Since its the “Summer of Lists” on the web, I had the Earvolution writers sit down and make a list of their favorite cover songs by popular artists.
David Schultz summed up the task this way:
The secret to a good cover song is to not imitate or replicate the original. Whenever an artist attempts that, the result is usually a tepid copy of an already established tune. A good cover song comes from using the original as a framework and investing it with that singer’s set of unique strengths. The goal should be to interpret and re-invent, not slavishly reproduce.
Here are a few of mine (Jeff Davidson):
U2: Springsteen’s, My Hometown. Recorded live in Dublin at Croke Park in June of 1985. The song appears on a bootleg of covers by U2 I was lucky enough to find some years ago at a record store on South Street in Philadelphia. There’s a very nice version of “Help” on there and if you listen very carefully to the version of “Stand by Me” recorded in 1987 at Philly’s JFK stadium you can here me in the crowd. Ok, so you can’t here me, but I was one of the 100,000+ there that night when Bruce came out on stage and Bono uttered the now infamous “is he a local boy or something?” as the crowd went nuts when the Boss walked out.
Bonnie Raitt: Talking Heads, Burnin’ Down the House. Bonnie gets it done on a great two-disc live set called “Road Tested” and has a killer version of this song. As a bonus, there’s a nice cover of Angel From Montgomery as well with Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby (vocals & accordion), Bryan Adams and Kim Wilson joining in.
Johnny Cash “Hurt” (Trent Reznor) Cash’s rendition is haunting and the video of Cash’s stoic rendition really brings home the song’s emotion. Its one of the best videos of all time.
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
Original Artist: Soft Cell Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)
Cover Artist: David Gray White Ladder (2001)
The music of synth-pop 80′s band Soft Cell and popular Welsh singer-songwriter David Gray has absolutely nothing in common- save for this song, which appears as the last track on Gray’s White Ladder. Gray masterfully subs acoustic guitars for the grating synth and musical soulmate Clune adds tasteful brush-stroked drumming and background vocals in place of the hollow, sterile drums and sixteenth note bass drone of the Soft Cell original. Gray understands the point of recording a cover track: he truly makes the song his own. The airy, mellow arrangement seamlessly fits into the rest of the album rather than serving as a space-filling afterthought. The only indication that this song is not another of Gray’s own soulful acoustic offerings is the fact that the lyrics were not included in the CD booklet. Ironically, the song that enabled Soft Cell’s international rise to fame – Tainted Love – is also a cover. It was first recorded in 1964 by Gloria Jones, who later became a back-up singer for T-Rex.
Waiting for a Miracle
Original Artist: Bruce Cockburn Waiting for a Miracle (1987)
Cover Artist: Jerry Garcia Band Live (1991)
Canadian Music Hall of Fame member Bruce Cockburn (pronounced ‘Coburn’) was reportedly pleased when Garcia decided to cover this gem from one of the singer-songwriter’s 20-plus studio releases. The Garcia Band’s arrangement- including the bass line- remains faithful to the original, but is augmented by Garcia’s soulful, scratchy voice and brilliant guitar soloing. The song remains a favorite among Garcia’s numerous devotees. Cockburn himself has also been covered by Jimmy Buffet and the Barenaked Ladies, among numerous others.
Original Artist: Van Morrison Moondance (1970)
Cover Artist: Aaron Neville Phenomenon: Music from the Motion Picture (1996)
This 1996 track from the movie staring John Travolta proves that the enigmatic Van Morrison was a man filled with soul. Neville’s voice floats effortlessly over this arrangement, which uses different instrumentation but retains the same feel as the classic song from a classic album. Robbie Robertson of The Band fame adds a nice guitar solo as the tune begins to fade. The rest of the soundtrack contains a few other notable works: Eric Clapton’s Change the World, Taj Mahal’s Corrina and an offering by J.J. Cale, to whom Clapton is indebted for some of his early solo hits (Cocaine, After Midnight).
Original Artist: Daniel Lanois Acadie (1989)
Cover Artist: Dave Matthews Band Live in Chicago 12.19.98 (2001)
Despite the heavy criticism launched by his detractors, Dave Matthews and his band demonstrate that they not only enjoy good music in their off-stage time, but that also know how to play it well and make it their own (All Along the Watchtower notwithstanding). Matthews’ vocal delivery is spot on and the tune moves and grooves while somehow managing to maintain the laid-back vibe of the original, which is built around the bass line. Victor Wooten guests on bass. The Maker was also covered by the Jerry Garcia Band on several occasions.
