RIFF REWIND: Best acoustic covers, with Jonathan Coulton, Bahamas and Eric Clapton

Jonathan Coulton, Solid State

Jonathan Coulton likes big butts, and will sing about it.

Turns out this whole coming up with a column idea every week thing is, like, really hard. Like… really hard. Have you ever had to come up with a thing every week? It’s crazy, man.

To think Snoop does it like every single day despite the LBC’s drama.

This week’s column idea comes from the laziest source possible: The song I happened to be listening to when I sat down to write this. I’m a fan of off-genre covers, acoustic covers especially, and my second-favorite was on. So why not!

My favorite is the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” which is disqualified since it made the top five in a column last year, but there are plenty more. It’s the golden age of acoustic covers! With YouTube serving as the new hub for the nation’s garage bands, and covers being easier to sell to a wide audience than original music, you can’t throw a rock without hitting two fantastic arrangements of classic songs. So it was no problem to pick five. I’ve solved my problem for another week!

Bahamas — “Don’t You Want Me”

I have to lead off with this because it’s the song that inspired the column topic.

Bahamas’ cover of the 1981 chiptune classic is Exhibit A in my case in favor of off-genre covers. Great songs stand up to just about any faithful arrangement, so a song like “Don’t You Want Me” that can sound dated as tastes and preferences change over time can get a second life by switching to a genre less attached to a specific time and place. Cut through the synth-driven new wave wall of ’80s at the core of the original and you can appreciate the catchiness of the hook and the depth of the story.

I’m still a little annoyed it didn’t make the setlist of Bahamas’ Outside Lands appearance but I guess we can’t have it all.

Foo Fighters — “Everlong” (Acoustic Version)

Yes, this counts. If you want to make the rules write your own column.

The Foo Fighters did this stripped-down, acoustic version of one of their biggest hits for a 2009 greatest hits compilation and I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that it’s better than the original. Nothing against the old version of course, it’s a good song, but this is downright great.

After listening to it, then listening to the original version again, it almost feels like this is the song Dave Grohl wanted to record in the first place. Play both versions for someone and they’d probably assume the electric, full-band version is the cover. Which, along with the entire rest of his career, just goes to show how great a musician Grohl is.

Sturgill Simpson — “In Bloom”

I famously dislike country music and I won’t apologize for it.

If you like it that’s fine—regular readers of the column are well aware my taste in music is abysmal—but I can’t stand it. It’s mostly just subpar rock music with a forced accent and gratingly twangy instruments in the band. I don’t like music with a template; if there are rules about what counts as that type of music, I’m out. Without the flexibility to stretch the limits, what’s the point?

I explain all that because it just highlights what a great songwriter Kurt Cobain was. Sturgill Simpson took a heavily-distorted grunge song and played it within that country music framework and it’s still amazing. Not a lot of musicians have been able to write music that can so seamlessly transcend genres and I struggled to choose between this song and Sinead O’Connor’s cover of “All Apologies.” This whole column could just be Nirvana covers if I wanted to go next-level lazy.

Note to self: Top five Nirvana covers…

Jonathan Coulton — “Baby Got Back”

Acoustic guitar covers of hip-hop songs can go extremely bad extremely fast. There’s a very fine line between homage and mockery, and since the acoustic covers are usually done by the whitest of guys that mockery can seem racially tinged with very little effort or even intent. Which makes me love this brilliant Jonathan Coulton cover of a Sir Mix-A-Lot song so much more.

This is actually the song that first got my attention. At a long-ago Penny Arcade Expo, before Jonathan Coulton was the nerd icon and cruise magnate he is today, he was the opener for the opener for the opener at the Saturday night concert. He started the set playing for a room maybe 10-percent full and still seemed visibly terrified by the size of the crowd. After a couple songs he got to “Baby Got Back” and people, myself included, started to put down their phones and pay attention. After a rousing, participatory “Re: Your Brains” they picked up their phones again to text their friends to come see.

By the end of the show the venue was packed and his merch table was just about sold out. His latest album—appropriately of ’70s soft rock covers—was funded on Kickstarter in about three hours. In fact, not only is he a celebrity in the geekier circles himself, he’s helped launch the careers of other artists from Paul and Storm to Molly Lewis. He has enough fame to spread around!

Eric Clapton — “Layla” (Unplugged)

I wanted to find all five under-the-radar, little-known covers. I really did. But there are two acoustic covers that became huge hits and arguably surpassed the originals; Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and Eric Clapton’s 1992 MTV Unplugged cover of “Layla,” a 1971 song originally from his time with Derek and the Dominos. I put Cash’s song on the list last year so Clapton needed his time to shine.

I mean, come on, how could list acoustic covers without putting this on there? Just listen to it. It’s incredible.

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData

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