For me, "favorite songs" is truly a separate category from "favorite albums." My favorite songs each year tend to be fluffy-ish one-offs, things I hear and enjoy completely separate from an album listening experience. These songs can and do stand alone. That said, covers often end up on my favorite song lists, and this year is no exception.
If I had to pick just one song this year, it would be Mac McCaughan's "Happy New Year (Prince Can't Die Again)." The song was recorded at the end of 2016 and released on inauguration day 2017 on Battle Hymns, a compilation ("it is a protest record!") assembled by Quasi with all proceeds split between Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and 350.org. McCaughan's song is the perfect combination of a "fuck you!" to the shitty year that was 2016 ("Oh, it was a year when everybody died/And it was a year when the adults and children cried/For the loss of their hope, for the loss of their youth") and a call to gather, celebrate what we can (even if it's only that we can't lose beloved artists a second time), and organize. True, the song's dire predictions for 2017 didn't all yet come true (the sun has not yet turned us all to sand, after all), but a year later, it still feels like a bittersweet balm.
Kevin Morby's "1234" is an original song that manages to cite The Ramones' entire oeuvre as well as The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." Like McCaughan's song, Morby's is an ebullient downer, but all the more profound for that combination.
Kris Kristofferson's "Turpentine," the stand out track on the excellent Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of The Story, is quite simply crushing. Like Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt," Kristofferson takes a younger person's song about the loss of a relationship and imbues it with the profundity of age and experience. When he sings, "But I'm warning you we're growing up," your heart just cracks open.
Mountain Man's cover of "Love Hurts" on the Our First 100 Days compilation (released on Bandcamp as "One hundred songs that inspire progress and benefit a cause for change") is not terribly profound. But it does what a cover song can do best - offer a new way in to a familiar song, and open up new possibilities for it. (Grandaddy also released a "Love Hurts" cover on the solid Resistance Radio: The Man in the High Castle Album.)
In her surprise release, "I'm Better," Missy Elliot asserts in her signature flow the joy of having come through something - a physical illness? a depression? - and out the other side. When collaborator Lamb intones, "It's another day, another chance/I wake up, I wanna dance/So as long as I got my friends/I'm better, I'm better, I'm better," it's a reminder, not unlike McCaughan's, that reaching out to friends and not isolating is key to getting through whatever it is that ails you (or the country, as it were). Of course the rest of the song is full of braggadocio of the sexual and material success kind (the remix featuring Lil' Kim, Eve, and Trina elevates this even further), but ultimately the song celebrates having survived, a hope I could certainly use this year.
Mitski's "Fireproof," like Mountain Man's "Love Hurts," is on the Our First 100 Days compilation. When I first heard it, I thought it was a good pop song, and then when I heard it was a One Direction cover, I was even more intrigued. In an oft-quoted Billboard interview, the indie rocker said, “We seem to de-legitimize music that has a majority of young girl fans and think of it as having less cultural value.” Her cover mines the song for its pop gold and turns it into 1:49 minutes of fuzzy, pop bliss.