I’m not a music critic. I’m not a music journalist. I don’t know the technical terms for most things involved with music. I know genres – but only sort of. I’ve been called a music elitist (though not to my face). I may not know much about music, but I know what I like. And I tend to like, for whatever reason, cover songs.
I’m not talking about the cover songs you hear at the bar, where the band was booked specifically for their ability to entertain the crowd with their endless, poorly tuned renditions of Cheap Trick’s “Want You to Want Me,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” while legions of drunk college girls spill their Malibu Bay Breezes as they jump up and squeal Omigod-I-LOVE-THIS-SONG.
No sir, I’m talking about cover songs done by professionals. I’m talking about big(ish) name bands taking on well known songs and making them new. I’m talking about experienced, talented musicians who know what the hell they’re doing – and they’re doing it right.
I don’t know what exactly inspired me to talk about cover songs today, but that’s not important. What is important is that I love lists. So here’s a list of my favorite cover songs (links to videos included, where available).
Top Ten Best Cover Songs
(in Rachel’s Totally Uneducated Opinion)
10. Mindi Smith, “Jolene” (orig. Dolly Parton)
Parton’s original was a bit more uptempo, so Smith’s slowed-down version offers a chance to really get inside the story of Jolene, the beautiful flame-haired woman threatening the narrator’s chance at love. Smith stays true to Parton’s country roots, but she lends a slightly eerie and ominous atmosphere to the song, allowing the mood to build to the final, urgent appeal at the end.
9. Dinosaur Jr., “Show Me the Way” (orig. Peter Frampton)
Frampton, king of the frizz, the satin suit, the catchy-pop-rock tune. Ahh, yes. What could be better than young Frampton’s sweet voice crooning about wanting me (yes, me!) to show him the way? Well, I’ll tell you what: J. Mascis’ amped up, slurry-voiced version, released on the album You’re Living All Over Me. My first introduction to Dinosaur Jr., this cover showed me how powerful a bad voice can be, especially when paired with a killer guitar.
8. Ben Folds, “In Between Days” (orig. The Cure)
In my book, it’s awfully difficult to do The Cure better than The Cure. Robert Smith’s quirky voice, paired with that weird, creepy faraway look he puts on for videos, are half of what make The Cure an amazing band (the other half is the makeup. Just kidding. No, really.). But Ben Folds – an incredibly talented musician – has taken on one of the most iconic Cure songs and reinterpreted it solely for the piano. It’s beautiful, just as poppy and longing as the original, and Folds’ voice – that patented almost-falsetto – does the song every justice in the world.
7. Automatic Baby, “One” (orig. U2)
It’s no secret that U2 is amazing and talented, and their song “One” is – in my opinion – one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Adding Michael Stipe (with a backing band of members of both U2 and R.E.M.) to the song? Brilliant. Just brilliant. Michael Stipe makes just about everything better.
6. CAKE, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (orig. Doris Day)
I’ll cop to not knowing anything about the Doris Day version of this song – Day has a lovely voice, but CAKE is actually one of my favorite bands, and John McCrea has such a weird, lounge-y voice. I also really love the trumpets in the CAKE version. The more obvious choice for a CAKE cover song would have been, of course, “I Will Survive” – but I actually think this song is more inventive and better suited to their sound.
5. Otis Redding, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (orig. Rolling Stones)
James Brown may be the Godfather of Soul, but Otis Redding is still part of the family. One of the most talented soul musicians, Redding’s voice, energy and urgency all lend this Stones song an intensity that the original was lacking. I think perhaps Jagger was a bit too distracted by his desire to look sexy; he doesn’t throw himself into the music the way Redding did. Redding threw himself entirely into songs, his whole body vibrating with the rhythm in a way that was so un-self-conscious. There’s nothing sexier than that. Thank God for Otis Redding – that man could sure sing. (And props to my dad for making me listening the Oldies station growing up; it’s still programmed in my car radio now.)
4. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (orig. Nine Inch Nails)
Was it Cash’s video that made his version of this song so incredibly painful and beautiful at once? I doubt it, though it didn’t hurt. Cash’s stripped down, acoustic-guitar-and-piano pairing makes me cry every damn time I hear it. His voice, failing as he sings, is so much more sincere than Trent Reznor could ever hope to make his bumbling, neurotic theatrics appear.
3. The Cliks, “Cry Me A River” (orig. Justin Timberlake)
Who would ever have thought that I’d admit to liking anything Justin Timberlake ever did? My relentless teasing of Lynn, a high school friend who was obsessed with ‘N Sync for awhile (we’ll let her go as “not guilty by reason of insanity”) seemed to indicate that anything associated with ‘N Sync – or any of its members – would always get a huge thumbs down from me. But now I find myself admitting to more and more concessions – including Timberlake’s overproduced, electronic-pop ode to ex-girlfriend Britney Spears’ infidelity. It’s catchy and makes me want to dance a little. But the acoustic rock take by The Cliks – marked by Lucas’ unique vocals – is simply brilliant. It’s easily the best pop-turned-rock cover I’ve heard.
2. Soft Cell, “Tainted Love” (orig. Gloria Jones)
Come on, everyone loves an 80s hit. Soft Cell’s update of Jones’ big-60s-sound is probably one of the most recognizable songs, guaranteed to have everyone up out their chairs and dancing at any club or bar within the first four bars of music. And every one knows every word to every verse in this song – how can anyone deny the magic of the 80s? (Although, really, did we need Marc Almond’s face transposed over the universe in the video?)
1. Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (orig. Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen, I have decided, is an acquired taste. And I haven’t acquired a taste for him yet. However, I cannot deny the man’s genius in composing and arranging what I think is the most beautiful song in existence. Jeff Buckley’s cover only serves to make this amazing song more amazing – his careful attention, his ethereal voice, the emotion he pours in here: stunning. Simply stunning. If you only ever listen to one song for the rest of your life, let it be this one.
(songs I love, but ones that didn’t quite cut it)
Sonic Youth, “Superstar” (orig. the Carpenters)
I first heard this song in 1994, when it was released on the tribute album If I Were a Carpenter. I was in the local pool hall, in the midst of a four-player game of Stripes and Solids with the various and sundry individuals I called my friends at the time (I was 14). The pool hall owners had wisely included the tribute album in their juke box selection. I was instantly sold on all things Sonic Youth and all things Carpenters.
Mandy Moore, “Umbrella” (orig. Rihanna)
I have long professed my unashamed adoration of Mandy Moore. The girl is adorable. Her voice is like liquid gold. Or something. Anything she does is ok with me.
Jeffrey Gaines, “In Your Eyes” (orig. Peter Gabriel)
I saw Jeffrey Gaines perform this song live, in a very small venue, in Mt. Holly. Donna was with me – which is something of an “Awwww…” moment, as this is “our song.” (Only girls do that, I swear.) Immediately after the show was over, I got to get a picture with JG, and he gave me a hug.
311, “Love Song” (orig. the Cure)
This song will always be ok with me, no matter who sings it. The only person that could possibly ruin this song is Paul Anka. That wanker. (Anna, it’s a perfectly good use of the word “wanker.” He already ruined “Lovecats.”)
Fountains of Wayne, “…Baby One More Time” (orig. Britney Spears)
For some strange reason, this song will always and forever make me think about Josh Wise. I have no idea why or where or how. :shrug: It’s still a good song.
Cowboy Junkies, “Sweet Jane” (orig. Velvet Underground)
And this one? Always and forever will make me think about James Ramsey. But that’s mostly because I remember making out with him at a party while this song played (it was part of the inspiration for this cringe-worthy reminiscence of teenage puppy love).
Bush, “The One I Love” (orig. REM)
In 11th grade, I went with my then-boyriend, Rob, to see Bush play a show at a theater in Bethlehem, PA. We drove an hour and a half to get there (and 3 hours home, in a blizzard), and it was well worth every second. Bush was amazing. As part of their encore, they covered this song. Rob, in an attempt to be romantic, put his arms around me and sang along to this song in my ear. I should have known then that it would never work – if you can’t identify the difference between love and lust (and something that serves to simply occupy your time), what good are you?