Like applying microgreens to a garden salad with a pair of tweezers, assembling computer processors or playing the board game “Operation,” crafting a memorable cover song is a delicate, precise and sometimes risky endeavor.
Covering a classic song requires equal parts arrogance and humility. The artist must be confident enough to believe he has something to contribute to a song adored by so many — including, ostensibly, himself — while still staying somewhat true to the spirit of the original.
And it’s not easy. The world of covers is high-risk/high-reward.
The musical landscape is teeming with cover songs doomed by the hubris of the cover artist to attempt such a high-wire act, to attempt a task at which he was so blatantly unqualified and artistically outgunned.
Limp Bizkit’s stab at The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” Madonna’s insulting rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Michael Bolton’s wildly popular but nevertheless soulless cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” stand out as some of the most egregious acts of cover butchery. Songs like these are almost awful enough to make you wish our nation’s intellectual property laws were less reasonable and more antediluvian. Massacre a Beatles song, say “Hello, Goodbye” to your hand.
But you can’t paint all cover songs with the same ugly brush.
Like a bad relationship you can’t quite bring yourself to call off, there is a volatility to cover songs.
Bad covers are often truly abysmal but a great and memorable cover song can ascend to a place of adoration typically reserved for well-regarded original works.
Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Jeff Buckley’s ubiquitous rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” The Beatles’ iconic cover of The Isley Brother’s “Twist and Shout” are so revered and have become so popular that many fans don’t even realize they’re covers.
When an artist reinvents a staid classic or offers a faithful and heartfelt rendition of a beloved song, it serves as a reminder of why we love covers so much in the first place.
Cover songs are familiar, and yet not. They are an affirmation of our own taste. There is someone else, often an artist you also admire, who likes the same stuff you do.
This week, eight great cover songs painstakingly culled from a list of more than 50 songs I assembled over the past week with the help of friends, family and co-workers that ran the gamut from interesting to funny to bizarre. I’m talking to you, Passion Pit’s cover of The Cranberries “Dreams.” Just stop it.
Here’s to history’s great cover songs, the hope of more to come and just punishment for those who continue to do a disservice to music and to good taste.
• Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse, “Valerie” — Winehouse and Ronson added some doo-wop to this song by The Zutons and created a hit. Reminds me of how dangerous a pairing Ronson and Winehouse could have been for years to come.
• Wilson Pickett, “Hey Jude” — Had to have at least one Beatles cover on this playlist. Duane Allman on guitar. Better than the original. Yeah, I said it.
• Cee-Lo Green, “No One’s Gonna Love You” — You wouldn’t expect a former member of Goodie Mob to cover an indie rock love song so perfectly, but Cee-Lo destroys this popular Band of Horses song. Band of Horses returned the favor by recording a terrific cover of Cee-Lo’s “Georgia” with members of the University of Georgia Redcoast Marching Band last year.
• Keane, “With or Without You” — A beautifully understated U2 cover. Not terribly unexpected from this Britpop trio but perfectly executed.
• Fiona Apple, “Everyday” — Apple teamed up with longtime producer Jon Brion on this charming Buddy Holly cover. Hard not to be enchanted by a song with a xylophone solo. Featured on “Rave on, Buddy Holly,” a recently released Buddy Holly tribute album that included covers by Cee-Lo, Florence and the Machine and The Black Keys.
• Scala & Kolacny Brothers, “Creep” — A Belgian girls choir nails this a cappella Radiohead cover in a palpably eery, perfectly haunting way. WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
• Chamberlin, “Giving Up the Gun” — Recorded in a cabin in Vermont, this stripped-down, stomp-a-long Vampire Weekend song is nearly as good as the original. A little oversung at moments (less is more, fellas) but a very soulful, interesting cover from this quintet from the Green Mountain State.
• Faith No More, “Easy” — One of the more surprising covers you’ll hear. Surprisingly good. A very faithful — and more than a little ironic — cover of The Commodores’ classic. Not what you would expect from these post-punk pioneers.
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