Yesterday was a strange day on the old internet, with conversations in the music world dominated by two free, relatively star-studded, online-only tribute albums. Spin Magazine finally released Newermind, their much talked about track-by-track tribute to Nirvana’s Nevermind, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Meanwhile, the good people at Stereogum gave us Stroked, where they give The Strokes’ debut, Is This It?, the same treatment in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Admirable undertakings, both of them. But are they any good?
Well, sort of. Not exactly. You’ll probably never listen to either of them again, and you certainly won’t listen to either of them all the way through again, if you even did yesterday. It’s the nature of these things: there are artists you don’t like, versions that make your skin crawl, and of course the inescapable fact that if you really wanted to hear any of these songs—a pretty big if, really, considering the degree to which these albums have become ingrained in the lives of your average alt-leaning 20- or 30-something—you’d probably just listen to the original. Still, though, each contained a few noteworthy successes, some horrible failures and everything in between. Below, a rundown of them.
On Stroked, almost every song is a complete, or near-complete, reworking of the original, but it’s actually one of the most straightforward readings that stands out. Real Estate took on “Barely Legal,” and they managed to make it distinctly their own—breezy, laid-back and, yes, soaked in reverb—without totally sacrificing the cockiness of the Strokes’ version. They do as much as can be done with a cover song: they make you look at the original a little differently, and then they also force you to reconsider their own work a little. Owen Pallet fairs similarly with “Hard to Explain,” but he does so with a really sweet—but high-energy and technically impressive—string arrangement.
Newermind is split more evenly between tracks that hew closely to the originals and those that don’t, with the edge going to the the latter. 21-year-old country singer Jessica Lea Mayfield expertly re-imagines “Lounge Act” as a gentle, swirling ballad with a healthy sense of dynamics and some really effective, tastefully noisy guitar building throughout. EMA had the unenviable task of covering “Endless Nameless,” the hidden noise-track at the end of the album, and to her credit, she fucking killed it. She doesn’t quite reproduce it note for note, but she gets the chaos and destruction completely right. There’s also a fairly enjoyable version of “Stay Away” by Daptone artist Charles Bradley, but it’s just such a straightforward genre exercise (and a weird Otis Redding ripoff) that it doesn’t really register.
I’ve got a good amount of love for the Morning Benders, and I respect what they tried to to do “Last Night” here, flipping parts around and playing up similarities to the Beatles, but jeez, they made it sound awfully dorky, robbing it of every last bit of the swagger it was built on. And then they added a bunch of fucking Auto-tune. Not good. And neither is Wise Blood’s version of “Someday,” which is low-energy and annoyingly washed-out to the point where it’s almost entirely unrecognizable and yet totally unoriginal.
On Newermind, he embarrassingly named Cincinnati rock band Foxy Shazam does an embarrassingly showy version of “Drain You,” on which they just fucking refuse to get out of the way of the song—if I’m hearing things correctly, there appears to be some actual scatting going on here, right alongside all the overwrought Meatloaf/My Chemical Romance theatrics. The most purely offensive track here is probably the Midnight Juggernauts cover of “Come As You Are,” which features a third-rate dance beat and this ridiculous combination of high- and low-pitched vocals, basically making it seem like a joke, which, ha, isn’t funny. There’s also a trio of straightforward covers by Titus Andronicus, Telekinesis and Surfer Blood, who take on “Breed,” “On a Plain” and “Territorial Pissings” respectively, and none of them are particularly egregious or anything, but they all fall considerably short; they remind us how rare a quality it was that Kurt could sound so tough and so vulnerable at the same time. Most people can get one of ’em right, but no one can get ’em both.