Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood – Santa Esmeralda
Nina Simone’s original version of this song was alright, but it really lacked heft. I can’t fault her for soul, but the tempo was a bit plodding and there was barely anything backing up the lyrics. The Animals took a crack at it, and it was kind of terrible. The one thing they hit on though, was the drastic alteration of the song by changing the singer from female to male. Not to take anything away from woman on man domestic violence, but it just doesn’t carry the same kind of social connotations as the reverse. Santa Esmeralda took the 2:40 tune and turned it into a full on saga, complete with wailing agonized vocals, a great horn section, a driving latin rhythm, and an honest to god clapping solo. It’s a powerful version that highlights what an ingenuitive bad can do with good material.
Honorable Mention: Port of Amsterdam – David Bowie. Holy hell, Bowie just kills it, relegated off the main list mainly on the technicality of the rules I set for myself on the list.
Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) – Nancy Sinatra
Cher’s original take on this song was just awful. Really terrible. The music had no connection at all to the lyrics, and the delivery was just poor overall. Nevertheless, it’s been covered, a lot. Nancy Sinatra, for all her faults, committed to the song and focused entirely on the meaning of the lyrics. Instead of a cheap pop tune about a broken heart, she made it a haunting, confused and painful reflection on a lover’s betrayal. The heavily wah-wah’d (that’s a scientific term) guitar is a perfect counterpart to the vocals; meaty enough to hold it together without overwhelming anything. (yes, that’s two songs from Kill Bill, but I don’t think anyone is criticizing Tarantino for poor taste in music)
Honorable Mention: Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead o’Connor. Yeah yeah, it’s the most 90s love song around and not one I’d normally listen to, but Sinead turned an obscure Prince song into a world famous tragedy entirely out of sheer passion (and a torn up picture of the Pope).
Mad World – Gary Jules
Tears for Fears was just a factory of New Wave, droning synth pop, and this song was a pretty typical product. Gary Jules actually managed to take the song and turn it into something beautiful. The song creates a sensation of floating, and Jules sounds so heartbroken that it’s almost scary. It’s the sound of a man on the verge of doing something crazy and tragic, sold solely on the power of his voice. Just by the way he sings and the light piano backing, the song takes on a level of subtlety and nuance that the original sorely lacked.
Honorable Mention: Hurt – Johnny Cash. A more recent example of the same thing, where Cash’s life informs and inspires a pain that Reznor’s version just couldn’t.
I Fought the Law – the Clash
The Bobby Fuller Four churned out a really dull rock song that sounded like every other white guy-post-Elvis song in the 60s. The Clash turned it into one of the seminal songs of the early punk rock era. It’s got the energy and attitude the original completely lacked, and displays much more technical skill to boot. Put simply, the Clash version fucking rocks. Whether it influenced early rap is debatable, but it certainly inspired the disenfranchised youth of the Thatcher/Reagan era.
Honorable Mention: Common People – William Shatner. Neither really in the same category, but Shatner used his very straightforward and earnest style (with tons of help from Ben Folds) to turn a pretty mediocre British pop song into an entertaining anthem for the poor.
Jolene – The White Stripes
Dolly Parton’s version was decent, as far as it goes, but far too rushed. Somehow Jack White managed to outdo her on a song about a woman losing her man to another woman. If you’re sexually-politically inclined, White doing the vocals adds a bit of ambiguity to the tune that makes it far more interesting. If not, you’ve still got a song with a plaintive and heart-wrenching lead vocal backed by the shockingly creepy sound of sawing in the background. The end effect is almost as threatening as it is sad, the last effort of a desperate man/woman to save a relationship. The White Stripes, like many of the other songs in the list, develop the song with added depth and emotion that you could might never have noticed in the original.
Honorable Mention: Queen Bitch – Seu Jorge, and Life on Mars? – Seu Jorge. Honestly, you could use any of the tunes from Life Aquatic that Seu Jorge did. Just a collection of beautiful reimagined Bowie tunes in Portuguese.
Really obvious classic cover that should have made the list, but I left it off because it was too easy: All Along the Watchtower pt. 2 by Jimi Hendrix – It’s pretty much the perfect cover, and is practically obligatory on every cover list ever made. It manages to improve on a great song in its own unique way while being respectful of the source. Also it is just an incredible bit of Rock.