A-Z of cover versions

9th Apr 2010 | 15:30

A-Z of cover versions
A gentle way to start our journey…

if it's 'cover versions' and an A-Z, what else could we start with apart from Acoustic…

The bare bones of chords, melody and lyrics are all you need for a decent cover version, so it’s little wonder that acoustic covers are so prolific. And they don’t always have to be a lazy cop-out.

Stripping a song right back also gives artists the leisure of reinterpreting a song as they see fit, as with Iron and Wine's version of New Order’s Love Vigilantes.

The simplicity can also lend an off-the-cuff feel, like Biffy Clyro’s tender cover of Killing in the Name at Reading 2008. Jo Whiley's face as she watches from the side of the stage (sadly not pictured) is totally priceless.

A is also for… Abba: Despite appearing deceptively simple upon first listen, some complex arrangements mean some Abba songs are notoriously difficult to cover – but there’s still scope for a well-done reinterpretation.

Frank Turner’s Dancing Queen, Ash’s Does Your Mother Know and The LemonheadsKnowing Me, Knowing You are three such examples. Genuinely, you have to watch the Ash one…

A-Z of cover versions
Streetlight Manifesto get horny

Adding in a parp of brass can make almost any song sound a bit more upbeat, as Streetlight Manifesto’s racuous ska cover of The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights shows.

Hot 8 Brass Band, too, somewhat bafflingly turned the suave likes of Sexual Healing into a big-band tune, as Marvin Gaye presumably never intended.

B is also for... Baz Luhrman: Luhrman’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! featured a soundtrack jam-packed with covers of contemporary songs and mash-ups. The finest of these was undoubtedly the sprawling Elephant Love Medley.

A-Z of cover versions
Blessing those rains down in Africa

Long before Glee took the show choir to the masses, choral versions have been among the more 'interesting' re-imaginings out there.

Back in the late Seventies, The Langley Schools Music Project produced some strange and downright eerie children’s-choir covers, not least this sinister version of Space Oddity. Now, choirs such as Perpetuum Jazzile are beat-boxing their way through the likes of power ballad classic Africa.

An honourable mention also has to go to The Chesire Chord Company for their cut-glass rendering of I Predict a Riot. Dare you not to laugh.

C is also for... Christmas number ones: Though X-Factor winner Joe McElderry’s version of The Climb was beaten to the top spot by a Rage revival, five of the past 10 Christmas number ones have been covers. We’re not saying it’s a cynical festive cash-in, but make of that figure what you will…

A-Z of cover versions
Dark Side of the Moon
The album's iconic artwork (as re-imagined by Mario)

Not just an ambitious and accomplished work in its own right, this 1973 prog stalwart also seems irresistible as a challenge to other artists.

Not content to simply cover Time or Brain Damage, last Christmas The Flaming Lipsreleased a recording of the entire album, roping in help from Henry Rollins and Peaches.

It’s also recently been painstakingly reproduced in 8-bit format, as reported previously on MusicRadar. Impressive level of dedication or a bedroom anorak with too much time on his hands? Who cares - it's bloody brilliant.

D is also for... Don’t Look Back: These ATP shows present artists performing an album from their back catalogue in its entirety. They may not be covers shows per se, but they’re still an excellent opportunity to hear live versions of lesser-played tracks. Forthcoming Don't Look Back shows include album playbacks from the likes of The Raincoats and Spiritualized.

A-Z of cover versions
Careful mind. The hounds of love are right behind you…

The Eighties are a decade ripe for covering. Eighties covers are also one of those subsets with which bands seem to have the most fun.

One of the best examples from the past few years has got to be The Futureheads’ joyous run-through of Hounds of Love. It’s also worth taking a look at Kokolo’s Afrobeat version of The Clash’s Magnificent Seven, this genius marching band cover of Personal Jesus and – best of all – Adagio’s metal re-take on Fame.

E is also for... Electronica: You can often rely upon electronic-tinged covers to have a wealth of oddball charm. Need proof? Try The Postal Service’s cover of Against All Odds and Nekked’s version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer.

A-Z of cover versions
Mere Rang Mein...yep, we're lost, too

Covering a song in a foreign language instantly defamiliarises it – which is, arguably, what any good cover version should do.

Seu Jorge’s contributions to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou soundtrack provide sublimely surreal moments in the form of acoustic, Portuguese-language David Bowie covers.