Original Artist: Misfits Beware (1980)
Cover Artist: Metallica Garage Days Re-Revisited: The $5.98 EP (1987)
Metallica’s cover, which appeared on an EP released following the hiring of new bassist Jason Newsted, contains a faithful rendition of the original tune in which Glen Danzig spouts out such timeless lyrics as, “I’ve got something to say/ I raped your mother today.” Metallica gives a double-shot on their EP, as Last Caress segues into a rendition of the Misfits’ Green Hell.
Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” (Dylan) Dylan’s original is a minimalist, three-chord acoustic folk song with apocalyptic lyrics. Hendrix gave new life to the song by matching the lyrics with urgent, fire and brimstone guitar solos. Rumor is Hendrix heard “All Along the Watchtower” on the radio and went into the studio the same day to record his own version. He took this song to another level, yet he stayed true it’s essence.
Tom Waits, “Sea of Love” (Phil Phillips)
Simply Sublime. Tom Waits, with one of the most expressive voices of our time, took a popular love song and gave it an authenticity no one else (The Honeydrippers, Robert Plant, Cat Power) could quite muster.
Flying Burrito Brothers, “Wild Horses” (Rolling Stones)
The cover that came a year before the original. Keith Richards once said that he and Gram Parsons played so much together that they “osmosed.” Whatever you call it, Parson’s influence on Stones classics such as this one and “Honky Tonk Women,” are obvious. The FBB version doesn’t stray too much from the original, but it is a tad more country and Parson’s voice is, I dare say, more engaging.
Ryan Adams, “Wonderwall” (Oasis)
Drawing from his endless pit of emotion, Ryan Adams took a sad song and made it sadder. It took some nerve to cover an Oasis song, but he made this one his own. Even Noel “every-other-musician-is-a-wanker” Gallagher agrees, so much so that he now covers the Ryan Adams version.
Pet Shop Boys, “You Were Always On My Mind” (Elvis)
The Pet Shop Boys completely transform the feeling of this song and it’s not just with the addition of a disco beat. The refrain, “you were always on my mind” switches to, “you were always in my house,” replacing the theme of love to one of resentment.
Pixies, “Head On” (Jesus and Mary Chain)
This sped up version of the Jesus and Mary Chain classic is a fairly straightforward cover of a great song. Frank Black’s spunk and the band’s energy give it more of a punk rock feel.
Blue Cheer, “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran)
Blue Cheer is one of the hardest and sadly most over-looked bands of the late 60’s. Their version of “Summertime Blues,” leaves little of the original, save the lyrics. They scrap the shuffle beat in favor of screeching guitar lines that would pave the way for heavy metal.
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, “Somewhere over the rainbow” (Judy Garland)
You can’t possibly listen to this song without smiling. A gently strummed ukulele accompanies Kamakawiwo’ole’s sweet voice.
Don’t Let Me Down – Stereophonics covering Beatles – Kelly Jones’ voice is pitch perfect – great version.
Hit Me Baby – Travis covering Britney Spears – starts out funny and then gets scary when you realize it’s a great tune.
Mission Impossible Theme – Larry Mullen, Jr. & Adam Clayton covering Lalo Schifrin – kick ass rendition from the bass/drum powerhouse duo.
Everlasting Love – U2 covering Robert Knight – I just love this version , the acoustic guitar is perfect.
I am the Walrus – Oasis covering Beatles – Liam Gallagher’s voice on this is brilliant.
Bittersweet Symphony – Coldplay & Richard Ashcroft covering The Verve – live at the Live 8 show, this was fantastic.
Exit Music (For a Film) – Christopher O’Riley covering Radiohead – beautiful on the piano.
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley covering Leonard Cohen – powerful version.
Cat Power “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (The Rolling Stones)
Chan Marshall strips down this raucous Stone’s hit on her aptly titled “Covers Record”. The album is rife with beautiful reworkings from Nina Simone, The
Velvet Underground, David Bowie and others. On this one she omits the chorus entirely and adds a slowed melancholy that lends all new meaning to lyrics like
“Can’t you see, I’m on a losing streak?”
Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
No one has made a cover this much their own since Hendrix made people think Dylan was covering him. Buckley’s voice is more haunting than on any of his own tunes. His voice soars to hit notes that Cohen couldn’t quite reach, giving the song life that Cohen surely intended but couldn’t achieve.
Nirvana “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (Leadbelly)
Sometimes there is a reason that certain “too young to die” rock stars get props they do. As overrated as Kurt Cobain may be, I don’t think anyone else could come this close the the burning desperation evident in this Leadbelly song. No one can top Mr. Leadbetter’s working class, done against, bad luck moan, but Cobain pulls out all the stops to get damn close.
Radiohead “Nobody Does it Better” (Carly Simon)
Thom Yorke introduces this live cover as “the sexiest song that was ever written.” The perfect execution of this tune makes one think that Carly Simon wrote the
it as a preemptive response to the cover.
Stevie Wonder “We Can Work it Out” (The Beatles)
Stevie takes this flawless little love song and sings it to the whole world. The approach take the message of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” and makes it
Flying Burrito Brothers “Do Right Woman” (Chips Moman/Dan Penn)
Leave it to Gram Parsons to make a soul song sound as if it were intended for slide guitars and cowboy harmonies. It reminds us the shared goals of R&B and Country that spawned Rock & Roll.
Joe Cocker “With A Little Help From My Friends”
It’s damn near impossible to cover a Beatles song and may it arguable preferable to the original. Cocker provides the perfect soundtrack to the Super 8 footage
of Kevin Arnold at the beginning of The Wonder Years 8. Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel) “I Love How You Love Me” (Phil Spector) Jeff Mangum sings this one like he means it, and probably does. The tone is more befitting of Phil Spector’s genius vs. nut job passion than Frankie Valli’s easy listening, inoffensive
Deodato “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Richard Strauss)
Never has classical sounded so funky. Deodato’s addition of spacey sound effects and a mean bass line would make even HAL start bobbing his head.
Uncle Tupelo “Effigy” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
These guys paved the way for what would eventually become Alt-Country. By adding a little punk rock to The Carter Family, The Flying Burrito Brothers etc. they reminded us that Country was Punk all along. The pounding guitars and drums on this one are perfectly juxtaposed with minimalist breakdowns and twangy harmonies.
Uncle Tupelo covering the Carter Family’s “No Depression”
It’s pretty indicative of lots of things about America at the end of the 20th century that it made sense for Uncle Tupelo to take the Carter Family’s song about the Great Depression and make it about being depressed. It also gave a name to an entire musical movement. It’s also really good.
Los Lobos covering the Eagle’s “Hotel California”
The original version is long, plodding and filled with lyrics that don’t make any sense. So why not listen to a better version that is long, fast, and still filled with words that don’t make sense?
The Clash covering Lee “Scratch” Perry and Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”
Brimming with tension about to boil over, the Clash add anger and volume to an already good song. From the falsetto backing vocals to the ire in the vocals, this version is brilliant in every way. It’s a brilliant distillation of the mood during punk’s beginnings on the street on London.
William Shatner covering Pulp’s “Common People.”
Many (especially Pulp fans) despise this cover, and with good reason. But if you can’t take joy in the sneer in Shatner’s voice as he spits “you’ll never fail like common people,” then you are certainly not cynical enough.
Respect – Aretha Franklin covering Otis Redding
After hearing Aretha’s revamped version of Respect, Otis Redding knew exactly what had happened, declaring “that girl done stole my song.” Improving on the original in every way, Aretha created a feminist statement while cementing her reputation as the Queen of Soul. No cover song has been as intimately associated with its singer as Respect and Aretha. Without question, the best cover song ever.
Hey Joe – Willy Deville ostensibly covering Jimi Hendrix
The Hendrix version of Hey Joe is a cover itself but it is the seminal version of the song and any version that followed must out of necessity be compared to it. While most artists covering Hey Joe try to put their spin on the signature guitar riffs, Deville goes in another direction – he employs a Mariachi band. Replete with horns and a Tijuana beat, Deville’s version works on a different level from all of the other versions.
