There are so many songs I could have listed here—and so many I could have called out for trying to be covers and falling so far short. (Something Dennis and I pondered a couple days ago: The world is awash in tribute albums—so why don’t they ever produce good covers?)
If I really took the time to suss out all the best cover songs, I could probably come up with a scary long list. But since I’m without access to most of my music collection at the moment (Die Apple! Die!), I’m just going to pluck a few favorites almost at random out of the memory stream.
Cake, “I Will Survive”
Maybe the ballsiest cover ever, and the kind of radical reinterpretation that’s been missing from pop music for a long, long time. There’s no way Cake’s loud and proud middle finger could ever make its way into the mainstream in this far less tolerant time—which is one of the most damning things you can say about the way-too-easy-to-damn present.
The moment Waits’ voice tumbles in after the languid, soaring, wistful string intro couldn’t be more wrong, and couldn’t be more right—which I’m pretty sure is the working definition of sublime.
Can a remix be a cover? Does it matter?
As long as somebody reinterprets a song in a way that simultaneously takes you someplace totally new while keeping you firmly grounded in the original, it’s a cover, no matter how they get you there. To love this track, you sort of have to shove the steep, steep downside of Bond culture off to your peripheral vision and ride the wave of the track’s giddy emotion for all it’s worth.
The Avalanches, “Since I Left You”
This one really stretches the definition of a cover—but isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that the adventure? At what point do the samples stop being independent tracks? When are they subsumed by the larger whole and become indistinguishable elements of the new song created out of their disparate parts? And, no matter how heavily manipulated, can you ever completely extinguish the spirit of the original? But those are all questions for Walter Benjamin, I guess.
Sid Vicious, “My Way”
I realize Vicious’ punk gutting of Sinatra’s creaky anthem is an obvious choice, but it’s a lot more than the one-note joke most people think it is. Just compare it to Gary Oldman’s tepid stab in Sid & Nancy and you’ll get the point. Everybody’s drooling over Oldman right now, but he didn’t even come close to capturing Vicious, the good or the bad. (That Hollywood had to give Oldman a bigger gun tells you everything you need to know about Sid & Nancy—and Hollywood.)
(Kubrick contemplated ending Full Metal Jacket with Vicious’ “My Way”—and he should have. It would have taken the film to a hell of a lot better place than the way too obvious “Paint It Black.”)
Zooey Deschanel, “Tonight You Belong to Me”
I’ve never been able to stomach Zooey Deschanel as an actor. Her tomboy to It Girl transformation always seemed a little too forced, and New Girl was one of the worst examples of shameless pandering I’ve ever been unlucky enough to encounter. But Zooey the media spectre and Zooey the would-be performer are two other animals completely. With She & Him, she’s somehow been able to rise above her obvious limitations as a singer/musician—and her both controlled and erratic cover of this guileless song drives that point home in spades. (And if you’ve never seen it before, check this one out too.)
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and