There are also plenty of Bollywood songs which lift hefty inspiration from English-language music, such as this incredible take on Europe’s Final Countdown.

F is also for... Film soundtracks: The cover version is the veritable darling of the modern-day film soundtrack.

Be it Ellen Page and Michael Cera singing Anyone Else but You in Juno or Iron and Wine’s low-key strumming of Such Great Heights in Garden State, a quirky cover of an already-known song seems to be the way to get your soundtrack talked about.

A-Z of cover versions
A robot with the soul of Ian Curtis. Intrigued?

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing brilliantly. With this in mind, if you’re going to record your own version of a song, you may as well do so in a completely different genre.

Love Will Tear Us Apart, for example, has been transmuted from post-punk classic to bleepy minimalism by Bis, complete with ultra-cute comic book-noir video.

Other thumbs-ups ought to go to Electric President and – dare we say it? – Gary Jules.

G is also for... Great American Songbook: A nebulous group of US classics from the 1920s - ‘60s which forms the majority of jazz standards to this day. Oh, and the basis for a 2001 Robbie Williams album.

A-Z of cover versions
Laughing Len contemplates yet another royalty cheque

While the most-covered song may be (SPOILER ALERT!) Yesterday, hot on its heels must certainly be Hallelujah.

Originally recorded by Leonard Cohen for 1984’s Various Positions, the track was brought to mainstream popularity a decade later by Jeff Buckley (whose version was, in turn, based on John Cale's).

It’s also been covered by Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright and, most recently (sigh) Alexandra Burke. Oh, and it was rather wonderfully interpolated into Emmy the Great’s First Love.

Cohen’s had enough, though, telling NME, “I think it’s a good song, but too many people sing it.”

H is also for... Hoppipolla: Sigur Ros’s delicate ode to puddle-jumping was given the acoustic treatment by We Are Scientists a few years back.

It’s also been given a trance makeover by Chicane in 2009, mutating it into a gently layered slice of electronica.

A-Z of cover versions
Beard? Check. Guitar? Check…

Your straight up-and-down indie version of a song is about as standard as it gets, but it’s still perfectly acceptable as long as it’s done well.

For good examples of this, see Youth Group’s version of Forever Young, The ConcretesBack for Good and Devendra Banhart’s cover of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

I is also for... Influences: What better way to tip your hat to those who’ve come before you than by recording one of their tracks?

Gallows’ cover of Nervous Breakdown does nothing that Black Flag's original didn’t, but remains a fitting doff of the baseball cap from the band to their heroes nonetheless.

A-Z of cover versions
They never stopped believin'…

Those Glee kids certainly weren’t the first to cover Journey’s epic, overblown power ballad, Don’t Stop Believin’.

It’s also been taken on by Starship (nigh-on identical to the original), Badly Drawn Boy (gentle, piano-led optimism) and countless X-Factor wannabes (sigh). It’s also, oddly, been transformed into a slab of symphonic metal by Finnish cover group Northern Kings.

J is also for... Jools Holland: You know you’ve made it when you’ve been invited to perform with Uncle Jools and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.

Some of the covers performed over the years on Later… include Oasis’s version of Cum On Feel the Noize and Ash’s take on Teenage Kicks.

A-Z of cover versions
Set the Tiger Tiger on him!

Once the slightly shameful province of hen parties and specialist bars, karaoke seems to have found a level of mainstream appeal in the past few years.

Taking a tip or three from Japanese culture, private karaoke booths – such as those offered by club chain Tiger Tiger – have sprung up all over the UK, removing the shame from singing really badly. Now we can all pretend we’re on The X-Factor. Yay.

K is also for... Kylie Minogue: There was a time a few years back when you could barely move for versions of the Australian popstel’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. Our favourite has to be this mash-up with New Order’s Blue Monday.

A-Z of cover versions
Belle and Sebastian make us go "aww"

Let’s be honest – there’s nothing cuter than a twee cover version. The type that might actually provoke exclamations along the “aww, bless!” lines. Sometimes, a song just needs to be lovely in order to win your heart.

We defy you to listen to Belle and Sebastian’s version of Here Comes the Sun, Faith by The Boy Least Likely To or Susanna and the Magical Orchestra’s cover of Crazy, Crazy Nights without being completely and utterly charmed.

