The art of the cover song can sometimes be as difficult as writing originals. Sure, writing new material requires creating something from nothing, but performing those songs in a way that stands out comes with its own challenges and tripwires. As soon as you approach a cover song, you encounter that pivotal question of whether to stay true to the original or put your own spin on it. While keeping the arrangement of the original is always a safe move, turning the song into something fresh and new can result in something even more enthralling, though there’s one big caveat—you have to plan and execute it with care in order to stick the landing. When approaching a cover song, you want to avoid butchering the original version at all costs in order to preserve the song’s integrity. These artists, listed below, not only preserved the integrity of the original versions, but came out on the other side, smelling like a rose. Listen to our 10 favorite cover songs from 2018, as chosen by the Paste music staff.
10. Phoenix – “No Woman” (Whitney)
If French rockers Phoenix placed their cover of Whitney’s soulful folk tune, “No Woman,” into one of their setlists, it would flow so seamlessly, that many people might not recognize it as a cover. Frontman Thomas Mars takes the Chicago band’s best-known cut and transforms it into something smooth and danceable by using some kind of vocoder or digital effect to distort his voice. The band’s electronic drums, glistening keyboards and robotic vocals transform a folky slow jam into a slick, seductive hymn of sublime chillwave.
9. I’m With Her – “Hannah Hunt” (Vampire Weekend)
If “Hannah Hunt” is the best Vampire Weekend song of them all (and I will argue until the day I die, or until their new album finally drops), then surely I’m With Her’s marvelous take on the track is the best cover of a Vampire Weekend song ever rendered?! Perhaps not, but the folk supergroup’s Spotify Singles version of the already-stellar track from Vampire Weekend’s 2013 album, Modern Vampires of the City, is immaculate. It’s as if Ezra Koenig wrote the song five years ago in the hopes that it would someday be covered by three women at a hootenanny. I’m With Her’s bluegrass instruments and three-part harmonies don’t just freshen the tune—they transform it into something new entirely.
8. Alvvays, Hatchie, Snail Mail – “Alimony” (The Hummingbirds)
When met with the phrase “dreamy indie rock,” there’s a decent chance that one, if not all, of these artists would spring to mind. Alvvays, Snail Mail and Hatchie performed a sold-out show at Warsaw in Brooklyn this past September, and the three acts teamed up for a cover of The Hummingbirds’ “Alimony,” taken from their 1989 debut album, loveBUZZ. Alvvays’ Molly Rankin takes the first verse, followed by Hatchie and Snail Mail, with backing vocals from the rest of the band, and this performance is about as close you can get to brushing shoulders with the deities of dream pop.
7. St. Vincent – “Perfect Day” (Lou Reed)
During one of her recent performances in Brooklyn, St. Vincent performed an emotional cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” First released on Reed’s Transformer LP back in 1972, the piano-based track is jazzy and dragging as Reed describes his perfect day. While the original eventually adds on a few synth accents and lives up to the glam-rock descriptor often associated with the ’72 LP, Annie Clark’s cover contains nothing of the sort, and is simply artist and piano (played by collaborator Thomas Bartlett). The duo performed “Perfect Day” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music alongside several tracks from MassEducation—a compilation of stripped-back, piano-based re-imaginings of tracks from last year’s MASSEDUCTION, playing on the often-mispronounced title of the latter. Clark and Bartlett recorded the album over the course of two days, releasing it on Oct. 12.
6. Soccer Mommy – “I’m On Fire” (Bruce Springsteen)
Sophie Allison, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter also known as Soccer Mommy, released a new seven-inch single via Fat Possum this past October. The year had already been highly successful for the mellow indie songstress with her early March release of Clean receiving critical acclaim, eventually landing a spot on Paste’s list of best albums of 2018. Her latest 7-inch was a throwback of sorts, with the A-side, “Henry,” coming from Allison’s 2016 release For Young Hearts and the B-side pulled directly from 1984: a beautifully reimagined version of Bruce Springsteen’s hit “I’m On Fire.” “I wanted to make a version of ‘I’m On Fire’ that connected with the sadness of the song,” says Allison. “I think that doing a more stripped-down version allowed me to make something that feels emotionally raw.” Cutting away much of the original’s characteristic 1980s clutter and drastically slowing down the delivery, the single does just that. Allison’s haunting vocals bring an entirely different interpretation to the lyrics and more heavily emphasize any melancholic themes contained within.
