03 Nov

The whole realm of song covers seems to be a controversial topic.

I’m aware there are purists, people who feel that a song should always belong to whoever first sang it, and I can appreciate that.  Still, though, I find it immensely gratifying to hear music reimagined in a way that exposes all the secret little beauties that were hidden in the lyrics and the tune that the original performer couldn’t uncover.

Heh.  Un-‘cover’.

The best covers aren’t just mimicries in someone else’s voice, or sped up versions of the same songs with more drums and a cheeky punk rock attitude.  I’m looking at you on that one, Me First And The Gimme Gimmes. Nah, a great cover redefines the music, keeping it identifiable but changing the rules to push it to new heights.  A great cover will give me goosebumps for days, and make me want to press it into my heart and keep it there to have while I go about my mundane little life.

Here are my top five favorite covers, next to the originals.

5. Video Killed The Radio Star

The original version by The Buggles was one of my favorite songs for years.  The frenetic excitement of the verses combined with the pithily catchy ‘oh oh’s could always make me sing along, but as I got older, I gradually forgot about the Buggles, around the time that I left behind Darkwing Duck and Snick.

That’s a lie.  I never left behind Darkwing Duck.

Anyway, as I grew into a teenager, I discovered other bands that appealed to my budding hipster tendencies.  It was around this time that I started listening to The Presidents of the United States Of America, one of my favorite bands to this day.  I loved their energy, their sense of fun and silliness, and the simplicity of their music and lyrics.  So naturally, when I found their cover of Video Killed The Radio Star on Napster, I just about peed my pants.

The Original:

The Cover:

4.  Hey Ya

I know.  You’re like, what?  Someone covered Hey Ya?  When did that happen?  I know.  I was once like you.  I was once unaware.  I thought that OutKast’s Hey Ya was the only Hey Ya, and I wasn’t really that interested in it.  I mean, I danced to it in high school dances.  I knew all the words, like any self respecting sixteen year old did when it came out, but I didn’t really love it.

A few months ago I started putting my IPod on shuffle when I went on long drives, partly out of boredom and partly out of curiosity.  See, there are a ridiculous amount of songs on my IPod that I’ve never heard, from bygone mix CD’s and free ITunes singles.  That’s a bit of a tragedy, and I’ve been discovering some great music through the Shuffle function (hello Broken Social Scene!).  So, I was driving to the Staples on my lunch hour to get some more paper to print real estate flyers, and suddenly the gentle strains of a guitar echoed through my car speakers.  “What trickery is this?” I thought. “A sweet acoustic song I’ve never heard?”  And then came the words, stunning my brain into silence.

“My baby don’t mess around…because she loves me so, and this I know for sure…”

I played it about ten more times that day.  Acoustic Hey Ya.  Seriously. It transforms the song into a sweet, ballad-y love song.  Who knew?

The Original:

The Cover:

3.  My Girl

The earliest version of In The Pines I’ve found is Leadbelly’s 1947 recording.  It’s an old folk song that is colloquial, if a little bit haunting, and wouldn’t be out of place on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

So, of course, it was a natural fit for Nirvana.

A lot of people consider Teen Spirit to be Nirvana’s penultimate song, but I prefer My Girl by miles. When Kurt Cobain sings the song, it isn’t colloquial anymore.  It’s deeply personal.  It’s a soliloquy, and in every verse he wrenches out the words from the pit of his stomach as the music swells behind him.  Listen to the whole thing, but watch for 3:00.  Every time I feel a shiver run up my spine.  It’s desperate and lovely and suffocating, everything that a sad song should be.

The Original:

The Cover:

2.  Hurt

This is undoubtedly my least controversial choice.

When Johnny Cash asked for permission to cover Nine Inch Nails’ iconic song, Trent Reznor was uncertain, but after he saw the music video, he famously said that he felt as though he had ‘just lost his girlfriend’. The song became thoroughly Cash’s, especially with the success of the grim, Grammy-winning music video that soon followed.  The funny thing about Hurt is that even though the song crosses generations and genres, the basic undertone remains just as poignant and deeply personal.  It’s about crippling regret.

When Johnny Cash showed the video to his family, his daughter famously said, “Daddy, it’s like you’re saying goodbye.”

He replied, “I am.”

He died five months later.

The Original:

The Cover:

1. Hallelujah

There are few songs that have been covered in recent years just as much as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  Frankly, I doubt that everyone agrees on the ‘best’ version.  Cohen’s is the original.  Jeff Buckley’s is the most famous.  Rufus Wainwright’s was the one in Shrek.  For all the choices out there, my favorite is undoubtedly K.D. Lang.

When I first heard her performance at the 2010 Olympic Games, I was reminded of the famous quote from Moby Dick:

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

When K.D. Lang sings that song, it’s like she is tearing out her own tired, weary heart for the sheer pain of it.  That may sound over dramatic, and it is, but to me it is the difference between performing a song and singing it to yourself.  When K.D. Lang does that song, it’s as though she’s lived every word, every day of her life.

