Duck for cover from these vapid veterans

New versions of old classics can be revelatory, says Elisa Bray – but more often than not, they're uninspiring chart fodder

It's that time of year when pop artists dig out old hits, dust them off and give them a sheen of their own. The cover song is back, and could even be this year's Christmas No 1, if Ellie Goulding's version of Elton John's "Your Song" keeps up its sales.

It's in her cover songs that Goulding's vocals offer the most emotion. When she covered Bon Iver's "The Wolves", even some of the latter's most reverent fans voiced their approval. One of its draws was the unexpected – here was an electropop, chart-topping singer performing a revered indie song. In the best cases, a cover reveals another layer to an artist we feel we already know.

The cover single seems to be enjoying a renaissance. And it's not just the X Factor winner or those musicians "recording" John Cage's silent work "4'33''" as an anti-X Factor campaign. Rather than belonging exclusively to acts of a certain status, rising bands of all genres are doing covers, as a public way of acknowledging their influences. The BBC Sound of 2011-tipped James Blake has a compelling cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love", D M Stith's cover of Randy Newman's "Suzanne" is excellent, as is Canadian Basia Bulat's take on Sam Cooke's "Touch the Hem of His Garment".

The odd cover song can be a treat, but a whole album of covers is only a good thing when the act sets out to do something entirely new. Among all of the repackaged, deluxe versions of albums in the lead up to Christmas, there have been several devoted to covers, including new releases from Neil Diamond and Jason Donovan. The latter explained in a recent interview that he'd reached the "covers stage" of his career. It sounds cynical, but Donovan has a point with his Soundtrack of the 80s, a collection of covers of 80s songs. Have a great name, but lacking in artistic inspiration? Why not release a covers album?

Yet sales figures aside, an entire album of covers, especially when the material is so obvious, adds little of artistic worth. Neil Diamond's new album, Dreams, is another case in point. An excellent example of the "covers stage", in Dreams he offers up an amalgam of well-known, predictable hits. Paul Anka has also milked the commercial opportunities with his album of rock covers, including a cover of Spandau Ballet's "True". George Michael released a covers album back in 1999, while Lulu made an album of cover duets featuring such commercial and non-forward-thinking pop acts as Ronan Keating and Westlife, and veteran stars Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney. In all cases, the material chosen is predictable, mainstream – and lacking in imagination.

A good cover offers something entirely unexpected from the artist, delivered in a unique way that surprises the listener. It can be difficult to achieve right across an entire album – and not just for solo artists. Compilations face the same hurdle. The charity album Dark Was the Night, produced by The National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner, with such beloved indie heroes as Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, Stuart Murdoch and Blonde Redhead contributing, was a promising prospect. And though it offered some gems (songs from Stevens and Dirty Projectors/ David Byrne included), there were a couple too many throwaway songs (including Dave Sitek's cover of "With a girl like you").

Covers-only projects Headless Heroes and Nouvelle Vague could hardly be accused of lacking in imagination, though. And Joan as Policewoman, who used to play in Antony Hegarty's backing band and is now an indie star in her own right, also did an album of pleasingly wide-ranging covers in 2009 called Cover.

Some genres have a tradition of covers. In country music, the heritage is arguably the glue, and the same could be said of folk, reggae, and jazz, although all styles have their progressive strands, too. In pop, however, it's all about forward-thinking. Musicians can keep doing inventive covers, but should avoid falling prey to the commercial bait of a covers album. Submitting to the "covers stage" of one's career can be most undignified.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks