I know this year’s been kind of exhausting music-wise. It’s been exhausting everything-wise, but stopping to think about how music felt just dredged up nothing but malaise: Post Malone going all Individual-1 about “fake news”, grotesque Soundcloud rappers turning out to be all-problematic/no-faves, the final demise of anything resembling danger or challenge in throwback rock, the continued monocultural pillow-smother that is Spotify, the whole Kanye drain-spiral, and the onetime biggest rap superstar in the world reduced to flappin’ around like a bapkin against his critics. I know full well there was plenty of amazing music dropped this year, so much that I can’t even figure out what the consensus pick is. (Low? Kacey? Cardi? Mitski? Kamasi? Noname? Earl?) But it’s 2018; good luck focusing on the stuff that makes you happy for more than a few minutes.
That’s why this column is splitting its attention. The five best covers of a year in which there were plenty of good ones should say a lot about how there’s still excitement and enthusiasm to be found in the art of reinterpreting — reminders that the world is bigger and stretches further back in time than just the shit that trends off hate-clicks. To tweak music is to love music, at least for the ones who’re the best at it. But ignoring the garbage would be giving readers an incomplete picture of how it actually felt to watch pop history being continuously dicked around with like so much disposable product trundling down the timeline, attempt after attempt at turning some familiar icon into idea-churn for a moment or two of trending attention. Enjoy, and then don’t.
LCD Soundsystem – “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” (Heaven 17 Cover)
We’re well into the 21st Century so sure, why not have ’80s synthpoppers as our new Woody Guthries? LCD Soundsystem revisits Heaven 17’s 1981 song as part of their Electric Lady Sessions, and augments its Martyn Ware-honoring keyboards with another rich vein of circa-’81 lefty agitation — the fast-forward chicken-scratch guitar sounds simpatico with D. Boon’s antsier moments on the Minutemen’s The Punch Line — and Nancy Whang, the Voice of DFA, nails down the precise amount of icy resolve in her delivery to make the intensity feel catalytic. It actually feels a little more weirdly joyous than the original, as though it’s made with the reassurance that maybe we’ve learned our lesson this time — but if we have, that bass solo’s gonna bring us back even when the “orange one” is a mortifying but long-gone punchline.
The Mountain Goats – “Bridge Of Sighs” (Robin Trower Cover)
Former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower had Next Hendrix expectations laid on him, and god help anybody in that unenviable position (word to Frank Marino). Still, he put out more than a few worthy jams for custom-van captains and present-day post-psych adherents alike, and while you don’t need to be a True Hesher to know that, at least the True Heshers can cosign it. Opeth knew what a ground-shaking mammoth of an anxiety-blues anthem the title track to his ’74 hit LP Bridge of Sighs is, and John Darnielle knows it too. But where the Swedes went faithful, the Mountain Goats twist the aperture: there’s no guitar theatrics, no percussive foot-dragging trudge of doom, just a spare woodwind/piano/voice arrangement that lets Darnielle pay homage to Trower as a lyricist. Because when you have him singing a line like “Cold wind blows/The gods look down in anger on this poor child,” and with an unadorned fragility in contrast to James Dewar’s resilience in the face of a swirling maelstrom, you forget about guitars completely. As Darnielle stated in his liner notes for the Aquarium Drunkard Lagniappe Sessions he recorded this for, he sees Trower as “basically 60s British blues filtered through a proto-goth lens… pretty much exactly the nexus at which I wish to live in six-minute blocs for the rest of my life.”
Meshell Ndegeocello – “Don’t Disturb This Groove” (The System Cover)
In a direct riposte to the obsolete but still-lingering conventional wisdom that soul died with the ’70s, Ndegeocello brought out a kaleidoscope of ’80s and ’90s R&B stunners on Ventriloquism, from a devastating “Sometimes It Snows In April” to a life-affirming Jam/Lewis trifecta to a “Smooth Operator” well worthy of our current Sadeissance. But none of those were memory-jogging, oh-wait-this-song-actually-ruled re-revelations quite like her take on the System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” which in its original form and rework alike serves as a reminder that a well-done synthesized-yet-emotional slow jam is about as eternal as it gets these days. Too tactile for vaporwave and too deep for retro-kitsch, Ndegeocello added just enough floaty, diaphanous lightness to the rhythm to give the details of her hushed voice a nuanced place in the forefront. All the room-warping dynamics of dub with the kind of close-quarters melodic intimacy that makes it feel small enough to carry in your hands, it turns the kind of thing that’d hit #1 R&B in ’87 into something SZA could envy, or at least sound fantastic segueing into on a mix.
Ty Segall – “Low Rider” (War Cover)
Last year’s single release of disco-punk creature “Every 1’s A Winner” put Ty Segall on last year’s Best Covers list for staying fairly true to an original even as it dragged it through the gunk — you can still bump to it, at least. Less than a year later, with plenty of time to put a few more releases under his belt, Segall figured he could afford to get away with a whole cover-album exercise, and it’s one of those fantastic willfully-eclectic record-geek deals where “I like Amon Düül II and The Dils, but I’m not gonna front like Spencer Davis Group and the Grateful Dead aren’t my shit, too” translates into sheer joy. His take on War’s “Low Rider” gets the nod here as maybe the only possible choice to open his album Fudge Sandwich — pretty much everyone knows War’s “Low Rider,” but dude figured “what if the cowbell and the lyrics are all we really stuck to” and turned the rest of it into Throbbing Gristle. First reaction: it’s hilarious. Second reaction: can I fit a matte-black hearse with hydraulics and hotbox that shit?
