How I Keep Calm: Finding the Perfect Cover Song

It’s like a Spotify version of a claw arcade game — you never know if you’ll be able to reach what you have in mind.

Hearing a good cover song feels like discovering a new Halloween costume: Like, I thought I knew Mr. Peanut, but your Sexy Mr. Peanut costume is really turning things upside down for me. That feeling of things are upside down remains when I find a Celtic cover of a Studio Ghibli film theme, or a metalcore cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.”

The combination of different tones, genres, and aesthetics really explodes with cover songs, and that’s why I’ve been specifically searching them out these days. Each new cover I discover reinvents my understanding of what a song is, and what it can become. Sometimes, I get so tied to a cover that it surpasses or supersedes the original. For example, I deeply believe that “Kaes On Aeg,” the Estonian dark disco version of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” is better than the original, and each time I listen I am filled with wanderlust for Estonian discotheques.

Maybe my obsession for cover songs has roots in when I was 13, attending bar and bat mitzvahs, and I visited distant synagogues where I heard each congregation’s different cantorial version of famous prayers like V’shamru or the Mourner’s Kaddish. Perhaps the roots come just a bit later in the evening, when we would dance to the exact same three songs (“Cotton-Eye Joe,” “Mambo No. 5,” and “Party Rock Anthem”). At my own bar mitzvah, I tried to switch things up by making the DJ play the soundtrack from Darren Aronofsky’s drug-addled drama Requiem to a Dream and The Section Quartet’s cover of “Such Great Heights” during the dinner portion. It was embarrassing — but also a pretty accurate reflection of my 13-year-old YouTube recommendations.

My early days of cover-hunting were fairly primitive and restricted to YouTube covers, such as The Wooden Birds covering “Maneater” or a pair of teenagers called First Aid Kit covering “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” As I’ve grown older, so has my love of variety, and I’ve recently utilized my Spotify student subscription to trawl through a massive collection of songs, looking for the best (often underplayed) covers.

The hunt for songs is part of why this hobby is so relaxing; it’s like a Spotify version of a claw arcade game — you never know if you’ll be able to reach what you have in mind, or if you’ll be clutching mystery prizes of little discernible value. In my cover hunt, the prizes of little discernible value are living room acoustic covers or, God forbid, ukulele covers. Due to Spotify’s awful user interface and less awful algorithms, ukulele covers constantly overwhelm search results, especially with older, famous songs (“Sound of Silence” coffeeshop version, anyone?). Choosing which song to select for a cover hunt is a challenge where you have to split the difference between not knowing the song or recognizing the talent of a cover, and the chance that the track is obscure enough to attract skilled musicians but not supersaturated with ukulele strumming.

I know these gems of covers as soon as I find them: James Blake’s 2011 experimental electronic track “The Wilhelm Scream” covered by Australian funk band The Bamboos, for example, immediately hits right after years of listening to the original — it’s also two levels deep as “The Wilhelm Scream” is itself a rework of Jamie Litherland’s “Where to Turn”! Another gem is a Gaelic-language version of Florence & The Machine’s “Cosmic Love,” which fits perfectly into Florence’s forest-god aesthetic and makes me proud to be an Irish Jew. These took hours to stumble upon, and I don’t regret a moment of it.

If you’re looking for oases of fantastic covers, Australian radio station Triple J hosts “Like a Version,” a weekly segment that offers famous musicians a chance to play one of their tracks followed by a cover, essentially the same format Spotify later used for “Spotify Singles.” Both are perfect places to begin your hunt. From these oases you can begin your deeper hunts for specific, underplayed covers, either by finding premade playlists or through searching for song titles that will get few hits. Searching for “Dreams,” either The Cranberries or the Fleetwood Mac songs, feels like a waste of time, but “White Ferrari” yields little results, and only a few covers worth your time (I think JFDR’s is best). I’ve also found wonderful cover song tribute albums that collect the work of a prolific, lyrical man but present more varieties of musicians and genres to cover his tracks: Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths, I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas, and Through the Static and Distance: The Songs of Jason Molina, to name a few. The haunting lyrics are retained, but now there’s cellos, duets, and significantly more women.

The most relaxing part of searching for cover songs is when I sit back in my quarantine work desk, headphones smothering out all noise but the music, and my queue is filled with possible gems of tracks played alongside the originals. Covers always have some essence of tradition — the reference to the original, typically through the lyrics — but surround that safe haven with a new take or style of music. In that way, they provide a bridge to new genres without the risk of getting lost or confused, because you already know the lyrics by heart.

The hunt, game, curation, and familiarity all combine for a general good time. At best, I’m finding the new theme for the summer. At worst, I just know that no one has yet uploaded a great cover of The HU’s “Yuve Yuve Yu” to Spotify — yet. If any breakcore or post-dubstep bands want to try, I highly encourage it. I’ll be back in some time to check in again, I’m sure, relaxing to whatever new covers are out.

My favorite covers can be found here. My favorite covers with original songs can be found here.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail submissions@heyalma.com with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

Pearse Anderson

Pearse Anderson (he/him/his) is a Gen Z journalist and short story author with writing in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Garage Magazine. Although he primarily focuses on internet culture, climate, and food, he would love to hear your cover song recommendations through Instagram or Twitter.

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