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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.