“Wicked Game” Ad Nauseam: 25 Years Of An Unlikely New Standard
Twenty-five years ago today, Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” hit #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the song’s highest chart position, laying the foundation for it becoming (by far) the most successful track Isaak ever released. Beyond it being his only big hit single (Forever Blue’s “Somebody’s Crying” hit #45 in 1995), “Wicked Game” is one of those songs that is much bigger than the artist behind it. The stature of this song is weird in multiple ways, but at the core of it there’s the fact that it still feels like something of a fluke that it was ever as massive as it was, given the tone we associate with the era; just under a year later, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would occupy the same chart position. “Wicked Game” was a new relic even 25 years ago, its smokily cinematic romanticism feeling more related to the worlds of the preceding decade; closer to Top Gun and New Wave than Alternative Nation. And its sound was like an alternate-universe reflection of classic Americana, rooted in the Old World of the 1950s, but still feeling contemporary due to the hallucinogenic melodrama bound up in that lead guitar work and Isaak’s big chorus. It’s one of those weird hits that was divorced from its time and place to begin with, which makes for a weird legacy — you can hear it now, over and over again yet still freshly, without the same baggage of it summing up a particular era.
Of course, even if “Wicked Game” wasn’t the theme of its times, it accrued plenty of its own perceptual baggage since its release. It seeped into the cultural lexicon, cued on shows and in movies repeatedly. “Wicked Game” appeared in the second season of Friends, when Ross and Rachel finally get together (for the first time). (In hindsight, soundtracking this moment with a song where the chorus goes “I don’t want to fall in love with you” probably should’ve been a fair warning that Friends would spend eight more seasons jerking us around with this relationship.) It appeared in David Lynch’s 1990 film Wild At Heart, the instrumental track playing for several minutes while Nicolas Cage talks like Elvis. That might be the best pairing of all — Lynch and Isaak, both trafficking in warped, dream-logic visions of American iconography. The song has stuck around, ironically not losing its emotional impact but lingering as one of those classics you can throw into anything and it’ll still have its magic touch, still have the ability to lend a given scene or moment some ineffable gravity.
And, of course, it’s stuck around because people won’t stop covering it. Seriously, there is a ridiculous amount of covers of “Wicked Game” out there, to the point that we interviewed Isaak about it in 2011. I’ll admit: there was a time when I wasn’t entirely sure whether “Wicked Game” was a good song, or whether it was faux-melodrama or straight-up schmaltz. That confusion was rooted not in the song itself, but in the legions of covers — a lot of which are corny, at least some of which strike me as piss-takes, and a great deal of which are impassioned, as if needing to rescue the song’s core ethos from the debris left by a handful of disastrously attempted tributes. It was hard to mark where this song really stood in music history, why all these indie bands were suddenly enamored with it. “Wicked Game” has been covered ad nauseum, but considering it’s Isaak’s calling card for a mainstream audience, it was just as easy to process this as artists snidely exhuming a one-hit-wonder, not finding their own way into a classic. (That latter option being, say, how we’d interpret it when someone covers whichever Beatles song for the millionth time.) Ultimately, though, it’s a straightforward and heartrending set of lyrics that almost anyone’s going to be able to relate to at some point, and in which (going out on a limb here) many young, searching artists would find resonance. Usually, when too many artists mine the same song, there’s the danger of it becoming played out. “Wicked Game” might be on its way toward that, if another dozen indie artists do their version in the next year or two. On the other hand, the same situation might just cement it as a contemporary standard. Below we rank 35 covers of Isaak’s hit.
The “Obligatory Tori Amos” Award – Tori Amos
Well, here we are again. Tori Amos sat one out the last time we did one of these lists — “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” when Cyndi Lauper was the honorary recipient of this award. But she’s back, because of course Tori Amos covered “Wicked Game.” I make this point every time I do one of these lists, but: The solo piano cover is my least favorite form of the faux-emotional cover rendition. That being said, credit where it’s due: Amos does something interesting with this one since she mashes up Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans” with “Wicked Game,” a bit of innovation for a song that many people play far too straight.
