It's often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though that's not always the case with the creative AV Undercover series from The Onion and the AV Club. In this ongoing internet series, The Onion invites artists into their studios to record covers of popular hits from the past. Some of these covers are fairly faithful to the originals—by which we mean they're not incredibly creative—but the best in the annual series are those that draw inspiration from the original song while making it entirely their own. To us, that's a different level of flattery. Trust us on this; you'll never listen to Neil Young the same way again after listening to The Polyphonic Spree cover "Heart of Gold."
Additional benefits of this topsy-turvy series? Discovering new artists you may never have heard of otherwise (I credit the AV Club with turning me on to Father John Misty), and finding a newfound appreciation for old songs like Toto's "Africa" (cheesetastic lines like "As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti" notwithstanding).
The first few videos in the 2015 AV Undercover series have been posted to the Onion Studios' website, with more yet to come. So far, we haven't personally been blown away by any of the covers in the latest season, but if past covers are any indication we're sure to find some new favorites soon. In the meantime, our current Top 10 list is below, for use as a guide to exploring the series for the first time as a newcomer or as sample of the high bar set for the 2015 season by past artists.
Honorable Mention: Gwar, for gamely playing along every single season (with more AV Undercover apperances than any other artist) and covering such schlock-fests as Billy Ocean's "Get Into My Car" and Kansas' "Carry On My Wayward Son." The covers weren't good, and correctly so, because this is Gwar we're talking about here, and that's what's simultaneouly so wonderful and so terrible about each one. R.I.P. Dave Brockie; you were a hell of an entertainer.
10. Strand Of Oaks covers Asia
Folk-rock artist Timothy Showalter, who currently performs as Strand of Oaks, came to national attention with his last album, HEAL, which is up there with The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream as one of our favorite releases of 2014. Both have a distinct, synth-heavy, modern-'80s vibe to them, and Showalters's decision to cover Asia's "Heat of the Moment" makes a lot of sense in this context. The song is slowed down, tripped up and elegantly shoe-gazey, making for far better easy listening than the original.
9. Mariachi El Bronx cover The Decemberists
If you'd never heard the original "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," you could be forgiven for assuming this was a Mariachi El Bronx song to begin with. The bridge seems written for a horn section, for one. Then there's the fact that a plaintive love song full of mixed emotions about the object of one's affection is classic mariachi subject matter, and entirely suited to accompaniment by an accordian and big, thrumming guitarrón. That's until you get to the lyrics, however, which are pure Decemberists: "A plaintive melody / Truncated symphony / An ocean's garbled vomit on the shore / Los Angeles, I'm yours." Despite this, Mariachi El Bronx pulls it all off effortlessly, helped along by the fact that—despite their name—the band is composed of native Angelenos.
8. Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater cover Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty
Sharon Van Etten is the only artist to make this list twice, due to the ease with which she completely transforms a song you've heard a million times over into something new and compelling. Here, she covers the classic Nicks/Petty duet "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" with Austin's own Shearwater (not to be confused with Stillwater, the fictional band from Almost Famous), a group formed from members of the more well-known Okkervil River. Van Etten's signature throaty growl paired with Shearwater's on-point homage to the Heartbreakers and their swaggering, sexy groove-rock is just plain fun to listen to, and you may even find yourself enjoying Van Etten's voice more than Miss Nicks' (shhhhh...we won't tell anyone).
7. Father John Misty covers The Flaming Lips
It makes sense that one loveable weirdo would choose to cover another. Joshua Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes, and Wayne Coyne, he of giant hamster balls and stage banter about aliens and drugs, are two sides of the same manic street preacher coin. No surprise, then, that Tillman—who performs as Father John Misty these days—absolutely nails that gorgeous Flaming Lips ballad "Do You Realize??" Wearing a pair of paper 3-D glasses that Coyne would surely approve of, Tillman croons his way through a soft, lush, richly layered version of the song that makes one instantly pine for the rest of Father John Misty's catalog (we're cueing up Fear Fun right now, in fact).
