Culture Trips

The best covers turn a song on its head: a whole new slice of life, right there | Life and style

Cover versions are like white wines: they’re either very good or horrid. Horrid ones include mediocre guys playing acoustic guitars, wearing waistcoats over T-shirts, butchering every song released in the last three decades. Or the instrumental “samba” covers of chart toppers that play in coffee shops, on repeat.

However, good covers are truly transformative. They turn a song inside out in the manner of a reversible jacket: same structure, but something entirely fresh. You can wear it pop or jazz or dance or rock’n’roll. Listening to a favourite song in a different guise taps into alternative emotions.

Cross-genre covers are the best for this, where artists and styles are completely juxtaposed, and each version becomes a go-to pick for certain moods. Robyn has become known for her “sad bangers”, because she often manages to pack contrasting moods into a single song. But while her high-energy Dancing On My Own is on my playlist for getting ready to go out (RIP), Kings of Leon did a slow version that is depressing as hell and great for a wallow. I also could not have foreseen Patti Smith doing Rihanna’s Stay, but it works.

I’ve spent a lot of time rewatching Radio 1 Live Lounge sessions on YouTube, which produce charming covers imbued with a sense of fun – aided by A4 lyric sheets stuck to the studio floor underneath snaking wires. The Arctic Monkeys’ version of Girls Aloud’s Love Machine never fails to cheer me up (as does their Glastonbury take on Shirley Bassey’s Diamonds Are Forever). There’s something so lovely in witnessing diverse artists appreciate each other.

There are covers that have overtaken the popularity of the originals, so that listeners might mistake the song’s origins. Respect, probably Aretha Franklin’s signature song, is an Otis Redding track; he wrote and recorded it two years before Franklin in 1965. And would anyone really argue that Roberta Flack’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face isn’t the definitive version of that song, despite it first being a folk number written by Ewan MacColl for his future wife, Peggy Seeger?

Amy Winehouse’s vocals on Mark Ronson’s Valerie will always get me on my feet. The Zutons’ original doesn’t, nor is it meant to. Winehouse’s version is even more successful as a cover because she doesn’t change the pronouns, which turns the love song on its head and creates a whole new narrative. That’s really the essence of why I love covers: I am a greedy person, and they offer a whole new slice of life.

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