The 20 Best Cover Songs of 2014

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The 20 Best Cover Songs of 2014

A good cover is more than just novelty. The best cover tunes discover something new in their song of choice, or can redefine the listener’s appreciation for a tune they’ve heard dozens of times before. They simultaneously reveal as much about the performer as they do about the original act. We polled our writers and editors and tallied the votes to assemble the 20 best cover songs of 2014.

20. Charlotte Gainsbourg – “Hey Joe” (Jimi Hendrix)

Recorded for Lars von Trier’s film Nymphomaniac, actress and songstress Charlotte Gainsbourg’s rendition of the classic murder ballad “Hey Joe” (made famous by Jimi Hendrix) strays from the famous guitar-laden version but remains just as captivating. Teaming up with Beck (who produced her past two albums), Gainsbourg shrouds the song in hushed, menacing vocals, layering the music with doom-riddled doses of guitar, strings, piano and drums. The storyline of infidelity, murder and escape feels all the more disturbing, given Gainsbourg’s adept skill set and utter reimagination of a classic. — Michael Danaher

19. The Men – “Gates of Steel” (Devo)

This is not The Men’s first dance with Devo’s “Gates of Steel.” The Brooklyn band originally tore through this tune on a 2011 7” release. Yet their live rendition, captured in the offices of The AV Club for their Undercover series, has even more punch and drive, an energy that should be familiar to anyone who has seen The Men in concert. Like Lancaster Dodd’s motorcycle-riding game in The Master, the quintet pick a point on the horizon and rush towards it as fast as their instruments will take them. — Robert Ham

18. Lucius – “Wonderful” (My Morning Jacket)

For Louisville-based rock and reverb band My Morning Jacket, ballads are rarities in themselves. So for indie pop group Lucius to distill Jim James’ slow, synthy jam from 2011’s Circuital into their own acoustic homage is, well, pretty wonderful. Dual frontwomen Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe sing in close range harmony, a trademark from last year’s excellent debut Wildewoman, over swishing percussion and guitar arpeggios. But more importantly, their clear vocals and enunciation showcase James’ escapist lyrics. As Laessig and Wolfe sing about a place with no police and no disease, their swooning and trilling conjure the aural version of that utopian imagery. — Hilary Saunders

“Wonderful” at about 8:30

17. Sturgill Simpson – “The Promise” (When in Rome)

It might take a while for you to recognize this ‘80s classic from one-hit wonder When In Rome once it’s been reimagined by Sturgill Simpson. Simpson ditches the synthpop of the original and transforms the song into a stunning country ballad any cowboy would be proud to cry into his beer to—and he does it so effectively, you’ll swear he wrote this one himself. — Bonnie Stiernberg

16. Willie Watson – “Rock Salt and Nails” (Utah Phillips)

After 13 years with Old Crow Medicine Show, guitarist and banjo player Willie Watson released his first solo album earlier this year. Composed of 10 old folk songs (classics and deep cuts), Folk Singer, Vol. 1 illustrates just how well Watson’s reimagines and reintroduces traditional music in modern society. But it’s his interpretation of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails,” originally released by Rosalie Sorrels in 1961, that stands out in particular. Although artists ranging from bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs to folk singer Joan Baez have all covered this murder ballad, Watson’s version isolates his wavering tenor with infrequent acoustic guitar strums, offering a musical starkness that matches the song’s dark narrative. — Hilary Saunders

15. Lana Del Rey – “The Other Woman” (Nina Simone)

An artist preoccupied with the way we frame the past within the present, Lana Del Rey can make any of her songs sound like a classic. But “The Other Woman” is one of her rare non-originals, and she even lets it close out her brilliant second effort Ultraviolence. Written by Jessie Mae Robinson, the song was originally recorded by Sarah Vaughan in 1955, though Nina Simone’s 1959 version cemented it as a classic. Aside from the lyrics, which portray more domestic minutia than she usually gets into, “The Other Woman” fits seamlessly into Rey’s catalog in 2014. Slow, sorrowful, and just a little bit teasing, it’s an elegant cap to an album that often seems to mock its own retro stylings. Rey closes Ultraviolence with a performance that can only be read as sincere. — Sasha Geffen

