For me, a great cover song is the exercise in the art of the unexpected. These are my Top 10 most enjoyable & memorable covers of 2011:
1) Hanni El Khatib “You Rascal You” (original: Louis Armstrong): Hanni El Khatib proved to be one of the most exciting new artists of 2011 and his debut “Will the Guns Come Out” included this update on this Louis Armstrong classic. But where the original was harmless fun (and made for a 1930’s Betty Boop cartoon), Hanni’s version is a sinister, venomous threat of revenge… not to hard to imagine him singing this with a knife to the poor rascal’s throat.
2) Charles Bradley & the Menahan Street Band “Stay Away” (original: Nirvana): Pulled from Spin magazine’s ‘Newermind’ song-by-song cover tribute to Nirvana’s “Nevermind“, this highlight from Daptone’s Charles Bradley manages to transform one of Nirvana’s angriest ragers into some slow-burning psychedelic soul, without sacrificing an ounce of acerbity.
3) Mr. Little Jeans “The Suburbs” (original: Arcade Fire): It could be considered a ballsy move to try and tackle a beloved song from an acclaimed band that is so fresh in our memory (and from a 2011 Best Album Grammy winner to boot), but the artist who’s name sounds like a character from Captain Kangeroo brilliantly turns “The Suburbs” into an outtake from Portishead’s ‘Dummy’.
4) Peaches “Turn It On” (original: Franz Ferdinand): It’s not like Franz Ferdinand’s “Turn It On” was lacking in sex appeal… but Peaches somehow knocked it up several notches on her version on the Franz Ferdinand Covers EP, this hypnotic dance track is like a horny (hornier?) Debbie Harry fronting Kraftwerk.
5) Aloe Blacc “99 Problems/Can’t Tell Me Nuthin” (original: Jay-Z/Kanye West): Predating the Kanye/Jay-Z collab “Watch the Throne” by several months, soul-stirrer Aloe Blacc laid down this epic medley last April on BBC’s Live Lounge. If going toe-to-toe with hip-hop’s two biggest superstars wasn’t badass enough, Aloe Blacc throws in a few bars of James Brown’s “Payback” to boot.
6) Wye Oak “Strangers” (original: The Kinks): Merge released this 7″ of cover songs from Wye Oak (the flipside is a twisted take on Danzig’s “Mother”) and, although their version of “Strangers” is not dramatically different than the Kinks’ original, it is Jenn Wasner’s high & lonesome delivery that creates a roadside honkytonk version of “Closing Time“.
7) Poolside “Harvest Moon” (original: Neil Young): Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” is such a sincere, romantic slice of down-home Americana (remember the ‘Unplugged’ version featured a musician playing a sweeping broom?) that it might seem like an odd choice for this LA electronic dance duo, but this shimmering daytime disco jammy conveys the original’s true feelings sung through digitally altered vocals. It’s the sound of a robot who just figured out how to fall in love.
Poolside – Harvest Moon by Poolside Music
8) Jack White “Love Is Blindness” (original: U2): It has been 20 years since U2’s landmark album “Achtung Baby“, which is plenty of distance from its initial overexposure — milking almost every song as a single — that damn-near ruined it for me. Jack White takes the album’s slow-burner “Love Is Blindness” and gives a performance that can best be summed up in one word: possessed.
9) The Civil Wars “I Want You Back” (original: Jackson 5): It is common for an artist performing on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic to drop a cover song into their set, so there were many moments to choose from in 2011. Yet it is uncommon for an indie folk duo steeped in the classic Americana tradition like The Civil Wars to attempt a cover of a bubblegum Motown classic and deliver with this kind of beauty, sincerity and refreshing lack of irony.
10) Amy Winehouse “Our Day Will Come” (original: Ruby & the Romantics): No, this is far from a posthumous consolation prize. This lilting lover’s rock cover of the Ruby & the Romantics hit is amazing not because it is a perfect fit for the late singers talents, but that, for a singer who’s own material tended to be beautifully dark, this version is so convincing, sunny & hopeful that when she sings the chorus… just for a split second… you almost believe it could come true.