In many forms of art, it can be easy to dismiss the remake. Year after year, established stories from books, television, movies and comics are reinvented, retold and rebooted in new forms, to the point where it's fair to question why more original ideas aren't as easily accepted. It can be the same in rock music: New bands tend to mimic the styles they grew up with until they're able to develop a style of their own.
But there's still a lot of room in music to reinterpret older works. In other genres — jazz and classical in particular — it's built right into the framework. Tradition expects artists do their homework and learn the songbook as a path toward mastering the language of the music. Rock is less formal about it, but it does the same by establishing and adding to the canon of a particular style — say, garage rock. Through the cover song, artists are able to say a lot about themselves with the history they choose to revisit.
There's a common rule when it comes to most covers: Change the original too much, and it never feels right; don't change enough, and the song feels more like a pale imitation. The best artistic reinterpretations are able to pull from the past while shaping it into something fresh.
I've long been captivated by the cover song; as a fan, it's always satisfying to hear something familiar reworked. I love hearing a song rebuilt within a new genre, sped up or slowed down, stripped down and exposed, or embellished with new instrumentation. We've all been turned on to some forgotten gem or introduced to a record we might otherwise have overlooked after hearing a band pay respect to one of its influences. And we've probably all been in the crowd at a show when some band pulls out a perfectly selected cover song during the encore. There's something special about that shared moment.
Every year, countless new cover songs pop up in concert or as part of tribute albums, charity compilations and special 7" singles. Likewise, the Internet has enabled even more covers — in the form of video web series, cover songs blogs, and one-off recordings released to Bandcamp and SoundCloud. In the last couple years, I've compiled a big geeky spreadsheet of all the cover songs I encountered. Here are just a few of my favorites from 2011. It's far from any sort of complete list, but all the picks point to artists who've pushed the limits of the songs, while retaining the spirit that made them great.
Trent Reznor and Karen O, 'Immigrant Song'
- from Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The biggest hurdle when playing Led Zeppelin is capturing the core essence of the band's performances. Unlike Bob Dylan or The Beatles, whose words and melodies are identifiable in any style, Led Zeppelin's songs are harder to interpret. While equally iconic, the group's musical identity is so entwined with its members — Jimmy Page's searing guitar solos, John Bonham's ferocious drumming and, most of all, Robert Plant's soaring vocals — that it's less malleable in someone else's hands. Which makes the brilliant pairing of Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O in "Immigrant Song" that much more impressive; they honor the original's explosive spirit while transforming the sound into something more sinister. The song is part of Reznor and Atticus Ross' score for the film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — a cover-song-movie of sorts that remakes the Swedish films based on the popular Stieg Larsson book series. This treatment of "Immigrant Song" is an absolute stunner: Reznor and Ross' pulsating industrial electronics grind with abrasive intensity that serves as a perfect bed for Karen O's unsettling howl. The signature riffs are all there, yet the song is transformed into a Gothic nightmare, both sexy and disturbing. It's easy to imagine a leather-clad Karen O stalking the shadows of the stage, breathing heavily into the microphone before letting out her very best Plant-ian scream to the rafters. It's so dark, it might even freak out Robert Plant.
Yellow Ostrich, 'Love More'
More and more, prolific home-recording artists are turning to SoundCloud and Bandcamp to soft-release unfinished recordings, side projects and cover songs as a means to share what they're working on with fans directly. Two of the best to do it this year are songwriter Holly Miranda — who's recorded tons of great covers, including a gorgeous rendition of Sparklehorse's "Hundreds of Sparrows" — and Yellow Ostrich's Alex Schaaf, who has made many EPs and songs available on his Bandcamp page. In late 2010, Schaaf recorded a slew of covers by The Replacements, The National, The Tallest Man on Earth, Joanna Newsom and many more. Those songs eventually hit the Internet in early January, along with a reworking of Sharon Van Etten's stirring "Love More," from her album epic. Yellow Ostrich's homespun indie-pop is lo-fi and intimate, so here Schaaf replaces Van Etten's steady churn of harmonium with a warbling chorus of his own voice as the song's sole accompaniment. Schaaf's overdubbed a cappella harmonies occasionally drift off key, and each humming voice was perhaps recorded a bit too close to the mic. But the result creates a buzzing, otherworldly feeling around the emotionally frayed lyrics. It's a remarkably lovely version, highlighting Van Etten's lyrics and melody while still showcasing Schaaf's own musical inventiveness.
