Our 20 Favorite Songs of 2014

Although we’re already a few days into the New Year, we’ve been asked to select our top 20 songs for the past year. We’ve been pretty happy with the choices of indie music of 2014, which has been arguably the best year since 2009.

So for all the goodness without a lot of loquaciousness, here’s our Favorite 20 of 2014 (in no particular order).

1.  Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting On You)”

This is the number-one song on Sirius XMU‘s Top 41 of 2014, and for good reason.  This up-beat indie gem has all the chord-changes in exactly the right spots, a powerful chorus, and one head-scratchin’ ironic video to accompany it. This should be destined to be a classic.

2.  Perfume Genius – “Queen”

Dark, brooding, and absolutely beautiful, Perfect Genius came up with the perfect angst-anthem of the year.

3.  Che-Val – “My Beat”

We are completely smitten with the debut song we found on Twitter from husband-and-wife duo Kenny and Laura Cash from Connecticut. Che-Val‘s fun retro romp harkening back to ebullient pop of the ’80s is an impressive way to bust out of the gate.

4.  TV On The Radio – “Happy Idiot”
5.  TV On The Radio – “Careful You”

Synth-pop is rarely better than what TV On The Radio has put out in the past year on their sixth album “Seeds.” They knocked two out of the park with the perky “Happy Idiot” and the hypnotic “Careful You.”

6.  tUnE-yArDs – “Water Fountain”

This is truly Merrill Garbus‘s world we’re living in, and we’re okay with that. The Connecticut puppeteer has come up with an eclectic, eccentric, and completely original sound filled with intense passion and hilarity. While the album is great, tUnE-yArDs must be seen live to fully appreciate.

7.  Sylvan Esso – “Coffee”

We first heard Sylvan Esso when they opened for tUnE-yArDs at the Republic New Orleans.  Singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn were rather scruffy, looking like they stopped by the venue to play a few tunes between loads of laundry.  Regardless, the North Carolina duo were thoroughly mesmerizing, and their song about our favorite beverage only made us love them more.

8.  Alvvays – “Archie, Marry Me”

There’s something seriously ’60s about Alvvay‘s “Archie, Marry Me.” Is she singing about Riverdale’s favorite red-headed doofus? Probably not, but we’d like to think it’s Betty Cooper pining over Archie Andrews while gazing out the window into a warm afternoon rain and holding her Pee-Chee close to her sweatered breast. Ah, innocence…

9.  Empathy Test – “Throwing Stones”

Simply gorgeous. The debut single from Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf of Brooklyn’s Stars & Letters label is reminiscent of delicious ’80s synth pop like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Depeche Mode. We look forward to great things from this London-based duo in the years to come.

10.  We Are Temporary featuring Misfit Mod – “Machine Love”

We’re mad for this dark thriller that’s a collaboration of two severely underrated Stars & Letters acts, We Are Temporary and Misfit Mod (stage name for Sarah Kelleher). You should be, too.

11.  Foxygen – “How Can You Really”

Break out the go-go boots and hot pants, the sounds of the late ’60s/early ’70s is back! California-based Jonathan Rado and Sam France‘s sound conjures up long-lost audio images of Haight-Ashbury salad days pop at its finest.

12.  BABYMETAL – “Death”

Nobody, and we mean absolutely nobody, knows what to make of Japanese death metal act, BABYMETAL.  Fronted by three super-cute teenage girls (Suzuka Nakamoto as “Su-metal,” Yui Mizuno as “Yuimetal,” and Moa Kikuchi as “Moametal“) and backed by the hardcore grind of exceptionally good death metal riffs, you just don’t know how to react when you experience what is being slapped across your face. This genre is ordinary ruled by hairy ghouls who sound like Cookie Monster and look like one of Satan‘s minions, not fresh-faced angels in pig tails. BABYMETAL is a great novelty bringing a breath of fresh air to a rigid genre not known for irony, but it will only last as long as the girls are teens.

13.  Saint Pepsi – “Fiona Coyne”

If you hail from some snowy areas like most of us here, you may have childhood memories of riding in your parents’ car on sunny winter Saturday afternoons listening to really cool songs on the local radio station, and everything in Kid-dom is perfect. This song reminds us of that.

