The 20 Best Cover Songs of 2014

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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

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

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