One aspect of music that I have a particular affinity for is acoustic covers of well-known songs, or by artists that I like. The idea of reinterpreting a piece of music and stripping it down to its core emotions gets me excited. The search to find these gems also makes it all the more worthwhile, as many of these performances are rather rare and difficult to find.
Due to the incredibly high-quality of technology used in music production today, it’s become easy to lose a sense of how good an artist is at performing live, which I’ve always considered a worthy barometer of talent measurement. Studio trickery and layered and/or Auto-tuned vocals can sometimes mask the real truth of an artist’s ability.
This is not to say that technology is bad and has no place in the music industry, because it definitely does have a place. Musical and technological innovations have gone hand-in-hand right from the start. Artists such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix eagerly and meticulously redefined what an artist could do in a studio, and embraced the many changes the recording industry was going through in the 1960’s (definitely enough for a whole other article!), and made music all the more creative and electrifying (excuse the pun) for the following decades. By the 1980’s, it was standard practice to play around with synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, etc, to add to your final mix.
But if you take a performer out of the comfort of his/her studio, or take away all the wonderful gadgets that make them listenable, will the magic still be there? Depending on what type of music they create (some, for example, make acoustic-based music anyway), this could be a colossal failure or a beautiful spectacle; an unmasking of the true artist within. If someone is worth his/her salt musically, they should be able to convey to you what they’re feeling inside in the simplest or grandest terms.
I saw an extreme example of this recently, when I watched a guitar documentary where Jack White (of The White Stripes) built a ‘guitar’ out of a block of wood, a glass bottle, some nails, wire, and a connecting system of some sort to electrify this poor-man’s attempt at an instrument. He then tried it out for a while, as it emitted a howling surge of noise, and afterwards, turned to the camera and said with a shrug, ‘Who said you even need to buy a guitar?’
Amateurs also have discovered the importance of the acoustic cover in contemporary music, not just the professional artists. If you search ‘acoustic cover’ on Youtube, you’re guaranteed to find a plethora of people, usually with just a guitar or piano, playing their own ‘unplugged’ versions of popular songs, whether they’re pop, rock, R&B or even hip-hop. It almost seems to be a rite of passage to be able know the chords to some teen pop-idol’s latest hit, and then to give your interpretation of it on the Internet. And you know what? I’m all for it.
Whether a musician is performing an acoustic cover of his own song, or of another’s, a little morsel of his soul gets put into the meal. And when a professional artist does so, there is an even greater chance of that performance turning into an aural banquet for the listener. Oftentimes the mood of the song is completely different from its original: a change from brash and outrageous to perhaps delicate and sensitive, yet still using the same words and chords. So, in addition to showcasing the artist’s actual vocal and/or instrumental skills, their flair for songwriting and arranging can also be given a chance to shine.
Here are some amateur and professional examples of acoustic covers that really sum up the ideals I’ve found in this sphere of music. In some cases, the line between amateur and professional is a little blurred, because some of these people have really good production values and obvious talent that needs to be discovered by a record label or rich investor! Some are studio recordings, but still acoustic versions, which must count for something. This is by no means a complete list of what’s worth checking it out; It’s just what I’ve been exposed to, or have the download links to show you. I’m sure every artist out there has had to do an acoustic recording at some point. What these type of recordings lack in complexity, they more than make up for in passion and emotion.
1. Tyler Ward
This guy has built up quite a collection of covers, and guests to perform with him. I was introduced to his work by his cover of Lady Gaga’s latest hit ‘Born This Way’, which he performs with a girl named Alex G. Try out this one out for size:
2. Obadiah Parker’s cover of Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’
This folk/pop group catapulted away from obscurity when in 2007, they released an acoustic cover of the hip hop smash hit by Outkast, ‘Hey Ya’. A tender, relaxed take on a very upbeat and funky song:
(sorry, unable to embed this one!)
3. Boyce Avenue
Like Tyler Ward, this band have become Youtube sensations, with many of their videos having over a million views each. Specialising in acoustic covers, and now writing some of their own material in a similar style, they are an excellent example of how to use modern communication tools like the Internet to get your name out there.
Their most-viewed track, Linkin Park’s ‘Shadow Of The Day’, rightfully deserves that honour:
1. MTV Unplugged Series
This MTV concert series began in the early 90’s and had some amazing acts of the day perform ‘unplugged’. Some memorable moments to check out include:
– Eric Clapton in 1992, whose set was released as an album, selling over 10 million copies and earning him SIX Grammy Awards! Hectic stuff…
– Bryan Adams’s 1997 set, of which that version of ‘Heaven’ will probably end up being my wedding song…
– Nirvana’s legendary performance in 1993. Recorded only five months before Kurt Cobain’s death, the grunge trend-setters completely flipped their music on its head, showcasing a more sensitive side of Kurt’s vocals and guitar-playing.
– Oasis’s infamous 1996 performance, at the height of their fame. Moments before going on stage, lead singer Liam Gallagher pulled out of the show, citing a sore throat. The band continued to perform despite this, with his brother, songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher, handling all the vocals, which earned him much critical praise. Liam watched the performance and heckled the group from a balcony. Some absolute classics here, such as ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’.
The Unplugged series slowed down its recording schedule in the 2000’s, but lately, present-day artists such as Phoenix, Katy Perry, Adam Lambert, Vampire Weekend and Paramore have been contributing some lively performances.
2. An assortment of others that I have on my iPod
Due to the elusive nature of these performances, it’s quite difficult to have a nice catalogue of them on CD’s or on an iPod. Many artists choose to randomly play a hit of theirs acoustically at one of their countless concerts, or record a version on an obscure EP; therefore it’s easy to miss out, even if you’re a fan! So here’s a list of some interesting ones I have collected over the years:
- Aerosmith – ‘Crazy’ (Piano Acoustic)
- Fokofpolisiekar – ‘Hemel Op Die Platteland’ (Guitar Acoustic)
- Foo Fighters – ‘Times Like These’ (Guitar Acoustic)
- Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’ (Originally by Nine Inch Nails – one of the best covers ever, off an album of covers he did before he died in 2003)
- Linkin Park – Pushing Me Away (Live Acoustic – from Underground V6.0)
- Relient K’s ‘Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been’ and ‘Which To Bury: Us Or The Hatchet’ (Unplugged Versions off various EP’s)
- Rihanna – Umbrella (Guitar Acoustic)
- Tupac Shakur – Changes (Guitar Acoustic – rare version)
Whew, that’s enough for now! Now it’s your turn to go out there and search for these acoustic nuggets of treasure. Hopefully you’ll find that the magic is still there once the Auto-tune is turned off and the guitars are unplugged…