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Favorite Cover Songs

The other night, after I picked up my husband so we could carpool home together, I was excited to find the new Anberlin cover of the New Order song “True Faith” playing on the radio.  It’s one of the better covers I’ve heard in a while, and I had been wanting my dear hubbie to hear it as well.  He agreed that it was a pretty decent cover, which then prompted us into a discussion of what makes a good cover song.

The cover, or a new rendition of a song by a different artist, is pretty popular in modern music.  However, while it can be nice to hear artists sing other artists’ songs, I can’t say that I’m all that impressed with most covers.  A truly good cover transforms the previous song into a new one — and a good one, too!  You can certainly have a cover that sounds totally different but totally terrible, i.e., No Doubt’s version of “It’s My Life” or Jessica Simpson’s version of “Take My Breath Away” or Madonna’s “American Pie.”  Sometimes, the change can be achieved by just altering the tempo of a piece or having an amazing voice with a passion not heard before in that song.  I’m not saying that all covers need to transcend their originals such that the original fades out of memory and the cover becomes the de facto version of a song (best example: Diana Ross singing “You Can’t Hurry Love”).  But a really good cover needs to be a legitimate, positive evolution of that song.

So, I got to thinking — what were the best covers of my time?  I’m not even 30 yet, so I realize I’m using a small set of time, but it was fun nonetheless to sit down and really muse over it.  Here’s what I got:

  • Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” I am a big fan of the original song; I loved it when it first came out on the radio (I was in middle school!).  But when I heard Johnny Cash sing his version of “Hurt” over the radio one day while I was stuck in L.A. traffic, my breath was almost taken away.  That iconic voice, combined with that iconic guitar, put chills into a song that was already pretty biting.  Johnny Cash literally gave me goosebumps while maintaining the purity and intent of the original.  This cover also shows the mind of a great musician.  One of my pet peeves are people who will close themselves off to a certain type of music. If Johnny Cash had done that, I never would have heard this song.
  • Michael Andrews & Gary Jules covering Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” Talk about a cover eclipsing the original.  I always found it amazing that “Mad World” was Tears for Fears’ first big international success.  Michael Andrews changed the tempo and turned the song into a ballad, creating a creepy journey into everyone’s darker perspectives.  This cover came to fame in the movie “Donnie Darko” and has since been featured in a couple video games as well.
  • Natalie Merchant (when she was lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) covering Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” This cover shows how just having a voice better suited for the song transforms it.  Patti Smith’s version was okay, and man, she contributed a lot to music as well.  But she didn’t do this song justice.  10,000 Maniacs took a shot at the song — and didn’t actually change much of it musically — but that piano, violin, and Natalie Merchant took it to a more personal place that resonated with many of its listeners.  This song dominated the airwaves when the MTV unplugged version came out.  It’s funny to me that it was Bruce Springstien who actually wrote the song, then Patti Smith debuted it, and now Natalie Merchant “owns” it.
  • They Might Be Giants covering The Four Lad’s “Istanbul.” I earn my geek cred here.  My husband almost blurt out laughing when I mentioned this one, I think because he keeps on forgetting the song is wayyyy older than TMBG.  Strange enough, I first heard this song when I was bored at home one day when I was little and was watching a Lawrence Welk marathon on PBS (there really was nothing else to watch…really).  TMBG literally took a little ditty, geeked it up, and put some rocking electricity into the song along with a little klezmer action, and now it’s a cult classic.  I believe it’s played at every concert they perform as well.  (And yes, I realize that I linked the Tiny Toon’s video of it…I like it!)
  • The Bangles covering Paul Simon’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.” This cover proves that true musicians can take a song, mix it in a blender, and make something new.  How many people my age even know the Paul Simon version?  (I do, because I used to listen to Paul Simon and even Simon & Garfunkel when I was a child, since my father listened to the VINYL.)  What’s the crucial change?  Some may say it’s the tempo, others the electric guitar, or perhaps the addition of a real drum beat.  My husband seems to think that the female vocals in lieu of Paul Simon’s voice was the crucial effect.  I actually can’t put my finger on it… but there certainly were a number of changes, and a lot of credit should go to the person/people who led them to that final product so well.  This version took a lot of work to make, and I love it (and I wish stupid college acapella bands would stop trying to cover it themselves because they can’t cover the Bangles’ version well at all — just do the Simon version!).

So, those my favorite of the last three decades.  Am I missing any?

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