Best of 2011

Top 25 Cover Songs of 2011

January 1, 2012 13 Comments

I love a good cover song, and 2011 served up a playlist full of stellar re-dos of others’ tunes.

Songs by The xx and Madonna proved particularly popular picks, with the best of those scoring two and three spots, respectively, in my ranking of the year’s top 25 covers.

1. “Angel” (Madonna) – Darren Hayes

Having previously covered Madonna’s “Dress You Up,” Darren Hayes prostrates himself at Her Madgesty’s feet once more. His cover of “Angel” — one of my favorite Madonna tunes — is largely a faithful turn, though Hayes does spread his wings a bit, infusing the bass line with new fervency, and flying in some very “Papa Don’t Preach”-ish strings toward the end. Such wonderful touches demonstrate that “Angel” is a favorite of his as well. [Original Post]

2. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” (U2) – Garbage

The first new music from Garbage in years was a U2 cover for Q Magazine’s 20th anniversary tribute to Achtung Baby. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” proves a perfect fit for the band’s still-unique sound and Shirley Manson’s unmistakable voice. The fact that one of my very favorite bands of the ever had re-done my very favorite track from the Irish rockers’ classic album was almost too much for me to handle. [Original Post]

3. “Video Games” (Lana Del Rey) – [STRANGERS]

Just as quickly as Lana Del Rey began dominating the blogosphere, a flood of “Video Games” covers followed. While the simple switch from female to male alone goes a long way to snaring attention, London trio [STRANGERS] retain the song’s filmic feel of while looking through the lens of their own dark pop sensibilities.

If Del Rey’s original production sounds directed by David Lynch, [STRANGERS]’ cover is more David Fincher. An atmospheric moodiness, with an industrial pulse and some off-kilter warp, surrounds their recording of “Video Games,” and makes it the clear champion. [Original Post]

4. “Higher Love” (Steve Winwood) – James Vincent McMorrow

Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow strips and slows down Steve Winwood’s 1986 hit. And while now Chaka Khan is nowhere to be heard helping out, in McMorrow’s piano-playing hands, “Higher Love” becomes an intimate, ethereal plea sent to the heavens above. I feel for you, James. [Original Post]

5. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (The Smiths) – Dum Dum Girls

Dum Dum Girls’ version of The Smiths’ exquisitely morbid “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” doesn’t venture too far from the original, a smart move when approaching something akin to the Holy Grail of Smiths songs.

Gone are the strings, but the song’s familiar melody remains intact, with frontwoman Kristin “Dee Dee” Gundred inhabiting Morrissey’s role quite comfortably. The addition of a reverberating wall of guitars blankets the song’s wry resignation in warmth. [Original Post]

6. “Shattered Dreams” (Johnny Hates Jazz) – Van Go Lion

Van Go Lion’s take on “Shattered Dreams” hit isn’t a simple, straight-up re-do of the 1985 smooth pop hit, but rather a recasting from the shadowy corners of clubland. No use crying over shattered dreams when you can get to stomping around about them. Even Johnny Hates Jazz approved. [Original Post]

7. “Someone Like You” (Adele) – Friends Electric

Adele’s “Someone Like You” was another song that seemed to be covered by everyone and their mother, but my favorite by far arrived via Wales’ Friends Electric. The electropop quartet bathes “Someone Like You” in a warm synth glow that renders their take utterly winsome.