14.  Sleater-Kinney – “Bury Our Friends”

The Portland trio Sleater-Kinney is back. Wow, are they ever back. This teaser was released just before the year’s end in advance of their Jan. 20 release of their new album No Cities To Love.

15.  Interpol – “All The Rage Back Home”

That Jimmy Finnerty really knew his bands. For those who don’t remember, he was the Interpol-loving middle child played by Griffin Frazen in the underrated, off-beat ’00s TV show Grounded For Life. Interpol hasn’t lost a single step from their earlier days, and this masterpiece juxtaposed with dark and upbeat riffs is evidence of that fact.

16.  Phantogram – “Fall In Love”

How can anyone not fall in love with this tasty bit of synthpop? The only thing we didn’t fall in love with was Phantogram‘s overuse of strobe lights at their live shows, but they hit the mark perfectly with this dreamy tune.

17.  Sun Kil Moon – “Ben’s My Friend”

Perfect song for a summer road trip.  It made us want to be 20 and irresponsible again so we could drive our crappy cars across Jack Kerouac‘s America discovering angel-headed hipsters and cool jazz kicks.

18.  SBTRKT/Ezra Koenig – “New Dorp, New York”

So New Dorp is actually a place in New York. Who knew? I want to go there. Is it just me, or does anyone else think this would fit nicely on a Paul Simon album?

19.  Chelsea Light Moving – “Groovy and Linda”

We always thought the hippies of the ’60s were mostly posers along for the ride, but they seemed to have a great time regardless. Thurston Moore, formerly of the legendary art-noise band Sonic Youth, captures that pretty well in his own uniquely dissonant way.

20.  Spoon – “Do You”

A great comeback, a great song, and a great way to end a Top 20 list.

Ten questions with Empathy Test

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Empathy Test’s Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf
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Super-smooth British synthpop masters Empathy Test have caught our attention recently during a Twitter scan of new music with their vibrantly textured melodies and haunting lyrics that stayed with us like a bittersweet memories of teenaged loves. The duo of singer Isaac Howlett and producer Adam Relf deftly blend ’80s-style electronic pop inspired by brilliant movie soundtracks like Drive, Terminator, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind along with modern indie groups like CHVRCHES and Purity Ring to create a stunningly layered and satisfying sound.
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Empathy Test will publicly debut the entire new EP Throwing Stones live at a November 28 release party at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London. Tickets are available online for £6 or at the door for £8. Fellow London synthpoppers New Arcades are slated as the opening act.  The EP will be available through the Brooklyn-based Stars & Letters label on December 9.
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Throwing Stones cover art by Adam Relf
1.  Gentlemen, congratulations on your gorgeous new EP Throwing Stones. You both seem to be in perfect synch with each other musically. What do you attribute to that success?
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Well, we’ve known each other since we were kids, so we’ve had a long time to get to know each other! We share a mutual love for a good hook and a catchy chorus and we both enjoy music that’s dark and uplifting. We have our roles in the band well-defined, we play to our strengths and we respect each other’s opinions about how best to do things. That’s it really. 
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2.  You two have been together as Empathy Test for less than a year.  What did you do previously?
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Isaac was an acoustic singer-songwriter and Adam produced dance records for a few independent London labels. We attempted to work together before but it never really got off the ground. With Empathy Test everything just clicked. In synth pop we found a genre that suited us both, and we finally had the skills and experience to make it work. 
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3.  Although you have been childhood friends, you just recently decided to play music together. What drew you together for this project?
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Isaac took a two year sabbatical from London, spending a year in Brighton and a year and Barcelona. He came back to London and we started hanging out again. One day we were at Adam’s place talking about movies and music, and we were just inspired to make some new music. We recorded Losing Touch, and quickly realised we were onto something.