6. Wye Oak covers Kate Bush
In the same vein as above, it makes sense Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner would be drawn to Kate Bush, a verified child prodigy and idiosyncratic singer/songwriter/performer who was making weird, angsty, gorgeous, combative, ballet-inspired music videos a full three decades before Sia. Wasner also got an early start in music, beginning piano lessons at 5 years old and writing songs on her guitar by 12. At 20, she formed the group Wye Oak with friend Andy Stack. The duo give "Running Up That Hill" a more dramatic, bass-driven makeover that's a cross between Kate Bush's synth-heavy original from 1985 and the spare, dark cover from Placebo from 2003. Stack is the multi-instrumentalist here, concentrating on percussion and synth, which gives Jenn Wasner the space she needs to carve out her own beautiful vocals for the track, which we feel like Kate herself would approve of.
5. Nada Surf covers New Order
One of the most influential bands of the '90s and '00s covering one of the most influential bands of the '80s could have been a trainwreck, but Nada Surf's sensitive treatment of "Bizarre Love Triangle" breathes new life into New Order's seminal new wave hit. To say that this cover sounds like it could have come straight off Let Go is high praise indeed, Matthew Caws' reedy voice transforming the song from flirty, high-energy ear candy to plaintive, longing ear worm. And once it burrows in, you'll have a hard time getting the oddly catchy banjo-and-beatboxing-based version out of your head (not that we're personally complaining).
4. The Polyphonic Spree covers Neil Young
Everything about this video is pure love from beginning to end: seeing the entire [current] line-up of the white-smocked band shoved into the tiny AV Club studio; counting all of the instruments the group jammed into the space, Tetris-style; the story that frontman Tim DeLaughter tells in his soft Texas accent about the time his group was mistaken for homeless people; and most especially the gleeful fervor with which they all launch into Neil Young's classic "Heart of Gold." Even normally-trolling YouTube commenters have nothing but nice stuff to say about this video; there's no way to walk away from this cover without a big, stupid grin on your face, which is to say the Polyphonic Spree have accomplished their mission as ably as ever.
3. Sharon Van Etten covers Fine Young Cannibals
Perhaps the epitome of the expression "slow burn," this cover is what would happen if you slowed down Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" and handed the mic over to Sharon Van Etten, at which point she spontaneously decided to sing Fine Young Cannibals lyrics instead. If you remember hating "She Drives Me Crazy" in the '80s, prepare to experience some severe cognitive dissonance as you find yourself falling ass-over-teakettle for this version (or at least suggesting it as make-out music the next time your significant other comes over).
2. The Swell Season covers Neutral Milk Hotel
We'll state our bias up front: Neutral Milk Hotel is, simply put, one of the best bands ever, and Jeff Mangum is a living god. (Yes, we are Generation X trashbags.) This is important to state because prior to seeing this video for the first time, we'd never heard of The Swell Season (and yes, we're the last people in the world to have seen Once, apparently) and were prepared to hate them in advance for possibly butchering one of the greatest songs ever written. But from the moment Glen Hansard started digging into "Two Headed Boy" with every bit of raw passion Jeff Mangum pours into his own performances, we were hooked, chills down the spine and all. This is a divisive cover, as some say that Hansard and partner Markéta Irglová don't give the final verse of the Neutral Milk Hotel song the soft, sensitive treatment it "deserves," but we disagree—and like Hansard's interpretation on its own merits, guttural and fierce to the very end.
1. Iron And Wine covers George Michael
Sam Beam—a.k.a. Iron & Wine—puts it best himself here in the intro to this artfully rearranged, stripped-down version of "One More Try," George Michael's certified Gold single from 1988: "You can say it's a goofy '80s song and so that makes it ironic but you know there's a lot of songs from the '80s that are great tunes but are masked by production." Beam's utterly unironic devotion to taking a very over-produced, decidedly overwrought tune and repackaging it as something gentle, tender and deeply vulnerable is a bold—one could even say brave, if they being a bit overwrought themselves—move here, and one that pays off by making this cover far and away the best the series has ever produced.