Covers were the thing to do in 2014. Arcade Fire performed a new one each night. Jack White was fairly liberal in tossing out his two cents on the six-string. And Beck dolled up classics with funky new threads. All year it appeared as if everyone was gung-ho about putting a new spin on something old. That’s why this year’s collection of top covers is pretty special.
Now, traditionally, a cover involves a young artist paying tribute to a veteran’s work. But, the opposite happened quite a few times, and you’ll hear the best of ’em ahead. There was also a lot of single-swapping going down between buzz bands, and that proved increasingly alluring to the ears (yet also mildly frustrating for our news staff). We tried to capture all of that here.
However, if there’s a cover you don’t see and believe it deserves a fair shake, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below. It was pretty tough chiseling down this list to 10 from the, oh, hundreds of covers that surfaced in 2014. Regardless, we think this bunch will be remembered for years to come. So, give ’em a spin, folks.
10. Lydia Loveless – “They Don’t Know” (Kirsty MacColl)
“They Don’t Know” closes Lydia Loveless’ great Somewhere Else with a straight-forward, late-’80s/early-’90s country romp through a song that is so hooky you swear you’ve heard it before. Well, you probably have, since it’s a cover of a song made famous by comedian Tracey Ullman in 1983 and originally released by Kirsty MacColl in 1979. The song’s inviting pop structure has made it attractive to cover for decades, including a well-known version by Ben Gibbard, but in the hands of Loveless, it provides a breezy, warm farewell, accomplishing the typical goal of a cover: making the song her own. –Philip Cosores
09. Beck – “Wah Wah” (George Harrison)
Conan held a week-long tribute back in September to honor one of the world’s most famous and inspirational musicians, George Harrison, to mark the arrival of The Apple Years 1968-75, an eight-disc release of Harrison’s work. The first artist to give a nod to the legend was Beck, and his cover was so on point that the rest who stepped onstage that week never quite managed to top it. The genre-spanning giant is easy to recognize for both his gritty lo-fi production and lush acoustic numbers, but his rendition of “Wah Wah” fell snuggly between the two. The All Things Must Pass cut was a direct rock take that saw Beck cutting two minutes off the original version in favor of some extra tambourine action while still keeping things clean. Perhaps the best part was the subtle shift between key changes in the chorus. As per usual, Beck’s band backs him up with a blissful accuracy, nailing every layered part so well that it’s easy to think there’s a backing track playing behind them. Instead, it’s just a heartfelt tribute by one of today’s icons paying his respects to one of the past. No big deal. –Nina Corcoran
08. Arcade Fire feat. Mavis Staples – “This May Be the Last Time”/”The Last Time” (The Staples Sisters/The Rolling Stones)
If you spent even half a moment following their tour this year, you’d figure that Arcade Fire would be destined to make an appearance in this countdown — and you’d be entirely right. While there were plenty of viable options to choose from, their teaming with Mavis Staples at Chicago’s United Center added an extra cover-y wrinkle to the experience. First, the legendary vocalist and the ultra-anthemic indie rockers united in a sky-cracking gospel intro, teasing out the majesty of The Staples’ Sisters’ “This May Be the Last Time”. But then, after an implied wink and nod, they ripped into The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”, a song that Keith Richards admitted was an adaptation of the Sisters’ version of the longstanding tune. So, this one equates to a cover of a cover of a long-covered song — and with Mavis Staples’ powerful voice at the front of a band this rip-roaring, it’s a real winning proposition. –Adam Kivel
07. Jack White – “99 Problems” (Jay Z)
In the midst of the summer where Jack White was hailed as a king of the stage for his exceptional performance rhetoric, the former White Stripe showed how truly deep his appreciation for music ran. Innovative stage creativity at historic performances like Chicago’s immense three-hour, 33-song set and his surprise London psych ward show made for what could be the greatest tour in White’s extensive career. Covers included Zeppelin, Hendrix, Dylan, Muddy Waters, Nick Cave, and Kanye, and the list goes on for a while, but possibly the most interesting occurred on a July night in Louisville, KY, in the middle of “Icky Thump” at White’s Saturday headlining gig at The Forecastle Festival. Right after ridiculously eargasmic synth and guitar riffs, White broke off into “99 Problems” by Jay Z. Instead of hearing White howl, “White Americans, what nothing better to do,” the crowd heard a bit of “99 Problems”, ending with the climactic line “I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one.” White portrayed the variety of his musical palette while solidifying the message he cast at Bonnaroo: Music happens between the performer and the audience. –Brian McMahon
06. Eddie Vedder – “Imagine” (John Lennon)
The cover song has become such a staple of the Pearl Jam repertoire that it’s almost something you take for granted. I say almost because they always find ways of catching you off guard, even as cover songs have become increasingly par for the course. Eddie Vedder in particular seems to understand the delicate science behind a good cover, namely that an aesthetic match between artists is as powerful as the artist’s ability to actually play the tune. Evidence of such is all over his heartfelt homage to “Imagine”. Lennon’s iconic plea for peace perfectly suited Vedder and Pearl Jam’s equally progressive and humanistic worldview, and the end result is as heartwarming and impassioned as you’d guess. –Ryan Bray
05. CHVRCHES – “Do I Wanna Know?” (Arctic Monkeys)
From Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” to HAIM’s “Falling” to the Game of Thrones theme music, CHVRCHES have proved fond of covering a variety of songs in the past few years. The Scottish synthpop trio tried their hand at Arctic Monkeys’ AM highlight “Do I Wanna Know?” for Australian radio station triple j’s “Like a Version”. The slow-burning pace remains the same, but CHVRCHES replace the snarling guitar riff and booming kick drum with their signature ethereal synths. Lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry and Martin Doherty take on the tough task of emulating Alex Turner’s mournful croon on the track. (“Sorry Arctic Monkeys fans,” Doherty said of the cover, “if you really, really love the original, because it’s kind of a departure.”) The CHVRCHES version doesn’t feel as dark and moody as the original, but Mayberry and Doherty do an admirable job of trading jabs in the chorus to create a different take on the song. –Killian Young
04. Tears For Fears – “Creep” (Radiohead)
According to a quick search on setlist.fm, “Creep” hasn’t made it into a Radiohead live appearance since 2009. On top of that, this was the final date on Tears for Fears’ first US jaunt in over three years, so … there wasn’t really too much debate about this cover making the list. Following a string of indie covers (Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start”, Hot Chip’s “Boy from School”, and Animal Collective’s “My Girls”), Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith (plus their backing band) dusted this one off for the delight of Portland’s Project Pabst. Orzabal’s vocal might not hit with the same level of frail discontent as Thom Yorke circa 1995; however, he had plenty of support from a packed house that were all amped to explore their inner creep. But yes, you certainly belong here, and we all hope to see you back again in the States shortly! –Derek Staples
03. St. Vincent – “Lithium” (Nirvana)
A St. Vincent show in 2014 was an incongruous spectacle. On one hand were the meticulously choreographed, mechanically precise dance movements, often performed in tandem with band member Toko Yasuda. There was always a hint of Kraftwerk in this side of Annie Clark’s performance, and her unmistakable shock of silver hair only contributed to the impression that she had morphed into something more robot than human. But all it took, really, was a ferocious guitar solo for Clark to slice through that chilly surface and reveal a heart pumping blood at high volume.
Human or robot, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could watch St. Vincent on stage for two hours and not come away stricken with fear or awe. That’s partly why her cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium”, which she unleashed alongside Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic at Nirvana’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, proved so refreshing. Stepping into Kurt Cobain’s shoes might have registered as an audacious move to some, but it actually seems to have helped St. Vincent let her hair down a little; here, she works within the song’s relatively simple elements to deliver an understated, emotive performance that (rightfully) doesn’t try to one-up Cobain’s visceral howl. It was yet more proof that Annie Clark is a woman of many shades, more of which we’re excited to see in 2015. –Collin Brennan
02. Todd Terje feat. Bryan Ferry – “Johnny and Mary” (Robert Palmer)
Todd Terje sprinkled a little star power for his debut by nabbing Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry. He went the extra mile by covering the late Robert Palmer, too. No, not “Addicted to Love” or “Simply Irresistible”, but his other single, the oft-forgotten “Johnny and Mary”. Recorded in the Bahamas circa 1980, Palmer’s song details a crumbling marriage between a political figure and his wife. “Johnny thinks the world would be right/ If it could buy truth from him,” he sings, later adding: “Johnny’s always running around/ Trying to find certainty.” The beauty of the song, however, is how Johnny’s uncertainty and Mary’s ambivalence could translate to just about anyone who’s ever felt alone or trapped, respectively.
Terje and Ferry capitalize on those universal emotions with their cover. They’ve stripped away the upbeat percussion and slowed things down, instead, for a meditative offering that strangles each word with heartbreaking emotion. Ferry shifts all of his weight on Terje’s dreamy landscapes, sounding as if he’s delivering a confession, similar to his Avalon days of yesteryear. “Running around,” he murmurs as a defeated, tired, and bruised old man. Close ng’r eyes and you can see him staring off into the distance, on some abandoned dock, as the sun boils the water and the evening turns to night. Depending on where you’re at in life, you might see yourself, too. –Michael Roffman
01. Aretha Franklin – “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele)
Back in 2010, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” transcended the pop genre’s confines — from teenagers playing it on their phones to hipsters singing along at dive bars to moms getting completely into it while riding along in their cars, it seemed like the song was simultaneously entirely unavoidable and strong enough that nobody was complaining about that ubiquity. So, when legendary diva Aretha Franklin decided to release a covers album called Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, it was unsurprising that Adele’s tune made the cut. Four years old is a bit young for your typical “classic,” but hey, after hearing this rendition, we won’t complain. There, sitting between Etta James’ “At Last” and Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia”, is Franklin taking her own twist on Adele’s impeccable vocals. At 72, Aretha wrings every ounce of soul she has left in her voice, pushing it through a disco-fied production — even blending it up with another classic, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Franklin’s had her fair share of amazing moments, and this one stands among them, a special bridge between eras. –Adam Kivel