Mixtape Primer: Essential and Under-Rated Cover Versions

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For an art form that so mythologizes rebellion, rock ‘n roll has developed its fair share of orthodoxy over the years. If you go with the canon, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best album ever, while cover versions started and ended with Jimi Hendrix’s take on “All Along The Watchtower.” Happily, Flavorpill doesn’t really buy into any of that. With a (god-awful) cover of Biffy Clyro’s “Many of Horror” taking the coveted Christmas No. 1 slot across the Atlantic, it seems an auspicious time to look back at some unsung excellent cover versions. Listen to them all after the jump — and for convenience, we’ve also embedded a Grooveshark playlist of the whole lot at the end.

SIDE ONE

1. John Cale – “All My Friends” (7:38) Originally by LCD Soundsystem

Remarkably, Cale somehow manages to make LCD Soundsystem’s already masterful portrait of middle-aged party fatigue and alienation even better, investing it with a relentless motorik beat and ever more manic vocals that still manage to convey real emotional depth.

2. Electrelane – “I’m On Fire” (2:16) Originally by Bruce Springsteen

A faintly pedophilic ’80s radio hit makes an unlikely candidate for re-interpretation as a punked-up ode of lesbian angst, but much-lamented UK art-rock four-piece Electrelane managed exactly that with this live cover, which was released as an early b-side.

3. Galaxie 500 – “Ceremony” (5:57) Originally by Joy Division

Galaxie 500 loved a good cover version, and they didn’t do a better one than their take on this lost Joy Division classic, slowing the pace drastically to create a seductive, narcotic drone that’s substantially better than the version New Order eventually released (in our opinion, anyway). The Galaxie 500 version can be found as a bonus track on the re-release of On Fire — meanwhile, if you look closely at this live version on YouTube, you’ll notice that Dean Wareham is wearing a Spacemen 3 t-shirt!

4. Spacemen 3 – “Rollercoaster” (7:50) Originally by 13th Floor Elevators

And speaking of Spacemen 3, this particular cover is not so much a reinterpretation as a band claiming a song that could have been written for them in the first place: a paean to acid-catalyzed inspiration, originally recorded by psych pioneers 13th Floor Elevators. The band’s live renditions of the song would often extend into half hour-long workouts; the studio version can be found on their debut Sound of Confusion.

5. Rowland S Howard – “White Wedding” (2:47) Originally by Billy Idol

Another artist with a good ear for a cover was late and truly great ex-Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S Howard. On 1999 career-best album Teenage Snuff Film, he took Idol’s hit and made it his own, replacing Billy’s bombastic strut with a sly and faintly ominous sneer to surprisingly good effect. His minimalist bass-driven interpretation of Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It,” from last year’s valedictory Pop Crimes record, is also worth checking out.

6. Gil Scott-Heron – “I’m New Here” (3:52) Originally by Smog

This song is so perfect for Scott-Heron that it’s something of a shock to find he didn’t write it. The lyrics — bruised and world-weary but ultimately optimistic, cataloging creative and personal rebirth — fit the mood of Scott-Heron’s startlingly good comeback album like a glove, so much so that it ended up as the title track.

SIDE TWO

1. Taken By Trees – “My Boys” (3:12) Originally by Animal Collective (as “My Girls”)

As we’ve noted in this column before, former Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman’s second solo album East of Eden is a thing of beauty, and tucked away at the end of a set of flawless east-meets-west beauty is this radical, tropical-flavored reinterpretation of Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” The video is beautiful, too.

2. Devo – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (2:42) Originally by The Rolling Stones

They use the word “baby” 32 times in a row. Baby.

3. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (2:35) Originally by Bob Dylan

So, obviously, Dylan purists hated this — but honestly, is there a more dull and self-important breed than Dylan purists?

4. Tricky – “Black Steel” (5:40) Originally by Public Enemy (as “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”)

Tricky’s never come close to matching his debut album Maxinquaye, and this punked-up Public Enemy cover is possibly its best moment. Tricky gives Martina the entire vocal (the best bit: when she coos, “I’m a black man/And I could never be a veteran” in her Brit schoolgirl accent), relegating himself to a whispered middle-eight. It shouldn’t work. But it does.

5. The Slits – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (3:59) Originally by Marvin Gaye

Seriously, how awesome were The Slits? RIP, Ari Up.

6. Fever Ray – “Stranger Than Kindness” (5:00) Originally by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Pretty much anything Karin Dreijer Andersson touches in her Fever Ray incarnation turns to gold — and so it is with this reinterpretation of this early Nick Cave track. It’s no surprise to find out that Andersson’s a Cave fan, really — the Fever Ray album fairly drips with pseudo-gothic darkness — and this song, with lyrics by Cave’s erstwhile paramour Anita Live, is a perfect fit for her.

7. Sonic Youth – “Superstar” (4:05) Originally by The Carpenters Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell

Sonic Youth’s deconstructions of Madonna and Robert Palmer on their Ciccone Youth project would also fit nicely here, but this restrained, minimalist cover of this song of unrequited groupie love is amazing — and a fine conclusion to our tape. (Addendum, March 14 2012: As reader David Davis kindly pointed out, it turns out that the Carpenters’ version of this song, although probably the best known, isn’t actually the original. It was written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, with a co-writing credit for Delaney Bramlett, and first recorded in late 1969 by Delaney and Bonnie. There’s more on the song’s history here.)

And if you want to stream the whole lot, look no further than this Grooveshark widget. Get amongst it!