Artist Tribune

Robyn Phillips of Vallens counts down her 10 favourite covers of all time

“I think for a musician, the highest compliment you can pay is when you decide that you need to cover a certain song, [it's] almost an echelon of loving.”

Colin Medley
September 26, 2018

Venus Fest is a Toronto music festival and concert series celebrating feminism in the arts. The festival arrived in response to a long-standing and well-expressed need in the music industry to create a new kind of space for artists to thrive in and for community members to attend with a sense of safety. Robyn Phillips from the Toronto band Vallens put together this playlist for us in the spirit of the fest which ran September 20, 21, and 22nd. 

I have always been fascinated by other people’s interpretations of their favourite songs. To hear the artist’s cover feels like them capturing their version of what is going on inside of their mind when they listen. One of my favourite feelings is when you’re in love with a song and you find out it’s a cover, and you can fall in love with it all over again with the luxury of the different ways it could be. I think for a musician, the highest compliment you can pay is when you decide that you need to cover a certain song, almost an echelon of loving—like loving it so much you have to frame it in your own way and put it out there. Here are my (current) top 10 favourite covers of all time.

10. The Cover: Charles Bradley —“Changes” (2016)

Really similar instrumentation as the original, and you can even hear some super faint fuzzed out guitars in the back almost like a nod to Sabbath—even though that’s not in the original. Charles Bradley’s guttural singing of this song gets me every time.

The Original: Black Sabbath — “Changes” (1972)

Wouldn’t even know where to begin with how beautiful song this is—like the cover also an emotional, powerful listen every time. Probably the best break up song of all time.

9. The Cover: Asha Puthli —“I Dig Love” (1974)

Absolutely effervescent and sweaty cover that captures the special kind of sultry and sexuality that Puthli possess. A lot of people joke about Harrison’s original sounding like he’s saying “Dick” instead of “Dig” and I think this is definitely a play on that. She is my absolutely current obsession—I highly recommend her album The Devil is Loose, and any of her live TV appearance videos, and a dive into her wikipedia. She’s very very cool heh.

The Original: George Harrison —“I Dig Love” (1970)

8. The Cover: Portishead —“SOS” (2016)

Not sure what a Vallens list without mention of Portishead would be. This is especially very “me,” because my love affair with Portishead is parallel to my love for ABBA. A very naturally haunting and explorative cover.

The Original: Abba —“SOS” (1975)

Maybe THIS is in fact the best breakup song of all time? In a large list of my own personal favourites, it’s really hard for me to not officially say that Abba is my favourite but nonetheless really love this perfectly crafted song.

7. The Cover: This Mortal Coil —“Kangaroo” (1984)

This Mortal Coil’s 1984 album It’ll All End in Tears was essentially a one-off covers album, with a collective of people who were all on 4AD in the early 80’s, when 4AD was a very new and small label. I highly recommend the album but also the BBC documentary from this time period and these people on YouTube (I haven’t found it anywhere else) called “23 Envelope” (1990). It was an endlessly fascinating scene and community. This cover of Big Star’s “Kangaroo” is one of my favourite’s on the record and always gets stuck in my head on the subway. More on the collective later in the list…

The Original: Big Star—“Kangaroo” (1978)

The album this song is on is a very interesting and experimental release for Big Star, and sorted hinted at the things stylistically that were to come for Alex Chilton, one of my favourites. (I will be using the word favourite a lot on this favourites list, my apologies).

6. The Cover: Beach Boys—“Walk on By” (1969)

I have always loved this song a lot, in all it’s different appearances on movies and tv, but the Beach Boys’ cover of this was thrown at me from a random YouTube video playlist one night, and it teared me up and absorbed all my attention for days. It’s intoxicating in the way that on Brian Wilson can be and is not available to listen on any music platforms other than youtube from the best of my knowledge. It is a true youtube gift heh.

Another Great Version: Issac Hayes—“Walk on By” (1969)

There are beautiful little sounds peppered in every corner of this version and is just the most effortlessly cool song with an absolute swagger, up there with with “Fame” by Bowie.

The Original: Dionne Warwick—“Walk On By” (1964)

Very, very short trumpet sounds in their version.

