For every cover like Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watch Tower” that gives a classic song a fresh and worthy interpretation, there are efforts like HIlary Duff’s take on The Who’s “My Generation” that should be banned from the airwaves. Here’s how some of 2013’s prominent song covers stack up against the original recordings they were inspired by.
Rolling Stones (1976): When the Rolling Stones decide to take a break from their blues-heavy rock and roll to write a ballad, they usually do a pretty good job. Like Stones classics “Angie” or “Wild Horses,” “Fool To Cry” slows things down and brings out a ton of emotion. Its soulful combination of guitar and electric keyboards gives the music a Hall & Oates-type feel, but there’s no mistaking Mick Jagger’s distinctive vocals for those of Darryl Hall. On this track, Jagger does a lot of talk-singing, which matches the measured pace of the music. However, the final minute of the song features an edgier breakdown that feels a bit unnecessary given the earlier mood.
Tegan and Sara (2013): Before they were approached by Lena Dunham to do a commissioned cover of “Fool To Cry” for the hit television show Girls, the female Canadian duo had actually never heard of the song. Considering that, and the challenge of emulating a ballad in which Mick Jagger croons about the woman he goes to make love to in the poor part of town, Tegan and Sara do a fantastic job with their cover. They switch up the verse rhythm by making the only prominent instrument a soothing finger-picked electric guitar, and add more texture to the chorus by harmonizing together on the hook, “Ooh, Daddy you’re a fool to cry.” Also, the breakdown gets cut in this version.
Verdict: This is a matchup in which there’s really no wrong choice. The Stones’ original sets the bar extremely high, and brings more than its fair share of soul to the table. But Tegan and Sara hit the mark on every one of their stylistic changes, and it all comes together surprisingly well. By the slightest edge, this one goes to the girls. Thank you, Lena Dunham!
— Max Berger
The Bee Gees (1967): “To Love Somebody” was released during 1967’s “Summer of Love,” and has been loved by artists ever since, becoming a pop standard that has been covered by the likes of Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and many others. The Bee Gees’ original opens with a signature riff before marching ahead into a verse that embodies the era’s psychedelic musical vibe. Things come to a flourish in the chorus with a horns section that complements the passion of the Gibb brothers crying out the refrain, “You don’t know what it’s like.”
Michael Bublé (2013): Bublé keeps a lot of the song’s key elements the same. The tempo remains upbeat, and the instrumentation is pretty similar. It features a much more prominent bass line, however, and seems Motown-esque at times. There are a frequent number of fills in between bars, and it makes for an enjoyable variety of short licks and call-and-response vocals. However, the chorus underwhelms in comparison to its predecessor, and the voices of Bublé and his backing singers don’t mesh nearly as well as the Bee Gee harmonies do.
Verdict: In this competition, it’s The Bee Gees that stay alive. Bublé doesn’t do a bad job, but there’s no exclamation mark that lifts the cover enough to surpass the original. The 1967 “To Love Somebody” is groovy, soulful, and absolutely lives up to its strong reputation.
— Max Berger
Michael Jackson (1982): Holding the 58th spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, Michael Jackson’s angsty lament, “Billie Jean” is an R&B/dance-pop gem. Sung from the point of view of a man being harassed by a woman claiming to be pregnant with his baby, this track keeps listeners attentive with its engaging lyrics and driving bass line. The song has all Jackson’s trademarks, from the finger snap to his iconic vocal hiccup, and plenty of satisfying synthesizer, a staple of ‘80s pop.
The Civil Wars (2013): The darkly seductive harmonies of folk-pop-country duo Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars are perfectly suited to the tone of “Billie Jean,” which they cover seamlessly. They have stripped the song down to its bone, with nothing but their haunting vocals and an acoustic guitar. The well-timed twangs of the guitar, captivating vocal dynamics, and palpable chemistry between Williams and White makes for a mesmerizing listen.
Verdict: The Civil Wars are just a band that says they’re the one. Their rendition of “Billie Jean” is a great listen, but you can’t beat the King of Pop.
— Kia Pouliot
The Beatles (1967): “All You Need Is Love” has become an anthem for Beatles fans, and its title, a slogan. As far as pop songs go it falls outside the box, but stays very much in line with the many artistic liberties The Beatles were taking at the time. The sound on this track feels like a cross between Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and a royal symphony; there’s orchestral backing, lots of vocal harmonies—and a George Harrison guitar solo to remind you that you’re listening to a rock band. The Fab Four’s timeless message is delivered loud and clear over an equally timeless musical arrangement.
The Flaming Lips (2013): Never straying far from their signature psychedelic sound, the Flaming Lips have remade the Beatles classic “All You Need is Love” into something that can best be described as a revelatory slice into a post-apocalyptic world. The song opens on a bed of strings and harp, carrying listeners into the Flaming Lip’s fantastical vision of such a world. The whole concept of love being all that you need does in retrospect seem questionable, but is well played off in this contemporary rendition. The only thing that’s really missing is a sense of resolution. What comes off as the start of something new instead finds itself closing their latest album, left to finish prematurely and unexpectedly.
Verdict: Both concepts are so clearly opposite—any remnants of a Beatles influence have long been lost between the layers of distortion—yet work well on their own. But ultimately, the original would have to take the cake for its overall cohesiveness that makes it what it is—memorable enough to be remade now, and probably again in the future.
— Leyang Yu
Amy Winehouse (2006): The title track of Amy Winehouse’s Grammy-award-winning album released in 2006, “Back to Black” is about Winehouse’s relapse into drinking and depression after the loss of a lover. The simple drums and keys play background to Winehouse’s powerful vocals, which intentionally stand out in the mix, even oncew strings make an entrance. The song itself is one of the biggest, most encompassing statements of Winehouse’s troubled career—which is perhaps why it resurfaced on the top 10 of the UK singles chart after her death in 2011. As a modern classic, does a cover for a movie soundtrack do it justice?
BeyoncÉ feat. Andre 3000 (2013): This cover brings covers full circle—it was done for Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby (2013)—and, with performances from Andre 3000 and Beyonce, literally brings Amy Winehouse’s culturally-appropriated Motown style ‘back to black.’ Three Stacks deadpans “You with your head high, and your tears dry / get on without your…guy” over slow wobble bass. On certain lines, he shifts the octave of each couple words he sings, which is creative, but also slightly silly. After a twangy guitar bridge, Beyoncé sings a sultry second half, which is more of an attempt at imitating Winehouse.
Verdict: Listing to both versions of “Back to Black” back-to-back is pretty impressive—“Back to Black” is a vocals-centric song, and the voices of Winehouse, Beyoncé, and Andre 3000 are three of the most interesting in post-2000s popular music. However, the cover produced for The Great Gatsby lacks the signature tormented belting that Winehouse was famous for, and her passion makes the original the clear superior.
— Will Burgess