If I had a) a time machine and b) John Hughes’ contact info, I’d hop in my DeLorean and convince the director that Friends Electric’s cover of Adele’s heartbroken number was meant to score a crushing scene in which Molly Ringwald’s misfit male bestie accepts that the redhead with whom he’s still besotted after all these years is content with her beau-hunk, setting up the film’s eventual climax in which the two friends are reunited after her seemingly fairy-tale pairing unravels and Ringwald realizes where her heart has really belonged all this time. [Original Post]

8. “Crush On You” (The Jets) – Nero

Twenty-five years after eight squeaky clean Mormon siblings from Minnesota took their debut single to #3, The Jets’ “Crush On You” gets dirtied up by London dance duo Nero. Dan Stephens and Joe Ray speed up and then drag The Jets’ candy-coated pop song through some dubstep sludge, while being mindful that the melody not get lost in the mix. [Original Post]

9. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (The Shirelles) – Amy Winehouse

My heart broke all over again with the posthumous release of Amy Winehouse’s Lioness: Hidden Records, a collection overseen by her Back To Black producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson. Ronson’s two contributions are actually revamped spins on previously released covers, “Valerie” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”

Winehouse first covered The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for the soundtrack to Bridget Jones’ Diary: The Edge Of Reason, and Ronson gave the song a new arrangement recorded with The Dap-Kings. I prefer this second, fuller-sounding version, even with the slow-march tempo and the militaristic drums ringing funereal to me. RIP, Amy. [Related Post]

10. “Goodbye Horses” (Q Lazzarus) – The Airborne Toxic Event

Q Lazarrus’ “Goodbye Horses,” featured to creepy effect in Silence Of The Lambs, has been a staple of The Airborne Toxic Event’s live shows for some time. Frontman Mikel Jollett connected with the song’s writer, William Garvey, shortly before his death in 2009, who’d reached out to the band to correct a mis-sung lyric after watching some YouTube clips of their live performances.

Garvey said he loved their version and suggested The Airborne Toxic Event record “Goodbye Horses.” Having high regard for the song, they heeded his wish this past year. [Original Post]

11. “Holiday” (Madonna) – Capital Cities

It was only last week that Capital Cities posted their cover of Madonna’s first hit single, “Holiday.” The Los Angeles duo of Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian have served up a sparkling electro-pop take in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations all across the world, complete with a countdown at the very end. [Original Post]

12. “Circle” (Edie Brickell & New Bohemians) – J Mascis

J Mascis’ off-kilter warble is understandably not for everyone, but as the Dinosaur Jr. frontman has toured in support of his all-acoustic solo album, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ “Circle” has been part of the setlist. I don’t know how Mascis came around to the heartbreaking tale of an ended friendship, but it’s a perfect pick for his folkie phase, and the song’s weariness couldn’t be better suited to his singing style. [Original Post]

13. “What Is Love?” (Howard Jones) – Duncan Sheik

For his Covers 80s album, Duncan Sheik selected songs that had some importance for him as a teenager, with tracks by The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and New Order all making the cut. But it’s Sheik’s cover of Howard Jones’ “What Is Love?” that I couldn’t shake. Even as a kid, I found the chorus’ question, “Does anybody love anybody, anyway?” curiously captivating.

Sheik’s acoustic arrangement strips away Jones’ original synth-pop sheen (there are no drums on Cover 80s), but his new take only strengthens the song’s matter-of-factness about the sentiment. [Original Post]

14. “Back To Black” (Amy Winehouse) – Ronnie Spector

Recorded two years before Amy Winehouse’s untimely death at 27, but released shortly afterward, it’s fitting that Ronnie Spector recorded “Back To Black,” as the late singer-songwriter was obviously inspired by rock and roll’s original bad girl. There was the iconic fashion, of course — the beehive hairdo, heavy black mascara, and hiked-up skirts — but the music too, which echoed the girl-group era while updating it all the same.

