Covering another artist’s song is a fantastic way for someone to demonstrate his or her musical skill in light of another’s. It seems that the notion of deconstruction is quite an accurate description of a song, for now a song written in one genre can be entirely re-interpreted in another. The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, a song coming mostly from the white-dominated ’70’s California rock, was masterfully re-interpreted this year in the song “American Wedding” by Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean. Ocean took the music of “Hotel California”, a classic image of American societal decay, and sung over it lyrics about the decay of American romance. Though technically not a “cover”, that track nonetheless demonstrates the malleability of a song once it has been released.
The following 10 songs are prime examples of tracks that not only stand as great songs in their own right, but also as powerful re-interpretations of already great tunes. Ranging from folk to psychedelia to piano confessional, these songs all attest to the ability of music to unite people with distinct voices. As it turns out, unplugged covers aren’t just for bad coffee houses.
Note: Some of these tracks are not entirely acoustic, but in the cases in which there are non-acoustic instruments, they are not the central instrument in the song. I based my picks on songs that were either (a) entirely acoustic or (b) dominated by and large by acoustic instrumentation.
10. Ray LaMontagne – “Crazy” (Unreleased)
Gnarls Barkley’s soul-laden 2006 hit “Crazy” was an instant smash upon its release, which no doubt contributed to the large number artists who chose to cover it, the Violent Femmes most notably. Folk balladeer Ray LaMontagne’s version of the song remains the best of the covers, having much to do with the emotive power present in his re-interpretation. There’s a longing in the song as a result of LaMontagne’s slightly husky delivery as well as the key change, which shifts the tune’s tone from soulful to yearning. The high-pitched falsetto in the chorus of Gnarls Barkley’s version is replaced by LaMontagne’s more inquisitive turn; here, it sounds much more like he’s seriously wondering if he is crazy. Given how good this is, the clear answer to that question is no.
9. John Mayer – “Free Fallin'” (Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles, 2008)
“Free Fallin'” is something of a classic rock standby, which means that more artists than one could count have probably covered it. But when John Mayer performed it in this 2007 Los Angeles concert, he took a somewhat worn (but nonetheless great) piece and put an entirely different spin on it. For this concert, Mayer began with a brief, five-song acoustic set, putting incredible turns on his own tracks like “Neon”. The set concluded with this Tom Petty cover, and Mayer’s subdued performance turned the song into something quite new. By slowing the initial version’s tempo down and including a slide guitar, Mayer transformed “Free Fallin'” utilizing a bluesiness that he did so brilliantly on 2006’s Continuum. Mayer’s career has had ups and downs, but in those five acoustic songs he may have been at his peak.
8. Bon Iver – “I Can’t Make You Love Me/Nick of Time” (Calgary single, 2011)
Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 soft-rock single was no doubt a product of its time, and as a result it now sounds more than a little bit faded. Soft-rock, at least on the mainstream radio, has lost the popularity it once had. As a result, the song has taken the form of the piano-led confessional by PopMatters‘ top two artists of 2011: Bon Iver and Adele. Though both are brilliant covers, the best of the two is Bon Iver’s. Justin Vernon’s famed falsetto is back at it again with this rendition; his gorgeous vocal adds a much needed power to the unrequited love of the song’s lyrics, which were initially dampened by the genre’s cheesiness. The cover’s emotional nakedness is what made Vernon’s breakthrough debut For Emma, Forever Ago so good, and it’s equally resonant here.
7. The Mars Volta – “Things Behind the Sun” (The Bedlam in Goliath, 2008)
Admittedly, the initial recording of Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” was quite stripped-down. This cover actually adds a few extra instruments to that recording, but in doing so the song becomes something quite haunting. The Bedlam in Goliath is emblematic of the Mars Volta’s excessiveness — at close to an hour-and-a-half of crazed, time signature-shifting prog, the record is a wearing listen. The iTunes edition of the album, however, closes with this track, which serves both as a good calming down of the record’s grandstanding and as a captivating cover version. The recording is not entirely acoustic; there are some psychedelic guitar washes that add to the dark allure of the track, but the song is predominately occupied by Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s falsetto and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s fingerpicking. Drake’s original version is a gorgeous folk ballad, but these Mexican proggers took the already great song and made it so that its dark echoes will ring in the brain days after hearing it.
6. Bruce Springsteen – “My Ride’s Here” (Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon, 2004)
Warren Zevon will go down in the books as one of America’s most underrated songwriters. His brand of literary cynicism is something that few have come close to matching. However, despite his brilliance, it was often the case that Zevon’s music couldn’t match up to his lyrical prowess. Case in point: the title track of 2002’s My Ride’s Here. The lyrics captured Zevon’s humor in the face of death (the song documents a rather strange run-in with Jesus and John Wayne at a Marriott hotel), a theme that would later be fully expounded upon in his final album, the 2003 masterpiece The Wind. The music to “My Ride’s Here” wasn’t as good, unfortunately; in context of the album it ended the LP musically in an anticlimactic fashion. Bruce Springsteen’s moving cover for the 2004 tribute record Enjoy Every Sandwich remedies that problem. Recorded right after Zevon died, Springsteen transforms the song from the Eagles-esque rock of the initial recording into an accordion-backed folk piece. Springsteen’s voice may have distinctive differences from Zevon’s, but here he captures the spirit of Zevon’s words as only an old friend and fellow songwriter could.
