They’re sung in small rooms with a guitar and a voice, recreated with orchestrated arrangements and whistled in public places across the world. Recorded or not, covers of popular songs are a part of our humanity and are, at times, divisive in the musical community. Naturally, a cover of any song immediately begs comparison to the original incarnation; however, in doing so, many times the emotion conveyed in the cover is lost.
One side of this argument says, “if the song had been intended to be played in such a manner, as it is covered, then the artist would have played it in that fashion”. The other side of the argument raises a valid point about the importance of an artist’s interpretation through reimagining.
Covering songs goes as far back as music itself. Ever since sound has been made there has been someone trying to replicate it by adding their own flair. In Universities and Colleges across the globe, music students are told to emulate their idols and “lift” songs or riffs in order to hone in on the same skill. In basements and garages, people from all different backgrounds are learning Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven or Pink Floyd’s Money, while honing their own sound and adding to the sounds that already exist.
Cover songs have started careers – most notably, Elvis Presley’s cover of Hound Dog (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, performed originally by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton) changed the face of popular music forever and launched the career of one of the biggest icons of the 20th century. Cover songs have also ended careers – in 2002 Johnny Cash covered the Trent Reznor song Hurt which, not only turned out to be Cash’s last hit of his illustrious career, but also served as a sort of self-eulogy for the country and western star.
Trent Reznor, upon hearing Cash’s version of Hurt, noted:
“Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”
Cover songs are every bit as powerful as the original compositions; sometimes better. The unwarranted hatred of all cover songs because of a false sense of purism is extremely close-minded. Art takes many forms. Sometimes that form is a cover song.
Here are my picks for the best cover songs of 2013:
Peter and Kerry – One Thing
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Mayer Hawthorne – Royals
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Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – Train in Vain
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Scout Niblett – No Scrubs
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Tame Impala – Prototype
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Arctic Monkeys – Hold On, We’re Going Home
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The Elwins – Countdown
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Honorable mention (because it was technically released early 2012), yet still deserves to be heard as much as possible:
Lake Street Dive – I Want You Back
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