Judging By The Cover: Five More Great Cover Songs From 2010

For the past year I kept an ongoing list of nearly every cover song I came across — from live performances, YouTube clips, web series, compilations and charity albums and more. From that list I whittled it down to two 5-song lists during the year: a mid-year list Five Great Cover Songs From 2010 (So Far) and my year-end round-up of the 5 Best Cover Songs Of 2010.

Originally that final list was intended to be full-on top ten, but we cut it down to what I thought was the most essential. Here are the remaining five from that list:

Atlas Sound: “This Wheel’s On Fire” by Bob Dylan (from Bedroom Databank)

Atlas Sound‘s Bradford Cox has been among the most consistent and prolific artists in recent years. But in 2010 — a year that already saw the release of a gem of an album with Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest — Cox surprised everyone by dumping a whopping four volumes worth of bedroom demo tracks on his blog for free download. These Bedroom Databank recordings were certainly a treat for fans of his blend of ambient indie rock and experimental electronic music, yet it also stirred some controversy when Sony initially ordered him to remove the tracks. But what’s gotten somewhat lost is how great so many of these songs are, including the track that likely sparked the ordeal, a gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan and The Band‘s “This Wheel’s On Fire.” Here, Cox tempers the song in his trademark moody haze of noise and reverb, creating a ramshackle, if not melancholy version that both honors the original and repaints it in his image.

Jonsi: “Time To Pretend” by MGMT (from BBC session)

Taking a big, production-heavy pop song and winnowing it to the bare melodic essentials is harder than it might appear, especially when it’s MGMT, a band built around a huge sound. But in a March interview and performance session for BBC Radio 1, Jónsi delivered a stunning solo piano reduction of MGMT’s big pop hit “Time To Pretend.” Even when stripped of its buoyant dance beats and infectious tapestry of electronics, the song remarkably holds up. But more impressive is the delicate yet soaring falsetto of Jón Birgisson which establishes a somber yet lilting mood. Jonsi’s own music has always been transfixing and transporting, but with this cover, the enigmatic and joyful singer shows another side to his personality.

OMD: “VCR” by The xx (from digital single)

A lot of times a cover song serves as a way for an established band can show support to the next generation. That’s certainly has been true for artists like Bowie performing with TV on the Radio, Bruce Springsteen with Arcade Fire, or in this case, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark doing a cover of The xx‘s “VCR.” The minimal, icy music of The xx is very clearly influenced by ’80s pop and electronic artists, especially Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. So it’s not all that much of a surprise that OMD would both attempt this song, but also expand upon it with a subtle touch. While equally as stripped down as the original, OMD’s take is less detached and aided by the warm analog instrumentation and sweet crooning vocals of Andy McCluskey. It’s a satisfying expert rendition from the synth pop pioneers.

Portland Cello Project featuring Laura Gibson and John Moen: “Dazed And Confused” by Led Zeppelin (from From The Land Of Ice And Snow)

Compared to artists like The Beatles or Bob Dylan, the music of Led Zeppelin is rarely malleable and more difficult to make your own and still retain the band’s seething intensity and edge. So much of their identity comes from that searing, explosive energy, that no matter what an artist does, it often pales in comparison. What make so much of this year’s Zeppelin tribute record, From The Land Of Ice And Snow work is that many of the artists choose not to beat them, but join them in a smart way. “Dazed And Confused” stands out amongst other great renditions because of the way the Portland Cello Project and Laura Gibson play with the tension and release dynamics. With Gibson’s ghostly voice and strings that eerily swoop and trill down the neck, they build the anxiety and paranoia. Then with a cathartic burst from John Moen’s drums, the tension breaks. And with the wash of distorted cello riffs that mimic Jimmy Page’s most fearsome guitar solo, this version serves as an example of how to put a small sonic stamp on such distinctive classic.

Aloe Blacc: “Femme Fatale” by The Velvet Underground and Nico (from Good Things)

Aloe Blacc’s Good Things is one of the few recent soul records I’ve heard that doesn’t pretend to be of another time. Sure, his songs have those stylistic flavors — a steady back beat, a deep grooving bass line and some killer horn stabs. But it’s the way he pushes those ideas forward (see his killer single “I Need A Dollar”) rather than attempting to recapture a retro sound like many of his peers that gives his voice an extra weight. Aloe Blacc’s smoldering rendition of The Velvet Underground and Nico‘s “Femme Fatale” renders the song as a powerful soul ballad that could easily serve as the opening theme to a James Bond film. The song captures the intoxicating mystery, and even danger of falling for a beautiful woman, and he’s helpless to stop himself. “Femme Fatale” is not only one of the record’s strongest songs, but it nearly tops the original by giving it a completely changed perspective.