The “One-Upping Tori Amos” Award – Lydia Ainsworth
“Wicked Game” is one of those songs where a cover can be tricky. How are you really going to omit that distinctive guitar line, which is not at all insignificant in the song’s impact? But, also, how do you make it your own, how do you rework or it or restructure it so that it goes beyond karaoke? Lydia Ainsworth, like Amos, goes the former route — stripping away a lot of what we associate with the song in favor of a restrained, piano-based arrangement. But, man, Ainsworth’s voice is one of those always-haunting instruments that suggests so many things and places beyond the actual words she’s using it for. Her music often sounds ancient and from the future at the same time. She does a great “Wicked Game,” partially because it’s easy to listen to her do anything, but also because of how well this version fits alongside her other work.
The “Chinese Restaurant Casio” Award – Washed Out
I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for several Washed Out songs. And while their particular brand of blurred-watercolor emotiveness could open up a different element of “Wicked Game” — less heart-rupturing, more resigned defeat after the fact — the synth tones they chose, particularly the one that stands in for Isaak’s original guitar part, are … not great. There’s something about the underlying instrumental track here that makes it feel a little cheesy, like those canned instrumental Muzak versions of famous songs that you hear in on a Chinese restaurant soundtrack or from a cheap digital player piano thing in an upscale but un-hip steakhouse. It’s kind of a small gripe in an otherwise solid rendition, but it’s a distraction considering its prominence in the arrangement.
The “Hot Topic” Award – Three Days Grace & Stone Sour (Tie)
Though some of my memories from my suburban youth have faded, I’m pretty certain there was never an in-store, acoustic album-release show at my local mall’s Hot Topic. But if there had been, Three Days Grace’s and Stone Sour’s versions of “Wicked Game” are the exact kind of nonsense I imagine would have happened. Some dude with an annoying haircut letting you know just how angst-ridden he is, and really, you know, emoting right here in this shopping mall. Similar to the stripped-back piano reading of a song, the solo acoustic (like, as in: nu-metal voice plus strummed guitar; we’re not talking anything intricate here) simply scans, to me at least, as the laziest way to cover a song and try to score easy pulling-heartstrings points.
The “Post-Mumfordcore” Award – Phillip Phillips
Here’s what the scourge of Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and their ilk brought us: an American Idol winner doing arena-acoustic-rock versions of “Wicked Game.” The eventual build of this Phillips’ version does sound different than a lot of the other covers out there, so you have to give him that. But it also jettisons a lot of what makes the song great. There’s nothing sultry and moody going on in this one; it all comes off as teenaged explosions. Also, there are several moments where Phillips’ inflections recall Dave Matthews. And while I could mount a defense of some of Dave Matthews’ work, he is absolutely not a person you want other people trying to sound like.
The “Surprising Letdown” Award – Tangerine Dream
Electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream have put out a ton of music, so it’s not all going to be mind-blowing. There’s nothing wrong with their version of “Wicked Game,” per se, it just kinda feels more anonymous than it should.
The “(Surprising) Ingenuity” Award – London Grammar
London Grammar have a habit of covering great songs and sucking all the fun out of them. They take the swaggering pulse of INXS’ “Devil Inside” and turn it into a wannabe Florence + The Machine overwrought swell; they take La Roux’s ebullient “In For The Kill” and turn it into a directionless dirge. So maybe with “Wicked Game” they just struck on something that matches their personality well. Because “Wicked Game” isn’t really a fun song! They succeed here where a lot of other fail: They don’t abandon the core nature or elements of the song, but they put their own touch into it, beginning skeletally and gradually building through a shuttering beat and a lonely reading of the original’s guitar part that sounds more like a lonely tendril of smoke drifting from a cigarette than the heavy atmosphere of Isaak’s version.
