This century has been a golden age for cover songs. Thanks to YouTube, we’re always there whenever a band plays a must-hear version of some recent hit or Eighties classic or forgotten rarity, and after years of downloading and Spotify, the borders between audiences and genres are vanishing faster than the Polar ice caps. Our rundown of the ten best covers from each year of the last decade runs from an indie synth-pop duo doing a gloppy Eighties ballad, a Cleveland industrial rocker doing a metal classic with a New York dance-punk diva and Gotye doing himself. They’re all amazing and they’re only the tip of the iceberg.
2004: The Postal Service, “Against All Odds” (Phil Collins)
The Postal Service – a synth-pop collaboration between Death Cab For Cutie‘s Ben Gbbard and Jimmy Temborello of Dntel – reimagined this schlocky Phil Collins ballad from 1983 into something brand new, and much more intimate. Usually when indie-type bands do vaguely suspect hits from their childhood, there’s a level of easy-target irony involved. But Gibbard sings this with real reverence, even as he deflates Collins’ overbearing yuppie-soul original to something drier, smaller and more creepily conversational. Wintry electronics add to the emotionally stark mood and by the time a Timbaland-style hip-hop skitter kicks in midway through, the song seems brand new.
2005: The White Stripes, “Walking With A Ghost” (Tegan & Sara)
Jack White‘s whole career has been a study in pulling up rock history by the roots, and you could easily do a top ten list of excellent covers he’s done over the years – from the White Stripes live piledriver assault on the blues classic “John the Revelator” to the version of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin'” on his solo debut Blunderbuss to his incandescent version of U2’s “Love Is Blindness” from this year’s Great Gatsby soundtrack. But there’s something especially endearing about the post-modern bluesbreaker doing a catchy, crafty strum-pop nugget by Canadian indie-pop sister duo Tegan & Sara; White rarely does contemporary covers, and the Stripe’s version is both respectful and warped, with nasty guitars, a steady Meg White beat and Jack’s gonzoid graveyard holler giving way to a carnival-esque freeform racket midway through.
2006: Twilight Singers, “Crazy” (Gnarles Barkley)
Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” became a pop standard almost immediately, inspiring covers by everyone from Nellie Furtado to the Raconteurs to Paris Hilton to Cat Power. It was the ideal song to sink your chops into – sleek, perfectly structured and fun to sing with a genre-melding hip-hop/R&B/classic pop feel that made it open to all comers. Greg Dulli of the Twilight Singers is an alt-rock guy who’d done contemporary and classic R&B covers in his Nineties band the Afghan Whigs, so his piano ballad wasn’t a condescending “deconstruction” of a pop hit by an outsider. He took it on for all it was worth, honing in on the scorched desolation that lingers just at the margins of Cee-Lo Green’s brilliant original vocal, turning a song about art’s rep as a bastion for weirdos into a wasted love cry from the abyss.
2007: Franz Ferdinand, “All My Friends” (LCD Soundsystem)
LCD Soundsystem‘s tragically nostalgic dance-rock epic is arguably the best indie-rock song of the ’00s. The B-sides to the single were all cover versions, hinting that the song was a classic the minute it was released. Scot rockers Franz Ferdinand, who’d already taken bracing, contorted grooves to the pop charts, were born to do “All My Friends” and they turned in an incisive, raging guitar-grinding version with singer Alex Karpanos boozily crooning James Murphy’s forlorn lyrics about losing touch with your friends as you grow older and more ambitious. Musically, they pull of a wonderful trick of interlaying their version with references to legendary post-punk bands like New Order and the Gang of Four that LCD and Franz share as influences. It’s an A-plus history project you can get way down to.
2008: First Aid Kit, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (Fleet Foxes)
This Swedish indie-folk duo broke new ground by introducing themselves to the world and launching their career with this YouTube cover of the Fleet Foxes‘ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” The original was a hippie campfire reverie with ancient, murder-ballad folk overtones and singer Robin Pecknold’s beardly falsetto garlanded by tender acoustic guitars. You could imagine the band writing it in a mist-shrouded medieval glen. First Aid Kit sure did. And when they showed up on YouTube sitting in a bucolic forest while playing a bare-bones version of “Tiger Mountain” with sharp, searching prettiness, the adorable-factor was almost debilitating.
2009: The Flaming Lips, “Borderline” (Madonna)
The Flaming Lips have often excelled at making psychedelic music with a poppy, melodic warmth. They’ve also excelled at demented experimentalism. This cover of Madonna‘s first big MTV hit has both. The song’s signature groove is cast aside for a slow build disco burble, and its melody is rendered as something distant and forlorn as Wayne Coyne warbles the lyrics softly and prayerfully. Halfway through, the song explodes with symphonic noise, thunderous drums and sky-streaking guitars that render the melody as a heroic fanfare. At twice the length of the original, it’s a loving homage (the Lips got their start around the same time Madonna did) and a synapse-twisting reinvention.
2010: Lissie, “The Pursuit of Happiness” (Kid Cudi)
Elisabeth Maurus (a.k.a. Lissie) is a gifted, promising indie-folk singer-songwriter, but she’s not exactly the kind of person you’d expect to knock a hip-hop cover out the park. Which is what makes her thrilling version of this Kid Cudi song so impressive. The original is a deadpan, in-control ode to driving while loaded. Lissie sings it with a boozy aggression and swagger that’s as convincing as it is adorably improbable. Her backing band adds drama as she handles the rap and savors the salvo: “People tell me slow my roll/I’m screaming out fuck that!” Check the live version below, where she takes a big swig of tequila to get her in the mood. And while you’re at it, her version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” isn’t bad either.
2011: Karen O with Trent Reznor, “Immigrant Song” (Led Zeppelin)
Bands who try to do straight-ahead covers of the mightiest Led Zeppelin songs usually come out looking like they got squashed by a blimp. Trent Reznor and Karen O’s take on Zep’s classic ode to Viking warriors – which appeared on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack – is an industrial rock crusher that rivals the original while adding an extra level of art-horror creepiness. Reznor lays down a storming track and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer brings the midnight sun with warrior priestess yowls that sound like she recorded her vocal after a couple weeks out pillaging coastal Europe. She barely sounds human on the opening bellows, which is fitting since Reznor’s electronic noise blizzard sonics barely sound like music. The land of the ice and snow never sounded so foreboding.
2012: Gotye, “Somebodies: A Youtube Orchestra” (Gotye)
In what has to be the first instance ever of an artist covering his own song, Australian singer Gotye created a rendition of his hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” by painstakingly mashing up YouTube versions of the song. Musicians culled from the farthest reaches of the Internet take on the song from every musical angle – acoustic guitar, banjo, Xylophone, saxophone – breaking down the hierarchy between a hitmaking musician and his fans. In the digital age, everyone is a star.
2013: Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” (Bob Dylan)
Darius Rucker’s current country hit has a rich history behind it. “Wagon Wheel” began as an unfinished song from the sessions for Bob Dylan‘s 1973 soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, where it was recorded as a ragged, sing-along fans titled “Rock Me, Mama” when it appeared on bootlegs. In 2004, the Nashville roots band Old Crow Medicine Show recorded the song with fleshed out lyrics written by the band to replace the mumbled verses in Dylan’s original. This year, former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Rucker joined a list of artists who’ve covered the song, taking it to number one on the country charts. The scrappy quality the song had forty years ago replaced by an easygoing swing that’s modern and old-timey, nostalgic and open-ended, proving that these days any song can end up anywhere.