2011 was a year of looking back relentlessly, whether you were awash in Remember The ’90s nostalgia or getting down at a New Kids On The Block show or watching Lady Gaga try to bring back the variety-hour era with her whacked-out Thanksgiving special. So it’s not too surprising that there was a bounty of covers—whether as part of all-tribute-set live shows or attempts to goose sites’ online traffic or just for, you know, fun—for the Sound of the City braintrust to choose from when putting together this list. Pop on pop, country on Gaga, and reggae on Seattle below.
10. Araabmuzik, “6 Foot 7 Foot” (live at Brooklyn Bowl)
Less a cover than a deconstruction, Araabmuzik’s reworking of Lil Wayne’s then-recently-released “6 Foot 7 Foot” before the small crowd at his April show at the Brooklyn Bowl would deserve inclusion for its audacity alone. In its radio-ready form the song is coming apart at the seams, its elements—drums, bass, that looping “Banana Boat Song” sample, Wayne—each attempting to pull the song in their own direction. But for Araab, this wasn’t a problem; it was liberation. He exploded the tune and re-arranged it again and again, first around the drums, then the bass, then Wayne himself—and he did it all with swagger of a Dipset affiliate and the patience of the dance producer he would soon grow into.
9. Amy Klein and the Blue Star Band, “Dancing In The Dark” (live at Death By Audio)
The most memorable cover from Permanent Wave’s all-star Halloween show in October, the Blue Star Band’s take on “Dancing in the Dark” merits inclusion as much for the music as for performance. Everyone dressed up as Bruce and no one as a member of the E Street Band; for authenticity, Clarence Clemons and Courtney Cox stand-ins jumped out of the crowd to enact their respective parts. Only The Muppets did it better.
8. Luke Bryan, “Bad Romance” (live at Madison Square Garden)
Never afraid to court an audience outside of his masculine fanbase, country singer Luke Bryan took his endearingly goofy genre-play to another level when he closed his September 16 set with a run through Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” He forgot a few words but nailed the “Ra Ras”—which, in the end, is all that really matters. “Who is this?” a man at the show asked his wife, clearly enjoying the tune way more than he ever intended to.
7. Taylor Swift, “Super Bass” (radio appearance)
Thanks, Taylor, for spearheading the one-woman campaign behind turning Nicki Minaj’s sparkling “Super Bass” into a single—and succeeding.
6. Little Roy, “Dive” (album cut)
Little Roy’s Battle For Seattle celebrated the Nirvana-worship that took over the 20th anniversary of Nevermind‘s release with a slew of old-school reggae covers of the band’s catalog. But none were better than this version of a gloomy cut from early in the band’s career, which retains its dreariness even when it brightens into a key change on the bridge.
5./4. Patti Smith, “Rolling in the Deep” (live at Castle Clinton) /”Georgia On My Mind” (live at MoMA)
Patti’s never been a stranger with other people’s songs: Pick up a reissue of Horses, and you’ll find two covers—first Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” then The Who’s “My Generation”—better than any of the songs we’ve listed her; in 2007, she devoted an album, Twelve, to the likes of “Within You Without You” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This year, her most memorable covers came in live settings: With “Rolling in the Deep,” her love and admiration for the Adele original shines through (and is almost enhanced by) the flubbed lines, and months later, her take on “Georgia on My Mind” brought a crowd at the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly to tears.
3. Wye Oak, “Mother” (AV Club Undercover)
One of the best new bands to come around in recent years is Wye Oak, a Baltimore duo whose brand of Americana reels in those listeners who can appreciate both feedback hazes and bright, sunny twang, not to mention aficionados of smoky voices like the one possessed by Jenn Wasner. That they decided to cover Danzig’s signature track for The AV Club‘s series of tribute songs makes perfect sense; what’s incredible is the way that, somehow, these two managed to make the song sound even more menacing and rumbling.
2. Miguel, “Hold It Against Me” (Billboard Mashup Mondays)
The first line of Miguel’s take on Britney Spears’ built-to-dominate single is a little bit shaky, with the singer trying to find his pitch in the void. Stick with it, though (come on, Internet-addled attention spans!), until the organ comes in—after that you’ll hear the track bloom into a snaky, sensual slow-burner that would make Prince proud. The arrangement, which uses just enough instrumentals to make its point, even almost redeems the excessively awful Leisure Suit Larry-worthy pickup line repurposed for the song’s chorus.
1. St. Vincent, “Kerosene” (live at Bowery Ballroom)
The standout from another night of covers—the May show in honor of Michael Azerrad’s canonical Our Band Could Be Your Life—St. Vincent’s take on Big Black’s “Kerosene” ripped first through the Bowery Ballroom, and then through indie-leaning music blogs. How could it not? Annie Clark stepped out from behind the restrained (repressed?) stoicism she displays in, say, the music video for “Cruel” and let loose, raging through a cloud of distortion and yelled vocals while somehow remaining as precise as ever.