The 15 Best Cover Songs of 2012

Music Lists Cover Songs
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 15 Best Cover Songs of 2012

Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.

Like a great acting performance, a cover’s greatness is based on how a musician interprets it. At worst, you might feel that distinct, debilitating feeling when that all-too familiar song sounds askew; The “Oh no you di’int!” followed by the realization that Prince is belting out Foo Fighter’s “Best of You” instead of “Purple Rain.” But we’ve seen great ones, too, from Guy Picciotto and Jeff Mangum’s plea for debt relief with a rendition of Tall Dwarfs’ “Sign the Dotted Line” to the lighthearted take on The National’s “Anyone’s Ghost” by The Philistines Jr. Below, we’ve listed our 15 favorite covers of the year. You can list yours below in the comments section.

15. Chairlift – “Party” (Beyonce)
Chairlift made a big entrance with their Columbia debut, Something, early this year. A few months later, casual fans were taken by surprise by their cover of Beyonce’s “Party,” a collaboration with Kool A.D. of Das Racist. But for Chairlift, this shouldn’t seem like such an odd choice. After all, the track has all the makings of their tunes—flashy synths; silky, funky guitars and plenty of room for Caroline Polachek’s airy, smooth vocals. A.D.‘s part is tongue-in-cheek, a laid-back, yet unexpected guest spot—that is, until you remember Chairlift drummer Patrick Wimberly’s hand in producing Das Racist’s only album.—Tyler Kane

14. Jason Lytle, Band of Horses – “Don’t You Take it Too Bad” (Townes Van Zandt)
Having previously toured with Jason Lytle during his run with Admiral Radley, Band of Horses recently invited the former Grandaddy frontman to support a leg of their current trek. In celebration, the two artists formed a remote partnership to record this cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Don’t You Take It Too Bad,” and offered it up as a free mp3 with their tour promotion. The track finds Band of Horses’s Ben Bridwell and Lytle emphasizing their musical similarities, never seeing Bridwell push the folk song too close to country and never finding Lytle’s synthesizer textures overwhelming the gentle lyrics. Still, the song is unrestrained, pushing the black-and-white folk blueprint into a full-color construction that maintains the original’s integrity.—Philip Cosores

13. Lykke Li – “Silver Springs” (Fleetwood Mac)
Originally a b-side to the Lindsey Buckingham penned “Go Your Own Way,” 1977’s “Silver Springs” is a standout Fleetwood Mac track that thrives on the strength of Stevie Nicks’ haunting lyrics and vulnerable vocals. On this year’s not entirely cohesive Fleetwood Mac tribute album, Just Tell Me That You Want Me, indie songstress Lykke Li tried her hand at interpreting the classic tune and the results made it one of the most memorable covers of the year. Li’s vocals are soaked in reverb, guitars and drums echoing in the background, turning the song into a dark, emotional plea from a heartbroken lover. It is four minutes of eerie, synth-heavy longing that is both vulnerable and determinate.—Shaina Pearlman

12. The Philistines Jr. – “Anyone’s Ghost” (The National)
Producer and engineer Peter Katis, who is best known for his work with The National and Interpol, surprised us earlier this year with his band’s take on The National’s “Anyone’s Ghost.” The track—recorded with his band, The Philistines Jr.—presented a faithful rendition of the song, recreating Bryan Devendorf’s unmistakable drum parts and the band’s moving progressions. But half of the charm in a cover is its contrast to the original, and The Philistines Jr. surely have a handle on that. Instead of Matt Berninger’s gentle baritone on vocals, Peter enlisted then-8-year-old Henry Katis, the son of Tarquin Katis, Peter’s brother and Philistines Jr. bassist.—Tyler Kane

11. Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto – “Sign the Dotted Line” (Tall Dwarfs)
Before we even hear a note of music, this cover is the thing indie-rock dreams are made of. With two of the most respected figures in the scene in the ‘90s joining up for a U.S. debt-relief fundraiser, we were excited to see what Mangum and Picciotto would do as a duo. They were topically on point, with a cover of Tall Dwarfs’ “Sign the Dotted Line,” a track that might not be instantly recognizable but was equally effective in the setting. Contrasting with Fugazi’s live show, Picciotto hangs back, letting Mangum do the heavy lifting and providing backup in the form of harmonies and guitar. For those in attendance, we’ve got one word: Jealous.—Tyler Kane

10. The Avett Brothers – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (Neutral Milk Hotel)
What immediately sticks out in this cover is the striking resemblance between the voices of Seth Avett and Jeff Mangum, with the former deftly molding his own singing style with that of Mangum’s to make it an homage to the original but also something new. The Avetts remove the percussion, replacing it with a multitude of layered strings that somber up an already melancholic tune. The tender care with which the Avetts approach such a beloved song offers insight to their musical lineage and inspiration.—Brian Tremml

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.-“Like A Prayer” (Madonna)
For a band that utilizes cover songs in their live shows quite frequently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are surprisingly reverent to other artist’s material. In addition to their version of the Gil-Scott Heron song that the EP is named for, We Almost Lost Detroit also features their take on Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Keeping the slow opening to the supporting choir, the duo is pretty faithful to the original, except with more prominent percussion that makes the song much more. The recorded version isn’t available for stream right now, so the live version, in all its neon glory, will have to do for now.—Ross Bonaime