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4.  You mentioned your shared love for ’80s synth pop, and your music does seem to echo shades bands like of Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. What are your influences from that time period?
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We can’t say that either of us really listen to any of those bands now, although we are aware of them and the influence they’ve had on the current electronic music scene. Adam is particularly into the movie soundtracks of that time and as we use ’80s analogue synth samples we’re bound to sound a bit like the bands you mentioned. 
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5.  There has been a resurgence of synth pop over the past decade or so with innovative bands like yours and also those like M83, Sylvan Esso, and Hot Chip. Is this a continuation of what was started 30 years ago, or do you see this as a completely new direction for the genre?  How do you see the genre progressing?
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Again, we don’t really see ourselves as part of a particular genre or movement. Synth pop has seen a big resurgence as part of the 80s revival in all areas of culture. It’s great to be riding this wave but we like to think that as our career progresses our music will develop and change, as it already has done. We wouldn’t be surprised if the bottom falls out of the synth pop thing quite rapidly now because we’re nearing saturation point. We hope to stick around a bit longer.
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6.  Visual art is an important component to your music. Can you explain more about that?
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Adam is an illustrator as well as a music producer so he was always going to do our artwork. The artwork is inspired by the music we make and Adam likes to create a new piece for every track. We made a conscious decision at first, not to put up any “band photos” or too much info about us, we wanted to give the music a life of its own. The artwork was and is part of that. 
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7.  You also both share an appreciation for movie synth pop soundtracks like Drive and Aliens. What about those soundtracks drew you to that music, and what made you want to expand on it?
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There’s something primal and deeply evocative about analogue synth sounds that we find really moving. They’re alien and synthetic but at the same time somehow organic and human. They immediately give a dream-like quality to a track; we wanted to build on that. Essentially, we wanted to work those cinematic soundscapes into proper, memorable pop songs. I think we achieved that immediately with Losing Touch.

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8.  You’re kicking off your tour with an EP release party on November 28 at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London. Can you tell us where you will tour and what to expect at your live shows?
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We haven’t actually booked a proper tour yet, as such. We’re looking to sign with an agency because booking tours is a logistical nightmare we’d rather not deal with! We’ll start with a UK tour, then Europe and finally America, it’s all a question of how big we get and how soon! The live show is something we’re developing at the moment. We’ve got a new set-up where all of our instruments, including the drum pads, will be on three separate tripods. We’re auditioning a drummer to join us on stage. 
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9.  You recently signed with the U.S. indie label Stars & Letters Records in Brooklyn, New York, which seems to be a great fit for you.  They boast a rather impressive stable of indie acts such as Shocking Pinks, Bad Blocks, and Misfit Mod.  We know you are about to release the new EP, but can you tell us what’s on the horizon with Stars & Letters (e.g., new album, videos, etc.)?
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Everything depends on the success of the Throwing Stones EP really. Once the EP lands and the dust settles it’ll be a case of taking stock and sitting down with Stars & Letters to decide the next move. Stars & Letters are very keen for us to release a début album with them – they wanted an album as our first release, but it had always been our plan to release at least two EPs before a full-length album. For us it’s about building an audience. The last thing we want to do is to release a whole album and no one to hear it! 
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However, we’ve plans for a Throwing Stones Remixed EP in the new year, with some really exciting bands lined up to do remixes. The first one, by Sweden’s Lost Years, has already previewed on Soundcloud. We’re also working with Richard Swarbrick, who did the Liverpool FC animation featuring Losing touch on our first music video. We’ve seen his ideas for it and it looks incredible.
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10.  Any chance you’ll bring your live show to the States?  Specifically this blog’s hometown of New Orleans?
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Yeah, definitely, I’m guessing we’ll make a preliminary trip over to NYC as Stars & Letters are based there. We’ve applied for SXSW too, so maybe if we get picked we’ll be over for that. As we say to everyone that asks, we will get to you as soon as we are physically able to! 
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Tasty synth-pop from London’s Empathy Test

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One of the better offerings from the synth-pop world is coming from the duo of Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf, collectively known as Empathy Test.  In their latest offering Throwing Stones, the title track from their forthcoming EP due in November, Howlett’s haunting voice floats through Reif’s beautiful electronic landscapes for a satisfying electronic pop slice not heard since the genre’s golden age of the 1980s.