The “Eighth Circle Of Hell” Award – HIM
Anytime we do one of these lists, there’s a special place reserved for the inevitable nu-metal cover. And that place is the eighth circle of hell, where 95 percent of nu-metal should go and never be heard from again. So here we go again, with HIM chugging their way through “Wicked Game” amidst church ruins and a woman crying a single, glittery silver tear. I did not know about this version of “Wicked Game” before compiling this list, and now I’m going to start working on forgetting it.
The “Alright, We Get It” Award – JJ72, James Vincent McMorrow, Heather Nova (Three-way Tie)
Here are a few more fairly anonymous covers of “Wicked Game” and that’s all about there is to say. Guys, you don’t all need to cover this song.
The “(Accidental?) Parody” Award – Mac DeMarco
So, here’s the thing about trying to parse the status of “Wicked Game.” You have a bunch of trying-too-hard covers by artists you’d rather didn’t touch the song. And then you have goofballs like Mac DeMarco giggling their way through renditions, yielding the question of whether people find this song to be a punchline. Now, DeMarco is always a goofball, and his shows are bizarre, because he’s singing a bunch of simple love songs but the crowd and the band foster an anarchic, drunken madness. So when he gets around to covers, you never know where the line is between earnestness and tongue-in-cheek. I saw him do Coldplay’s “Yellow” once, and that one was just a straight-up joke (I think). I saw him do Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years,” which definitely seemed like a joke, but I believe it was totally earnest and something they were actually really into. (DeMarco’s a Steely Dan fan, after all.) I don’t know where to fall with “Wicked Game.” I feel like it’s the kind of song DeMarco might actually love. And even when they are playing the most serious songs, his band carries themselves like a bunch of wacky adolescents, so that’s not necessarily a metric. But, at any rate, as much as DeMarco belts the chorus, this is one of those indie covers that comes across more like a piss-take.
The “#truedetectiveseason3″ Award – Widowspeak
Like with Elvis Costello’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” I’m going to keep soundtracking an imaginary third season of True Detective in hopes that the show gets good again. Next up is Widowspeak’s take on “Wicked Game.” This is an underrated band that has a way with beautiful, autumnal sounds, and this is one of the better renditions on this list.
The “Famous TV Singer” Award – Daughtry
Previously awarded to Kelly Clarkson for her reading of “Creep,” fellow American Idol alum Chris Daughtry is traveling in similar waters with his version of “Wicked Game.” These versions are pretty innocuous in of themselves; professional and somewhat perfunctory takes that don’t find anything new and special in the original but stop short of being an insult. They’re just there. It’s more indicative of the ubiquity of these songs, that moment where they approach standard status and become increasingly divorced from their original intent or author.
The “Ragged Glory” Award – Giant Drag
Here’s some idea of what “Wicked Game” might’ve sounded like later on in ’91, if a grunge band had put it out. Giant Drag’s version is scathing, frayed take on Isaak’s song. Where many artists go for the all-guitar arrangement, it’s usually just that single acoustic. Giant Drag’s is corrosive and distorted, with a big emotional payoff in the frantic, torn-up solo that comes in just after the 2-minute mark. If you’re going to take the song out of its original smoky context, this is a much more successful approach than the lumbering angst of HIM. There’s a very believable desperation to this that’s different than the one in Isaak’s song, but is related.
The “Interpretive Dance” Award – Pink
OK, so, I don’t have a ton of familiarity with Pink’s live setup. But with regards to this “Wicked Game” cover: This is a solid if predictable version of it. It’s one of the ones that’s so faithful that it approaches karaoke. However, the one thing that really makes this one different than the others is the elaborate, mostly silly dance that Pink and her backup dancers — all wearing black clothes mostly made out of several strips, from the future when we don’t need full shirts — have choreographed to accompany it. Pink is a pop star, so it’s a different milieu of course, but what you can say about this version is that you definitely can’t imagine Isaak, Washed Out, or Mac DeMarco performing it this way. So, there’s that, I guess.
