Spotify is amazing. OK – I understand that streaming services like Spotify can be controversial, and I don’t mean to take a stand here: by “amazing,” I mean “amazing for me,” because a few days ago I was able to listen to Phil Collins’ full discography for free on my computer. And I discovered a track I’d never heard before – a cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles, on Collins’ 1981 album “Face Value.” The track clings close to the style of the original, with Collins’ vocals layered over a psychedelic sound-wall containing strains of melody and discord, punctuated with a drum loop (hey – it is Phil Collins, after all). My only question regarding this track is: what is the point of it?
Cover songs are unusual creatures. The idea of recreating a piece developed by another artist is unique to performance art – imagine someone repainting “Starry Night” or rewriting Pride and Prejudice (fanfiction and insert-zombies-here versions not withstanding). There’s no audience for it. But Johnny Cash’s 2003 cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails sold over 500,000 units, and I defy you to find someone under 30 who first knew “Mad World” as a Tears for Fears song, rather than a piano ballad from the soundtrack to “Donnie Darko.” Clearly, we love this stuff.
Why do we validate musicians who copy the work of others? Because Really Great Cover Songs make us think about the original song in a new way – show us that a melody, lyrics, an instantly recognizable hook or iconic solo are the parts of a song, but they are not what a song is. Covers show us this by taking material we’re familiar with and creating something that feels, sounds, and communicates in an entirely new way.
Collins’ cover doesn’t do this. His version of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” is homage. It says “OMG I heart The Beatles,” but it doesn’t make the song new for a listener. (At this point, I’d like to apologize to Phil Collins. I’m sorry, Mr. Collins. It’s not that I don’t love your music – because I do. In fact, I have this fantasy where I meet you, and you let me rub the top of your head for luck. I’m also sorry if that’s creepy. Ahem.)
All of this is to say, cover songs are awesome. When done well, they teach us something about music that original work cannot. Here’s my hard evidence: a few cover songs I’m really diggin’ lately, that I think qualify as Really Great Cover Songs.
1. Pomplamoose: “Makin’ Out” by Mark Owen
The original is a Brit-pop-y love song with a somewhat repetitive melody – the kind of track you get tired of hearing on the radio after the third or fourth play. Pomplamoose’s version is quiet, paired down to a single guitar behind Nataly Dawn’s earnest, breathy voice. If you hear this version and your heart doesn’t ache even a little, you might be dead.
2. Mr Little Jeans: “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire
The Arcade Fire version of their song sounds like looking at a black and white photo of a 1950’s suburb, and wondering what happened to the children playing in the photograph when they grew up. Mr Little Jeans’ electronic reimagining sounds like walking through the empty streets of your old neighborhood, abandoned after the end of the world.
3. Rogue Wave: “Everyday” by Buddy Holly
From the soundtrack for Stubbs the Zombie, an album comprised of cover songs that are fun but mostly novel, Rogue Wave’s version of Buddy Holly’s iconic hit stands out, retaining the sweetness of the original but investing it with a real sense of melancholy.
Tell me what Really Great Cover Songs y’all are listening to!