Every time a popular book is adapted for film or a beloved movie is remade, the first thing fans ask is "how does it compare to the original?" Of course it's natural to want our favorite things — be it a book, a movie, a television series — to receive the love and careful hand they deserve. We want the new version to have something fresh to say, but we don't want it to detract from or adulterate the original in any way.
When it comes to music, the best cover songs are those that take an old gem and make the listener rethink it, or discover parts that might have been missed in the original. They can pay tribute to an icon, introduce an artist's own musical tastes or expose an unknown influence worth discovering and delving into further. Plus, there's nothing quite like that moment at a show when a band comes back on stage after a long applause and pulls out a surprising cover song for an encore.
So while every year, during "list-making" season, the focus is typically — and rightfully — focused around new, original works, think of this list as the equivalent to nominations for "Best Adapted Screenplay."
1) Beck — "Sunday Morning" from Record Club on beck.com (Originally by The Velvet Underground)
Record Club: Velvet Underground & Nico 'Sunday Morning' from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.
For most artists, taking time away from touring or releasing an album is considered an "off-year." Not Beck, who has had one of the most productive years of his career, thanks to the generous creative output found on his newly revamped Web site. Frequent visitors to the site will know Beck has treated his fans with constant updates of archival music videos, offbeat interviews with Tom Waits, and a series of mixtape collages. What's generated the most interest is the ongoing collaboration project Record Club, a video series in which Beck invites his favorite musicians and friends over to record an entire album in a day with little-to-no rehearsing and no overdubs. So far, Beck has put out Leonard Cohen's Songs of Leonard Cohen with Devandra Banhart and MGMT and is currently unveiling Skip Spence's Oar with help from Wilco, Feist and Jamie Lidell. The first album he and his cohorts — including producer Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, and singer Thorunn Magnusdottir — covered, was the classic The Velvet Underground And Nico. Because of the purposefully unrefined nature of the project, the results are often mixed and inconsistent. At its best, tracks like "Sunday Morning" capture the energy and beauty of the original.
Hear 9 more of the year's best cover songs, after the jump.
2) The Flaming Lips — "Borderline" from Covered, A Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros Records (Originally by Madonna)
2009 Flaming Lips & Stardeath and White Dwarfs - Borderline from George Salisbury on Vimeo.
When The Flaming Lips pulled out Madonna's "Borderline" this year in the band's live shows, it initially was seen as little more than a funny gimmick tune nestled between spirited "Yoshimi" singalongs. Yet even if their tongues are firmly planted in cheek, the band members definitely take the song seriously. The song was recorded with Stardeath and White Dwarfs — the Oklahoma City band of Wayne Coyne's own nephew Dennis Coyne — and is the highlight of this Warner Bros. compilation for its pitch-perfect re-imagining. "Borderline" opens with chiming tones and a glitching drum machine that ever-so-slightly hints at the pulse and gauzy sheen of Madonna's original single. But when it reaches its climax, with soaring guitar lines and thunderous drums, The Lips turn the song into an epic stadium anthem.
3) Thom Yorke — "All For The Best" from Ciao My Shining Star: Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Originally by Mark Mulcahy/Miracle Legion)
There were a lot of compilations created this year for worthy causes, but the circumstances behind Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy are truly tragic: A year after former Miracle Legion front man Mark Mulcahy's wife suddenly died, an impressive group of artists — The National, Michael Stipe, Vic Chesnutt and others — contributed to help Mulcahy continue making music while raising his young twin daughters. Thom Yorke's rendition of Miracle Legion's "All For The Best" shifts the original from its college rock roots and rebuilds it as minimalist, polyrhythmic electronic music. As he sings Mulcahy's deeply personal lyrics "Waking up and the bed was made/No one looked me in the eye/More I try more I cry and it's all for the best," Yorke sounds utterly haunted.
4) The Books + Jose Gonzalez — "Cello Song" from Dark Was the Night (Originally by Nick Drake)
While odd musician pairings can often have middling results, an all-star collaboration is one of the best parts of a compilation album. This year's Red Hot Organization release, Dark Was The Night, saw many dream collaborations, including Ben Gibbard and Feist covering Vashti Bunyen, Antony and The National's Aaron Dessner covering Bob Dylan, and Dirty Projectors and David Byrne, all performing originals and cover songs benefiting AIDS awareness. One of the best tracks is Nick Drake's "Cello Song," reworked by electronic sound artists The Books and Jose Gonzalez. Gonzalez's mellow voice and deft guitar work have always borrowed heavily from Drake's sound, making the song an obvious choice. But with The Books providing the plucky synth-driven rhythmic bed and recognizable overlapping string themes underneath, their "Cello Song" is inventive and fresh, sounding like it was always meant for them to perform.
