Dec 062011

I have no hard data to back this up, but I suspect that EPs play a larger role in the world of cover songs than they do elsewhere. In the wider world, EPs tend to be an afterthought, a set of rejects or remixes that may or may not be worthwhile. People pay little attention to EPs, and artists act accordingly, saving their real statements for the full-lengths. In our world, though, we see as many EPs as we do proper albums, and they’re every bit as good. An artist may hesitate to put out a “cover album” – still a loaded term in some circles – but in the age of Garageband and Bandcamp, it’s only too easy to record a half dozen covers and toss ‘em out between albums. Therefore, in honor of the EP’s prominence in our world, we present our favorite EPs of 2011 (with an MP3 from each).

15. Roberts and Lords
Covers

MP3: Because (The Beatles cover)
Buy it at Bandcamp.
Simon Lord has good luck with producers. His voice on Simian’s “Never Be Alone” ended up taking over clubs worldwide when Justice remixed it into “We Are Your Friends.” On his latest project, he found producer Rafter Roberts on Myspace. The result is a rich EP that blends funk, dubstep, and even a bit of reggae on four meticulously-constructed covers.

14. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
Sing in Japanese

MP3: Kekkon Shiyoyo (Takuro Yoshida cover)
Buy it at iTunes/Amazon.
Pop-punk cover pioneers Me First and the Gimme Gimmes released two geographically themed EPs this year, both promoting regional tours. Their Australian set Go Down Under was fine, but standard Gimmes fare (songs you know, punked-out). Sing in Japanese proves a different bag entirely. The Gimmes’ gimmick generally relies on a familiarity with the originals, but few outside of Japan could even pronounce these songs. Somehow it stays just as catchy, proving that hook-filled punk transcends language barriers.

13. Okkervil River
Golden Opportunities 2

MP3: U.F.O. (Jim Sullivan cover)
Download it at OkkervilRiver.com.
When Okkervil River released their free Golden Opportunities cover mixtape in 2007, we didn’t dare hope for a sequel. Four years later, though, we have one. The Austin sextet digs deep into some lesser-known songwriters, turning outsider-folk songs by Jim Sullivan and Bill Fay into alt-country gems. They leave us with only one question: when can we expect Volume 3?

12. Quantic Y Su Conjunto Los Míticos Del Ritmo
Hip Hop En Cumbia

MP3: Get Ur Freak On (Missy Elliott cover)
Buy it at Fat Beats.
The Latin dance genre “cumbia” combines wooden sticks, African drums, and accordion flourishes to get feet stomping and bodies flailing; turns out, it works well with classic ‘90s hip-hop. Colombian producer Quantic sets his sights on hits by Dr. Dre and Missy Elliott for a set of covers that seem to warp even the most familiar songs almost beyond recognition. Pretty soon, though, head-scratching turns to hip-swaying and the fact that these songs once had Compton shout-outs becomes irrelevant.

11. Bird Call
Other Creatures

MP3: The Man with the Child in His Eyes (Kate Bush cover)
Buy it at iTunes/Amazon.
If “whimsy” isn’t really your thing, move along. Bird Call’s lilting voice recalls Kate Bush (whom she covers) and Björk (whom she should cover). She can do percussive cabaret and weepy sentiment with equal precision, while her Robyn-aping bombast of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” reveals an unexpected passion for the dance floor.

10. Mayer Hawthorne
Impressions: The Covers EP

MP3: You’ve Got The Makings Of A Lover (The Festivals cover)
Download it at Stones Throw.
In the Sharon Jones-led soul infiltration into the indie kid’s iTunes Library, Mayer Hawthorne stands proud as the most unashamedly white soul man around. How else could the man born Andrew Cohen get away with mixing crate-digger deep cuts with ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”? He loves what he loves and isn’t ashamed to mix the guilty pleasures with the cred-boosters.

9. Glowbug
Covered in Lights Vol. 1

MP3: Where Is My Mind? (Pixies cover)
Download it at Bandcamp.
The artists Glowbug covers reads like the list you wrote on your junior high binder to prove how “hip” you were. There’s a reason the “alt” kids love the Smiths and Radiohead, though. Glowbug’s atmospheric, melodic, all-encompassing covers remind us why, in the right context, “Where Is My Mind?” can excite you just like it did the first time you heard it.