5. The Cover: Nina Simone—“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1964/5)

There could easily be a list, longer than 10, of the best Nina Simone covers. She absolutely transformed everything to be better, more cryptic, and have an iconic feeling. This cover is definitely all of those things. I love the added strings and percussion, and the coral singing in the background. A good example of someone making a song much better. I had a phase with the Animals definitely, and I mean no offense to the them or their following about the song that made them famous but…she killed it. And no one stands a chance against her artistry in my enthusiastic opinion. (Side note, Lana Del Ray recently released a cover of this song and it’s definitely worth a listen!)

The Original: Animals—“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1964)

4. The Cover: The Everly Brothers—”Love Hurts” (1965)

Similarly to youtube randomly surprising me with an absolute gem, this cover came at me only a few weeks ago. It adds an innocent spin to the song. I have always been obsessed with Roy Orbison, and over the past few years have been listening very closely to the Everly Brothers, so this was right away one of my favourite things.

The Original: Roy Orbison—“Love Hurts” (1962)

I’ve been saying for over a decade that, if I had to pick my favourite singer and voice of all time it’d be Roy Orbison. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with how beautiful this song is, you should really just listen to it.

3. The Cover: Santos and Johnny—“Prisoner of Love” (1960ish)

Listening to their songs, and this one especially gives me a very familiar-unfamiliarity— a sort of wash of feeling at the end of a very emotional movie that is a western where the good guy did not win. Known best for their song “Sleepwalk,” which even if you don’t think you know, you do, all of their covers and songs and arrangements have very little instrumentation and is usually just steel guitar and hollow bodied electric 1950s guitar. Any of their complications or “best ofs” are stunning and very tender and I highly recommend!

The Original: Etta James—“Prison of Love” (1970)

Now, I have done my research on this song and there are many versions. It comes from that era where if a song is good enough pretty much anyone will cover and release it (which I love and I’m obsessed with). However, I am putting Etta James’ version as the original because hers is the very best known, and she had been performing it for years before it was officially released. James Brown also does a pretty famous version of this song. I’m not sure if that logic works for any brain but mine, however her version is equally haunting and engaging as Santos and Johnny’s.

2. The Cover:  David Bowie “Wild is the Wind” (1976)

When David Bowie passed away, and I was finally ready to listen to him again, this was the first song that I visited. And it is off of my favourite Bowie album, Station to Station. This is the kind of touching song that you’re not sure if you want it played in the ending credits of the movie of your life, or your wedding, or your funeral.

Another good version:  Dorothy Asby’s—“Wild is the Wind” (1961)

Yes, yes Cat Power’s cover of this song on her famous covers record (2000) is great, and what originally brought me to this song– and I hear George Michael covers it as well, but I would like to show you this beautiful  instrumental cover of this perfect song as an alternately great version of this song. And it probably truest to it’s originally arrangement from the play that it is from (that there is no recordings of) with the same title, “Wild is the Wind”.

The Original: Nina Simone—“Wild is the Wind” (1966)

This is another example of the release of the official recording being after the fact of it already being famous, so I would argue that her’s is the original by this logic. Anyway, yes another Nina Simone on this list, because like I emphasized before she’s the best. Except with “Wild is the Wind” I would assert that David Bowie’s is equally as perfect, but very different. Nina’s version is menacing and dramatic, and ruthlessly commanding. All of her little nuances and inflections of her vocal performance are moving– favourite part being when she says “Daddy you’re spring to me, all things to me”.

  1. The Cover: This Mortal Coil—“Song to the Siren” (1984)

This songs plays during a sex scene in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” which opened up a whole world of music to me. It brought me to this song from the collective This Mortal Coil, to Elizabeth Frasier who is the singer of this song but also the singer of the Cocteau Twins who I then also became utterly immersed in and is one of my now favourite bands. It was a gateway song, into all of this stuff, but I think shows a testament to her vocal performance in this cover. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake off the goosebumps.

The Original: Tim Buckley “Song of the Siren” (1969)

Other than this song, I am not really familiar with Tim Buckley’s music but find him really mysterious for some reason. Which is surprising to me given how much I love his lyrics in the song and the song itself. Only recently did a friend piece two and two together for me that he is the father of Jeff Buckley and their fascinating timeline/relationship. Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, who sang the cover mentioned above, had a few collaborative songs with Jeff, and they sing really beautiful together and worth checking out. Also Jeff Buckley, who’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” would be considered an honorable mention to this list.

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