In many forms of art, it can be easy to dismiss the remake. Year after year, established stories from books, television, movies and comics are reinvented, retold and rebooted in new forms, to the point where it's fair to question why more original ideas aren't as easily accepted. It can be the same in rock music: New bands tend to mimic the styles they grew up with until they're able to develop a style of their own.
But there's still a lot of room in music to reinterpret older works. In other genres — jazz and classical in particular — it's built right into the framework. Tradition expects artists do their homework and learn the songbook as a path toward mastering the language of the music. Rock is less formal about it, but it does the same by establishing and adding to the canon of a particular style — say, garage rock. Through the cover song, artists are able to say a lot about themselves with the history they choose to revisit.
There's a common rule when it comes to most covers: Change the original too much, and it never feels right; don't change enough, and the song feels more like a pale imitation. The best artistic reinterpretations are able to pull from the past while shaping it into something fresh.
I've long been captivated by the cover song; as a fan, it's always satisfying to hear something familiar reworked. I love hearing a song rebuilt within a new genre, sped up or slowed down, stripped down and exposed, or embellished with new instrumentation. We've all been turned on to some forgotten gem or introduced to a record we might otherwise have overlooked after hearing a band pay respect to one of its influences. And we've probably all been in the crowd at a show when some band pulls out a perfectly selected cover song during the encore. There's something special about that shared moment.
Every year, countless new cover songs pop up in concert or as part of tribute albums, charity compilations and special 7" singles. Likewise, the Internet has enabled even more covers — in the form of video web series, cover songs blogs, and one-off recordings released to Bandcamp and SoundCloud. In the last couple years, I've compiled a big geeky spreadsheet of all the cover songs I encountered. Here are just a few of my favorites from 2011. It's far from any sort of complete list, but all the picks point to artists who've pushed the limits of the songs, while retaining the spirit that made them great.