The Original:

The Cover:

So, those are my favorites, but this is by no means universal!  What are your favorite covers?  What are your least favorite covers, because you are bound to have those too.  I mean, I know I do.  The band PowerGlove does a version of the Pokemon theme that is just, like, so totally untrue to the spirit of the show, and it makes me completely livid.

That’s a lie.  I think it’s awesome.




Posted by on November 3, 2010 in Uncategorized


26 responses to “covers

  1. PlantingOaks

    November 3, 2010 at 6:37 am

    Man, now I’m cranky I’m at work without speakers so I have to wait until I get home to listen to these.

    All Along the Watchtowers is Hendrix covering Dylan. But even Dylan likes Hendrix’s version better, and you never hear the original, so I dunno if it counts. Anyway, Hendrix is awesome.

    I once heard a local girl do an acoustic cover of Glycerene that made me rethink grunge rock. I never realized that was a pretty song before.

    And Nine inch nails (I think) does a version of the Zelda music that’s pretty hiliarious/awesome.

    • Jessica

      November 3, 2010 at 12:01 pm

      How have I lived my life without listening to this Zelda cover?? I must find it NOW.

      • PlantingOaks

        November 4, 2010 at 1:26 pm

        Any luck?
        Unfortunately, it may be one of those ‘did it live at a concert once’ things which are only really discoverable in the vast file sharing jungle of college dorms.
        I can probably did it up to email if it proves difficult.

  2. Rachel

    November 3, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Counting Crows’ cover of Big Yellow Taxi makes me want to smash things. It’s far too peppy for a depressing song. I mean, Joni Mitchell’s is slightly peppy in an ironic sort of way. But seriously, what’s with the background “ooh la la la”s? That’s just taking it too far in a bad direction.

    And I completely agree with you – KD Lang’s Hallelujah is crazy amazing.

    • Jessica

      November 3, 2010 at 12:01 pm

      Didn’t Counting Crows used to be a vaguely depressing band? Seems recently they’re all sunshine and skittles.

  3. Jena

    November 3, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I walked down the aisle to Hallelujah at my wedding. I know the words aren’t very wedding-y, but I’ve always loved the music, so Cole’s parents and a bandmate of theirs learned the song and played it on guitar, ukelele, and banjo. It was really beautiful, and I think of my husband whenever I hear that song.
    So, of course I have about eight different versions on my iPod. My favorite is by Alexandra Burke.
    I also love basically any Bob Dylan song that has been covered. In my very likely controversial opinion the Bobster can’t sing for beans, but he lyrics are some of the best I’ve ever heard, so I like it when someone who can actually carry a tune and support their voice sings them.

    • Jessica

      November 3, 2010 at 12:00 pm

      What a great idea! There are so many songs that would work as great processionals if it weren’t for those gosh darn LYRICS. 😉 I bet ‘Hallelujah’ was totally beautiful.

      I’ll have to find the Alexandra Burke version. I’m not sure that I’ve heard it!

    • Alexandra

      November 4, 2010 at 11:22 am

      No, you’re right Jena. Bob can’t sing (and his lyrics are AWESOME.) His voice is an acquired taste for sure. Even those of us who’ve ‘acquired’ him can’t stand his voice for more than seven consecutive minutes. Even at a LIVE show.

      I love Cohen’s Hallelujah and was surprised that I also enjoyed Langs cover – because I don’t really like her KD’s music.

      Jessica – I really enjoyed this post and the comments that followed. I love expanding my musical horizons. Feel free to share more music as you find it! 🙂

  4. supesukauboi

    November 3, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Wow, the majority of these are really depressing. I mean, they’re all spectacularly done, but listening to them is not exactly uplifting for me. By contrast, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and their ilk actually do some of my favorite covers by slamming some life into a song that would have otherwise weighed me down/annoyed me.

    I’ll pause while you un-friend me.

    What I will say for these covers is this: any of them that included guitar are songs I have a new desire to play, especially Hey-ya. Beautiful songs, all of these, but I’m sure I’ll only appreciate them properly when I’m having a bad day. Ah well, I dig mash-ups far more than covers anyway.

    • supesukauboi

      November 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

      Oh, and Cake’s “I Will Survive”!

      • Jessica

        November 3, 2010 at 11:58 am


        Actually, I used to love Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, but there was one day where I was listening, and I was like, “Hey…they’re just doing the same thing on all of these songs!” After that, listening to them was a trial, and their music sounds too slapdash for me.

        Sorry for the depressing choices! I agree there could be a little more sunshine in this list.

        And Cake’s cover…yes! A million times yes!

  5. flory

    November 3, 2010 at 11:47 am

    how have i lived before listening to that cover of Hey Ya? and Nirvana?

    Fiona Apple’s cover of Why Try To Change Me Now is yonks better than Frank Sinatra’s. his is just too cheesy and sentimental – her cover really rips the heart out of the song and stomps very quietly and sadly on it before leaving it to die slowly with the fading chords and gentle crash of cymbals.

    • Jessica

      November 3, 2010 at 11:57 am

      What a lovely description! I’m going to check this out ASAP.

