Sped up or slowed down. Ironic or painstakingly sincere. Blown up or stripped down. Cover songs can be approached many different ways, but there one element shared by all great covers: they must be EFFECTIVE.
Here are the most effective… the Top 10 Cover Songs of 2012.
1) ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI “BABY” (original: Donnie & Joe Emerson): Forget cover songs, this might top my list of Best Songs of 2012… period. Not to mention this received the most positive audience response of any song I’ve played in my years as a KCRW DJ. This slow-burning soul cover of the obscuro Donnie & Joe Emerson track, with shared vocal duties from Ariel Pink and Dam-Funk, manages to at once be a salacious come-on AND wide-eyed, naive love song. Absolutely sublime.
2) THE DARCYS “PEG” (original: Steely Dan): OK, so I realize Steely Dan is probably repellant to the average indie rock fan, but even the most hardened hipster can’t resist getting swept up in the gush of guitars on this highlight of The Darcy’s cover-by-cover rework of The Dan’s ‘Aja’ album. If Steely Dan is brilliant at combining the technical and the literal, this cover transcends through pure adrenaline and emotion.
3) FATHER JOHN MISTY “DO YOU REALIZE?” (original: The Flaming Lips): The most memorable from The Onion A.V. Club’s phenomenal Undercover series of 2012, Josh Tillman from Father John Misty refrained from using his trademark tools of bracing wit and irony and chose to perform a straight, stirring version of “Do You Realize?” so it, in his words, could be “knocked out of the park, instead of done with a smirk”. Point to centerfield. Swing. Cheer.
4) NITE JEWEL “P.Y.T.” (original: Michael Jackson): Apparently created for a German edition of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, Ramona Gonzalez aka Nite Jewel takes this MJ favorite by the hand and drags it from the dancefloor straight into the bedroom. Slow, shimmering and sexy.
5) AFGHAN WHIGS “LOVECRIMES” (original: Frank Ocean): Although the success of Frank Ocean’s outstanding album ‘Channel Orange’ exposed the singer’s music to new and unexpected audiences, the truth is Greg Dulli & Co. have been churning out twisted covers of R&B slo-jamz for decades (see their 1996 take on TLC’s “Creep”). Their “Lovecrimes” is more sensual, suspenseful and provocative than any Adrian Lyne film… with a more believable ending.
6) MY MORNING JACKET “YOU’RE A BIG GIRL NOW” (original: Bob Dylan): This version, pulled from the expansive Amnesty International Bob Dylan tribute ‘Chimes of Freedom’, peels back the original to simply Jim James and his acoustic… barren and hypnotic… slowing adding pedal steel to accentuate, ’til it hits harder than heartache.
7) DESTROYER “LEAVE ME ALONE” (original: New Order): ‘Power, Corruption & Lies Covered‘ was one of the more enjoyable Mojo Magazine tribute albums in recent years, with standout being Destroyer’s interpretation of New Order’s “Leave Me Alone“. A sound not unlike Robyn Hitchcock, had he been a synthesizer enthusiast.
8) JOSE JAMES “AIN’T NO SUNSHINE” (original: Bill Withers): The impact of this song, performed as part of KCRW’s Berkley Street Sessions at Apogee Studio, had as much to do with James’ trademark buttery vocals as it did the astounding play of his piano man, 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition winner Kris Bowers. Realize this may have an unfair advantage in making the list as it was performed just a mere nights ago as I write this. But I imagine I’ll be thinking of this version 5 weeks or even 5 years from now. (airing January 24 on KCRW!)
9) BECK “I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU” (original: The Flamingos): This all-time classic has been done to death. Perhaps that was idea, as this contribution from Beck was part of multi-media artist Doug Aitken’s ‘Song 1′ project, which created visual projections to various artists’ interpretations of “I Only Have Eyes For You” (including No Age, Devendra Banhart & Lucky Dragons). Beck’s faithful take, however, wins over with the same elements that made his ‘Sea Change‘ album so significant: simplicity and beauty.
10) TAME IMPALA “THAT’S ALL FOR EVERYONE” (original: Fleetwood Mac): Comeback of the Year… Peyton Manning? How about Fleetwood Mac, who in 2012 saw a flurry of songs covered, remixed and rehashed by some of the most uber-cool indie bands and producers out there… unfortunately, most of the results left much to be desired. The strongest exception was Tame Impala, who lifted the criminally overlooked ‘Tusk’ deep cut “That’s All For Everyone” and played it to their blissfully spaced-out strengths.
DIVINE FITS “YOU GOT LUCKY” (original: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers)
JIMMY CLIFF “RUBY SOHO” (original: Rancid)
MICHAEL KIWANUKA “MAY THIS BE LOVE” (original: The Jimi Hendrix Experience)
AM “ME & MY ARROW” (original: Harry Nilsson)
THE ROOTS “PAUL REVERE” (original: Beastie Boys)
ALABAMA SHAKES “HOW MANY MORE TIMES” (original: Led Zeppelin)
FIELD MUSIC “TERRAPIN” (original: Syd Barrett)
EASY STAR ALL STARS “HUMAN NATURE” (original: Michael Jackson)
THE VACCINES “WINNER TAKES IT ALL” (original: ABBA)
ALLEN STONE “IS THIS LOVE (LIVE ON MBE)” (original: Bob Marley)