The “Drunk British Guy Singing On A Street Corner” Award – WU LYF
Previously awarded to the Wave Pictures for their annoyingly, cloyingly scraggly cover of “I’m On Fire,” the “Drunk British Guy Singing On A Street Corner” Award goes to Manchester’s WU LYF this time around, for their similarly rough-around-the-edges version of “Wicked Game.” It’s got its moments, but the image it mostly conveys to me is a guy swaying down the street at 3AM, each arm around one of his friends, screaming this to nobody in particular.
The “Michael Stipe” Award – R.E.M.
The thing about Michael Stipe’s voice is that it sounds good singing just about anything. It’s just one of those incredible voices that has grit and power and mystery in just about every melody it delivers. Isaak was apparently psyched when he heard R.E.M. covered his song, and I would be too if I were him. You write a hit song and then you get to hear Michael Stipe sing it? That’s pretty cool.
The “What The Shit” Award – Peter Joback (feat. Sia)
Well, this was a weird one to stumble upon. It’s a version from Swedish singer Peter Joback, lowkey featuring Sia. Also, there’s a lot of Mariachi-esque horns, which is definitely not something that pops up in the countless other “Wicked Game” covers. There’s something pretty fitting about that arrangement, actually — it makes it a good soundtrack for a drive through the desert, and this song’s usually fitting for that in general.
The “I Mean, It Exists” Award – POP ETC, David Cook, Wolf Alice (three-way tie)
I’m running out of dumb awards here. There are too many covers of this song. Again, people should cover other songs, too. Anyway. POP ETC is another restrained indie rock rendition of “Wicked Game,” stripped to one guitar part, with none of that awesome lachrymose slide from the original. Actually, I’m OK with it here — I like this version a lot better than many of the ones by POP ETC’s contemporaries, at least. David Cook’s arrangement made me wonder what it could’ve been like if U2 covered “Wicked Game” around the time of Zooropa; that doesn’t mean his is actually good (his voice, eh), it just means it made me think of what-could’ve-been possibilities. (This could also have just been a random thought that developed because I’ve listened to “Wicked Game” dozens of times in a row, so take it for what you will.) Wolf Alice: fairly straightforward reading, pretty solid, will probably never remember I heard it though.
The “Rookie” Award – Donna Missal
Donna Missal contributed her cover at the request of Rookie so, uh, yeah, she gets the “Rookie” Award, or something. Anyway, a nice touch in her version is the humid, tremulous guitar part — that combined with the loping stomp of the beat make it feel like there’s currents pushing and pulling her around. And that’s a hallmark of Isaak’s original — a good “Wicked Game” version, on some level, should probably have that feeling of tides, whether they’re particularly violent or not. Which is another reason all those solo acoustic versions are so bland.
The “Rift In Time And Space” Award – Il Divo
Is this how you know you’ve made it into some kind of “I wrote an immortal song” echelon? You write a rock song, it’s a big hit, and it’s established enough in the canon that a classical vocal group covers it? I imagine it’s bizarre to hear this version if you’re Chris Isaak, and it’s bizarre to hear it as a listener. One one hand, this is the kind of stuff that had me writing off “Wicked Game” for a while, which is unfair to the original. You hear Il Divo doing this big orchestrated version and it makes you remember “Wicked Game” as adult-contemporary pop or something. On the other hand, when you consider Isaak wrote a song simple in its beauty that could be turned into this kind of blown-out, classical-oriented composition, that’s kind of impressive. Somewhere in between Isaak’s version and this one, I started to imagine how there was a slightly different iteration of “Wicked Game” that could be a Bond theme. More Isaak’s than this, but they’d need this version’s string and horn arrangement probably.
The “Tragic Lullaby” Award – Gemma Hayes
If the original “Wicked Game” is a haunted dream, Gemma Hayes’ arrangement is a quieter take on a similar space. The little chime sounds, the strings — the whole thing has a hushed, ethereal tone to it that fits the song well. It’s another one that’s an honorable nod to Isaak’s original without copying it too slavishly.
