“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.
Last time the “Covering the Hits” dice-roll landed me one of the earliest chart-toppers ever – Ernie K-Doe’s sassy New Orleans classic “Mother in Law” – and today it lands me one of the most recent: Post Malone and Swae Lee’s contribution to that animated Spider Man movie, “Sunflower,” which went to number in 2019.
Post Malone gets covered a lot. In fact, we had a bluegrass version of “Circles” on our year-end list two months ago. “Sunflower” didn’t quite hit “Circles”-level covers ubiquity, maybe because it sounds pretty hard to sing, but it’s been tackled plenty (once by a very prominent band). (And let’s not forget Posty himself knows his way around a cover; I saw multiple people call his Nirvana set one of the best livestreams of 2020.)
New songs by major artists sometimes get covered by YouTubers within hours of their release, so before we get into the best, I endeavored to find the first cover of “Sunflower.” This was a little tricky; a lot of the uploads called “cover” are really someone drumming along to the track or giving a lesson on how to play it on ukulele or whatever. Oh, and don’t forget the reaction videos. But, best I could figure, YouTuber Peter Bakker delivered the first proper cover, uploaded a couple days after the original came out. He’s playing along with something, but it’s not the original track. Maybe a backing track he recorded himself? A solid job regardless. It has the feel of a pop-punk band’s frontman doing a solo song to kick off the encore.
From there on, numerous got covers got released (“released” mostly meaning “uploaded to YouTube”) every day, so we’ll just look at some highlights. Sara Farell seems to be a YouTube cover-er too, but her “Sunflower” is a Spotify-only release. It’s a beautiful deconstruction of the song into a sparse ballad, light touches of guitar and piano backing her layered vocals. The fact that she released this only a week after the original came out is even more impressive!
You can’t talk YouTube cover-ers for long without coming across Postmodern Jukebox. If there’s a number-one hit of the past couples years, they’ve probably dressed up in suits to cover it in their signature cocktail jazz style. The fact that guest singer Leah Zeger also plays violin is a nice twist on the formula, though.
That very prominent band I mentioned in the intro? It was Vampire Weekend. They picked the song as gag, performing it on BBC Live Lounge alongside their own song that was also called “Sunflower.” Even doing it a a joke, though, they take it seriously, delivering a wonderful indie-rock slow-jam. Ezra Koenig nails the falsetto, bringing in backing singers and a bass solo.
Every pop song sooner or later gets a sad folk cover, and Ohio duo Chase and Sierra Eagleson delivered a great one. I watched a bunch of interchangeable slow-strummers on YouTube and this one stood head and shoulders above the rest, largely due to Sierra’s singing and banjo.
Also in the folksy vein, but less slow and sad-sack, comes a SiriusXM performance by New York indie-rock group AJR. They even give the song a new bridge, from a ubiquitous (and terrible) Smash Mouth song that I was surprised to discover never went higher than #4 on the charts.
Finally, the most recent cover of note came out in May 2020, by indie-folk superstars The Head and the Heart. Amazingly, they drafted the legendary T-Bone Burnett to produce it. The band said in a statement, “T-Bone, being the legend that he is, helped us find the emotional center and enabled us to fully inhabit the song as our own.”