Of all the tasks assigned to the music critic, evaluating a cover song may be the most difficult. The grade bestowed upon any re-make depends not just on the quality of the performance, but also on the grader’s relationship to the original song, not to mention his relationship to that relationship (Do you love covers of songs you hate? Do you hate covers of songs you love?). As such, there is bound to be disagreement about a list like this. Some will wonder why I included no covers from the Nirvana or U2 tribute albums that were released this year; others may feel my choices are in fact too mainstream.
Thankfully, such controversies are part of the joy of putting together year-end lists, and any critic who embarks on such a project with the goal of “getting it right” is bound for disappointment. At their best, such lists are not simply a sequence of judgments; they are a vehicle for the sharing of great music. And if we at Frontier Psychiatrist have one goal, that is it.
So, without further ado, please enjoy our 10 Best Covers of 2011. Feel free to suggest additions to the list or express dissent with the ranking order. But, above all, please enjoy the music.
Kurt Vile had such a good 2011 that even the band he left released a great record. Vile’s solo effort Smoke Rings For My Halo continues to garner critical acclaim, and his follow-up EP So Outta Reach stands as the icing on the cake. The EP contains this cover of obvious influence Springsteen, an effort that remains faithful to the original while immersing it in a lake of fuzz. The closing guitar solo alone gets this track into the top 10.
9. Janelle Monae – “I Want You Back” (Jackson 5 Cover)
It takes real guts to cover the Jackson 5. Luckily, Janelle Monae has plenty.
Annie Clark is cooler than you. She was cool enough to cover the legendary Tom Waits live on several occasions prior to the release of her 3rd album Strange Mercy. She was cool enough to fill that album with thudding drums and searing guitar lines, abandoning the precious arrangements of her previous work. And she was cool enough to incorporate this tune by the legendarily abrasive British post-punk band The Pop Group into her regular set list. Several versions have been recorded on camera, but none of them with the fire of this performance on Jimmy Fallon.
This was a year of free tribute cover-albums: in addition to the aforementioned Nevermind and Achtung Baby re-imaginings, Stereogum gave us Stroked, a 10th-anniversary tribute to the now-classic Is This It? While most of the performances left us unmoved, Owen Pallett’s “Hard To Explain” string quartet was enough to drive a man to tears. Steel yourself.
Birdy is the anti-Rebecca Black. The preternaturally talented 15-year-old Brit has been making waves across the pond all year with her heart-melting voice, and her self-titled debut album, consisting almost entirely of contemporary covers, does not disappoint. Choosing just one song from this collection was too difficult, so enjoy the young lady’s take on these two modern standards.
If you want to know whether or not someone is cool, ask him how he feels about The Smiths. There is only one correct answer.
If Justin Vernon had a big 2010 (performing with Gayngs, buddying up with Kanye West), then he had an absolutely colossal 2011. His eponymous second album as Bon Iver swept the nation, garnering effusive praise in some corners and inspiring diatribes against the placid state of indie rock in others. But the larger conversation surrounding Justin Vernon’s place in music distracts from the most important point: he is a remarkable performer with a remarkable voice. That voice is on display in this double-cover of country legend Bonnie Raitt, a seemingly ironic choice sung with the utmost sincerity.
If you don’t know who Cuff The Duke are, don’t worry: neither did I before I found this song. An alt-country quintet from Oshawa, Ontario, the band has recorded five full-length records over the course of the last nine years. But as far as I’m concerned, their greatest accomplishment will always be this remarkable country-fried take on the lead song from Dum Dum Girls’ disappointing sophomore release Only In Dreams. Like all of the best covers, Cuff The Duke uses the original song as a schematic rather than a rulebook, and in the process the band transforms this raw garage tune into something deeply affecting. Maybe I should pick up one of their albums.
James Blake’s work is so diverse that he provides everyone with something to hate. In their review of Blake’s EP Enough Thunder, Pitchfork.com (the site that made Blake a star) informed their readers that this song “[reveales] Blake’s limitations as an artist” and “has the feel of a stiff recital.” I could not disagree more strongly with both the literal and implied meanings of these comments; it a sad day when the ability to play and instrument and to sing without electronic modification is seen as a “limitation.” Of course, disagreements are inevitable in music criticism; thankfully, the music always has an opportunity to speak for itself.
Every now and then, we are lucky enough to realize that we’ve never really heard a song we thought we’d heard a thousand times. That was the case when I heard Iron & Wine’s performance of George Michael’s “One More Try,” our #1 cover of 2011. Who knew that, under layers of thick 80s production, a song this beautiful was waiting to be found? Well, perhaps George Michael himself knew: in the second verse he sings “I wrote the song, I know it’s wrong…” Thankfully Sam Beam came along to make it right.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He has authored numerous previews and reviews in 2011. He is a listmaker and a heartbreaker.