20. The Book of Love (The Magnetic Fields cover)
Even among his fans, Peter Gabriel has never been particularly known for vocal subtlety. I’d wager the word “nuanced” has not once been used to describe “Sledgehammer.” That’s why this delivery feels so refreshing. The lush orchestra part guides this drop-dead gorgeous cover along, but it’s the tender care Gabriel brings to each word that pushes this over the top.
19. Suffragette City (David Bowie cover)
A Place to Bury Strangers
It didn’t make the top of the list, but this “Suffragette City” holds one #1: My most-played cover from 2010. It’s amazing that I could still hear after the first few. The loudest band in New York shatters eardrums (again) with a roar of distorted guitar, distorted electronics, and distorted distortion. Don’t lean on me, man…because I will rip your f***ing head off!
18. Drain You (Nirvana cover)
Portland quartet Horse Feathers strip away pretty much everything about the original, replacing the thudding bass and tortured howl with gentle banjo and down-home harmonies. The song not only survives the reconstruction; it ambles along heartily, making us wish Kurt Cobain had lived long enough to start a jug band.
17. Lick My Love Pump (Spinal Tap cover)
Brian Grosz ft. Marisa Kakoulas
Don’t look for this song on the Spinal Tap soundtrack album. You won’t find it. Indeed, this wasn’t really a song in the film; it was the classical Mozart-meets-Bach piece (“Mach”) that guitarist Nigel Tufnel was filmed composing. Grosz and Kakoulas’ cover is nothing short of brilliant, turning his improvised hilarity (“I always find that [D minor] is the saddest of all keys”) into a legitimate song.
16. Idioteque (Radiohead cover)
If Amanda Palmer’s Radiohead covers album was a disappointment, that’s partially because she released this as the first single. This ukulele-driven “Idioteque” is a hard act to follow. Palmer reveals the cabaret drama in her voice, giving a dark gothic menace to lines like “We’re not scaremongering.”
15. Wrote a Song for Everyone (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover)
If you know this song and you know Mavis Staples, you already know why this works. If you don’t, it’s about time you found out. Jeff Tweedy produces Staples exactly the right way: by getting the hell out of her way and letting that voice speak for itself.
14. Gimme All Your Lovin’ (ZZ Top cover)
The Long Winters
Twenty-seven years on, the ZZ Top shtick is a little played-out. The music itself, though, regarded apart from the two-foot beards and plush guitars, rocks as hard as ever. Well, it does when they do it. The Long Winters’ “Gimme All Your Lovin’” steers well clear of rocking. John Roderick’s plaintive piano chords evoke utter loneliness. This girl ain’t givin’ him jack.
13. 17 Pink Sugar Elephants (Vashti Bunyan cover)
Mates of State
One of only two bands to have two songs make this year’s list (you’ll find out who the other one is tomorrow), Mates of State turn Vashti Bunjan’s “17 Pink Sugar Elephants” into a three-ring circus of cotton candy, balloons, and clowns (the non-scary ones). When the kiddie chorus enters at the end, you may find yourself surprised it wasn’t there the whole time.
12. Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad (Meat Loaf cover)
Released on the downlow on DJ Don Imus’ The Imus Ranch II collection, Johnson’s country-fried Meat Loaf shows why everyone from Nashville to Brooklyn has embraced this latest Nashville outlaw. Johnson turns the pompous production on its end, shooting two barrels of heart into this one. Like Johnny Cash during the bad years, Johnson sings with grit and heartache to spare.
11. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)
Gabriel Miller Phillips
There are 427 versions of this song on iTunes. However, despite being one of the most oft-covered songs in history, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” proves surprisingly durable. Though nothing like the original, this “Lonesome” evokes the same utter despair of Hank’s version. This ambient cello ballad makes the craving for companionship darker than ever.