Taking their name from the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, producer Relf seem to disprove the movie’s premise that advanced machines lack empathy.  His deft use of electronic media demonstrates a mastery of warm melodies that envelop you like a warm down comforter on a chilly country evening.

Empathy Test will throw their EP release party on November 28 at the Hoxton Square Kitchen and Bar in London.  We look forward to hearing more from these two.

Seattle’s Straight Red Worth Your Time

We comb through countless bands on Twitter looking for new music we like, and we found it in spades with Straight Red, an indie band hailing from Seattle.

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Travis Crowell – Lead Vocals
Arthur Peach – Bass
Rich Todd – Guitar/Vocals
Evan Peterson – Drums

This Pacific Northwest band caught our attention with their unique blend of high-energy straightforward garage rock and psychobilly (without the horror) with a touch of post-punk somewhere in between The Cramps and Joy Division.

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Although we can’t find videos of shows, their danceable tunes appear to be perfect for live performances, and we hope to see them live someday.  Straight Red is definitely worth your time.

FRIDAY 5 ACROSS THE LIPS: Five bands we wish would get back together

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1.  LCD Soundsystem

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Years active: 2001-2011
Number of albums: 9 (including three EPs)

While I try to keep an open mind to all genres, I’m not a fan of what is generally known as “dance music.”  It might be because it seems like there isn’t much of a creative process in making it.  It might be because the lyrics to most dance songs seem vapid at best.  Or it might be because I have no coordination and can’t dance my way out of an open burlap sack with all the sides removed.  Regardless, it’s just not for me…unless that dance music is coming from LCD Soundsystem.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been a long-time fan.  I can’t go into the nuances of their music or tell you the different stages of their decade-long career.  I came to the LCD Soundsystem game late, perhaps two or three years before the breakup.  I became hooked to their clever, humorous approach to dance, which made it more appealing. What’s more fun than moving your hips to “Losing My Edge” while watching frontman James Murphy getting his face slapped repeatedly to the beat for four minutes and 27 seconds?  Or the thought of “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” where you can “Dance Yrself Clean (with Kermit and the Muppets)” with lots of “Drunk Girls“?

Yep, that was one dance party I wish never ended.

2.  The Smiths

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Years active: 1982-1987
Number of albums: 16 (including 10 compilations and one EP)

For some reason, Morrissey recently declared in a Billboard magazine interview that “I don’t know a single person who wants a Smiths reunion.”

Seriously?

I’m here to declare I’m that single person who really wants a Smiths reunion.  I’ll sit in the audience by myself if I have to.

I first heard the Smiths during my DJ days at the University of Denver’s student-run radio station, KAOS, from 1983-86.  It was a far cry from what I was used to during my high school days in central Michigan, where we were fed a regular diet of Bob Seger, Journey, and Billy Joel.  The most alternative thing we listened to at the time was maybe Cheap Trick (Patti Smith didn’t count because the only tune we heard her sing was actually a Bruce Springsteen song).

There was something off about the Smiths, but I loved it.  Morrissey’s velvety smooth voice interlaced with Johnny Marr’s dirty guitar work created an incredibly complex and gorgeous tapestry of juxtaposing sounds.  Couple that with the irony of Morrissey’s lyrics dripping with sadness, depression, and defeat against a wall of Marr’s joyously upbeat chords and you had something offbeat, fun, and as addictive as heroin-laced Dove chocolates.  I didn’t really know what to make of the Smiths at the time, but I knew I could never go home again.  And I was very good with that proposition.

3.  Das Racist

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Years active: 2008-2011
Number of albums: One studio album, two mixtapes

Remember when hip hop was clever and fun?  Yeah, I barely remember that either.  The likes of Sugar Hill Gang, Beastie Boys, and NWA are long gone and have been replaced by rappers slurring lazy rhymes with no irony, sense of humor, or any purpose.

