Something intriguing occurs when an artist or band takes on someone else’s song. The interpreter may cover that song by adhering to hallmarks of the original version, but hopefully enough distinctiveness shines through to make it a worthwhile performance and not merely a facsimile. That said, here are ten of the best cover songs from 2008.
10) “See Emily Play” – Martha Wainwright
Album: I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too
Despite (or perhaps because of) his eccentricities and psychedelic excursions, Syd Barrett betrayed a childlike purity in his music. Putting her own quirky yet endearing spin on this Pink Floyd classic, Ms. Wainwright draws on that innocence in such a way that, if he were here, would likely elicit a smile from its cosmic source.
9) “Toxic” – Portland Cello Project
Album: Portland Cello Project
For those with discriminating tastes who have pondered what a Britney Spears song would sound like as rendered in perhaps a more sophisticated medium, look no further than the Portland Cello Project’s cover of “Toxic,” which features a bevy of, well, cellos. The ensemble plays the arrangement close to the vest (and the vocals actually sound a bit like Spears), but its enthusiasm and unorthodox approach is irresistibly satisfying.
8) “Temptation” – Southside Johnny & The LaBamba Big Band
Album: Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits
Soaked in the faded glitz of late-night burlesque and the blue-collar grime of a Jersey shore bar, Southside Johnny bejewels this Tom Waits gem with a big brass band (or is it a brass big band?) and swagger to spare. It’s a nocturnal lament, ladies and gentlemen, rife with carnal delights and callings. It’s Southside Johnny for one night only, every night of the week: He sings! He swings! ‘Til the money runs out, he’ll tango ‘til you pour.
7) “Breaking The Girl” – Anna Nalick
Album: Shine [EP]
Already somewhat peculiar in its original form, Nalick envisages this Red Hot Chili Peppers track into an even starker enigma, stripping it down to its sonic bare bones while sustaining the cryptic bent of its narrative. It’s a riveting, ambitious interpretation, one which says something about Nalick’s creative depth and potential.
6) “All I Want Is You” – Glen Campbell
Album: Meet Glen Campbell
From one of last year’s unexpectedly rewarding albums, Campbell’s earnest rendition of this U2 love song recalls the mood of his most timeless performances. Four decades after pleading, “I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time,” the proverbial lineman for the county sounds inspired, pining, and ever still on the line.
5) “Make You Feel My Love” – Neil Diamond
Album: Home After Dark [Deluxe Edition]
In his recent collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, the Solitary Man has boldly tapped back into the dark consciousness that inhabits his most resonant works. It’s with comparable sentience that Diamond enriches this modern Bob Dylan classic, his intimate and somber expression poignantly suiting the directness of the lyrics.
4) “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” – Lucinda Williams
Album: Little Honey
Ornery and defiant, Williams manhandles this AC/DC rocker into a mantra, serving as much as an affirmation of her life as her art. An incidental note to all aspiring artists: If your idea of paying dues is to camp out on the pavement before your American Idol audition, turn this track up loud and let Ms. Williams put you wise.
3) “Aretha, Sing One For Me” – Cat Power
On this obscure gem by singer/songwriter George Jackson, Cat Power stretches out the groove, sinking deep into the song’s yearning plea for some end-of-romance solace. The Queen of Soul has seldom received a more forsaken request.
2) “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” – Soweto Gospel Choir
Album: In The Name Of Love – Africa Celebrates U2
A standout performance among an album of exceptional music, U2’s anthemic homage to MLK assumes an altogether distinct and urgent resonance here. Rich with indigenous expression and rhythms, the Soweto Gospel Choir enliven the song with the resolve, hope, and triumphant spirit of its native land and, in so doing, make an inspiring statement.
1) “Time” – Heidi Talbot
Album: In Love And Light
In a flawless marriage of songwriting brilliance and vocal elegance, Irish songstress Heidi Talbot summons a stunning rendition of this Tom Waits masterpiece, drawing out subtleties within the narrative through her delicate phrasings and inflections. It’s this kind of performance that makes songwriters want to slave over a piano or guitar in the pursuits of their craft.