Produced by the late Richard Gotteher (The Go-Go’s, Blondie, Dum Dum Girls) and hip-hop producer Phenom, Spector’s cover of “Back To Black” jumps a decade rather than copying the ’60s-style sound of the original, with her inimitable vibrato riding a disco vibe. [Original Post]

15. “Rebellion (Lies)” (Arcade Fire) – Sophie Ellis-Bextor

Included on a UK charity compilation, Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s recording of Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies),” is a standout. First, because the pairing seems so unusual on paper, and second, because Ellis-Bextor pulls it off with such ease, effortlessly marrying her pop sensibilities to the indie-rock fave. [Original Post]

16. “Going To A Town” (Rufus Wainright) – Flowers and Sea Creatures

Flowers and Sea Creatures’ own moody compositions merit a close spin, eliciting favorable comparisons to Radiohead. Still, it was Montreal duo Graham Baxter and Ewan Pearson’s tribute to a fellow native son that first caught my attention, covering Rufus Wainwright’s “Going To A Town.” [Original Post]

17. “I Can’t Make You Love Me/Nick Of Time” (Bonnie Raitt) – Bon Iver

Bon Iver meets Bonnie Raitt times two in this cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” that incorporates the chorus to “Nick Of Time” in its coda. “She’s our greatest singer, and the most underrated guitar player,” Justin Vernon told Billboard, saying he’d drop everything to work with Raitt. Here’s to his lovely cover making that dream a reality. [Original Post]

18. “Night Time” (The xx) – Tracey Thorn

Originally recorded for a cancelled covers’ album featuring The xx’s favorite artists, Tracey Thorn selected “Night Time” as the tune she’d like to sing. Joined in the studio by former Everything But The Girl bandmate (and still husband) Ben Watt, along with current collaborator, Ewan Pearson, “Night Time” marked the first time Thorn and Watt had played together on a recording in over 10 years.

Watt was emphatic that “Night Time” not be referred to as an EBTG reunion. Still, the result of the re-pairing was nothing short of fantastic. [Original Post]

19. “Love Makes The World Go Round” (Madonna) – You Say Party

Madonna’s True Blue turned 25 in 2011, so Paper Bag Records recruited its roster of artists to give her classic 1986 album the full tribute treatment. As such projects go, there are some misses and some definite highlights, like the late You Say Party pumping new life into True Blue‘s closing number, “Love Makes The World Go Round.”

True, I never did much care for Madonna’s original track, but You Say Party’s orbiting chorus vocals make it sound like the hit single it never was. [Original Post]

20. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” (Janet Jackson) – Cookies

Setting the melody of the seventh and final single from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 to the beat of one of their unreleased tracks, “Katharine,” Brooklyn duo Cookies turn “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” into the male/female duet Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had originally intended the song to be.

The beat is infectious, and with guitar sounds that are part Prince’s “Kiss,” part Paul Simon’s tour through the African diaspora, Cookies’ head-boppin’ take is no half-baked cover. [Original Post]

21. “Johnny And Mary” (Robert Palmer) – Kisses

Los Angeles duo Kisses isn’t the first to cover Robert Palmer’s “Johnny And Mary,” from 1980’s Clues. Status Quo, Tina Turner, Melissa Manchester, Placebo, and Nouvelle Vague have all gone on record with his tale of a couple that’s “fallen into life like a habit, there’s no struggle or romance in what they do,” as Palmer described the song.

Kisses’ cover begins slowly with just Jesse Kivel’s voice and a piano, briefly dabbling in early ’60s balladry before taking off for ’80s shimmering-synths land. Sublime. [Original Post]

22. “A Forest” (The Cure) – Jess Mills

Adele covered The Cure’s “Lovesong” on 21 this year, but it’s another Londoner’s cover that made this ranking. Jess Mills travels even further back into The Cure’s discography for “A Forest,” from 1980’s Seventeen Seconds.

Produced by Breakage, Mills’ pulsating cover received the blessing of Robert Smith, with The Cure frontman contacting the singer via email. With Mills as your guide, “A Forest” is an atmospheric trip worth taking. [Original Post]

23. “Subculture” (New Order) – Stop Modernists featuring Chris Lowe

Chris Lowe, who, with Neil Tennant, comprises Pet Shop Boys, contributes vocals to Stop Modernists’ deep-house cover of New Order’s “Sub-culture,” from 1985’s Low-Life. Not sure how Finnish DJ/producers Jori Hulkkonen and Alex Nieminen coaxed the typically reticent Lowe to get behind the mic, as he’s famously loathe to do so, with only a handful of Pet Shop Boys tracks featuring him front and center (“Paninaro,” for one).