Then along came Das Racist, three apparent slackers from Brooklyn with degrees from  Wesleyan University who employed humor, academic references, foreign allusions, and unconventional style of rap that hasn’t been heard in years.  Taking their name from the short-lived MTV show  Wonder Showzen in which a character constantly yelled “That’s Racist!” between skits, the trio intentionally or unintentionally set out to make rap fun again, which included songs about trying to find your buddy at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, a tribunal led by Michael Jackson, and the finer points of stalking.  Some saw them as a joke, others saw them as an important milestone in modern hip hop.

Incidentally, while the name was meant to be a clever homage to Wonder Showzen and how a serious accusation had become little more than a quip, it backfired as some thought the group was comprised of white supremacists, which is not the case.  All three are men of color who are definately not racists.

4. Sonic Youth

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Years active: 1981-2011
Number of albums: 30 (including four compilations and eight EPs)

I pretty much grew up with Sonic Youth, so I took the news rather hard when I found out they disbanded following the separation and subsequent divorce of guitarist Thurston Moore and his wife/bandmate, bassist Kim Gordon.  It was like losing someone you love who was also taking all her cool stuff with her.  It was devastating.

Sonic Youth is arguably most influential band of the modern rock era.  They did things with guitars that had never been thought of before, such as alternative tuning and playing the instruments with screwdrivers and drum sticks to create vast walls of dissonant sound.  They championed other indie bands, such as Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, and Cell, after signing with Geffen’s DCG label.  They came out with 30 great albums in 30 years (not counting singles and bootlegs), nary a clunker among them.  They are the greatest band of all time.

Their fifth album Daydream Nation was enshrined in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005 for being “…culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”  The Registry describes the album:

“Pioneer members of New York City’s clangorous early 1980s No Wave scene, Sonic Youth are renowned for a glorious form of noise-based chaos. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo had previously performed with Glenn Branca’s large guitar ensembles, and their alternative guitar tunings and ringing harmonies attest to this apprenticeship. On Daydream Nation, their breakthrough album, the group’s forays into outright noise always return to melodic songs that employ hypnotic arpeggios, driving punk rock rhythmic figures and furious gales of guitar-based noise. Bassist Kim Gordon’s haunting vocals and edgy lyrics add additional depth to the numbers she sings.”

And now they’re no more.  Given three decades of unfettered brilliance, we’re fortunate to have such an in-depth collection of incredible avante-garde musical art from which to draw because they’re gone for good.  The world is worse for it.  One more show wouldn’t deaden the pain, but it might alleviate it a bit.

5.  Cell

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Years active: 1990-1995
Number of albums: 2

Cell had so much potential, but was a victim of being in the right place at the wrong time.  I first heard them when they opened up for Sonic Youth at Tuxedo Junction in Danbury, Conn., on July 2, 1992, to promote their first album, Slo-Blo.  That was about a year into the grunge era which, unfortunately, would only last a few more years as Kurt Cobain’s suicide on April 5, 1994, marked the decline of the genre.  As grunge went, so did Cell.  By 1994 they released their second and final album, Living Room, then they faded into oblivion.  During their short career, they produced some powerful guitar rock that was just as much on their albums as it was live.

The Strokes coming back in 2014?

Julian Casablancas and The Strokes found the perfect song to cap off their most recent album, 2013’s Comedown Machine.  While the band stated they plan to come back sometime in 2014, vocalist Julian Casablancas performed with his new band (side project?), the Voidz, at SXSW.  Either way, we’re good with whichever avenue he pursues in the coming year.

FRIDAY 5 ACROSS THE LIPS: 180-Degree Covers

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This week Friday 5 Across the Lips looks at five original songs and the covers of those tunes that took a lot of artistic license.  

1. “Enter Sandman”  

Enter Sandman,” Metallica’s classic wall of sound from their self-titled 1991 album, is a dark, brooding, and slightly disturbing song about the childhood horrors of drifting to slumber; however, it becomes an ebullient big-band extravaganza in the hands of the squeaky clean Pat Boone.  You can almost see Metallica plotting with the monsters under the bed in the original; in the cover, you know Boone is leading them in a big, splashy dance number.

