way onto compilations and mixtapes as the years progress. We’ll leave you today, then, with an unranked clearinghouse of 12 favorites from the vast panoply of sound that rings with delight in our ears at year’s end, all grounded firmly in the audiovisual creative process, which come to us from new and familiar artists, channels, and collaboratives whose ongoing coverage brings joy to our feed throughout the year. Enjoy – and, as always, if you like what you hear, follow through to hear more from and pay tribute to each and every one of these artists and production houses, in thanks and praise for a job well done.
Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the ongoing support of artists, promoters, and readers like YOU. So if you like what you hear, do your part: listen deeply, like us on Facebook, come back often to keep abreast of new features, including our ongoing New Artists, Old Songs series, and our upcoming end-of-year feature covering The Year’s Best Coverfolk… and above all, share and purchase the music as you find it, the better to keep the arts alive.