Perhaps the opportunity to pay tribute to some fellow synthpop pioneers provided just the hook Lowe needed. [Original Post]

24. “Shelter” (The xx) – Hercules and Love Affair

Some of the better covers out there are acoustic executions. Stripping away the original layers, and leaving nothing more than an instrument or two quickly sets the new take far apart from the old. The xx’s “Shelter” presents the exact opposite opportunity, one that Hercules and Love Affair exploit brilliantly.

In the hands of Andy Butler and crew (including vocalist Kim Ann Foxman), The xx’s hushed ballad becomes a pulsating house anthem, the negative image of the original’s minimalism. [Original Post]

25. “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” (The Muppets) – Rachael Yamagata

In 1979, the original version of this wistful fireside number from The Muppet Movie, sung by Gonzo, had me shedding little-kid tears in my popcorn. Now 32 years later, Rachael Yamagata covered the tune for The Green Album, an all-star tribute to the songs long associated with our fuzzy childhood friends. Her take had me moving right along all over again. [Original Post]

Honorable Mention – “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails) – Leona Lewis

Arriving near the last gasp of 2011, Leona Lewis’ cover of the closing track from Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 opus, The Downward Spiral, didn’t escape controversy. Sure, the original UK winner of The X Factor seemed an unlikely candidate to cover “Hurt,” but before Johnny Cash released his haunting, heralded version in 2002, would anyone other than producer Rick Rubin have thought the Man in Black should do so?

Make room for all who choose to enter Trent Reznor’s House of Pain, I say, Lewis included. Folks who think otherwise should read this excellent treatise from SPIN’s Mark Hogan. “She’s turned ‘Hurt’ into a song that can be about pop music, and feelings, and more specifically, how the artifice of a professionally crafted, suburban Lite-FM ballad can still express something awfully genuine.” That’s a sentiment worth remembering, especially as we begin 2012.

What were some of your favorite covers of the year that was?

  • Tim

    love ‘STRANGERS’ they are the sound of 2012 

    • Tim — I hope this time next year someone has covered a tune by [STRANGERS].

  • Garbage have the best cover

  • jessie j – luther vandross  ‘never too much’

    • Laura — I missed hearing that one. I don’t always love Jessie J, but I’ll have to take a listen.

  • I am so particular when it comes to cover songs because too often people just completely f* them up and ruin them. However, Garbage’s cover of U2 is amazing!

    And surprisingly, Leona Lewis’ cover of “Hurt” is worth applauding considering I can’t normally stand her voice or “pop” music in general. It’s not even popp-y, which I think gives it a bit more merit.

    It’s a little old but one of my most current covers is still Chris Cornell’s cover of “Imagine” by John Lennon. His voice gives it a bit more of haunting feel while still keeping the emotional message behind Lennon’s words.

    • Garbage doing that particular U2 song was just a perfect combination. And I think you said it exactly right about why I enjoy Leona’s cover of “Hurt” — precisely because it isn’t very poppy, though she, herself, is a pop star.

      And I don’t think I’ve ever heard Chris Cornell’s cover of “Imagine,” though I know I’ve got a ton of Lennon covers in my collection. One of my faves of those is Antony and Boy George doing “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

  • 123

    NIN should have made the list with U2’s Zoo Station…

    • Always good when Trent delivers new NIN material, even if it’s a cover tune.

      That Q Magazine tribute album was a strong one. Not too many are like that, for sure.

  • Pingback: Turn It Up: Leona Lewis feat. Childish Gambino - "Trouble" | Popservations()

  • Pingback: Popservations' Top 25 Cover Songs of 2012 | Popservations()