Releasing an album full of covers is almost a rite of passage in the music world. Some groups have built entire careers off reinterpreting classics (Vitamin String Quartet, for example). Dustin Kensrue of screamo staples Thrice is just the latest artist to try his hand at others’ works— his Thoughts That Float on a Different Blood (Vagrant, March 18) features odes to Tom Waits, Counting Crows and more musicians who shaped his life.
Here are five covers albums that ought to be in everyone’s record collection, thanks to the strength of their material and the soul the artists put into their devotion.
Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (American Recordings/Universal, 2002)
An apology to purists: This collection – Johnny Cash’s last during his lifetime – is not entirely composed of covers, nor is it entirely American (hi, Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus). But it earns its stripes on the tectonic take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” There is no denying Cash made that song his own, from the perspective of a dying man who had seen it all. One could hear the weight in his voice, quivering from years of trying to live up to his own legend. In the end, he let others like Trent Reznor speak for him— and through this interpretation, his history became ever more storied.
Watch the music video for Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.”
Nouvelle Vague – Nouvelle Vague (Luaka Bop, 2004)
It’s become a marketing cliché for gamines to turn down the tempo on past hits and whisper their ways through spooky TV show clips. But in 2004, Nouvelle Vague (French for “new wave”) offered clever spins on Joy Division, Dead Kennedys, the Cure and other big names of the 1980s. It was as though Serge Gainsbourg’s finest ingénues got together for a soiree full of champagne, cigarettes and song. The highlight is the elegantly wasted redux of the Specials’ “Friday Night, Saturday Morning.”
Listen to Nouvelle Vague’s cover of Modern English’s “I Melt With You” on Spotify.
Macy Gray – Covered (SLG, 2012)
Though she’s best known for her 1999 pop hit, “I Try,” Macy Gray has been one of music’s boldest risk-takers in the last couple of decades. She’s like Prince, in that some of her choices lift eyebrows, but when she lands her falls, she scores a perfect 10. Covered is so tendrilous that it’s utterly brilliant. Gray treats indie and alt-rock songs like balloon animals, twisting the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and AWOLNATION into funkadelic delights. Her childlike vocals and vulnerability mutate Metallica and Radiohead into rescue pleas. This album cannot be relegated to background ambiance; it demands to be paid full attention.
Watch the music video for Macy Gray’s cover of “Smoke Two Joints.”
Petra Haden – Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out (Bar None, 2005)
A stroke of genius or sheer artful masturbation? Whatever your take on Petra Haden’s a capella re-creation of the Who’s 1967 concept piece, you must admit it’s ambitious. Originally conceived by punk band the Minutemen in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the late ’90s that former bassist Mike Watt passed the idea onto his pal Haden. After her quartet, that dog., indefinitely split in 1997, she and Watt spent years compiling her vocals for the Who project, according to Entertainment Weekly. It eventually saw the light of day in 2005, with Haden doing her best Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and John Entwistle. And it even got Townshend’s thumbs up.
Watch Petra Haden perform “I Can See for Miles” in concert in 2005.
The Carpenters – Christmas Portrait (A&M, 1978)
Karen Carpenter was synonymous with Christmas. Her cozy alto was the fireplace hearth that kept revelers warm every December. When she urged you to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” you obeyed. There was something so comforting in her voice, though her real life was awash in pain. She transcended her deadly anorexia to give strength and love to her fans via carols, and the Carpenters’ versions of these omnipresent songs became the renditions.
Watch a clip from the Carpenters’ first Christmas special in 1976.