  6. rubybastille

    November 3, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Holy cow, that bit about Johnny Cash almost made me cry.

    I’m trying to think of covers I really like. My current favorite is A Perfect Circle’s version of “Imagine” – they set it to a minor key with lots of slow, chugging orchestral music backing it, and it makes them sound so frustrated that the song is however many years old, and John Lennon’s dream STILL hasn’t come true.

    Oh, okay, Metallica also has two awesome covers: “Whiskey in the Jar,” orginally an Irish drinking song made famous by Thin Lizzy, and “Turn the Page.” You should seriously look up the latter – originally it was a pretty chill country tune, but Metallica turned it (like they do) into a harsh look at life on the road.

    • Jessica

      November 3, 2010 at 7:15 pm

      Oh, man, a cover that’s used as commentary on the original song? Awesome.

      Also, I dig Metallica covers. I’ll have to look those up.

  7. lisa

    November 3, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Have you seen Kermit cover Hurt? If not, you need to look up “Sad Kermit” on Youtube, stat.

    • Jessica

      November 3, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      Oh my gosh, I can’t even watch that without feeling awful. Poor Kermit!

  8. Kelly

    November 3, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I had no idea that Cash’s “Hurt” was a cover. The NIN version definitely doesn’t stand up to it. Sorry, Nails.

    I love “Hallelujah” but I’ve never really had a favorite version. I think the one you put here from the Olympics is the best I’ve heard….but for some reason I think that song needs a man’s voice.

    I’ve heard a couple covers of “Hey Ya” but that one is definitely the best! Thanks for sharing!

    • Jessica

      November 3, 2010 at 7:13 pm

      Re: Hurt…Taylor read your comment over my shoulder and said, “That’s how you know it’s a great cover!”

      See, I’ve never associated Hallelujah with men or women…there are some songs that I think are very gender oriented, but not that one for some reason!

  9. Jen

    November 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    I LOVE Dwezil Zappa’s cover of “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Seriously. It’s awesome.

    I also like a couple other hip hop songs that have been folk-ized, but I can’t remember the names of the cover artists at the moment… I’ll post it later. 🙂

  10. Julia B.

    November 4, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Wow! These are amazing. I had no idea that Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or Nirvana’s “My Girl” were covers. “Wagon Wheel” probably tops my list as a cover. It started out as an unfinished Bob Dylan snippet, and Old Crow Medicine Show wrote the rest of the song around the chorus, so even the original is a cover/collaboration of sorts. My favourite version, however, is done by Against Me!, and just changes the entire tone of the song to a rough-edged, soulful lament (

    Iron and Wine’s “Such Great Heights” also earns kudos, however, for its amazing finger-picking patterns, and for managing to go from techno to lullaby in one fell swoop.

    So sorry to hear about the accident! Take care of yourself, take a day of rest (or more) and make sure you go to the doctor even if you just feel sore. It’s important to document all of that for insurance purposes (not to mention just to look after yourself!).

  11. Vanessa

    November 4, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    I know some people would probably burn me at the stake for saying this, but Leonard Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” is probably my LEAST favorite. There are so many gorgeous covers of it. K.D. Lang’s is great, but I really do like Jeff Buckley’s soooo much. I also loved the version Justin Timberlake did at the Hope for Haiti concert. I remember crying like a baby the first time I heard it.

    • Jessica

      November 4, 2010 at 9:41 pm

      Actually, I was reading about the reception to Leonard Cohen’s version…nobody liked it very much. People kind of ignored it until a random dude kind of just redid it and made it much more melodic. Pretty much everyone covered HIS version of Hallelujah, even though Cohen ‘wrote’ the song.

      That version with Justin Timberlake is pretty freakin’ amazing.

      • Alexandra

        November 5, 2010 at 7:51 am

        *sigh* I guess there’s a huge generation gap here. I won’t burn you at the stake for your Cohen comment 😉 but Timberlake and the like make my ears scream in pain. Needless to say I will not be clicking on the video – though I respect your emotion upon hearing it, because other singers invoke the same response in me. And I guess I can understand how Cohen is just too ‘un-melodic’ for Timberlake fans.

        c’est la vie.

  12. amanda

    November 5, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Hey hey hey — step off Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Sure, they don’t do anything particularly special with their covers, but they’re stupid fun. I used to do a lot of musical theatre, so their “Are A Drag” CD still makes me laugh.

    Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” is one of the most painful, gut-wrenching songs I’ve ever heard. I’ve listened to it maybe twice; I can’t take it any more than that.

    Thank you SO MUCH for posting that cover of “Hey Ya”! I was a fan of the original (again, I love stupid fun music) but this one is so great, albeit in a totally different way.

    I have a bunch of favourite covers, but the cheesiest of them all: Eva Cassidy’s version of “Time after Time”.

    • Jessica

      November 5, 2010 at 11:36 am

      Oh my gosh, I’ll have to look that. I LOVE Time After Time!

      Hehe, there ARE Me First songs that I like. Their version of ‘Summertime’ is pretty fun.


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