14. Eyelids – “Sex Beat” (The Gun Club)

On this faithful cover of one of The Gun Club’s thorniest and best tunes, Portland supergroup Eyelids were made even more super by contributions from Poison Idea member Jerry A on vocals and Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn playing guitar. Again, the band doesn’t stray too far from the source material, but when it is as good as “Sex Beat,” with its post-punk guitar drive and sensualist lyrics, why would you want to mess with a great thing? — Robert Ham

13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – “Revelation Blues” (The Tallest Man on Earth)

Leave it to the quirks of indie-pop act Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. to turn an already solid folk song into a full-on digitized gem. Released as the B-side to their single “James Dean,” the song readily reimagines the 2012 track by Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth. The Detroit duo masterfully pay homage to the original while making it their own, translating the Matsson’s intricate guitar picking into a sonic smorgasbord of synth leads, beat-heavy loops and vocal harmonies. A truly refreshing take, giving the song a completely different but just as potent feel. — Michael Danaher

12. Sarah Paulson – “Criminal” (Fiona Apple)

If there’s one consistent strength in American Horror Story: Freak Show, it’s the anachronistic covers. Over the course of AHS’s fourth season viewers have been treated to covers of David Bowie, Nirvana, Lana Del Rey and more, despite the show taking place in the 1950s. Sarah Paulson’s two-headed performance of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” is one of the stronger acts, both musically and thematically. Paulson’s voice is smoky and cool, much like Fiona Apple’s, but there’s also a lifting feeling—it’s still heavy material, but there’s an upbeat breath of fresh air as well, along with a slightly jazzier feeling provided by Elsa’s freak band. — Sarra Sedghi

11. Robert Ellis – “Still Crazy After All These Years” (Paul Simon)

Let’s file this one under “Great Achievements in Song Choice.” Robert Ellis’ tenor is perfectly suited to Paul Simon’s 1975 classic, and he manages to do the original justice while also making it his own, turning it into a nostalgic country lament and adding some fantastic guitar work. A lot of people who haven’t seen him live don’t realize that Ellis can truly shred, and his solo on this track is one step towards rectifying that, but ultimately it’s that voice that cleanly cuts through everything else and holds our attention on this gorgeous cover that should do Simon proud. — Bonnie Stiernberg

10. Juliana Hatfield – “Needle in the Hay” (Elliot Smith)

One of the most haunting scenes in writer-director Wes Anderson’s work is the suicide scene in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums—not only for the unfolding narrative, but the way in which Anderson pairs it with Elliott Smith’s 1995 song “Needle in the Hay” (perhaps even more haunting now because of Smith’s own suicide two years after the film came out). Anderson’s knack for combining unique storytelling with the moving music earned him a tribute album earlier this year in I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson. The best cut off that comp comes from singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield, who gives a more upbeat, approachable take on Smith’s disparate, wrought-iron classic. But even though it now employs bass, drums, tambourine and synth, the songs stays true to the sorrowful, tension-riddled original. It’s just as harrowing and just as beautiful. — Michael Danaher

9. Blitzen Trapper – “Working on the Highway” (Bruce Springsteen)

Driven by a wicked slide guitar, Blitzen Trapper takes a swampy blues swipe at this now 30-year-old Boss classic and in Eric Earley’s vocals, the everyman desperation of the lyrics comes through stronger than ever. Blitzen Trapper also knocked it out of the park in 2014 with covers of Bob Dylan (“Unbelievable,” from Bob Dylan in the 80s) and Ryan Adams (“To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” from While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records.) — Eric Swedlund

8. Lykke Li – “Hold On We’re Going Home” (Drake)

Lykke Li is no stranger to a good cover. In the past, she’s taken on songs performed by Bruce Springsteen, The Righteous Brothers, The Shirelles and others, all with a clear common denominator: a slow-burning longing and the powerful, ethereal voice to deliver the feeling perfectly. Her cover of Drake’s sultry R&B jam “Hold On We’re Going Home” is no exception to this rule. The Swedish songstress has been performing her hypnotic take on the track throughout 2014 in live shows and backstage sessions, returning the favor to Drizzy after he put his own spin on her single “Little Bit” back in 2009. — Christine Campbell