5) The National + St. Vincent — "Sleep All Summer" from SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records: THE COVERS! (Originally by Crooked Fingers)
This year marked the 20th anniversary of Merge Records, the venerable independent label founded by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance (of Superchunk). During the course of this year the good folks at Merge looked back at their impressive legacy with a new book, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records and even their own concert festival, Merge XX. They also put together a few records celebrating their music, including a remix album and this record, Score! 20 Years of Merge Records: The Covers! which has top shelf artists such as Quasi, The Shins and Death Cab For Cutie paying tribute to well-known and obscure songs from the Merge back catalog. One of the highlights is this duet version of Crooked Fingers' "Sleep All Summer" performed by The National and St. Vincent. The intermingling of Annie Clarke's lovely voice and Matt Berninger's warm and groggy baritone makes this one of the most bittersweet love songs of the year.
6) TV on the Radio — "Heroes" from War Child Presents Heroes (Originally by David Bowie)
War Child Presents Heroes is a benefit album produced by the War Child organization with proceeds devoted to the charity's aid efforts in war-stricken areas like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Uganda. Thematically the record features musical icons who selected one of their own songs and then nominated a new artist from the "next generation" to create a modern reworking. It's a smart concept that yielded Beck covering Bob Dylan, Yeah Yeah Yeahs covering The Ramones and TV On The Radio covering David Bowie's "Heroes." There is a strong connection between TV On The Radio and Bowie, considering he sang backup on Return To Cookie Mountain's song "Province," so it feels natural for them to tackle this classic anthem. Their use of fuzzy synths and blankets of washy guitar feedback give the song a jolt of energy, while the electronic beats feel like an homage to Bowie's late '70s and early '80s sound.
7) Yim Yames (Jim James) — "Long Long Long" from Tribute To (Originally by The Beatles\George Harrison)
Hear this song was which was featured on NPR's Song Of The Day.
Tribute To finds My Morning Jacket singer Jim James — recording as "Yim Yames" — paying homage to the music of George Harrison. James recorded stripped-down versions of six classic Harrison songs in the months after the late Beatle's death in 2001, including "All Things Must Pass" and "My Sweet Lord." On this gorgeous and haunting version of "Long Long Long," James' spare guitar and echoing vocal harmonies bring out the full beauty and loneliness of the original.
8) The Bad Plus — "Comfortably Numb" from For All I Care (Originally by Pink Floyd)
The addition of vocalist Wendy Lewis feels like a natural evolution for the Bad Plus, a jazz trio best known for deconstructing popular modern rock songs by Nirvana and Black Sabbath. Even now, years after the band's stellar debut These Are The Vistas, some jazz purists and staunch rock listeners don't know what to make of the music of Ethen Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King. So it was expected that the trio's latest album of covers, For All I Care, would be divisive. And yet, the choice of Lewis, with her plaintive, unadorned (and very un-jazz) voice, proves inspired on The Bad Plus' rendition of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." The group adds plenty of surprises, such as Iverson's fluttering waterfall of piano arpeggios that shift further and futher out of rhythmic sync. The Bad Plus create such a dissonant tension against Lewis' chorus that when they finally realign near the end, jazz or not, it's as epic and revelatory a musical climax you'll hear in any song this year.
9) Taken By Trees — "My Boys" from East Of Eden (Originally by Animal Collective)
While it's more common to cover older favorites, Swedish singer Victoria Bergsman chose to do a song for her East Of Eden album that was only a few months old: Animal Collective's "My Girls." Bergsman — who records as Taken By Trees, and is best known for her work with The Concretes — not only shifts the gender, renaming the song "My Boys," she also inverts the song sonically. Where the original is a pulsating electronic dance, awash in overlapping vocals and synthesizers, hers is inspired by Sufi music and was recorded in Pakistan with the assistance of producer-guitarist Andreas Soderstrom. Centered around a chirpy pop arrangement of plucked acoustic guitars, clacking percussion and hand claps, "My Boys" is a great introduction to Bergsman's exciting, innovative album.
10) Marianne Faithfull — "The Crane Wife 3" from Easy Come Easy Go (Originally by The Decemberists)
Marianne Faithfull's brilliantly programmed covers set Easy Come Easy Go will likely earn comparisons to Johnny Cash's last recordings because it pairs the legendary singer with newer songs and inventive production. And, like Cash, hearing these many songs sung by Faithfull, in her superbly shot voice, adds extra weight and a sense of remorse. The arrangements are mostly jazzy, with a bit of cabaret and haunting country, especially on Neko Case's "Hold On Hold On" and Morrissey's "Dear God, Please Help Me." But her take on The Decemberists' "Crane Wife 3" is particularly poignant as she sings out "I will hang my head, hang my head low."
More Coverage Of The Best Music Of 2009