5. Nickel Creek – “I Should’ve Known Better” (This Side, 2002)
Nickel Creek’s 2002 release This Side had a few excellent covers, as well as some fantastic new arrangements of traditional folk hymns. In the former category, there was a cover of “Spit on a Stranger” by legendary indie rock group Pavement; in the latter, a memorable rendition of the traditional English folk track “House Carpenter”. The best of these various covers is an interpretation of Americana songstress Carrie Newcomer’s “I Should’ve Known Better”, a cut that stands as one of the now-defunct bluegrass band’s most angry tracks. With an almost head-banging arrangement, fiddle player Sara Watkins delivers lines like “All alone in my kitchen / All alone in my head / Some things you can’t take back / Once they’ve been said” with incredible power. Nickel Creek’s career may have been cut far too short (the band has been on indefinite hiatus since the release of its third studio record Why Should the Fire Die?), but it’s gems like this one that still keep people coming back.
4. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002)
The prospect of Johnny Cash covering a Nine Inch Nails song may have seemed like an absurdity prior to the release of American IV, but given how absolutely dead-on this performance is, it’s as if this song was written just for him. Upon hearing this cover, NIN’s Trent Reznor went so far as to the say that the song wasn’t even his anymore. That may be an extreme concession for an artist to make, but Cash’s well-documented troubled past makes the lyrics of “Hurt” ring far more deeply than the original, which is still an excellent track in its own right. The song is in equal measures beautiful, painful, and heart-rending, sometimes all at once. It’s a track that, despite the pain it brings to mind, is impossible to turn away from. The music video adds even more to this effect; the clip’s nostalgic, lamentful retrospective speaks more volumes about Cash’s life than full-length films like Walk the Line did. “Hurt” has been upheld as Cash’s “epitaph”, a fitting title for a track as masterful as this. Cash remains one of America’s most important songwriters, and “Hurt” is an incontestable testament to that fact.
3. Obadiah Parker – ““Hey Ya!” (Obadiah Parker Live, 2007)
OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”, one of the most popular tracks of the last decade, is well-known for how infectiously buoyant it is from the get-go; it’s catchy and incredibly easy to sing along with. While those traits are part of what makes the song great, they can at times mask the brilliant lyrics that also add to that greatness. For that reason, Obadiah Parker’s acoustic guitar and piano-backed cover is a brilliant interpretation. The lyrics are put much more at the forefront, and in doing so the song becomes a gorgeous meditation on love unlike the jubilant original. The key change Parker does in “Hey Ya!” also adds to the tune’s emotive quality; this cover has a highly reflective and ponderous spirit that really bring out the best in the song’s lyrics. Best of all, the “Shake it like a Polaroid” bridge morphs incredibly in its acoustic setting. Though in the context of this more somber take that phrase could elicit multiple meanings, it doesn’t sound out of place, which it could have easily done given its usage in Outkast’s original. Whether bouncy or ruminative, “Hey Ya!” retains its brilliance. All that remains to do is shake it like a Polaroid.
2. Feist and Ben Gibbard – “Train Song” (Dark Was the Night: A Red Hot Compilation, 2009)
While not a bad track, Vashiti Bunyan’s “Train Song” is not a stand-out by any means. It’s amazing then, how spellbinding it becomes in this version, a haunting duet between Feist and Ben Gibbard. Leslie Feist has one of the most powerful female voices in music today, and here she’s enchanting as she harmonizes with Gibbard, who also knocks it out of the park. The meaning of the song’s lyrics is highly interpretive: where are the lovers in the song headed? Are they lovers at all? How long is “many hundred miles”? There are multiple meanings that could be read into the words, but in any case the song never loses its allure. Dark Was the Night, a charity release that avoided superficiality in lieu of fantastic songwriting, had many fine covers, but “Train Song” towers above them all.
1. Steven Wilson – “The Day Before You Came” (Cover Version II, 2004)
Like “Train Song”, the choice of “The Day Before You Came” as a song to cover is an odd one, given the far better options present in the entirety of ABBA’s discography. In the scheme of all of the singles ABBA released, this tune is a minor one. Despite those options, however, “The Day Before You Came” becomes something of a masterpiece in Steven Wilson’s interpretation. With just his voice, an acoustic guitar, and a Mellotron (what prog cover doesn’t have a Mellotron?), Wilson transforms ABBA’s synthpop into a stirring reflection on the intrusion of love into a mundane life. Wilson’s fascination with creating choir-like effects with his own voice (he cites the Beach Boys as an influence for that effect) is especially powerful here; it creates the feeling of someone breaking free from his ordinarily isolation, as all of the voices in his head are becoming focused on the object of adoration. “Oh yes I’m sure my life was well within its usual frame / The day before you came”, Wilson sings, pondering on the implications of love. His life may have been in a “usual” frame, but this song is anything but. It’s extraordinary.