The cover version is a notoriously fine art. It’s easy to play someone else’s song, but it’s very, very difficult to do it well – any artist trying to cover a song, especially something well-known, runs a very real risk of it sounding, as Pulp sang on 2002’s ‘Bad Cover Version’, ‘like a later Tom & Jerry when the two of them could talk… like an own-brand box of cornflakes’. The general consensus seems to be that making the song your own by changing it substantially is the key to a good cover, but this doesn’t always work. The world’s ears have been affronted by some truly awful covers over the years, but we won’t be too negative: here are fourteen pretty great ones. (Incidentally, we’ve edited this list down from a three-hour version for pretty much arbitrary reasons. Any shocking omissions? Add them to our collaborative Spotify playlist.)
The Slits – I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Where better to start than this? The Slits reclaim the soul classic (most famously performed by Marvin Gaye) by cheerfully ignoring the original gender dynamic and slapping funky, dub-steeped bass and scratchy post-punk guitars all over it, but best of all are the late Ari Up’s manic vocals.
Kokolo – Girls on Film
The Kokolo Afrobeat Orchestra are from New York, but do a very convincing impression of the jazz-funk-Yoruba style pioneered by Fela Kuti in the 1970s. Here they take the straight-outta-Birmingham original and make it sound as tropical as Duran Duran clearly always wanted to be. Best bit: the ebullient multilinguial chorus.
TV on the Radio – Heroes
David Bowie casts a long shadow over his songs and that makes it dangerous to take on virtually any, let alone the scorchingly brilliant ‘Heroes’. Staying true to the epic simplicity of the 1977 recording, TV on the Radio start off their version small and then build it up to a flickering splendour.
The Dead Weather – Are Friends Electric?
Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army must have sounded like the future in 1979, but the sawtooth synths of ‘Are Friends Electric?’ were coming across a little rusty by the time The Dead Weather included this cover on their debut single. It’s sort of appropriate, then, that the supergroup’s psychedelic blues-rock has backdated ‘Are Friends Electric?’ even further. When Numan sang ‘it’s cold outside, and the paint’s peeling off of my walls,’ he sounded like he was in a dystopian tower-block; Jack White makes it sound more like a shack in the Louisiana swamps.
The xx – Teardrops
‘Hey, have you heard of this really great new band?’ The xx crept onto everyone’s ‘cool new music’ playlists in early 2010, and can now be found in the usual haunts of underground bands made good(?): soundtracking Channel 4 comedies, Gossip Girl, and trips to Debenham’s. So it’s refreshing to hear something not included on their astonishing yet overplayed debut album, especially since this melancholy cover of Womack & Womack’s 1988 R&B floor-filler packs a weighty emotional punch alongside its intricate guitar work.
The Big Pink – Sweet Dreams
They shot to fame with the Nicki Minaj-sampled indie anthem ‘Dominoes’, but this cover of Beyoncé’s 2009 hit shows The Big Pink on the same introspective form as their early hit ‘Velvet’. Over eerie vocal samples, Robbie Furze takes naturally to Beyoncé’s lyrics and reveals them as some of the darkest in recent pop history.
KASMs – Killer (Scentless)
Although they’ve been dormant since guitarist Rory Attwell’s departure last year to form his own project Warm Brains, KASMs were always set apart from their East London contemporaries by virtue of having a sense of humour about themselves. After all, you don’t get too many Shoreditch bands covering Seal (and it doesn’t even sound like they’re doing it ‘ironically’). The grinding guitars, string samples, and gasped vocals are all great, but while in Seal’s original ‘it’s the loneliness that’s the killer’, here it’s the bassline.
Grizzly Bear – He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)
Phil Spector was creepy a long time before he was imprisoned for murder in 2009: he oversaw the recording of The Crystals’ original version in 1962, which casts singer Little Eva’s experience of domestic abuse as a tender gesture. The song was (rightly) forced off the radio by public outcry. Grizzly Bear’s haunting and subtle 2007 version rewires the song as an internal drama, and the music’s rise and fall from barely-there to all-conquering, and back, suggests there’s far more to the story than the lyrics are letting on.
Fever Ray – Mercy Street
In which Karin Dreijer Andersson takes Peter Gabriel’s original and makes it sound like she wrote it. Fever Ray’s 2009 debut album was a sparse and spectral extension of the weird synthpop of Andersson’s band The Knife, and this single from last year (the first, apparently, in a series of different artists’ takes on Gabriel’s music) fits perfectly alongside tracks like ‘If I Had a Heart’. If you’re looking for another fix after this, check out her collaborative version of Nick Cave’s ‘Stranger than Kindness’, which is equally brilliant.
The Associates – Heart of Glass
This shimmering version of the Blondie classic lends the original a bitter, prickly resignation which the slightly saccharine original lacked, without sacrificing its dancefloor credentials. ‘I’m the one you’re using, please don’t push me aside’ never sounded so poignant, while the wordless female backing vocals seem to mock Billy Mackenzie’s pleading.
Chet Faker – No Diggity
From Melbourne and sporting an impressive ginger beard, Chet Faker’s sound falls in the same soul-meets-downtempo-electronica template as James Blake. While Faker’s own songs come highly recommended, this cover of Blackstreet’s mid-90s R&B anthem takes the original into drifting, dreaming bliss, and although he wisely avoids any attempts at Dr Dre’s rap verse, Faker is more than qualified to be ‘giving ‘em eargasms with my mellow accent’.
Easy Star All-Stars feat. Toots & The Maytals – Let Down
As Little Roy’s Nirvana covers album demonstrated this year, reggae version of alternative rock songs are an unlikely but fruitful source of original sounds. Perhaps it’s the fact that reggae is at heart an intensely melancholic genre, but Radiohead’s ‘Let Down’ translates perfectly into the new medium. Bringing in ska heavyweights the Maytals for this rendition was an inspired move by Easy Star All-Stars, who have so far released reggae versions of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as Radiohead’s OK Computer.
Low – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
Morrissey’s lyrics for The Smiths have a reputation for being gloomy, but they always tended to cloak themselves in irony, melodrama, and details of the mundane. In this cover from 2001, Low strip all of that away and reveal the lyrics’ bleak potential for true despair, and Alan Sparhawk’s plaintive vocals sound truly desperate. A wonderfully depressing reinterpretation.
The Sundays – Wild Horses
The best cover version ever? Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer may be familiar with this one (the prom episode, remember?), but it remains starkly beautiful almost twenty years after its release. Totally ignoring the sickly, lilting blues bravado of the Rolling Stones’ original version, Harriet Wheeler’s lighter-than-air vocals turn it into a heartfelt story of abandonment and survival. Ten times better than the original.
Mixer: Cover Me is also available (in an abridged version) on Spotify – click here to load the playlist, and add your own favourite cover versions.