In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”
It’s clear that many people despise the erroneously titled Punk Goes cover compilation series. Much has been said and written about how awful they are. Yet, just like the emo and pop-punk genres generally, they are wildly popular with teenagers despite not getting any critical respect. Since the series began in 2000, there have been 17 volumes and over two hundred songs released in the series. In the U.S. the cover series has sold one million albums, nine million tracks, and it streams in the hundreds of millions. But most people out of high school seem to hate them.
Well, I’m here to defend some of these as great cover songs. I’m an insider, you could say – I was the Fearless Records salesperson behind nearly all of these albums. During my 13 years at the California independent label, I was the head of sales and also served as general manager. I didn’t contribute to the Punk Goes compilations as a curator or A&R. My role was to make sure the albums and tracks had the best positioning at major retailers like Target, Best Buy, iTunes, Amazon, etc.
After harassing cover-lovers for a generation to give these things a chance, it’s time to look back and see which of the Punk Goes covers stood the test of time.
Go Radio – Rolling In The Deep (Adele cover)
It was 2011, and the entire world was obsessed with Adele. If there was a vocalist from this generation of punk that could handle the weight of an Adele cover, it was Jason Lancaster of Florida’s southern-tinged pop punk band Go Radio.
The song choice made sense because Lancaster had already established a similar reputation for confessional lyrics and soulful phrasing in his music. Lancaster’s vocals avoid the karaoke temptation some artists have when recording a cover. Their cover succeeds in sounding like a Go Radio song. The arrangement is creative, complete with a gospel-inspired bridge, and a key change that takes the song through to its end.
As far as this standing the test of time, that’s subjective. If it does, most of the credit goes to Adele for writing a timeless song. But a strong case can be made that Go Radio’s version has assisted a bit in the song’s legacy: it’s the most streamed cover version of the song on Spotify, and the third best-selling version on iTunes.
Cartel – Wonderwall (Oasis cover)
The compilation series didn’t start as a “pop” covers brand – Punk Goes Metal (2000) was the first. There were six other variations before we got to the second Punk Goes Pop record, including Crunk (Hip Hop), 80’s, 90’s, and Acoustic. Punk Goes 90’s was a challenge because the world just wasn’t ready to pay tribute to the ’90s yet in 2006. At the time this track was released, a full-on ’80s revival was happening with bands like The Killers and Bloc Party.
Cartel left us with their smooth mid-tempo version of “Wonderwall” and it still sounds fresh 11 years later, when we’re finally in the throes on 1990s nostalgia. The band came up in the mid-aughts pop punk generation and earned broader acclaim when MTV featured Cartel on the show Band in a Bubble where they were tasked with writing and recording an album in 20 days under the watch of MTV’s cameras.
Set Your Goals – Put Yo Hood Up (Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz cover)
In the pure-fun category, nobody comes close to Set Your Goals’ cover of Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz’ “Put Yo Hood Up.” They bring in a Star Wars Jedi theme, complete with Yoda guest vocals. Set Your Goals were and are still an actual punk band, and the only band on the compilation to cover an actual “crunk” song (most everyone else picked rap songs by decidedly un-crunk people like Will Smith). They single-handedly enabled us to slightly justify the alliteration Punk Goes Crunk. Most of all they remind us that this whole franchise started in the name of good fun.
Honorable mentions in the pure-fun category go to Further Seems Forever’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” Ice Nine Kills’ “Animals,” and Woe, Is Me’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F).”
The Devil Wears Prada – Still Fly (Big Tymers cover)
Ohio metalcore outfit The Devil Wears Prada hold a special place in Punk Goes lore. Their version of “Still Fly” is the first platinum single from the Punk Goes series. It’s sold over one million digital tracks and has been streamed more than 100 million times.
Not only would I describe this as a great cover song, but I would argue that this is the most important song in the Punk Goes discography. There had been post-hardcore and metalcore artists on prior Punk Goes compilations (Coalesce, Eighteen Visions, Bleeding Through), but this marked the first time in the series that a song was covered in a purely metalcore style. Devil Wears Prada were the first, and “Still Fly” remains the gold standard for hardcore cover songs.
