Sure every garage band when I was growing up played “Freebird,” but that doesn’t mean they played it well or brought anything new to the table. That’s what makes a good cover song: Bringing some new level of understanding to the listener. Not just change for change’s sake, but “Oh, I never noticed that” kind of change.
Cover songs aren’t particularly rare anymore. Between tribute albums, heritage acts putting out complete albums of covers, and grunting “Yeah, yeah” over another artist’s song and calling it your own, there are countless opportunities to hear your favorite songs in a new way. However, what is still rare is the remake done so well that the cover artist owns the song. Here are some classic covers:
1. “All Along the Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix.
Hardly a deep cut (most of these aren’t), but Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s classic is so good that Bobby Z. changed the way he played his own song.
Bob Dylan’s original:
Hendrix’s masterful remake:
2. “Hallelujah,” Jeff Buckley
Leonard Cohen is a brilliant songwriter and as an interpreter of his own songs he’s quite interesting, but no one has ever wrung more passion out of a Cohen song than Jeff Buckley did on this now ubiquitous recording.
Buckley’s “what do you mean this isn’t the original” cover:
3. “The Green Manilishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” Judas Priest
What can I say? The original is cool but essentially forgotten, wiped off the face of the Earth by Judas Priest’s monster remake.
Fleetwood Mac’s original:
Judas Priest’s “you can have your balls back when I say so” remake:
4. “Police and Thieves,” The Clash
Reggae has seen a lot of makeovers (Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff”) and has occasionally repaid the favor (Yellowman’s “Take Me Home Country Roads”), but for my money The Clash’s take on this Junior Murvin cut is the must-listen reggae cover tune.
Junior Murvin’s original:
The Clash’s call to arms:
5. “Hurt,” Johnny Cash
There are those (Willie Nelson among them) who don’t think much of Cash’s “American Recordings” series with producer Rick Rubin. I personally think that those albums are must haves, and picking a single cover from that collection is virtually impossible. Each track has the ache of a man writing his own eulogy. Tired of hearing this cover of “Hurt”? Look up J.C.’s version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s “The Mercy Seat.” Unbelievable.
Nine Inch Nails’ “I’m so tortured” original:
Johnny’s “tortured? Talk to me in 50 years, son” remake:
6. “Live and Let Die,” Guns N’ Roses
I love The Beatles. I love them so much that I even own Ringo solo albums. But really, people, Macca’s version of this Bond theme lacked danger and menace. Fortunately the Gunners fixed that.
McCartney’s family friendly original:
Guns N’ Roses’ “lock up the women and the cattle” cover:
7. “Freddy’s Dead,” Fishbone
This one is a bit of a dead heat in my opinion. I love the Curtis Mayfield original, but I’ll take any opportunity to get you listening to Fishbone.
Curtis Mayfield’s pimpin’ original:
Fishbone’s smokin’ cover:
8. “Superstar,” Sonic Youth
The Carpenters don’t get much love. They were an overproduced, over-nice, over-related product of the Mellow Seventies, but they were great songwriters. Who would’ve thought that Sonic Youth of all bands would bring cool points to The Carpenters? (Fun fact: The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun” was itself a cover of a Paul Williams song — that was written for a Crocker Bank commercial.)
The Carpenters soothing original:
Sonic Youth’s surreal remake:
9. “Little Suzi,” Tesla
This is an outstanding example of a mediocre song getting an extreme makeover. Tesla broke out nationally with their cover of “Signs,” but they didn’t just remake Ph.D’s “Little Susie’s On the Up” — they saved it from being nothing more than an MTV trivia question.
10. “Mickey’s Monkey,” Mother’s Finest
Oh, the dreaded ten spot. I’m staring at a list of about fifty cover tunes right now. Why did I set my limit at ten? Foolish man. Regardless, I’ve imposed on you long enough, time to wrap this up. You’re going out with a Mother’s Finest cover of a Motown classic. Why? Because you need to be listening to Mother’s Finest, God damnit.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ original:
Mother’s Finest’s ass-kicking, rocking, funky, get on your feet cover:
Do you have a favorite cover song? Lay it on me, I’m listening — or I will be when I turn off the Mother’s Finest.