The “Shanghai Nightclub” Award – Linda Pritchard, Milk Inc., RAIGN (three-way tie)
Several years ago, I spent a few months living in Shanghai. And I have a memory of being in a nightclub there, surrounded by European ex-pats smoking inside, and hearing some throbbing EDM cover of “Wicked Game.” It probably wasn’t RAIGN, since that’s a little slower, like the original. But the pop versions by Linda Pritchard and Milk Inc. are similar to what I remember, even if they aren’t the actual version I heard that night. These are not versions of this song that should reasonably work. Sure, they have the melody and lyrics and the chord progression, but they have almost nothing to do with Isaak’s original. They’re covers in the sense that you could take almost any song and turn it into a club track if you tore it apart and rebuilt it enough. In that way, I wouldn’t necessarily look at these versions as, like, an achievement, exactly. They aren’t examples of someone finding something latent in a song and pulling it out into something surprising — like, say, Bat For Lashes’ “I’m On Fire” on the first covers list of this sort that we did. But despite myself, I kind of like “Wicked Game” as an overblown, unrecognizable dance song. Maybe blame that on nostalgia for Shanghai.
The “Communication Breakdown” Award – Ima Robot
Here’s another version that has very little in common with Isaak’s original. And in this instance, Ima Robot’s version both takes a wild left turn and comes out with a pretty cool version that does justice to the original within a totally different set of rules. Ima Robot’s version is electronic-based, like the “Shanghai Nightclub” honorees above, but in a squelching, spurting post-punk way. It’s maybe the grossest-sounding cover on this list, but it also feels like one of the most legitimate and most honest. They capture a feeling of being distraught, but this is more of a frenzied, solitary walk through a suddenly lonely city: racked by pain instead of luxuriating in it, like the original song does.
The “Voices In My Head” Award – Emika
Emika’s version of “Wicked Game” is one of the most unique ones here. It dispenses with even doing the verses and choruses straight, instead of riding on layers of vaporous, layered vocals flickering in and out of perception. There are glimpses of the song we know, shattered and reworked into a loopier kind of logic. There’s a spectrum this song can capture. Isaak’s is all smoldering romantic yearning, and other versions nod more towards despair in heartbreak, isolation in heartbreak. Emika’s version captures all the second-guessing and over-thinking that comes around in the rise and fall of a relationship, becoming the aural equivalent of the wicked game you play with your own head amidst the whole mess.
The “Madonna” Award – Novaspace
Novaspace’s “Wicked Game” is another one of these inexplicable versions built for the dancefloor instead of that really sad black and white beach Isaak is on in the video. This one reminds me of Madonna’s Ray Of Light, which is most of the reason it’s here.
The “I’m Totally Biased” Award – My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket are one of my favorite bands, and at one of their One Big Holiday shows in Mexico last year, they did a pseudo-medley/string of covers that included the Cars’ “Drive,” Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” and Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” thus hitting a range of songs that are all very Peak Ryan Leas. In the midst of this little run, they also snuck in a partial cover of “Wicked Game.” So, again, I’m biased in this matter, but: Like Michael Stipe, Jim James has one of those voices that sounds good singing just about anything. And the chorus of “Wicked Game” is the exact kind of thing that he always sounds amazing on. He sings it like one long, defeated sigh, a strained revery between the lust of “I’m On Fire” and the sublime “Fade Into You.”
The “Strikingly On-Brand” Award – Lykke Li
Lykke Li has a way with smoldering songs about falling in and out of love. When Li sang “Wicked Game” at a David Lynch tribute show last year, she apparently called it her favorite song. The pairing of her and this song is one of the most sensible ones on this list. It’s only surprising we haven’t had her version since the beginning of her career.
The “Spinning Off The Face Of The Planet” Award – Gregorian
Gregorian is a German group that does renditions of pop songs in a style influenced by Gregorian chant. So, this might just be the most out-there cover that will ever exist of “Wicked Game.” We could go down some sort of rabbithole about the universal human experience of “Wicked Game” being translated into a very old strain of music rooted in times and cultures that were foundational to ours. We could do that. But can you even get past the fact that we’re talking about a Gregorian-pop band singing Chris Isaak? I can’t. What a time to be alive.