What makes for a great cover version is a mysterious thing. The original song in theory has to be great, but that isn’t always the case; sometimes the cover version is what makes a previously forgettable song abruptly great. Furthermore, the new version in theory has to be a notable re-conception; but then again, sometimes the new one is pretty straightforward and similar-seeming. I think maybe the single through-line most great covers have in common is summed up in the word “character”—a pretty much ineffable way of describing the presence and vigor the singer brings to the moment-to-moment moments of the song. I have no particular further explanation for why Eliza Gilkyson’s version of World Party’s “Is It Like Today” feels so momentous. It’s her voice, her phrasing, her arrangement, all adding up to character. Lots and lots of character. You may or may not hear the same thing but I’m at least giving you the chance, and that’s something.
Meanwhile: has Elvis Costello written a better song that no one knows than “Crimes of Paris”? I’m open to other ideas but I’m thinking no, he maybe hasn’t. I’m also wondering how Stevie Wonder managed to make something that sounds like a harpsichord not make me run away screaming. Usually harpsichords send me running away, screaming. This playlist is full of such minor mysteries. I’m not sure why Haley Bonar isn’t a bigger deal. I’m not sure why Norah Jones is so consistently alluring. And think about this: “The Wheel and the Maypole,” closing things out here, with its improbably catchy two-part chorus, was the last song on the last album that the band XTC ever released. Always leave ’em wanting more—a great philosophy so few properly represent.
Oh and p.s.: this is a different Robert Johnson. Not sure how a mid-’70s white guy figured he could make things fly career-wise with that name. Even if it is his actual name. On Wikipedia he gets the middle initial “A.,” but still. And “Leslie” cops a guitar line from “Apache.” But still.
Full playlist below the widget.
“Numbers With Wings” – The Bongos (Numbers With Wings, 1983)
“La Cage Appat” – Peppertree (Peppertree, 2006)
“Frozen Garden” – Emily Jane White (They Moved In Shadow All Together, 2016)
“Solitary Man” – Neil Diamond (The Feel of Neil Diamond, 1966)
“Leslie” – Robert Johnson (Close Personal Friend, 1978)
“Find Him” – Cassandra Wilson (New Moon Daughter, 1995)
“Hometown” – Haley Bonar (Impossible Dream, 2016)
“5-7-0-5” – City Boy (Book Early, 1978)
“Last Innocent Year” – Jonatha Brooke (10 Cent Wings, 1997)
“(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (Away We a Go-Go, 1966)
“Crimes of Paris” – Elvis Costello & the Attractions (Blood and Chocolate, 1986)
“Is It Like Today” – Eliza Gilkyson (Paradise Hotel, 2005)
“Free” – Stevie Wonder (Characters, 1987)
“I Wanna Be Your Lady” – Shannon Wardrop (Cloud Nine EP, 2015)
“Season’s Trees” – Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, featuring Norah Jones (Rome, 2011)
“‘Cello Song” – Nick Drake (Five Leaves Left, 1969)
“Mirror Star” – Fabulous Poodles (Mirror Stars, 1978)
“The Real World” – The Bangles (The Bangles EP, 1982)
“Trust in Me” – Holly Cole Trio (Blame It On My Youth, 1992)
“The Wheel and the Maypole” – XTC (Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Part 2), 2000)