The 10 Best Cover Songs of 2015

Music Lists Cover Songs

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 2015.

10. Glen Hansard, “Farewell Transmission” (Songs: Ohia)

Not only did Irish troubadour Glen Hansard cover Jason Molina’s quintessential bummer jam “Farewell Transmission,” he included it on an entire covers EP dedicated to the late songwriter. Hansard takes a gentler approach to “Farewell Transmission,” though. He seems to whisper the entire song over repetitive arpeggios and low, droning strings, which minimizes his own powerfully raw (if totally different) vocals. In the original version, Molina supposedly repeated the outro “listen” to the engineer and the band as a command, not necessarily as an intentional part of the song. Strikingly, Hansard seems to use it as a quiet plea to his own listeners, giving his homage a more direct and lingering sense of melancholy. — Hilary Saunders

9. Sharon Jones – “God Rest Ye Merry Gents”

From the moment it blares in with a funkified riff on Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” you can’t help but smile at this instrumental track off Sharon Jones’ new holiday album, It’s a Holiday Soul Party. The Dap Kings are in full form on a rare track not featuring Jones’ silky voice, and it was really the right decision. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is cream of the crop as far as public domain Christmas carols go, and the soul band enhance its already sinister sound to make a macabre Christmas funk breakdown that sounds like something their labelmates The Budos Band would play at a holiday party. Give in to the spirit of Christmas funk. – Jim Vorel

8. Moa Holmsten – “The River” (Bruce Springsteen)

The most unusual wrinkle surrounding her recent collection of Bruce Springsteen covers (Bruised Arms and Broken Rhythms) is that Moa Holmsten isn’t even a fan of The Boss. She relied on the direction of her collaborator Tony Naima to help choose the songs that wound up on this album. That remove allowed the raw emotion of a song like “The River” to come across even stronger, as Holmsten, a singer-songwriter from Sweden, wasn’t weighed down by Springsteen’s iconic status. Through her hands and voice, and a shuffling neo-folk arrangement, the tale of Mary and the nameless narrator feels as fresh and heartbreaking as it did when it first arrived in the world 35 years ago. – Robert Ham

7. Punch Brothers – “Reptillia” (The Strokes)

Proggy bluegrass string band takes on indie-alt-punk-wunderkinds. Can twee sound badass? Yes. The Punch Brothers know their way around the frets, so it’s no surprise they could add a bit of theatrical refinement to one of the sweetest riffs of the last 15 years. Lead singer/mandolinist Chris Thile is certainly a better enunciator than the original’s songwriter & singer Julian Cassablancas, but all in all it’s a very respectful cover, evenhandedly transforming the more clattery kicker original into a sleeker, crisper folk twirler. The best part, as is often the case with the ensemble of The Punch Brothers, is that they find the spaces, phrases and measures to utilize each of their instruments, violin, banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and give that twangy baroque charm to what was initially an electric guitar rock-out. – Jeff Milo

6. Pops Staples – “Gotta Serve Somebody” (Bob Dylan)

The funny thing about Pops Staples’ “Gotta Serve Somebody” cover off his posthumous Don’t Lose This album is that when you compare the two songs, it sounds more like Dylan covering Pops than Pops covering Dylan. Which is to say, the trotting blues beat and organ just feels even more at home in the Staples band than it ever did for Dylan—there’s no indication that this is even anything other than a Pops Staples original. It sounds like a band warmup that would have been a regular part of Pops’ set for his entire life, a well-worn track that fits like a glove. – Jim Vorel

5. Florence + The Machine – “Times Like These” (Foo Fighters)

Florence Welch introduced this cover at last summer’s Glastonbury Festival with love and well wishes for the Foo Fighters’ founder Dave Grohl (who had just broken his leg days earlier, leading to Florence + The Machine stepping up to fill the spot). In fact, before the song begins, she acknowledged Grohl as “…a legend,” who had been “so kind and supportive” to her when her band was just breaking out, which is rad … but, also makes me feel old to think that Dave Grohl has already attained “legend” status. All snark aside, there is cynicism-squashing sincerity in this recital of the Foos’ 2002 ripper, slowing and softening it down to a cool folk-tinged performance, with pared acoustics augmented to smooth the original’s coarser electric guitars, all the while putting Welch’s breathtaking vocals into an ideally sharp relief, with the English dynamo of power-ballads injecting a new sense of poignancy to the original lyrics. It’s a quintessential tribute moment, with thousands of people screaming their love for the original songwriter and then being awed at its reinvigoration by the artist on stage. – Jeff Milo

4. Natalie Prass – “Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel)

When Simon & Garfunkel wrote this acoustic ballad in 1964, “The Sound of Silence” definitely did not have this kind of sass. But when Natalie Prass—one of our favorite new artists this year—tries on the classic, she infuses it with bebop shuffles. Loaded with a synth keyboard, clean electric guitar strumming the off-beat, and enough sighs and scoffs to give anyone a self-confidence boost, Prass’ version lends itself more to Jazz Age shimmying rather than its original pensiveness. —Hilary Saunders

3. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn – “The Final Countdown” (Europe)

The A.V. Club always has at least one epic cover in its Under Cover series, and this year’s was an unexpected dual banjo version of Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck—who reportedly had never even heard the ‘80s hair metal song before—plays the iconic guitar riff and the vocal line while his wife, the fantastically multi-cultural banjo-playing Abigail Washburn, tackles the rhythm and a few string bending solos. Past the musical intricacies, however, it’s the wigs, teased hair, and Washburn’s snide glances, almost-head-banging, and play on gratuitous arm swinging that puts this cover over the top. —Hilary Saunders

2. Father John Misty – “Blank Space” (Taylor Swift)

When Ryan Adams dropped his 1989 cover album—a track-for-track interpretation of Taylor Swift’s latest record—he described it as being in a style somewhere between The Smiths’ Meat is Murder and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, inspiring Father John Misty to poke fun by releasing his own “reinterpretation of the classic Ryan Adams album 1989” in the style of the Velvet Underground. The cover of “Blank Space” is hilarious enough that it prompted our own Shane Ryan to declare FJM the best kind of asshole, but above all, it’s just really, really great. Misty’s Lou Reed impression is spot-on, and the result is a cover you want to listen to over and over again, even if you strip away all the context. – Bonnie Stiernberg

1. Hot Chip – “Dancing in the Dark” (Bruce Springsteen)

This Bruce Springsteen classic became a bit of a live staple for Hot Chip this year, as the dance-rock group used it to close out their sets at some major festivals like Lollapalooza and Glastonbury. They released their studio version of the song back in October, and what makes it such a great, effective cover is the fact that Alexis Taylor and co. are able to put their own spin on it—even though it’s one of the Boss’ biggest singles they’re tackling, this is undeniably Hot Chip. Towards the end, they seamlessly weave in a rendition of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” … two great covers for the price of one, and our #1 cover of the year as well. – Bonnie Stiernberg

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