Much of modern culture has become like an ageing ghost that constantly haunts us and refuses to allow us to move on into the future. It is extraordinary that we now still listen to music from bands in the 1950s and 1960s, like the Beatles. It is the equivalent of people in the 1960s still dancing to music from the 1890s. One of the most powerful symbols of this frozen culture is the cover version – a symptom of a static world where people constantly rework the material of the past. Just as they do in sampling, and with people constantly reusing and re-editing archive film from the past. But every now and then, people do covers of songs that break out to create something genuinely new. They show that invention is still possible – and that gives you hope we might move on from this static moment in time.
Schneider TM & Kptmichigan
The Light 3000
It’s a cover of the Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out that captures the strange complex mood of now. A machine-guided world that is at the same time full of human dissatisfaction. More and more people wanting change, yet at the same time completely suffused with a neurotic fear of making any choices that will change anything. But so wanting something.
Gin and Juice
It’s a country version of the Snoop Dogg song. It’s a completely wonderful reworking. And it reaches out across the divides of the present day. Black and white working-class people in America share a lot more than the present polarisation allows.
Everything Is Going According to Plan
A great covers band – and this their best. The song by the Russian band Grazhdanskaya Oborona that helped change history in the 1980s by pushing hard at the rotting structure of Soviet culture – and telling a whole generation to fight against it.
Dream Baby Dream
It loses the strange ambiguity of the original by Suicide – but it turns the song into something else about the yearning at the heart of America, which has its own ambiguity. Is it mourning the loss of idealism in a declining empire? Or will America have a second wind? Remember that’s what happened with the British empire.
It’s a live cover Lizzo did of a Harry Styles song (for Radio 1’s Live Lounge). I just love it. She takes it and creates a wonderful mood that mixes camp knowingness with intense, real emotion. It manages to be really powerful and somehow, at the same time, silly.
Baby It’s You
I got Horace to do this version of the Burt Bacharach-penned song (most famously performed by the Shirelles) for a show I did with Massive Attack. He loves it; he’s convinced that if it was released it could be No 1. But he takes trash pop and turns it into something beautiful and fragile.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
A traditional American folk song popularised by blues musician Lead Belly, this haunting version captures that other thing at the heart of the US. The dark strangeness outside the cities; the roots of all those horror stories and horror movies.
Is That All There Is?
The 1980s are just waiting for a radical reinterpretation. What really happened? Cristina got there first and told you in a series of brilliant songs – including this Peggy Lee cover – at the very beginning of the 1980s. She understood. It was so sad that she died [in March] last year.
Joan Baez; Johnny Cash
Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream
Two covers that both take the Ed McCurdy original into a much wider realm. They raise that thing you are not supposed to say in the present mood: that sometimes in politics and power things may not be as complex as everyone insists. Some things are simple if you have the courage and the collective will to confront them.
It loses the weird mood of the original by the Cranberries, but Miley Cyrus’s voice is really powerful. It creates another kind of confident mood. You can stand up and challenge modern power: once you realise that what you feel comes as much from the power outside your head as it does from inside you.
Juicy J ft Wale and Trey Songz
This is a complete cheat – my only justification is that trap artists tend to copy and rework stuff in all kinds of ways. It’s a song I’ve always wanted to use in a film, but it’s so completely filthy, wrong and inappropriate that I can’t. But, underneath, it does show that, at its heart, trap does have a romanticism in its music – not the lyrics – that really hip-hop has never had, except for [Kanye West’s] My Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Adam Curtis’ new series Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World is available on BBC iPlayer from Thursday 11 February
• This article was amended on 8 February and 3 March 2021. Due to an editing error, an earlier version incorrectly stated that Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream was “a Simon and Garfunkel song”. Though it was performed by the duo, it was written by Ed McCurdy in the early 1950s. An earlier version also omitted Kptmichigan from the artists behind the song The Light 3000.