L is also for... Live: Maybe it’s a spontaneity thing and maybe it’s a royalties thing but live is certainly where the majority of covers are performed. And who can deny the sozzled pleasure that’s to be found in seeing an unexpected cover being dropped into an encore?

A-Z of cover versions

Even the most unlikely of tunes can be turned into a full-scale aural assault of metal.

Hell, even Britney’s 1999 glossy pop hit (You Drive Me) Crazy has been given a makeover by nu-metallers SugarComa. The results are… interesting. And that's before we even get started on Metallica’s menacing re-imagining of Nick Cave’s Loverman.

M is also for... Mash-up: Melding two songs together to form an unlikely collaboration is one of those things that, on paper at least, shouldn’t work. We've already shown the Kylie/New Order mash-up from a few years back so for a great example from earlier this year, check out Florence and the Machine and Dizzee Rascal’s mash-up, You Got the Dirtee Love.

A-Z of cover versions
Hayseed Dixie: we hope those dungas are ironic, boys

Some cover versions can be justified only on the grounds of novelty value.

Anything rendered in lounge-style jazz by Richard Cheese, for one. Hayseed Dixie’s hillbilly banjo stylings, for a definite other.

Light-hearted musical fun or a joke gone a few drinks too far? We’ll let you decide.

N is also for... Nouvelle Vague: Supermellow French collective specialising in laid-back covers. We especially, erm, heart their version of Blondie’s Heart of Glass.

A-Z of cover versions
Beth Ditto never did learn to whisper

Though the term “cover version" wasn’t coined until 1966, the practice of covering songs is officially recognised as having started in the early 20th Century.

And yes, its roots were inevitably fiscal – it was used a way for record companies to cash in upon the successes of another company’s tunes.

Even now, copyright law does render the practice financially beneficial for songwriters and publishers – they are paid royalties for broadcasts of covers, though artists are not.

O is also for... Obnoxious: Some cover choices are just plain ill-chosen. Avril Lavigne’s version of Coldplay’s The Scientist and Gossip’s take on Careless Whisper both spring violently to mind.

A-Z of cover versions
Unmistakably stoopid, unmistakably fun

Speeded-up and shot through with added power chords – it’s hard to think of many songs which don’t work nicely when given a punk treatment.

Specialists in this sub-genre of cover version are supergroup Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, led by Fat Mike of pop-punk legends NOFX. Check out the star-studded video for their catchier-than-nits version of R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly, featuring cameos from Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba and Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley, among others.

P is also for... Pop: Sometimes, it’s the most conventional originals which provide fodder for the most interesting covers.

Need proof? This stereo-tastic version of Rihanna’s Don’t Stop the Music by The Bird & The Bee should do it. Headphones essential.

A-Z of cover versions
Would you really want to mess with this?

Read this out loud. Jedward tackling Under Pressure. The Muppets interpreting Bohemian Rhapsody.

Examples, as if any were needed, that there are some bands it’s just better to steer clear of covering. And Queen are definitely one of these.

Q is also for... Are you kidding? If you’ve got more any suggestions, tweet them to www.twitter.com/musicradar using the hashtag #radarlove (a most coverable song for which we really should have an entry in this A-Z for given the amount of covers it has received)

A-Z of cover versions
Britney (with added bass)

Not strictly a cover a version, per se, but the remix still takes a track and turns it into something different from its original.

Eric Prydz’s Proper Eduction turned Another Brick in the Wall into an up-tempo floor-filler, while John Marr’s Toxic Rhythm remix turned Britney into a filthy D’n’B stomper. File under “reinterpretation”.

R is also for... Reggae: The genre’s syncopated chords have a way of adding a little swing to anything they touch. Have a listen to Althea Hewitt'ssweet-as cover of Beyonce’s If I Were a Boy.

A-Z of cover versions
Sesame Street
Black hair, eyeliner, surly attitu- Sorry, that's emo

As if baffling generations of kids with brightly-coloured letters and monsters wasn’t enough, Sesame Street has also featured an impressive array of guest-starring musicians.

Many of these guests have sung alternate versions of their own songs, including Feist, Paul Simon and, unforgettably, James Blunt. And then there's this.

The Muppets themselves also get in on the covers-ish act: this rendition of, erm, Born to Add will have The Boss spinning in his leather jacket.

For a few other puppety musical highlights, check out MusicRadar’s 11 greatest Sesame Street guest songs.