A Day To Remember – Over My Head (Cable Car) (The Fray cover)
For the uninitiated, A Day To Remember were one of the first bands to fuse metalcore and pop-punk, and defined a sound that inspired countless bands in this new sub-genre. They defined the look and feel and sound for poppy hardcore. Because radio DJs couldn’t ignore the massive lines of concertgoers in the streets, A Day To Remember managed to break down the doors at commercial radio for screaming hardcore music. On their way up they recorded this cover.
When selecting songs for Punk Goes Pop Vol. 2, any song that landed in the Top 40 airplay chart was considered “pop” and fair game. “Over My Head (Cable Car)” by The Fray was being played alongside Rihanna and Miley Cyrus at the time and was a massive hit. What I like about this cover version is the arrangement. You could guess that A Day To Remember’s signature moshpit breakdowns would be used somewhere, but the way they wrap it around the acoustic guitar was brilliant.
Silverstein – Apologize (OneRepublic cover)
Like The Fray, OneRepublic was another band from the mid-2000s that hit it big with soccer moms. It turns out melodramatic pop songs work on teenagers too, as long as they’re done by hardcore heroes like Silverstein. This Canadian post hardcore outfit is still at it after 17 years and over a million albums sold. They’re influential and highly respected in the punk & hardcore community.
Punk Goes Pop Vol. 2 was the turning point in the compilation series. Before it came out, the novelty was punk-like bands doing faster versions of originals. After this point, it was discovered that there are some pretty good singers in the hardcore genre. Now it became about making well-produced recordings that weren’t just faster, but actually sounded good.
I Prevail – Blank Space (Taylor Swift cover)
I actually heard this version before hearing the Taylor Swift original. I first found it on YouTube, months before it was released on Punk Goes Pop Vol. 6. It’s one of the few tracks that were recycled for use on the compilations. This track has the magic. It’s heavy, but maintains a smoothness the whole way through. In my opinion, the dual vocalists of I Prevail deliver the lyrical message more effectively than Taylor. “Blank Space” was destined to be a pissed-off rock song.
Some really interesting things can happen with cover songs. I Prevail, a young unsigned metalcore band from Michigan, came up with a smart strategy for their cover of a Taylor Swift song. They released their version about five weeks after Swift’s, and it went viral on YouTube right alongside the original. Normally, those looky-loo fans might consume it and bounce. However, listeners stayed around in huge numbers and before you knew it, the song went gold and is headed towards platinum. A career was born, and now I Prevail is playing the main stage at rock festivals around the world. Once fans found more music from I Prevail, they realized the band had their own songs to back up their success with the Taylor Swift cover.
Mayday Parade – Somebody That I Used To Know (Gotye cover)
Mayday Parade contributed lots of tracks to the compilation series over the years covering Bush, Queen, The Pussycat Dolls, Jason Derulo, and this Gotye track. They made it difficult for me to choose a song, because their covers of Jason Derulo “In My Head”, and The Pussycat Dolls “When I Grow Up” are top ten caliber.
I can’t say that Mayday Parade succeeded in making this a better song (I absolutely love the original version), but their cover is still one of my all-time favorite performances. Mayday Parade makes it sound like one of their own. Bringing in Vic Fuentes from Pierce The Veil to sing Kimbra’s part was a home run. Which brings us to…
Pierce The Veil – Just The Way You Are (Bruno Mars cover)
This falls into the category of surprisingly great vocal performances by hardcore musicians. Vic Fuentes, who guested on the previous track, fronts the San Diego post hardcore band Pierce The Veil. The original by Bruno Mars is a monster of a song, and Fuentes nails it. Have a close listen to the refrain around 02:30. Bruno’s original version is pretty minimal, even a cappella at times. Pierce The Veil does a lot with the production here. I like the layers on the vocals and the addition of backing vocals in the choruses.
Pierce The Veil is unique in the punk scene as they take a Metallica approach to new albums, and release one every 3 or 4 years. Quality over quantity and a strong identity has worked for them. They’ve made their marks on the charts on more than a few occasions, with their most recent album reaching #4 on the Top 200.