When I selected Garbage’s cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” for my previous Pandemic Playlist, it got me thinking: What are my favorite covers? And more pointedly, what makes a great cover?
There certainly is no objective formula for the latter. It’s more like the Supreme Court’s famous definition of pornography: I know it when I see it, or, in this case, hear it.
What don’t tend to make the cut are carbon-copy replicas of the original artist’s version, because what’s the point of that? The closest note-by-note remake on this list is Morrissey’s take on the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” because it’s such a glorious tribute that’s so ideally suited to the singer’s vulnerable baritone.
But most of these selections are revisions of a sort, with a new group of artists spelunking the caverns of the original compositions for novel materials.
For this sort of cover-as-reinterpretation, I think most immediately of the playlist’s opening track, the Flaming Lips’ “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” which transforms Kylie Minogue’s dance-pop banger into a haunting slow burn of gnawing obsession. Similarly, Tom Jones, who at 81 remains hipper than the entire population of Williamsburg, Brooklyn combined, manages to channel Radiohead in his mutation of Todd Snider’s acoustic, Trump-era folk jaunt “Talkin’ Reality Television Blues” into a bit of almost unclassifiable brooding art-rock. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bill Callahan’s brand-new cover of John Prine’s “She Is My Everything” is both reverential and expansive, more doodling whimsy than the rocking Americana of the original, and it manages to yield more humor and pathos than Prine’s vision for the song—not an easy feat.
While many of these covers are from the past few years, I couldn’t help but integrate some old favorites. Sonic Youth’s unnerving rendition of the Carpenters’ “Superstar” is ancient as dirt, and is justly famous. It joins Pixies’ cover of Neil Young’s “Winterlong” and This Mortal Coil’s aching Tim Buckley exploration “Song to the Siren” as tracks that have usurped the original versions in my, and many others’, imaginations.
So enjoy this list, and please comment with any great covers I’ve missed, as there are doubtless hundreds of thousands more worthy contenders.
By the way, I began compiling Pandemic Playlists in April 2020, because there wasn’t any live music, or anything else on the entertainment front, to write about. I see no reason to discontinue this tradition as we ease into post-pandemic life. The sharing of music discovery should be a perennial pursuit, even after we’ve all returned the normal hurly-burly.
The Flaming Lips, Can’t Get You Out of My Head (Kylie Minogue)
Tom Jones, Talkin’ Reality TV Blues (Todd Snider)
Morrissey, Back on the Chain Gang (Pretenders)
Courtney Barnett, Dawned on Me (Wilco)
Pixies, Winterlong (Neil Young)
This Mortal Coil, Song to the Siren (Tim Buckley)
Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan, She is My Everything (John Prine)
Elvis Costello, Days (The Kinks)
Amanda Palmer, The Mess Inside (The Mountain Goats)
Sonic Youth, Superstar (The Carpenters)
Xiu Xiu, One Hundred Years (The Cure)
Superchunk, 100,000 Fireflies (The Magnetic Fields)
Luna, Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns ‘n’ Roses)
Richard Thompson, Oops, I Did Again (Britney Spears)
Willie Nelson and Karen O, Under Pressure (Queen and David Bowie)
Kamasi Washington, O-o-h Child (Stairsteps)
Herbie Hancock, All Apologies (Nirvana)