Gloria – Patti Smith covering Them
On her debut album, Horses, Patti Smith turned the Van Morrison sing-along into a growling punk anthem. Smith’s super-cool poetry backed by Lenny Kaye’s thundering guitar robbed the song of all its innocence. This is definitely not the stereotypical sing-along version.
With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker covering The Beatles
The only chance you may have of one upping the Beatles is to cover a Ringo tune. Cocker transformed the Beatles family friendly song into an anthem of the Woodstock generation and ultimately the coolest TV theme ever. The Cocker rendition is one of the better examples of adapting another artist’s song to your strengths.
Proud Mary – Ike & Tina Turner covering Creedence Clearwater Revival
Tina Turner brought an abundance of energy to this laidback CCR tune and turned it into her signature song. Replacing the “choogle” with rhythm and blues, Ike & Tina assured that this song will be a classic in multiple genres of music. John Fogerty’s impetus to once again play his Creedence songs came from Bob Dylan telling him that if he didn’t, the world would remember Proud Mary as a Tina Turner song.
Hotel California – The Gipsy Kings covering The Eagles
This is the Spanish version of Hotel California that the world was clamoring for. The Gipsy Kings retain the iconic intro to the song but on Flamenco guitar it is only slightly familiar. It is only when the “dark desert highway” is in an unfamiliar language that you realize what you are listening to.
. . . Baby One More Time – Travis covering Britney Spears
Britney Spears is a wonder of the music industry’s marketing “genius.” One of the main reasons for her success though is that she has been given well crafted songs to work with. Travis proves that point here with an acoustic rendition of her debut tune that leaves you marveling at what lies underneath the lavish studio overproduction of Britney’s throwaway pop.
Sweet Leaf – Galactic covering Black Sabbath
Who knew that Black Sabbath tunes were just jazzy classics waiting to bust forth. Utilizing their superb horn section, Galactic brings the funk out of this heavy metal standard. Danceable Sabbath? What’s next, an adult contemporary version of Crazy Train – oh wait, never mind.
Try A Little Tenderness – Andrew Strong/The Commitments covering Otis Redding
As proven by the numerous horrendous renditions of the song, Try A Little Tenderness is a difficult one to sing well. The song’s structure exponentially magnifies the weakness of any singer and the artist who tries it risks being exposed. For decades Otis Redding was the only one who could sing it – until Alan Parker made The Commitments. Andrew Strong, who was only 16 at the time, nails the song. In fact, that’s the secret to the movie: the tragedy of the band’s failure was that they were SO GOOD they could play Try A Little Tenderness.
Gin and Juice — The Gourds covering Snoop Dogg
Rap has always borrowed heavily from rock, country and soul but this time the roles are reversed. The Gourds, a group of bluegrass musicians, tear into this Snoop classic with abandon. With its banjos, steel guitars and country twang, this is the definitive hillbilly rap song.
Flaming Lips doing Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get you Out of My Head
Talk about overdramatizing something, jeez. What started out as a sweet song about lustful obsession turns into an all-lost this-is-farewell anthem. An acoustic guitar replacing the cymbal and violins taking it one step further into serious heartbreak – who knew a dance track can belong on a breakup mix?
Sex Pistols doing Frank Sinatra’s I Did It My Way
This is a funeral song at heart, and these guys would desecrate each other’s graves for kicks, so it becomes impossible to listen to one without remembering the other with a pleasant smile, no?
Scissor Sisters doing Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb
Scissor Sisters did what Pink Floyd would have done if they were part of a generation of white people who learned rhythm thanks to house music and then heard some disco, possibly switched up the drugs a bit, but not too much. Those that take offense, beware – search your sense of humor.
Nirvana doing Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night
If only this was a hip hop sample – we would have all known to go search the record bin for the original. Alas, it never sounded weird for Cobain to sing something like “in the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine” – the words, archaic on someone else, fit him perfectly, so it took some of us less attentive ones years to finally experience Lead Belly. Both made music instead of merely playing it.
Johnny Cash doing Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus
With his covers album, Johnny Cash reminded us that he was still paying attention. Making over Personal Jesus, however, meant taking apart the biggest euro-pop hit of all time and revealing the dark brooding drunk American troubadour behind everything that is rock n’ roll.