When I was in high school, judging a cover song was easy: How close could we get to the original when playing Drivin’ N Cryin’ and The Clash in my high-school talent show. But my view of what makes a great cover song has changed over the years. The artists who made our list below transformed the songs they chose, playing to their own strengths while keeping the core elements that made the song great in the first place.
Thanks to tribute albums, corporate projects and viral YouTube videos, there were an abundance of cover tracks to choose from this year, and your favorite may have gotten left on the clipboard. Let us know what we got right or what we missed in the comments section below. Here are the 20 best cover songs of 2010.
20. Peter Gabriel – “Flume” (Bon Iver)
On his latest album, Scratch My Back, Peter Gabriel tackles Arcade Fire and Radiohead, and adds some gravitas to Justin Vernon’s “Flume.”
19. Passion Pit – “Tonight, Tonight” (Smashing Pumpkins)
For the Levi’s Pioneer Sessions, the jeans company asked artists to cover a song that inspired them. Dirty Projectors chose a Bob Dylan tune, and The Shins covered The Squeeze, but we liked imagining Michael Angelakos as Billy Corgan.
18. Sondre Lerche – “Bluish” (Animal Collective)
In Lerche’s hands, “Bluish” is stripped of its embellishments, leaving nothing but a lovely melody.
17. The Tallest Man on Earth – “Graceland” (Paul Simon)
Kristian Matsson’s gentle banjo picking transforms Simon’s polyrhythmic hit.
16. Billy Bragg – “On a Good Day” (Joanna Newsom)
Part of the Voices Project cover chain that also has Dawes covering Edward Sharpe and Peter Gabriel covering Tom Waits, this track benefits the women survivors of the war in Northern Uganda.
15. Punch Brothers – “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” (Radiohead)
Chris Thile’s mandolin pierces through this iTunes exclusive track (live version below).
14. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – “White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane)
This psychedlic 1967 song fits Potter’s vibe well in this cut from the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack, Almost Alice.
13. Amanda Palmer – “Fake Plastic Trees” (Radiohead)
performs this popular hit of Radiohead on ukulele from her cryptically titled EP, Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele.
12. Nada Surf – “Enjoy the Silence” (Depeche Mode)
Dave Gahan never sounded like he appreciated the fact that all he ever wanted and all he ever needed was there in his arms, but Nada Surf embrace the joy of the chorus.
11. Amy Winehouse – “It’s My Party” (Lesley Gore)
Part of the Quincy Jones tribute album Q: Soul Bossa Nostra.
10. The Bird and the Bee – “Private Eyes” (Hall & Oates)
It seems the time has come to reassess the merits of pop duo Daryl Hall and John Oates, especially with The Bird and the Bee’s Interpreting the Masters Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates
9. Andrew Bird – “Twistable Turnable Man” (Shel Silverstein)
The title track to this year’s Silverstein tribute highlights the beloved author’s musical side.
8. Ben Harper and Relentless 7 – “Under Pressure” (David Bowie and Queen)
Harper’s potent voice dominates this studio recording from the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
7. Old Crow Medicine Show – “Angel From Montgomery” (John Prine)
Josh Ritter, The Avett Brothers, Jim James and Justin Vernon all do well with their tributes to John Prine on Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, but Old Crow outshines them all.
6. Robert Plant and the Band of Joy – “Angel Dance” (Los Lobos)
The first single from Plant’s Band of Joy album is a Los Lobos cover.
5. Jimmy Fallon (as Neil Young) and Bruce Springsteen – “Whip My Hair” (Willow
How does Fallon take his wonderful Neil Young impersonations up a notch? By recruiting The Boss on a silly, little pop song.
4. The Raveonettes – “I Wanna Be Adored” (Stone Roses) – The Raveonnettes
For its 50th anniversary, Doc Martens commissioned some tasty covers, especially this spacey take on The Stone Roses.
3. St. Vincent, Beck and Liars – “Never Tear Us Apart” (INXS)
Beck and the many guests he brings in to be a part of his Record Club have tackled full albums from The Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Skip Spence and Yanni, as well as this gem from INXS’s Kick with Annie Clark on vocals.
2. Cee Lo Green – “No One Gonna Love You” (Band of Horses)
“Who knew Band of Horses penned a show tune with ‘No One’s Gonna Love You?’ writes Paste’s Ryan Reed. “Cee Lo Green did. The original became a slow dance staple for indie-rock proms, working blissful magic with emotional contrast, the music’s reserved glow heightened by Ben Bridwell’s widescreen love lyrics. Instead of simply paying tribute to a beloved track, Green flexes his maximalist muscles, replacing the original’s spaced-out guitars with a surging orchestral sweep, taking liberties with the melodic pacing and phrasing. Green’s is the IMAX version, excavating the song’s bruised, beating heart with the flair of a true showman.”
1. Lissie (tie) – “Bad Romance” (Lady Gaga) and “Pursuit of Happiness” (Kid CuDi)
If Lissie’s album weren’t so good, she’d have been pegged as the novelty-cover singer. As it is, she just proved she can make the most of a wide range of material. We can’t choose between her haunting take on Lady Gaga or the way she infuses Kid CuDi with sultry rock.