Because cover songs don't garner nearly as much traction on the radio or the charts as they once did, artists these days treat them more like fun little experiments, where they can try out things they normally wouldn't on one of their albums or original singles. This has resulted in plenty of inventive and fascinating covers, especially this past year. Here are the year's 10 best cover songs (in no particular order).
1. Jimmy Fallon, Steve Carell, and The Ragtime Gals - Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing"
Jimmy Fallon frequently performs highly stylized versions of pop songs on The Tonight Show (some 2014 selections include "All About That Bass" on classroom instruments, and "Fancy" with Crosby, Stills, and Nash), but the highlight of the year was his barbershop rendition of Marvin Gaye's classic "Sexual Healing," with a surprise appearance by Steve Carell. The sheer silliness of the concept makes it easy to overlook how legitimately clever and musically accomplished this arrangement is.
2. Sebadoh - Rush's "Limelight"
Rush and '90s indie rock are two things that rarely mix, but for The A.V. Club's Undercover series, lo-fi pioneers Sebadoh took on Rush's 1981 classic "Limelight," and somehow it worked. They even managed to strip the arrangement down to just guitar and drums (how can you take the bass out of a Rush song?!), leaving singer Lou Barlow space to manipulate his voice with an effects pedal and give an enthralling performance.
3. Sam Smith - Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car"
During his appearance on BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge in September, Sam Smith performed a refreshingly minimalist and moody cover of Tracy Chapman's 1988 hit "Fast Car." In replacing the original song's acoustic guitar arrangement with his signature brand of nocturnal R&B, Smith fulfills the promise of any good cover song by making it completely his own.
4. Jarvis Cocker - Celine Dion's "The Power of Love"
Vice's 20th anniversary party last week had a pretty great bill of performers, including Andrew W.K. and Lil Wayne, but it was Pulp's Jarvis Cocker who provided one of the evening's biggest surprises: a cover of Celine Dion's 1994 hit "The Power of Love." Cocker's voice may not be as strong as Dion's, but he's arguably the world's greatest frontman and can make pretty much any song work for him.
5. Father John Misty - Cat Stevens's "Trouble"
Cat Stevens's "Trouble" was immortalized in the heartbreaking climax to Hal Ashby's 1971 film Harold and Maude, which is why the song was included on the soundtrack to the recent documentary Once I Was: The Hal Ashby Story, performed by former Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty. As long as you play the right chords and hit the right notes, the song is really too beautiful to screw up, though Tillman's ethereal voice is a perfect fit for the melody.
6. Bob Dylan - Frank Sinatra's "Full Moon and Empty Arms"
Covering Frank Sinatra is the sort of thing that would have gotten Bob Dylan a scathing review from Rolling Stone back in 1970, but against all odds, his countrified version of Sinatra's "Full Moon and Empty Arms" from his upcoming Sinatra covers album Shadows in the Night is surprisingly gorgeous. Dylan's voice hasn't sounded this strong in years.
7. Chance The Rapper - Ziggy Marley's "Believe in Yourself" (Arthur Theme Song)
I'm probably sicker of '90s nostalgia than anyone else (bring on '00s nostalgia!), but Chance The Rapper's rendition of Ziggy Marley's theme song from the cartoon Arthur (originally titled "Believe in Yourself," though Chance changed it to "Wonderful Everyday") is so refreshingly positive and unironic that I'm unable to get sick of it.
8. Lorde - Jeremih's "Don't Tell Em"
Like Sam Smith did with "Fast Car," Lorde also performed a stripped down cover song for her BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge session, taking on Jeremih's recent single "Don't Tell Em." While the original is an obvious club jam, Lorde's take on it is much darker, with her usual neo-trip hop vibe.
9. John Mayer - Beyoncé's "XO"
When singer-songwriters do acoustic guitar covers of R&B, pop, or hip-hop songs, there's usually an annoying sense of winking irony and jokiness, but John Mayer's version of Beyoncé's "XO" has none of that. His version of the song is honest and legitimately beautiful, with harmonica breaks reminiscent of Neil Young's acoustic work.
10. Miley Cyrus - Arctic Monkey's "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High"
When a singer becomes as image conscious and controversial as Miley Cyrus, it's easy to forget just how talented they actually are. Cyrus's January performance on MTV Unplugged emphasized her underrated vocal talents, particularly with her funky cover of Arctic Monkey's "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High," which Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders named as his favorite cover of one of his band's songs.
What are your favorite cover songs of 2014? Let us know down in the comments section below!