8. Japandroids – “Jack the Ripper” (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)
Japandroids  have made covers a winning habit, not only on 2012’s Celebration Rock, but also on all four of their 7” single releases to date. While usually going with ‘80s American punk such as Big Black, The Gun Club and X for their covers, “The House That Heaven Built” single instead features the Vancouver duo taking on Nick Cave’s “Jack The Ripper” with expectedly creepy results. In truth it sounds exactly how one would imagine Japandroids playing Nick Cave would: the steadily dark and anxious crescendo remains fully present, but Brian King’s combination of visceral distortion and shout-singing, along with David Prowse’s madman drumming creates a whole new level of foreboding chaos. Although worlds removed from Celebration Rock’s heartening tone, their version of “Jack The Ripper” still showcases the naturally unabashed conviction and spirit that makes each of Japandroids’ songs so enthralling.—Zach Philyaw

7. Nada Surf – “Bizarre Love Triangle” (New Order)
For years, in addition to consistently releasing great albums of their own material, Nada Surf has done plenty of cover songs, from artists as varied as The Beatles, The Pixies and OMD. They even released an entire album of covers, If I Had a Hi-Fi. There’s a reason why the band does cover songs: they’re damn good at it. As part of the third season of The A.V. Club’s Undercover series, where artists cover tracks from a pre-determined list of songs, Nada Surf decided to cover New Order’s biggest hit, “Bizarre Love Triangle.” But instead of using the synth-heavy sounds that New Order helped popularize, Nada Surf turned the song acoustic, while throwing in a trumpet, banjo, beat-boxing and Guided By Voices’ Doug Gillard. With all these elements, Nada Surf strips down New Order’s original, making it less danceable, but increasing the emotional impact of the lyrics.—Ross Bonaime


Like a great acting performance, a cover’s greatness is based on how a musician interprets it. At worst, you might feel that distinct, debilitating feeling when that all-too familiar song sounds askew; The “Oh no you di’int!” followed by the realization that Prince is belting out Foo Fighter’s “Best of You” instead of “Purple Rain.” But we’ve seen great ones, too, from Guy Picciotto and Jeff Mangum’s plea for debt relief with a rendition of Tall Dwarfs’ “Sign the Dotted Line” to the lighthearted take on The National’s “Anyone’s Ghost” by The Philistines Jr. Below, we’ve listed our 15 favorite covers of the year. You can list yours below in the comments section.

6. The Afghan Whigs – “Lovecrimes” (Frank Ocean)
The Afghan Whigs are clearly enjoying the Frank Ocean listening party that has been 2012. So much so, that they even have their own cover to show for it. What on paper seems unnecessary and trite (see Snow Patrol’s cover of “Crazy In Love”) turns into a welcoming new take on a now familiar voice. Where Frank Ocean’s “Lovecrimes” is predominantly a looping vamp with an impossibly catchy hook line, the Afghan Whigs slow it down, apply some instrumentation, and add a few dynamic shifts in order to achieve a new level of weight not immediately apparent in the original. To their credit, Greg Dulli and co. have long crossed genre lines for cover material, taking on Prince, the Fugees, TLC, and even Drake with surprisingly good results. It’s always intriguing to hear what bands are listening to, but even better when they can show us themselves.—Zach Philyaw

5. Jack White – “I’m Shakin’” (Little Willie John/The Blasters)
It’s not easy or wise to bring in race, but “I’m Shakin’” illustrates how cultural appropriation can actually—on that rare, respectful occasion—advance an art form. In a reversal of the usual Pat Boone-ifying of black proto-rock songs by blander, usually white interpreters, the Blasters’ version of Rudy Toombs’ “I’m Shakin’” is one of the most raucous and fun rock and roll songs of all time. Jack White, another fella who doesn’t dishonor the forefathers of his amp-scorching blues-rock, adds flesh, cartilage and R&B backup singers. If you thought Dave Alvin was jittery, the shattering distortion of White’s guitar will make you truly, definitively noivous.—Dan Weiss

4. Alabama Shakes – “How Many More Times” (Led Zeppelin)
With Brittany Howard’s powerhouse vocals, it’s no surprise how successfully she channels her inner Robert Plant on this cover from Led Zeppelin’s debut album. What’s exciting, though, is how well the Shakes hold up as a band, with sweet keyboard swells and ripping solos that would make anyone in the ‘60s proud.—Hilary Saunders

3. The Feistodon Split Single
Feist’s 2011 release Metals was a relatively mellow affair, with the exception of “A Commotion,” a powerful song, filled with yelling and a repetitive, intense piano. When Feist and Mastodon announced their joint Record Store Day release, where each artist would cover a song from the other, appropriately titled Feistodon, it only made sense that Mastodon would cover “A Commotion.” Mastodon pulled double RSD duty, also covering The Flaming Lips’ “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” but their cover of “A Commotion” is more powerful, taking the anger inherent in the song and blasting it as loud as possible. Mastodon takes Feist and makes her track even more furious and powerful, but keeping the core of what makes the song so brilliant, the pain of love, just handling it in a much more aggressive way. When Feist sang about being ripped apart, it sounded metaphorical. When Mastodon sings the same song, it sounds literal.—Ross Bonaime

2. Punch Brothers – “Kid A” (Radiohead)
Only Chris Thile and crew could use squeals and slides stemming from acoustic instruments to authentically reinterpret the blips and beeps of one of Radiohead’s most experimental songs. As such, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Punch Brothers’ vocal-less version of “Kid A” is how the bass and guitar trade off taking the melody, mimicking Thom Yorke’s droning, unintelligible vocals. —Hilary Saunders

1. Wilco, Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe – “The Weight” (The Band)
Legendary soul singer Mavis Staples sang backing vocals on the canonized version of “The Weight” from The Last Waltz, but the matriarch leads this version of The Band’s classic with Wilco and Nick Lowe before a Wilco show at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. Standing alone, the cover resonates with fans of all three artists, but in the wake of Levon Helm’s passing earlier this year, this loose, relaxed and seemingly found-footage-style recording takes on even more significance and delightful tribute.—Hilary Saunders

Also in Music