5. Phoebe Bridgers – “Friday I’m in Love” (The Cure)
Earlier in December, Phoebe Bridgers shared her Spotify Singles session, which included a cover of The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love,” along with a re-recording of “Scott Street” off her latest album, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. The session is just one of a slew of covers Bridgers has released recently. In July, she covered Manchester Orchestra’s “The Gold,” and in the past month she’s covered both (Sandy) Alex G’s “Powerful Man” and McCarthy Trenching’s “Christmas Song” with Jackson Browne.
4. Death Cab for Cutie – “My Backwards Walk” (Frightened Rabbit)
Death Cab For Cutie released a cover of Frightened Rabbit’s “My Backwards Walk” as part of their Spotify Singles collection. The cover is a tribute to Frightened Rabbit lead singer Scott Hutchison, who was found dead in May of this year. “My Backwards Walk” is off Frightened Rabbit’s beloved 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight. The choice of song most likely comes from the time the bands spent touring together in 2008, when Frightened Rabbit opened for Death Cab in support of The Midnight Organ Fight. Ben Gibbard, lead singer of Death Cab, remained close with Hutchison following the tour. Following Hutchison’s death, Gibbard paid tribute to him on Instagram, saying “I wish I would have told Scott how much his songs mean to me.”
3. Frank Ocean – “Moon River” (Henry Mancini)
Earlier this year, Frank Ocean dropped a cover of “Moon River,” as made famous by the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany’s. “Moon River” was composed by Henry Mancini and it won an Oscar for Audrey Hepburn’s famous performance of the track in the film. Ocean offers a smooth R&B take on the track, which was originally done acoustically, but he preserves the minimal, intimate quality of the song’s instrumentation while experimenting with the layering of his rich, soulful vocals.
2. LCD Soundsystem – ”(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” (Heaven 17)
LCD Soundsystem released a cover of Heaven 17’s ”(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang,” recorded live at Electric Lady Studios. The original “Fascist Groove Thang” was released in 1981 by British New Wave band Heaven 17, and it addressed the rise of right-wing governments in that decade. It focused in on Reagan—in fact, the song was banned by the BBC out of fear of libel charges—but other far-right politicians were included in that gaze, if not by name specifically. It was a desperate song for what appeared to be desperate times. If only they knew. LCD doesn’t change much here, because they don’t need to. Just check the lyrics: “Evil men with racist views / Spreading all across the land,” or “History will repeat itself / Crisis point we’re near the hour.” It was recorded almost 40 years ago by a band from across the ocean, but somehow it’s still relevant, because of course it is. It’s not that Heaven 17 were all that prescient—it’s more that we as a country so easily forget our past. The only change here is, naturally, the lyrics about Reagan—”Democrats are out of power / Across that great wide ocean / Orange man’s president elect / Fascist god in motion,” goes the verse.
1. Phoebe Bridgers – “Powerful Man” (Sandy Alex G)
Phoebe Bridgers has released an Amazon-exclusive cover of (Sandy) Alex G’s “Powerful Man” as part of Amazon Music’s series of one-off singles and covers. “Powerful Man” is a folk ballad off (Sandy) Alex G’s last album, 2017’s Rocket. It’s almost a country song, with the swirling fiddles and rolling acoustics, but Bridgers’ version is closer to dream pop, the strings replaced by electronic swells and twinkling effects. The influence of bands like Modest Mouse or Built to Spill on the current batch of singer-songwriters of whom Bridgers is a part is readily apparent on songs like this, songs where the simple heartbreak of the country framework is reworked into something more scattered and complex.