At the behest of my editors, I’m cranking on revisions for Calm Undone, spending hours at my new local haunt, buried under noise-canceling headphones. Since the 12-months of lock down have me missing live music, I stream Alt-Nation’s Virtual Advancement Placement. Listening has been extra fun because I love a good cover, and both Dayglow (@dayglowband) and Gus Dapperton (@GusDapperton) give children of the eighties like me lots of ear candy.
In a different life, I would be lead in a band called “Cover Me,” and we would essentially play covers (in fact, our first and probably only album would be the semi-eponymously entitled ‘Cover Me — I’m Going In’). This is because I don’t have a creative bone in my body, musically speaking. But there is an art to covering someone else’s song well. You can’t just play it like the original, hoping it sounds the same. You have to make it your own, build upon it. A good cover brings something new: A different mood; A funky change in tempo or key. I imagine it isn’t easy to do, so I’m no expert in telling anyone how to do it. But I can tell you when I think someone nails a cover. So I’ve put together a YouTube playlist of some kick-ass covers. Here’s the list, and a brief explanation of why I included each:
- Ben Howard’s cover of Call Me Maybe: The original is a cute story of a crush and the awkwardness of trying to get the object of your affection’s attention. But Howard and crew succeed in flipping this silly teenage song into what feels like an obsessive’s confession.
- Jose Gonzales’ cover of Heartbeats: Gonzales’ gentle acoustic guitar version brings out the longing, love-struck nature of The Knife’s EMD hit.
- Glass Animals’ cover of Crazy: Glass Animals keeps Gnarls Barkley’s pop-sensibility while giving it geek-cool props.
- Wolf Alice’s cover of Boys: Charli XCX’s sugar-pop song was a feminist criticism of women’s depiction in music videos, but Wolf Alice’s mash-up with the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry is kind of genius.
- Five Second’s of Summer’s cover of Roots: Alice Merton’s original was a staple on my Sonos alt-rock playlist for most of 2018. That same year, the boy-band Five Seconds of Summer grew up and gave us a harmonically taught, stripped down version worth checking out.
- Our Last Night’s cover of Wrecking Ball: I had no interest (none) in the Miley Cyrus original, but I decided to take a chance on this cover. There are tons of other covers to sample, but Our Last Night’s cover was the one that made clear to me the song is not a power-anthem, but a heart-felt, emotional admission of defeat.
- Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U: Despite how I was obsessed with Sinead while in college, I didn’t know her iconic ballad was a Prince original until after reading her 1991 Rolling Stone’s interview. Once you know that fact, his imprint can’t be ignored, despite the stripped down, soul baring, symphonic treatment Sinead delivers.
- Silversun Pickups’ cover of Cry Littler Sister: Stick with me as I setup the background here, but trust me I will get there. Growing up in MTv-deprived rural Ohio, my only exposure to music videos was through a local-access show where you would call-in to request videos. Occasionally, callers won prizes, and mine was a vinyl edition of The Lost Boys soundtrack. Despite the strong collection of what were alt-acts of the time (including an Echo and the Bunnymen’s cover of the Doors’ People are Strange), Cry Little Sister was the only song that resonated with me. Even then I thought it merely ‘meh.’ Then Silversun Pickups (whom I think can do no wrong) raised it from the dead and I’m seriously hooked.
- Billie Eilish’s cover of Bad: Eilish gives MJ’s pop-classic her trade-mark sotto voce treatment that makes it a classic (albeit this time an alt one) all over again.
It is a short list, and heavily biased. That’s okay, because it is mine. So what it is yours? What would be your short-list of must-hear covers?