Best pop covers
Print Music Editor Harry Craig reviews the most prominent covers made by popular artists.
As the old adage goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery – which is probably why so many pop artists choose to record their own takes of their fellow musicians’ work. When done well, this can give old classics a new lease of life, and in some cases produce something even better than the original.
My personal favourite pop cover is Florence and the Machine’s version of Candi Staton’s 1986 ‘You’ve Got The Love’. It was a bold decision by Florence to cover one of her “favourite songs ever” for the closing track on her 2009 début album Lungs, but she arguably exceeds even Staton’s version with her faster-paced, grandiose track. Florence’s trademark vocals ooze emotion to build to an epic crescendo by the end, and the “ohs” over the refrain of “You’ve got the love” provide so many musical layers for us to take in.
The instrumental alterations to the original are most evident in the use of a harp, which twinkles throughout the chorus. A harpist isn’t traditionally part of a standard pop-rock band, making this one of Florence and the Machine’s unique traits and helping to convey the romanticism of the lyrics. The cover was so well-received when released as the B-side to Florence’s most iconic track ‘Dog Days Are Over’ that it deservedly became a single in its own right.
As The 1975’s frontman Matty Healy states, the best pop covers “reinvent the song”, and this is something that the Pet Shop Boys achieved with ‘Always On My Mind’. Their 1987 cover of Elvis Presley’s ballad – itself a huge hit, chosen in 2013 as Britain’s favourite Elvis song – was voted in 2014 by a BBC census as the best cover song of all time, and with good cause. It turns Elvis’ slow, country-style track into an upbeat synth pop hit.
When done well, this can give old classics a new lease of life, and in some cases produce something even better than the original.
Whilst Elvis’ version will bring you to tears, the Pet Shop Boys will bring you to the dance floor, courtesy of their classic synth and techno influences. Unlike the original, the focus is far less on the lyrical content and delivery by primary vocalist Neil Tennant, but instead the high-tempo instrumental, with omnipresent synths and crashing drums. Taking an originally slower, ballad-style song and turning into a danceable pop hit is ambitious by the Pet Shop Boys, but it works to great effect.
Some covers, however, do the opposite. As I write this article, the festive season is just about getting into full swing, and the anticipation for Christmas TV reminded me of another iconic pop cover, from John Lewis’ 2013 Christmas advert. To soundtrack the beautiful story of hibernating woodland animals, Lily Allen covered Keane’s 2004 début hit ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ on the suggestion of the original band, and she took it to number 1 in the UK.
Allen’s version strips back the track to its bare bones, mostly consisting solely of piano and vocals to allow her voice to come to the fore. Keane’s original track is not a Christmas song, but the association with the John Lewis advert has turned Lily Allen’s version into a festive classic, helped by the twinkling piano that evokes tinsel-decked nostalgia. Keane’s version is already a very melancholic song, and Allen accentuates this by slowing down and simplifying the track.
Young Geordie superstar Sam Fender achieves a similar feat with his cover of Avicii’s ‘Waiting For Love’. Fender initially performed the cover live in April 2018 as a tribute to Avicii after his tragic death at just 28, and released it as a Spotify Single six months later. Fender’s take is a beautiful interpretation of Avicii’s song, substituting the house and synth influences with a more traditional instrumental of piano and guitar. This is most prominent in an instrumental section towards the end of the song, when Fender reinterprets Avicii’s electronic beats with a guitar solo.
It would be disrespectful to Avicii to argue that Fender’s version is necessarily better, and both are routinely in my listening rotation. They take the same lyrics and offer two very different moods – it’s impossible not to feel upbeat with Avicii’s version, whilst Fender’s use of different instrumentals creates a more melancholic sense, similar to Lily Allen’s version of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’.
I’m a huge fan of pop covers, particularly when an artist completely reinvents a song. They can foster a sense of community between artists – Keane and Lily Allen, for example, would not be two artists whose paths you would normally expect to cross. A surprising number of iconic pop songs are cover versions, from Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ to Toploader’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’, and covers deservedly remain a central part of the music industry.