My bitter, more cynical mind likes to believe that bands hate awesome covers, that they sit and cowl as a youngling takes their work and brings it to a new generation with a cleaner voice, a brighter face, and a hipper beat. But that’s just me. (Sorry, I’ve always had a flair for the broad theatrical. Whatevs.healthcare.gov) This year, many of those supposedly cranky artists come from the ’80s, a decade that’s been examined, dissected, and beaten to a pulp by nostalgia for the last 15 years. How anyone managed to add a fresh spin on anything from that era of pastels, Wang Chung, and Don Johnson is admirable, to say the least.
But they did, and we’re reeling from it. Dancing even. So what you’re about to hear is a list of the cooler, more unique covers from 2013. Some might be obvious, but only because you, your friend, your parents, or your parents’ parents couldn’t shut up about them on Facebook all year. We can’t help you out there, but if you do have a few other obscure adds, let us know in the comments below. We’re always up for a great cover. Always.
10. Low – “Stay” (Rihanna)
Rare is the cover song that makes both the owner and the borrower look even better while staying completely loyal to its original arrangement. Rarer still is the song that, in stem form, just as easily could have ended up a great pop radio staple in 2013, or a great 1993 B-side from a now-middle-aged Mom-and-Dad couple who pioneered an indie rock sub-movement stamped “slowcore.” What we’ve come to realize about Low’s take on Rihanna’s piano ballad “Stay” since Alan Spearhawk and Mimi Parker first let it mindfuck half their audience at this year’s Pitchfork Festival – and sail way over the heads of the other half (guilty) – is that it’s not great in spite of hardly changing a single element, but because of that key detail. In the end, that still invokes the same delightful confusion as any successful cover, even those by similar artists nuking original arrangments: Who’s covering who? –Steven Arroyo
09. Okkervil River – “Dance Hall Days” (Wang Chung)
I’ve never been truly able to appreciate ’80s pop music, even from a fun, kitschy standpoint. It’s not the songs themselves, but the production: the overall tinniness, the shitty electronic drums. Thanks to Okkervil River, however, I’m now a fan of Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days”. Will Sheff and co. don’t futz too much with the diet New Wave hit; they just beef everything up, from the sugary keys to the spring break horns. In 2013, the retro stylings fit in perfectly alongside their songs from The Silver Gymnasium, a record that takes place just two years after the original “Dance Hall Days”‘ release. –Dan Caffrey
08. Kings of Leon – “Dancing On My Own” (Robyn)
Kings of Leon would have you believe they’re the rugged, hard-partying descendants of ’70s Southern rock. But as they demonstrate with their version of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” from a BBC Radio 1 session, they’re not always the modern-day Lynyrd Skynyrd. Instead, they can be weird and unpredictable by tackling this heartfelt electro ballad, stripping away the synths and disco undertones and maintaining the emotional core. And because of that informality, they come across as forlorn and heartbroken as Robyn. This ditty proves that behind every country-fried rock god stands a kid singing into his mirror, hoping the world will hear what’s in his heart. –Chris Coplan
07. Sad Clown With The Golden Voice – “Royals” (Lorde)
Lorde is a 5’5″ 16-year-old New Zealander, and those facts give the best song of the year, “Royals”, sincere levels of poignancy. The anti-musical establishment track doesn’t nearly reach its potential, however, until you’ve heard it sung by a 6’8″ sad-faced clown named Puddles Pity Party. Sure, you scoff when you see this white behemoth step up to a mic that’s a literal head above his blasé backup singers, but once he opens that black-outlined mouth… jaw-dropping. And that second verse-bridge-chorus? Stunning. What these guys Postmodern Jukebox do, reworking chart-toppers in genres of bygone eras, is fun and they do it well – but nothing rules with as much majesty as when this sad faced clown unleashes his golden voice. –Ben Kaye
06. Lorde – “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (Tears For Fears)
Leave it to Tears for Fears to mask themes of greed and vanity with the scents of synths and happy faces. One of the greatest radio hits of the ’80s, you’ve no doubt heard this song at dentist appointments or strolls through the mall throughout the years. Suffice it to say, that’s not where Lorde wanted her version to be found. Her song’s fucking dark. With thunderous vocals and an industrial vibrato, Lorde grabs a dagger and slices through the song’s core values, chiseling down society’s horrific obsessions with the aforementioned themes. No wonder it’s on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Let Lorde surprise you yet again. –Phillip Roffman
05. Divine Fits – “Hungry Heart” (Bruce Springsteen)
When Divine Fits, the supergroup featuring Britt Daniel of Spoon, Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade, and Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks, dropped their debut LP A Thing Called Divine Fits, one of its many highlights was the cover of Rowland S. Howard’s “Shivers”. On this Australian radio feature Like A Version, the band took on Bruce Springsteen’s The River cut “Hungry Heart”, an “alliteration song title by a guy from New Jersey.” Stripped down with Daniel’s raspy howl, their rendition even features Brown using a book for percussion. This cover, though faithful, feels like a perfect fit in Divine Fits’ burgeoning classic rock-influenced oeuvre. –Josh Terry