7. Cold Specks – “We No Who U R” (Nick Cave)

The first track from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 2013 album Push the Sky Away takes no prisoners. With a sly nod to Kesha in its title, “We No Who U R” creeps with a slow and hollow thirst for blood. But while Cave’s finely aged voice might have set the song’s mood to begin with, Cold Specks’ smoky rasp lifts it to a new level of menace. Al Spx fills out the holes that Cave left vacant, pushing “We No Who U R” to a denser, quicker climax on the b-side to her single “Bodies At Bay”. It’s like the song was written for her; coming off an album about revenge, Cold Specks inhabits Cave’s composition with an empowering fierceness. Just try not to feel powerful hearing it. — Sasha Geffen

6. She & Him – “Stay Awhile” (Dusty Springfield)

The best thing about this cover from She & Him is that they don’t try to make the original something that it’s not. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward respect the concept of a “classic.” They put their own subtle twist on Dusty Springfield without trying to modernize her, and hold onto the simple and vintage sound that makes “Stay Awhile” great. The duo recorded the song live with a 20-piece orchestra, and the sound is flawless. Listening, it’s easy to imagine Zooey Deschanel in Springfield’s large ‘60s bouffant hairstyle, singing this song with a faintly sassy sway in front of a full band. It’s quite charming. — Alexa Carrasco

5. Bryan Ferry/Todd Terje – “Johnny & Mary” (Robert Palmer)

Bryan Ferry’s latest solo effort did everything in its power to prove that the sexagenarian could still be sexy. Yet, the only song on it that truly sold that idea was this cover of a Robert Palmer tune from that crooner’s ‘70s heyday, a jumpy bit of blue-eyed soul turned into a thrumming, disco ball-lit ballad by Norwegian producer Todd Terje. Ferry reacts to the music alchemically, turning his breathy vocal take into wisps of smoke that build up until your mind and vision is fogged up like a contact high. — Robert Ham

4. First Aid Kit – “Walk Unafraid” (R.E.M.)

“Walk Unafraid” isn’t the most cheerful song—this was R.E.M. in the late ‘90s, after all. For the Wild soundtrack, however, First Aid Kit managed to take a heavy and somewhat depressing track and produce something light and hopeful in its place. The song becomes airier, with more classical instrumentation (the cello, that acoustic guitar) and the duo’s famous harmonies. It’s one of their stronger covers, which is saying something, given that First Aid Kit haven’t shared a bad cover all year. — Sarra Sedghi

3. Father John Misty – “Baby Ride Easy” (Johnny Cash)

First things first, Father John Misty’s take on this lost Johnny Cash/June Carter duet for La Blogotheque is gorgeous. The slowed-down tempo showcases FJM’s pristine vocals perfectly, but he also slips in a few edits to the lyrics that make the whole thing a little more Josh Tillman. “Arm-wrestled” becomes “mud-wrestled.” “Chuck the chuckwagon” becomes “fall off the wagon.” “If your lovin’ is good and your cooking ain’t greasy” morphs into “if the lovin’ is good and freaky and easy.” Most significantly, Father John Misty ditches the outdated verse about June Carter doing chores in the White House for President Johnny Cash and adapts it for these times: “If I ran the country/you’d be my First Lady/we’d smoke cigarettes at the end of the day/and spy on civilians and put brown folks in prison/If your dad’s got some money, I think I can run.” — Bonnie Stiernberg

“Baby Ride Easy” starts at about 4:40

2. Aretha Franklin – “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Sinead O’Connor)

Although originally written by Prince, Sinéad O’Connor’s close-up, almost-shaved-head music video made “Nothing Compares 2 U” the iconic track it is today. On her recently released covers album, Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics, the Queen of Soul transforms this break-up ballad from 1990 into a swinging be-bop romp. Aretha scats over jazzy keys and belts alongside swelling horns, bringing a playful confidence to such a doleful song. The two versions are so different, in fact, that they’re almost incomparable. — Hilary Saunders

1. Low – “I’m On Fire” (Bruce Springsteen)

Look, everyone has a Springsteen cover up their sleeve. But to actually pull it off, to cover one of The Boss’ most beloved tracks without sounding karaoke, is another thing entirely. That’s why we have to tip our caps to Low, whose contribution to the Born in the U.S.A. tribute compilation Dead Man’s Town is beautiful—faithful to the original without being derivative, yet still all the while sounding like it could have just as easily been a Low song.

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