While both are fun and often find mainstream success, the covering artist is protected by the relative lack of investment their fans have in the source material. These are either great songs of yore, updated to suit the aesthetics of contemporary indie or else Taylor Swift songs ironically or lovingly repackaged (but in either case stylistically and philosophically distant).
This is why the most thrilling type of cover song tends to fall under a third category, the rarely seen, alt cover. Earnest and daring, it takes a song fresh in the mind of the judgmental alt-consuming masses and regurgitates it back into the indiesphere. Our focus today is on this magic process, the best indie covers of contemporary(ish) indie hits.
The White Stripes – “Walking With A Ghost” (Tegan & Sara)
Sparse and muscular, it may not be as tuneful as its piano-driven source material, but it certainly caught the ear of Jack & Meg’s fanbase. Since 2006, the cover has garnered over 5 million views on youtube—more than twice that of the Tegan & Sara original.
Strand of Oaks – “This Must be the Place” (Talking Heads)
Sure it’s been covered before (MGMT, The Lumineers, Arcade Fire, just to name a few), but never has an artist so perfectly captured the aching desperation at the core of this Talking Heads classic. Without the ornate instrumentation of the original (woodwinds, violins and all are conspicuously absent), the power of the lyrics and Timothy Showalter’s singular voice are able to take center stage.
Iron & Wine – “Such Great heights” (The Postal Service)
This is an interesting case, in that many folks still believe Iron & Wine’s version is the original. Made famous by the indie film Garden State, Sam Beam’s whispery vocals and plaintive finger picking sound so perfect it’s hard to believe the song was borrowed from The Postal Service’s decidedly unacoustic 2003 blockbuster LP Give Up.
Arctic Monkeys – “Feels Like we Only Go Backwards” (Tame Impala)
Recorded just two weeks ago on Triple J’s Like A Version (a show on Australian public radio that is responsible for many of the best cover songs you’ll hear in 2014), this solo-version of Tame Impala’s psych hit “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” may not transcend like the original, but it’s surprisingly effective as a campfire strummer. Alex Turner has certainly come a long way as a vocalist since he was mumbling about Montagues and Capulets on 2006’s breakout full-length Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.
Taken By Trees – “My Boys” (Animal Collective)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that underneath all of Animal Collective’s instrumental trailblazing and lyrical enigma, there are real, honest-to-goodness pop songs. Thanks to Taken By Trees sweetly sung and vaguely-tropical My Boys, we get a reminder of just how effective AC are at old-fashioned songwriting. While at the time of its release, some listeners decried “My Boys” as ‘commercial-bait’ or ‘JC Penny’ music, I say why not? Hallowed ground or not, Animal Collective covers sound great.
Cat Power – “I Found a Reason” (The Velvet Underground)
Transforming The Velvet Underground’s dreamy slow jam into the starkest of piano ballads, Cat Power not only does the original justice but creates something wholly unique and essential. The format may be nothing new, but few artists are able to mine such drama and emotion from a handful piano notes and one unaffected voice.
Jose Gonzalez – “Heartbeats” (The Knife)
Like Iron & Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights,” this is another that feels like it should probably be the original. With its terse double tracked vocals and elegiac finger picking, it creates an entirely different mood than the original’s monolithic (yet bittersweet) 80’s dance party. With almost 16 million views on youtube to date, it’s likely the more famous version of the two.
Nirvana – “Jesus Doesn´t Want Me for a Sunbeam” (The Vaselines)
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain once described founding members of The Vaselines Kelly and McKee as his “favorite songwriters in the whole world.” I guess that would explain why Nirvana covered so many of their songs over the years—often verbatum. For their performance of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” on MTV Unplugged in New York, Cobain & Co. didn’t bother changing the composition or reimagining the track in any meaningful way. ‘Why mess with a song’ he seems to be asking, ‘when it’s already so perfect?’
Honourable Mention: The Kooks – “Kids” (MGMT), Stars – “This Charming Man” (The Smiths), First Aid Kit, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (Fleet Foxes), Kate Nash – “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You” (Black Kids)