8. Peter Parcek
Pledging My Time

MP3: Beyond Here Lies Nothing (Bob Dylan cover)
Buy it at Bandcamp.
Blues-rock might not be the most original way to approach Bob Dylan songs, but Peter Parcek brings out the best of the genre in this four-song set. The band sounds like the Highway 61 sessions revisited: swirling Al Kooper organ and dirty Mike Bloomfield licks bringing even a recent deep cut way back to 1966.

7. The Watson Twins
Night Covers

MP3: You Showed Me (The Turtles cover)
Buy it at iTunes/Amazon.
When we interviewed the Watson Twins, they described Night Covers as a record to vibe out to late at night. Songs by the Black Keys and Eurythmics wouldn’t usually be conducive to chillaxing, but the sisters coat everything in a blend of harmonies, slide guitar, and keys (courtesy of My Morning Jacket’s Bo Koster) to create a blissful environment for a sit by the fire or a red-wine nightcap.

6. Chamberlin
Cabin Covers

MP3: Lost in the World (Kanye West cover)
Buy it at Bandcamp.
Inviting fans to vote on what covers you record would seem to invite a scattered album, but Chamberlin’s rootsy Americana somehow manages to envelop both Kanye West and Vampire Weekend ably. True to the album name, the Vermont quintet recorded the EP in a rustic cabin and are selling it to support flood relief after Irene. Who knew listening to the 497th cover of “Pumped Up Kicks” could support such a good cause?

5. The Debutante Hour
Follow Me

MP3: No Scrubs (TLC cover)
Buy it at Bandcamp.
From the moment the “Mr. Sandman” a cappella segues into “No Scrubs,” you know you’re in for a strange ride. Ex-Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay produces this effort, blending cabaret, vaudeville, and plenty of accordion into a genre best described as “circus-folk.” Somehow this approach lends itself to songs by everyone from the Flaming Lips to Ukranian duo 5′nizza.

4. Damon Moon and the Whispering Drifters
Snowed In Sessions

MP3: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)
Buy it at Bandcamp.
True to its name, the Snowed In Sessions EP finds Damon Moon and the Whispering Drifters recording country covers to occupy time while cooped up last December. Two songs deliver the acoustic melancholy you might expect from that description, but two others sound way too elaborate to have been crafted in a cabin somewhere. “Cod’ine” builds slowly to a crashing lament of lost chances while “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sounds more angry than lonesome, roaring like the gutter-country it was perhaps always meant to be.

3. Lissie
Covered Up with Flowers

MP3: Nothing Else Matters (Metallica cover)
Buy it at iTunes/Amazon.
Sure, three of the five songs here were uploaded in video form last year, but this is the first time they’ve seen a proper release. And though the two new covers don’t have the viral potential of “Bad Romance” or “Pursuit of Happiness,” they ground the EP with beautiful homages to songwriters that Lissie genuinely admires, not just likes semi-ironically. Her version of “Games People Play” showcases honest country-rock chops, and if her voice cracking on “The Ship Song” doesn’t bring you to tears, you need another drink.

2. Alyson Greenfield
Rock Out with Your Glockenspiel Out

MP3: Mama Said Knock You Out (LL Cool J)
Buy it at iTunes/Amazon.
The glockenspiel gives this collection its theme, but it only actually appears on one song: the cutest version of “Gangsta’s Paradise” you’ve ever heard. On the other four tracks, Greenfield uses bouncy piano runs to build theatrical cabaret covers of pop and hip-hop, delivering unending smiles with LL Cool J and Inner Circle songs. An all-glockenspiel album might cause a headache, but this mix can be listened to endlessly.

1. Ólöf Arnalds
Ólöf Sings

MP3: Close My Eyes (Arthur Russell cover)
Buy it at iTunes/Amazon.
The best cover EP of the year is in some ways the most boring. Girl and her guitar play singer-songwriter staples? Yawn. Working from that basic template, though, Ólöf Arnalds traps you in her spell like a Scandinavian siren. Her uniquely affecting singing and quirky finger-picking are all it takes to whisk you away, whether on a wonderfully gender-confused version of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” or on a tear-jerkingly beautiful Arthur Russell’s “Close My Eyes.” Call it Ólöf’s Razor if you like: Simpler is better.

Coming tomorrow: Best Cover Music Videos of 2011!

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