'80s music has long held a nostalgic appeal for those who came of age during the era, but in recent years new fans and up-and-coming artists are grasping that an appreciation of the period's pop music need not be an embarrassing enterprise. A cover can always serve as a demonstration of pop culture parody, but these particular versions generally focus on respect for quality material. Here's a look (in no particular order) at some of the best cover versions of '80s songs to be found on record.
Lesbian queercore band the Butchies (which just so happens to hail from my home state of North Carolina, in an unsolicited and unrelated aside) take the Outfield's wonderfully catchy mainstream rock tune and give it an absolutely hypnotic sheen in this 2003 cover. In its original form, the song skillfully communicates romantic longing, but the Butchies' somewhat slowcore, acoustic take really ramps up the emotional immediacy. Lyrically, the song is lustful without ever crossing over to sleazy, and the Outfield's power pop style certainly helped provide a measure of class. However, this cover's gender-switch deconstruction of the tune makes the song feel even more tortured and moving.
Most compositions from songwriters for hire such as Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg lack the capacity to demonstrate much range in versatility, even when they're not recorded by mainstream pop artists. But this tune, originally recorded in a delightfully bombastic style by Heart back in 1987, holds up really well in this stark and quiet solo version from one-half of the creative core of Australia's Go-Betweens. The song's bridge - "Until now I always got by on my own, I never really cared until I met you..." - boasts melodic hooks strong enough to support a variety of performance styles. Even better, Forster provides an earnest if slightly ironic male perspective on music that had previously seemed suitable only for the talents of Ann Wilson.
Sometimes the value and appeal of a cover has nothing to do with new approaches or divergent styles. On rare occasions a beautiful song that's perfectly lovely the first time around (Cyndi Lauper's original can hardly be improved upon, after all) shines just as brightly if not more resplendently in an interpretation that is quite reminiscent of the original. Perhaps the secret to this cover's success (to my ears, anyway) lies most in the vocals of Tracey Thorn, who pretty much makes me want to hear her take on practically any song I've ever enjoyed. But this British duo boasts an ethereal sound that has serious staying power, which might explain why I uncharacteristically dig even the electronica remix of "Missing."
In the case of this stripped-down, emotive version of the Alan Parsons Project's 1982 hit, sometimes a great cover can newly reveal the brilliance of a song too long encased in precise production. Before I heard Brooke's stunning version of this song, I had indeed forgotten why the Eric Woolfson-sung original had climbed to No. 3 on the pop charts in the first place. I happen to enjoy Woolfson's vocal style quite a bit, but the strange thing is that I probably would never have realized that truth had Brooke not jarred me into reconsideration with her stark and soulful acoustic version from 2004. These two particular artists may not have a hell of a lot in common, but none of that matters when a song works this well in such disparate forms.
Rarely do cover versions done purely for novelty reasons work in any but the most superficial ways, and that may be one reason I respond so strongly to singer-songwriter Mead's version of this Thriller-era Michael Jackson classic. Because he never seems to be performing this song for any other reason than to celebrate the quality of a timeless pop tune, Mead avoids the typical pitfall that has claimed so many other artists over the years: the clumsy but smug attempt to communicate self-aware coolness. Despite its status as a smash hit single back in 1983, "Human Nature" has always seemed to me one of Jackson's most underrated efforts from his peak era. Mead takes a shot at rectifying that here.