Let’s make a list! With sweeping statements about a subject so broad it’s impossible not to miss tons of relevant entries! Why don’t we begin with what are obviously the objectively best cover songs ever made. Professional cover bands (The Blues Brothers, Me First and the Gimmee Gimmees, Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine etc.) don’t count, as that’s their job. We’ll leave out the live covers too, because a band should respect their version enough to pay the license.
There are, in my reckoning, two important elements to a good cover song. 1. Work as a great song in its own right, regardless of the quality of the original. 2. Add something unique to the style of the original. To save you (and me) from endless frustration, I’m not putting these in any particular order.
With a Little Help from My Friends – Joe Cocker. Cocker takes a Beatles classic, which is by itself a master class in listenability, and turns it into an almost bewilderingly heartfelt anthem. Cocker has an incredible voice, and it sounds like he’s putting every ounce of himself into the song. The song is almost twice as long as the original, and everyone in the band (including Jimmy Goddamn Page) is just throwing themselves into the music. The cover takes a sweet, but fairly simple song about friendship and turns it into a complex and soulful composition.
Honorable Mention: Little Wing – Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. Vaughn is incredibly talented and one of the few guitarists that could take on Hendrix’s abilities, but the song doesn’t stray too far from the original.
War Pigs – Cake. Cake has a very unique sound, and they seem to have a good time taking on a variety of different cover songs. They’re all exceptional, but War Pigs, from their B-side album, is probably the most entertaining. It adapts Sabbath metal into a bass and horn backed alt. rock version without showing any disrespect to the original. They do the song their own way, and it sounds great, but they clearly love Ozzy’s version too. The horns coming in near the end are just perfect.
Happiness is a Warm Gun – the Breeders. Another approach to adapting the Beatles. The Deal sisters take an experimental pop song and out experimental it. It’s a strange and haunting version that encapsulates the poetic ambient grunge rock that was popular in the early 90s. The vocals are tinged with a sound of bitter sadness, and they take the song in a totally new and unexpected direction.
Honorable Mention: A Forest – Nouvelle Vauge, and Velouria – the Bad Plus. Similar in style and interpretation, both bands have very cool and experimental takes on songs that are already pretty out there.
Immigrant Song – Karen O, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor. The most contemporary song on the list and certainly the one most in line with the original version. The artsist opted for heavily pumping up the industrial and electronic sounds (not especially surprising) and accelerating the driving rock even further than Zeppelin did. It all just works. The song is angry and scary, and Karen O just nails the vocals. Perhaps most importantly for this song in particular is that it fits perfectly with Fincher’s directorial style and the general atmosphere of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is the song that sold America on the movie with sheer awesome energy.
Real Love – Mike Doughty. White guys doing melodic covers of R&B/Rap songs isn’t exactly new, but this is probably the best example of it you’ll find. For the most part, the covers seem to be rooted in a sense of irony or contempt, as the band takes a paternalistic approach to “improve” the song. Mike Doughty is a rare exception. His acoustic version of Real Love seems to come from a place of great respect for the source material. He saw something beautiful in the song and wanted to do his own take with heartfelt and emphatic feeling.
Honorable Mention: Gin and Juice – the Gourds, Boyz in the Hood – Dynamite Hack, and Bitches Ain’t Shit – Ben Folds. These are all entertaining covers of rap songs that lack the respect/appreciation that Doughty shows in his cover.
I’ll be back with the second half of the list soon!