Yesterday the good folks over at Stereogum posted their 20 favorite covers performed by Radiohead. It’s a fine compilation, and well worth downloading – among other things, it reveals that the ‘Head love Neil Young, as there are five different Young songs included, along with covers of songs by Can, Björk, Magazine, Portishead, and various others (including Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” curiously). Anyway, it got us thinking about the natural corollary to this – covers and reinterpretations of Radiohead songs performed by other people. Here are ten of our favorites from over the years (note: this list does not include Amanda Palmer and her ukulele).
Doveman – “Airbag”
Stereogum’s love for Radiohead is well-documented – back in 2007, they also released OK X, a tenth-anniversary recreation of OK Computer with each song on the album performed by a different admirer. As you might expect, it’s a mixed bag, but there are a couple of quality interpretations included – Vampire Weekend’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” and David Bazan’s “Let Down” seemed to win most of the critical plaudits, but we’re quite partial to the very first track, Doveman’s understated interpretation of “Airbag.”
Sia – “Paranoid Android”
She’s probably best known these days for the primary color pop of We Are Born , but we’ve always thought Sia’s at her best when she’s at her quietest and most introspective, and both of those words can certainly be used to describe her version of “Paranoid Android,” which featured on a 2006 compilation called Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads. You could argue that you can’t win when covering a song this iconic, but Sia’s interpretation is both individual enough to save it from being simple pastiche and faithful enough to do justice to a classic.
RJD2 – “Airbag”
From the same album of Radiohead covers comes this reworking of “Airbag,” a song that seems to lend itself well to reinterpretation. RJD2’s version strips out the vocals entirely, making for an abstract instrumental that’s built around a skittering beat and a gloriously grinding synth sound – and still manages to retain the original’s air of futuristic unease.
Flying Lotus – “Idioteque”
This is more an on-the-fly remix than it is a cover, but we had to include it, mainly because of how much FlyLo clearly adores the song he’s deconstructing. He reimagined “Idioteque” as a euphoric club banger and used it to close a DJ set last year – oh, to have been there.
Four Tet – “Skttrbrn”
A radically reworked version of Hail to the Thief album track “Scatterbrain,” this featured on the Japan-only EP COM LAG. The original is a highlight of perhaps Radiohead’s least well-received record, but the remix is even better – while the album version is a gentle ballad backed by a melodic guitar line, Four Tet’s reinterpretation extracts Yorke’s vocals and sets them over a shifting, constantly evolving beat that seems to echo the lyrics: “I’m walking out in a force ten gale/ Birds thrown around, bullets for hail.” A fine example of improving on a song by bringing a completely fresh perspective to it.
Gillian Welch – “Black Star”
The weary melancholy of this Bends-era portrayal of a dysfunctional relationship makes it a perfect fit for Welch, whose mournful vocal and simple acoustic arrangement make this interpretation sound like a country/bluegrass standard.
Toots and the Maytals – “Let Down”
We’re generally suspicious of novelty cross-genre covers (cf. Dub Side of the Moon, etc), but the ever-wonderful Toots Hibbert and his band manage to make this horn-driven cover of OK Computer‘s ode to party alienation into a triumphant and ultimately optimistic reggae tune. This is often the hallmark of great covers – there’s no way they should work, but somehow they do.
Brad Mehldau – “Knives Out”
Similarly, we approach jazz interpretations of rock songs with caution, and usually with good reason. Still, given how closely latter-period Radiohead’s sound flirts with free jazz influences, it’s perhaps less surprising that a jazz interpretation of this track of Amnesiac works so well.
Gnarls Barkley – “Reckoner”
Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse seemed able to do no wrong for a couple of years in the mid-’00s – this cover of In Rainbows‘ “Reckoner” cropped up periodically in their live sets circa The Odd Couple , and makes for a prime showcase for Green’s vocal talents. (We also agree wholeheartedly with the YouTube commenter who thinks Radiohead should do a version of “Fuck You.”)
Hanson – “Optimistic”
Shit, this is actually good. Who’d have thought it?