Original by Metallica (1991)

Cover by Pat Boone (1997)

2. “Black Diamond”

Recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kiss has built a four-decade career on face paint, pyrotechnics, and straight-forward hard rock songs that has influenced a few generations of rockers worldwide to pick up guitars and follow suit.  The band has had a strong following in Japan since its early days that included a young musician named  Yoshiki Hayashi whom Kiss inspired to start his own metal band, X Japan.  Gene Simmons tapped Yoshiki to cover the song “I” from the universally ridiculed 1981 concept album Music From The Elder for the 1995 Kiss tribute album Kiss My Ass.  Yoshiki wisely distanced himself from that groaner and instead created a hauntingly beautiful classical arrangement of “Black Diamond” from Kiss’ 1974 debut album for the American Symphony Orchestra.  The resulting collaboration has been the only memorable contribution to the otherwise forgotten tribute album.

Original by Kiss (1974)

Cover by Yoshiki Hayashi and the American Symphony Orchestra (1995)

3. “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

Blues rocker Rod Stewart was another disco casualty in the late ’70s as the dance genre infected the airwaves with its predictable beats and cliched sexually-charged themes when he released “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” on his 1978 album Blondes Have More Fun. In an effort to salvage Stewart’s rock cred, co-writer Duane Hitchings defended the song by claiming Stewart was actually spoofing the disco lifestyle.  Legions of disco fans might say otherwise as the disco classic hit number one on many dance lists and stayed there for many weeks.  A true spoof of the song’s disco lifestyle came 15 years later when the industrial supergroup Revolting Cocks came up with a much seedier version.  Its ironically blase hardcore delivery of Chris Connelly’s monotone vocals over Al Jorgensen’s grinding synth work sleazed up Stewart’s notion of a one-night stand being sweet, innocent disco fun.

Original by Rod Stewart (1978)

Cover by Revolting Cocks (1993)

4. “Hurt”

Cover songs rarely eclipse the original, but it happened with Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails exceptional song “Hurt.”  Cash was nearing the end of his life when he recorded the song and he knew it; his once mighty bass-baritone voice that made us believe he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die now strained with age, uncertainty, and loneliness.  Those he loved and the world he once ruled were gone.  All that was left was a vulnerable elderly man ruminating about a life that went way too fast.

Songwriter and NIN frontman Trent Reznor himself was moved by the cover.  In a 2004 article in Alternative Press, Reznor said, “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

Original by Nine Inch Nails (1994)

Cover by Johnny Cash (2002)

5. “Superstar”

The biggest hit of the Carpenters‘ career was actually itself a cover, which many erroneously believe was originally recorded by the brother/sister duo.  Written in 1969 by Bonnie BramlettLeon Russell and Delaney Bramlett, it was given the working title “The Groupie Song,” before being renamed “Groupie (Superstar)” when recorded by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends Featuring Eric Clapton.  The somewhat creepy story of star obsession didn’t catch on even when it was later covered by acts such as Joe Cocker, Bette Midler, Cher, and Vicki Carr. It wasn’t until Karen Carpenter’s sweet, innocent voice brought to life the tragedy of the naive groupie’s empty, unrequited love.

The Carpenters had a legion of fans for several decades, but the most unlike were the art-noise indie icons Sonic Youth.  They recorded a gripping post-punk dirge for the late-Karen Carpenter, “Tunic (A Song for Karen)” on their 1990 album Goo that caught the attention of producers of the 1994 tribute album If I Were A Carpenter.  Most of the covers in the album featured top alternative rock bands of the day presenting rather straightforward renditions of Carpenters hits; however, the Sonic Youth contribution stood out with the group’s signature feedback guitar work and Thurston Moore’s throaty, whispering vocals that underscored a feeling of defeat and desperation.

While indie fans loved this version of the song that was later used in the soundtrack for the 2007 movie Juno, Richard Carpenter didn’t share the enthusiasm.  In a 2009 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Carpenter said, “At least when it comes to something like this, I will say I don’t care for it but I don’t understand it. So, I’m not going to say it’s good or it’s bad. I’m just going to say I don’t care for it.”

The Carpenters version (1971)

Cover by Sonic Youth (1994)