To quote Neil Strauss, “The beauty of music is that the intent maybe belongs to the artist, but the significance is the property of the beholder.” Music inspires, and when the result of that inspiration is a reinvention, it’s really a high-risk, high-reward scenario.
Hearing a cover song done right can be goosebump-inducing, heart rate-spiking, and soul-feeding. It’s finding a new song that’s an old favorite. While I don’t presume to have combed the earth for a definitive list, these ten are, in my opinion, the best of the last ten years.
10. Changes – Seu Jorge After The Life Aquatic launched him into the teeny, tiny indie spotlight, Jorge’s David Bowie covers started drawing huge praise. That’s Portuguese he’s speaking, and it’s more or less a direct translation of Bowie’s songs. This isn’t always the case though – occasionally he’ll write entirely new lyrics with no one (aside from Earth’s 1.7 billion Portuguese speakers) the wiser.
9. Panic – Spoon A staple of their concerts for years, Spoon does this Smith’s cover fairly straight. Morrissey is never an easy act to follow, but Britt Smith understands the inherent live power in the song. Hipster anarchism doesn’t require several takes in the studio. All it needs is a packed house screaming, “Hang the DJ!” [Sorry for the poor video quality.]
8. Thriller – Imogen Heap Some covers just come out of nowhere. A revamped, unrecognizable piano melody doesn’t give away the secret until she explains just what time it is. No zombies, no Vincent Price, no claw-dancing, just a stripped-down, haunting voice with a build-up and come down that may be more scary than MJ’s original.
7. Heartless – The Fray Yeezy’s self-pitying dip into the done-me-wrong category found its way into the hands of the self-pitying, done-me-wrong alt pop kings. The lyrics stand up surprisingly well given the liberal Ebonics sprinkled throughout and the whole thing is boosted with an adolescent doodles video, steeped in brooding hormones, that must be seen to be appreciated.
6. Handle With Care – Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins It’s an indie music fan’s wet dream! Just the idea that M. Ward, Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard and Jenny Lewis were even around each other at the same time is of a Malta / Yalta level of epic. Not that the original group was anything to sneeze at — Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and George Harrison made up the Traveling Wilburys, giving new meaning to the term ‘supergroup.’ Lewis and crew peel back layers until it’s vulnerable and emotive in a way that claims the song for a whole new generation.
5. Baby I’m Yours – Arctic Monkeys The anti-thesis of Imogen’s Thriller cover, Alex Turner shelves his usual cynicism and pretty much goes note-for-note with Barbara Lewis’ original, maybe slightly inching up the doo-wop. It’s a heartfelt lyric with more cleverness than is usually expected from this type of pop. Wikipedia says it has been covered by eight other artists, but it’s the Monkeys’ that proves Brit-Pop and Doo-Wop make cozy bed partners.
4. Hurt – Johnny Cash Had to have seen this one coming, folks. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor explains. “Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” Cash’s gravelly, death-bed rendition will land on lists of greatest covers for a long time to come.
3. Smile Like Your Mean It – Tally Hall Because they already have their own reputation and fan base, songs aren’t something you can cover half-ass. The best have fearlessness, confidence, and vision. Tally Hall’s cover of The Killers’ cut from 2004’s Hot Fuss has all of the above and more. Going straight for the proverbial jugular, Tally Hall packs gospel harmonies, whistling, and even a xylophone into a tight 3:12 runtime. The band retains the song’s core element: a hyper-produced wistful nostalgia, but wraps up the whole thing in a surreal, spiritual package.
2. We Will Become Silhouettes – The Shins The Postal Service’s original, a synth-burping juggernaut of rhythm, certainly has its time and place, but this acoustic reinvention is an absolutely gorgeous three minutes of music. Already masters at juxtaposing dark lyrics with upbeat melodies, it doesn’t take much for The Shins to make this theirs. A guitar solo here, harmonies there and voila, you’re left with a tune that outshines the original, both in terms of accessibility and overall fun.
1. I’m Going Down – Vampire Weekend Originally tested out on the road, Vampire Weekend finally laid this down, down, down in the studio for iTunes Sessions. It derives from Springsteen’s seemingly bottomless Born In The U.S.A. album. And while VW infuses their trademark glossy, sun-drenched style, it’s the singing that pushes it over the top. Smooth-faced vocals resonate so much more authentically with the lyrics — how many of us can seriously picture a girl impervious to the smoldering Boss? Exactly. No, it’s the anxious, post-adolescent pipes of Ezra Koenig that punctuate the song’s resignation.