Telekinesis, 'On A Plain'
- from SPIN Present: Newermind: A Tribute Album
Many big album anniversaries popped up in 2011, but none inspired more wistful sentiment and "How is that album 20 years old?!" reactions than the anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind. Plenty of excellent essays this past summer honored Nevermind, Kurt Cobain and nostalgia for the grunge era itself, but one of the most effective tributes was Spin magazine's compilation, Newermind: A Tribute Album, which re-created Nevermind front-to-back with up-and-coming artists. The album's two best offerings had wildly different approaches. EMA's "Endless Nameless" took an already noisy, feverish song and ran with it, incorporating even more gloriously demented distortion and guitar feedback. On the other side of the spectrum is Telekinesis' garage-pop rendition of "On a Plain" — a far more straightforward interpretation, but one that sets just the right tone. The guitars in this version are perfectly crunchy and loud, while the identifiable vocal melodies from Telekinesis frontman Michael Lerner are sung with a similarly aggressive phrasing. It may be more re-creation than reinvention, but with a song as recognizable and beloved as "On a Plain," anything else might ruin it. What more can you do but hang back and simply do the song justice? Telekinesis' fun, head-bobbing rendition does that and more. It just sounds good.
Parenthetical Girls, 'Under The Ivy'
- from Demos For The Dreaming
As our own Ann Powers recently pointed out on All Songs Considered, 2011 was a big year for disciples of English pop songwriter Kate Bush, thanks to exceptional albums from women willing to embrace the avant-garde side of pop: PJ Harvey, Bjork, Austra, St. Vincent, Anna Calvi and Tori Amos, to name half a dozen. Not to be outdone, Kate Bush herself returned with two records, the first a reworking of her classic songs and the second, 50 Word for Snow, an album of new material. Bush is an incredibly elusive and enigmatic figure these days, yet there's no denying that her musical influence and beguiling voice is still felt in indie rock today. Another group with ties to Kate Bush is Parenthetical Girls, which this past summer performed as part of an evening honoring Bush's songs. In preparation, Parenthetical Girls recorded three demos, and later released them on an EP titled Demos for the Dreaming. The group's version of "Under the Ivy" re-imagines Bush's stark, piano-driven ballad as a burbling synth-pop tune. With gorgeous waterfalls of analog arpeggios, the sound could certainly come from Bush's Hounds of Love era. In addition, the vocals of Amber W. Smith and Zac Pennington strike a similarly haunting operatic tone. Yet by marrying this song with an electronic pulse, the band instills a modern vibrancy to its version's production, further demonstrating how timeless and powerful Bush's songs can be, no matter the setting.
St. Vincent, 'Kerosene'
- from Our Concert Could Be Your Band
For fans of independent rock, Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life has achieved legendary status for its historical depiction of the early-'80s punk and indie-rock movements. To celebrate that book's 10th anniversary, a tribute concert was held in May at New York's Bowery Ballroom, with 14 younger bands taking the stage to cover bands of that era: Dirty Projectors doing Black Flag, Ted Leo doing Minor Threat, Titus Andronicus doing The Replacements, tUnE-yArDs doing Sonic Youth, Wye Oak doing Dinosaur Jr, and so. All great match-ups, yet it was St. Vincent's two-song performance of Big Black that floored everyone in the room — and reverberated the next day on the web. Up to that point, St. Vincent's Annie Clark had been most known for her delicate appearance, lush arrangements and precise guitar work. But people heard an entirely new side to her music when she unleashed her thrashing cover of "Kerosene." Clark's performance captured the distorted urgency and cathartic atonal noise of Steve Albini's iconic band, but reinvigorated it with anxious, seething energy. As her guitars flail and squawk with feedback, her voice sounds as powerful as ever, possessed by the angst of the original. As it turns out, this aggressive reinvention in her music was just a tease for what St. Vincent would unleash throughout 2011. Both on her masterful Strange Mercy and with her cover of The Pop Group's "She Is Beyond Good and Evil," Clark showed that she's more than willing to exceed and divert expectations.