When most of us think of a connoisseur, we think of someone with expert tastes, a discerning palate that would deign let anything less than the finest encroach upon their refined sensibilities. And while this can be true to a point, the truth of the matter is, one can only learn to appreciate the subtleties of something by experiencing a lot of it, the good, the bad and the mediocre. Want to be an expert in thoroughbred horses? You’re going to have to deal with a lot of manure.
In no field is this more accurate than that of music and the fickle form of cover songs. Even if you’re picky about what’s played, i.e. no tribute bands or obvious self-indulgent salutes (sorry Scarlett), you’re lucky if one in 10 cover songs stands out as anything special. It’s the connoisseur that thinks that 10% of gems makes enduring the other 90% worth the effort.
To prove this point, dear readers, I invite you to test your mettle and judge your own cover connoiseurial capacity with the A.V. Club’s Undercover. The premise is as simple as it is superb. Twenty-five songs are chosen by the site’s editors and readers, then 25 bands are invited to come in and do a live recording of their rendition. Each week a different band comes in and once they choose a song from the list it’s removed, so there are no repeats.
The list of songs to choose from ranges from older pop classics to cult favorites to contemporary hits and thus far, all the bands invited are current working musicians and run the gamut from indie darlings to the somewhat mainstream. From Tokyo Police Club playing Billy Squier or Coheed & Cambria covering the Smiths to Iron and Wine doing an incredible rendition of George Michael or Titus Andronicus having a lackluster go at They Might Be Giants, you’ll get the full range of the cover song craft. Some will pleasantly surprise you, some with certainly disappoint, and by and large the majority of them will be completely forgettable or leave you wondering why the band even bothered. But if you’ve got the patience to trod through them all (you can mute the Starbuck’s commercial and intro at the top to keep them from driving you batty), you’re sure to find a couple of treasures that will change the way you think of a band or a song and be stuck in your head for days. You can view this years songs here http://www.avclub.com/features/av-undercover-2011/ unfortunately, they don’t seem to have a page with all the 2010 songs in one place, but I’ve provided a list at the bottom of this post and you can easily find them by searching the site.
Here are a few that mark the top and bottom of this Connoisseur’s list, and you can add your best and worst by commenting below.
Clem Snide – “Faithfully” (Journey) – I have a love/hate relationship when it comes to Journey. Mostly I love to hate them, but every once in a while I find myself having to concede to their hooky brilliance or the indelible mark they made on modern music. Here, Clem Snide’s simple rendition conjures up more soul in this well trodden song than I would have thought possible. Just try to ignore the whistling at the end, the idea was there but the execution quite painful.
Iron & Wine – “One More Try” (George Michael) – Sam Beam does it again- making a cover song thoroughly his own while respecting the original. The fact that the original was by George Michael makes it all the more impressive.
Wye Oak – “Mother” (Danzig) - While not as epic in scope as the previous two tracks, I love the way Wye Oak manages to soften the song and make it hauntingly beautiful without completely losing its edge.
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” (Tears for Fears) – This rendition encapsulate why people don’t like cover songs. A catchy, power-house of a classic stripped of everything that made it great and rendered impotent. The opening banter on this video is more entertaining that the actual cover.
Titus Andronicus – “Birdhouse in My Soul” (They Might Be Giants) – Points for trying to make this your own guys, but this isn’t even pleasant.
Low – “Africa” (Toto) - I had such high hopes for this one and thought Low might do for Toto what Iron and Wine did for George Michael. Alas they missed the mark and what was once epic now sounds flat and like their just kind of tired.
Undercover 2010 Lineup
- Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Everybody Wants to Rule the World – (Tears for Fears)
- Fruits Bats – One on One – (Hall & Oates)
- Alkaline Trio – Web in Front – (Archers of Loaf)
- Cursive – We Built this City – (Starship)
- Justin Townes Earle – Atlantic City – (Bruce Springsteen)
- Retribution Gospel Choir – Kokomo – (The Beach Boys)
- Maritime – Enjoy the Silence – (Depeche Mode)
- The Clientele – Paper Planes – (M.I.A.)
- Ben Folds – Say Yes – (Elliott Smith)
- Wye Oak – Strangers – (The Kinks)
- Motion City Soundtrack – Cut Your Hair – (Pavement)
- The Wedding Present – 19th Nervous Breakdown – (The Rolling Stones)
- Owen Pallett – Game of Pricks – (Guided by Voices)
- The Antlers – Wish You Were Here – (Pink Floyd)
- Rise Against – Sliver – (Nirvana)
- Frightened Rabbit – Confetti – (The Lemonheads)
- Clem Snide – Faithfully – (Journey)
- Coheed & Cambria – A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours – (The Smiths)
- Patrick Stump – My Favorite Dress – (The Wedding Present)
- Superchunk – In Between Days – (The Cure)
- Mates of State – I Will Dare – (The Replacements)
- The Swell Season – Two-Headed Boy – (Neutral Milk Hotel)
- Cymbals Eat Guitars – Detroit Has a Skyline – (Superchunk)
- Tokyo Police Club – Everybody Wants You – (Billy Squier)
- The Walkmen – Driver 8 (R.E.M)
Undercover 2011 Lineup (So Far)
- Iron and Wine – One More Try (George Michael)
- Baths – All My Friends (LCD Soundsystem)
- Dum Dum Girls – September Gurls (Big Star)
- The Low Anthem – A Shot in the Arm (Wilco)
- Titus Andronicus – Birdhouse in Your Soul (They Might Be Giants)
- Wye Oak – Mother (Danzig)
- Telekinesis – Like Dylan in the Movies (Belle & Sebastian)
- Rocky Votolato and Matt Pond PA – Don’t You Want Me (The Human League)
- Low – Africa (Toto)
- Smith Westerns – American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
Visit the Onion A.V. Undercover 2011 page to see the list of the songs still waiting to be covered.