S is also for... Sampling: Sampling is often used a means of transferring a hook from one track to another. Jason Derulo may have drawn criticism from some quarters for his use of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, but it certainly slots seamlessly into Whatcha Say.

A-Z of cover versions
Tribute bands
We've said it before and we'll say it again… BY JOVI!

Tribute bands. Whatever your opinion good or bad, you know exactly what you're going to get.

What you're also going to get is some of the most ridiculous, pun-tastic names that the imagination could possibly stretch to. Our favourites? By Jovi, Red Hot Silly Feckers and Oasisn’t, to name but a few...

T is also for... Traditional: Some songs are old enough not to belong to anybody, and so in a sense belong to everybody who interprets them.

One notorious example of this has got to be American blues ballad Stagger Lee, famously covered in typically blood-soaked style by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on 1996’s Murder Ballads.

A-Z of cover versions
The Boss: now available in baby-friendly format

There are some really, really odd cover versions out there. We’d love to say that you have to look hard to find them but, in reality, they… Well, they aren't.

Found Metallica’s sound a little too guitar-heavy for your taste? Maybe Harptallica’s album of harp covers is more up your street. Want to educate your baby about the Boss but worried that Springsteen will upset sleepytime? There’s an album of lullaby tributes which can take care of that.

And no, we’re not joking.

U is also for... The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain: Providing covers of everything from Nirvana to David Bowie, for all the ukulele-related needs you never knew that you had.

A-Z of cover versions
Versions Galore
The best of the covers blogs

Offering frequently updated posts with a variety of tunes, Versions Galore is worth checking on a regular basis if you’re a fan of cover versions.

Other blogs which providing a wealth of musical goodies include Cover to Cover, Copy Cats and Cover Me.

V is also for... Vitamin String Quartet: Applying “rock n' roll attitude to classical technique”, this quartet are behind numerous String Quartet Tribute To… albums. They’ve taken on bands as diverse as Iron Maiden, Paramore and Coldplay. Us neither.

A-Z of cover versions
William Shatner
Set phasers to AAAAAARRRGH!

An unlikely source of cover versions: Captain Kirk himself.

While his first covers album, The Transformed Man, was panned in the Sixties, 2004’s Has Been was fairly well-received.

Shatner's deadpan spoken-word vocals mean his cover of Common People, which became a viral hit upon release, is worth a listen for comedy value alone.

W is also for... War Child: This children’s charity has been responsible for some of the best covers compilations in recent years.

Recent highlights have included the Yeah Yeah Yeahs covering The Ramones and Jimmy Eat World’s melancholy take on Firestarter.

A-Z of cover versions
The X-Factor
World domination, one cover at a time…

Whatever your views on this opinion-polarising series, there’s no denying The X-Factor's cultural impact.

The show has been responsible for dragging cover versions kicking and screaming back into the charts, be it recent tracks such as Snow Patrol’s Run (as covered by 2006 winner Leona Lewis) or the afore-mentioned Hallelujah.

X is also for... X-Ray Spex: Or, more specifically, the X-Ray Spex track Identity, which was covered live by Patrick Wolf at 2008’s Love Music Hate Racism carnival.

And yes, as with 'Q', we're struggling here. If you can come up with any better ideas for 'W', tweet them to us (@musicradar) using the hashtag #radarlove.

A-Z of cover versions
Still being covered today

As revealed in an earlier spoiler, Lennon and McCartney’s 1965 classic is officially the world’s most covered song.

Over 3,000 versions of the song have been recorded since its release, including those by the distinguished likes of Shirley Bassey, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. Not bad for a song which wasn’t even originally released as a UK single.

Y is also for... YouTube: The ultimate source of music videos, amateur cover versions and cats playing keyboards, with over 800 years’ worth of video.

Given that every internet user watches, on average, one YouTube video per day, it’s hard to imagine a world before the daddy of all video-sharing services.

A-Z of cover versions
Any idea what they're up to these days?

There's no better way for a band to speedily raise their profile than by banging out a song which is already over-familiar to the masses.

So… All Saints covering the Red Hot Chili Peppers, anyone? And before anyone says, we loved Pure Shores but honestly, leave the bloody Chili Peppers alone…

Z is also for... Zzzz: Forgive us - end-of-list fatigue sets in around this point… Mastodon covering ZZ Top's Just Got Paid, anyone?

Liked this? Now read: A-Z of Dubstep and A-Z of Heavy Metal

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