Before we get started, please be warned that this list is of the Top 10 Cover Songs That Improve On The Original. Do not be mislead. This list will not contain All Saints covering “Under the Bridge,” The Corrs covering Fleetwood Mac or the latest X-Factor finalist miming whatever heartfelt love song they decide on this year.
So, to be clear, you will not see “These Boots Are Made For Walkin,” the mindless, over-sexified Jessica Simpson version.
Why the hell is there a sacrilegious salsa beat in the verse? Kill me.
Instead, let’s do this thing right. Ten great songs, that were improved upon. Sometimes it’s inconceivable to improve upon a great, and many of the songs below are true classics, but somehow they are lifted to another level by the uncanny insight and skill of the cover artist, often bringing a new genre, startling twist or jaw-dropping music video to the table.
Sit back, turn up the volume, and listen to how the masters play songs written by other masters.
10. Heartbeats – José González (Originally The Knife)
The reason that this song is only at number ten on the list is that I do prefer the original. There are times when a nice little folk number can satisfy when a throbbing electro beat cannot, but usually it is the other way around.
Regardless, José González can be commended on his version; Firstly his choice of the song – he can thank his move from Argentina to Sweden to help his knowledge of fellow Swedes the Knife – and secondly for his confidence in the song to adapt into a sweet, acoustic version with ripples of sincerity resounding throughout.
Another strong factor must be the fantastic music video/ advertising campaign that accompanied the cover, which features a sloping street in San Francisco being bombarded with thousands of colourful ping pong balls. A simple concept that brings thrilling results, and not least because of the fitting music.
9. William Shatner – Common People
I almost had Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams cover in here, but in the end decided that I couldn’t leave the big guy out. A cover of the Pulp song ‘Common People’ sung, or rather spoken in a convincing rhythm, by anything but a common person.
Captain Kirk himself, Mr. William Shatner, decided to perform several albums of popular songs and extracts from Shakespeare, which resulted in a hoard of cutting remarks from the media. So give his wobbly versions of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and Mr. Tambourine Man a miss, and stick with this half-serious, speak-along gem.
8. Here Comes The Sun – Ghost (Originally The Beatles)
It’s not easy to imagine the incessantly smiling George Harrison song as a murky goth ballad, but here it is. The song is certainly of note for managing to convert the summer song to a shadowy creature, but with convincing musicianship and a flowing post-rock element, it deserves recognition as a well-rounded and well-judged effort.
Somehow a Swedish heavy metal band called Ghost (seriously) managed to remove all of the cheer from the summer classic and instead pump it full of dread and searing doubt. Perhaps not what you want to hear to prepare you for your day first thing in the morning, but a fantastic conversion from cheer to fear.
7. Man Who Sold The World – Nirvana (Originally David Bowie)
It’s tough to call Nirvana’s version better than the original, with it simply taking on the aesthetic of the time – minimalist nineties grunge over the layered and synth of the original 70’s version.
Bowie is one of the undisputed master songwriters, but I think Cobain reins in the sprawling song and in keeping it simple condenses its effect. Chewing his own jaw off or not, his low drawl is more convincing, making us feel more involved when it’s him singing “Oh no, not me, we never lost control,” rather than the upstanding gentleman that Bowie now is. Best, as many of their songs are, on the MTV Unplugged stage.
6. Limit To Your Love – James Blake (Originally Feist)
Feist may not be known to all of you. She is a singer and contributor in the Canadian makeshift super group Broken Social Scene, who has been quietly releasing material alongside the group’s more popular records. You know that iPod song, 1, 2, 3, 4? Yeah, that was her.
Quiet or not, however, Feist really has grown into a strong songwriter, with three albums that grow on you, and her song Limit To Your Love is a good example of that. This is especially when covered by the young, handsome, talented songster James Blake.
Blake’s dubstep production incorporates his own startling vocals into the mix and borrows from the success and style of the XX record but moves a step further. I can not say enough about this up-and-coming producer, and his version of Feist’s song is up there with the best things he’s done.
5. Road To Joy – Bright Eyes (Originally Beethoven via Friedrich Schiller)
This is one of Conor Oberst’s greatest songs, and although it is not strictly a cover, Road to Joy uses the Beethoven melody from his Ode to Joy with some of the most all-encompassing and life-affirming lyrics I’ve ever heard.
So while it doesn’t have a true previous version to compete with, the adaptation of a classic composition with references to the 1780’s Ode to Joy poem.
Nothing more needs to be said, just listen.:
4. Wonderwall – Ryan Adams (Originally Oasis)
I do not like the original song Wonderwall. I am not a big fan of Oasis either, (should I have to be wrangled into the tired Britpop argument, yes, I am on Blur’s side,) and I don’t give them time nor credit. So it pains me to have this song in the top ten.
In another context, however, it’s difficult not to warm to the song. That context is Ryan Adams’ cover version from the album Love is Hell.
Adams’ version brings the song to its heartfelt core and brings out what is often overlooked in the original. Noel Gallagher’s song-writing has always been the greatest thing about Oasis, and now it’s great to see him continue on without his waste of space brother to hold him back.
3. Hurt – Johnny Cash (Originally Nine Inch Nails)
Hurt began as a pained rock song with suicidal nuances and signs that all was not well in the camp of Trent Reznor (although in such situations, a low sense of worth can be directly related to the best of such a depressive’s work).
Once again, the music video is a large part of the reason Cash’s cover rose to such prominence, directed by frequent NIN collaborator Mark Romanek. The video shows Cash in his house, but without his recently deceased wife June. The house has since been destroyed in a 2007 fire.
The song transcends the dirty machine-drone of the Nine Inch Nails sound, and though it shouldn’t really translate to the country genre it is now one of the greatest of the past decades. The cover idea sounded a bit gimmicky to Reznor at first, until he saw the cover accompanied by video and began to cry.
The song loses its industrial backbone and instead fits in more with Cash’s back catalogue, but this song is the saddest of his. Many see it as a representation of his wilting state, with many images of withering flowers and decaying fruit, others called it his epitaph. A touching end to a great life.
2. Jimi Hendrix – All Along The Watchtower (Originally Bob Dylan)
Rarely does it happen that a musician converts his own original composition to someone else’s version. This should show the modesty and level-headedness of the folk maestro Bob Dylan when he heard his song All Along the Watchtower covered by the guitar wizard Jimi Hendrix.
The cover song was so impressive that Dylan began to play it in Hendrix’s fashion live, and rightly so. The originally folksy number with long verses and an epic, historic tale became a frantic guitar song with frighteningly ground-breaking solo that still stands the test of time to this very day.
Rolling Stone magazine has the song as the 48th best song of all time, but as you should be sceptical of everything you read (excluding this, of course), I have some ideas of my own for the top spot…
1. Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (Originally Leonard Cohen)
I have complained before about Hallelujah losing its soul and power by being played and covered to within an inch of its life. There are always exceptions to the rule, and in this case there are quite a few.
Leonard Cohen’s original is a long, multi-versed tale with biblical references, while Buckley’s selection of verse are precise and lead interpretations to brand the song as a sexual lament that easily overshadows the original. Buckley brings a sincerity and musicianship to any material that is dearly missed in this age of modern music pillaging.
It’s difficult not to get goose-bumps when listening to the whole Grace album, but Hallelujah was the pinnacle of his sadly short-lived career.
Fancy coming up with your own list of superlative song covers and emailing them to TBR? Then hop to. But just remember, the kind of covers that would never fall victim to being obnoxiously overplayed are the only kind we care about in these parts.
By Conor O’Hagan