The 15 Best Cover Songs of 2012

Music Lists cover songs
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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