Tanya Tagaq and Damian Abraham – “Run To The Hills” (Iron Maiden Cover)
You can’t really be Bruce Dickinson, but if you want to, you can find his power in forms that draw from entirely different strengths and come out with something that’s its own kind of visceral. Tanya Tagaq and Damian Abraham are like the other two points on a triangulation of lead-singer intensity: the former, an Inuk throat singer who’s got a fluidity in her rasp and a wail that reflects like crystal; the latter, a carapace-smashing blunt-force bellow that treats melody like a wolverine treats bones — just gnash through it and get to the marrow. That they duet on a cover of a song written by an Englishman about genocide of indigenous peoples in North America is the kind of cultural upending that should almost go without saying, though they make it sound less like a kickass battle and more like the sheer unrelenting horror it actually was.
Buckcherry – “Head Like A Hole” (Nine Inch Nails Cover)
If you’re wondering why Nine Inch Nails are still a band people rightfully revere and anticipate new releases by and Buckcherry’s primary role in the public conscious is either “lol remember ‘Crazy Bitch'” or “oh wait I just got their name, it’s a spoonerism,” have I got the horrifying juxtaposition for you. This is a band that recorded W-era soundtracks for hoping nobody can see your strip-club boner tenting your Ed Hardy jeans and figured it’d be funny to release an entire EP of songs with the word “Fuck” in the title a few years back. So they aren’t who you ask if you want to maintain the tense, paranoid undercurrents that made songs like “Head Like A Hole” more than just hair-whipping dudecore. The thing is that it’s just close enough to the original song that every single thing this cover’s missing — the rhythm’s mechanized edge, Reznor’s way of using his vocal aggression to mask a certain defensive fragility, anything resembling the tension-and-release of the verse/chorus dynamics — is magnified ten times over. If you want to use this cover as a convoluted metaphor for what happens when a post-industrial working class is replaced with a credit-shackled consumer base, go for it; this is the kind of failed imitation that makes me grumble that “they used to make things in this country.”
Euringer – “What A Fool Believes” (Doobie Brothers Cover)
The Seventies! Weren’t they so fucking wacky? Wasn’t it hilarious when William H. Macy’s loser character in Boogie Nights blew his brains out? Everything was so tacky then! What were we thinking? Jimmy Urine goes government-name in a solo album quasi-break from Mindless Self Indulgence, though he’s still kept up his irony-poisoned “it’s satire, dude, don’t you get it” schtick, since there’s still a massive potential audience of racial-slur-enthusiast edgelord millennial/Gen-Z cuspers out there who need soundtracks for the warfare that is Being Extremely Online. Maybe they’ll get a laugh out of this decade-late deconstruction of Yacht Rock, where everything Michael McDonald’s voice is capable of is replaced with hiccupy barf-yelps and the music is “Punk Goes Pop Vol. 54 Except Also It’s Electro Somehow.” It’s the kind of thing that seems to exist solely to troll … sincere dopes like me, I guess. Huh.
Jessie J – “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (James Brown Cover)
What if this old James Brown song was totally hornt up? I dunno, what if that fucky rendition was done by somebody who sounded capable of actual human emotion? Because I don’t know what the parameters for “good” or “feel” or even “I” are in this anonymization of one of the most famous R&B songs ever recorded. Producer DJ Camper tries to pull off a reinvention-slash-throwback by reminding listeners locked in to its soporific low-frequency blurp that the original had horns in it, and it almost works until he gives them all a farty post-wubstep revamp on the bridge. That Jessie J cut this for a movie soundtrack (Fifty Shades Freed) is even funnier because it’s been a decades-long thing that “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is what you put in as a punchline cue for every cornball lowest-common-denominator comedy flick from K-9 to Garfield: The Movie. Those weren’t sexy, either.
The Offspring – “Down” (311 Cover)
The real bummer about getting old is seeing nostalgia crop up for shit you couldn’t stand the first time. Having both folks of my generation and those half my age populating YouTube comments with “I wish today’s music was good” gripes on songs that had me asking the same thing back in 1995 is a hundred times worse than getting gray hairs in my beard, believe me. Back when they were young guns flying off Sam Goody shelves, Offspring and 311 were the kinds of bands that had me retreating to the Buzzcocks and Bad Brains just to find out what good old ideas these newer bands were getting wrong, so it’s funny to see them resorting to this Freaky Friday shit and inflicting their musical sins on each others’ songs. (It’s kind of like those old split 7″s where, say, Mudhoney and Sonic Youth would cover each other, but for people who never outgrew frosted tips.) I’ll give this the nod and eyeroll over the (still loathsome) inverse because not only does this display zero new ideas or inspiration that you couldn’t hear from this band 20 years ago, Dexter Holland’s voice has somehow gotten more obnoxious, like young Jonah Hill doing an extremely unflattering Ad Rock impersonation. Wasn’t it enough to just bring back Surge and be done with it?
Weezer – “Africa” (Toto Cover)
I thought I had a big evisceration lined up for this, but I don’t. I can’t. I’m just too fucking tired even thinking about this. It’s like the cover-version equivalent of trying to figure out why people still reply “nice” to every random occurrence of the number 69. All I’ve got left are four words: Death to Meme Rock.