Lists, News

Cover Songs That Kick The Originals To The Curb

Amy Dupcak :: Friday, July 2nd, 2010 1:30 pm

Is there such thing as a cover song that’s better than the original? For all the crap out there—the Britney Spears cover of “I Love Rock n Roll” or Hillary Duff’s rendition of “My Generation”—there are a few rare gems out there that have managed to top the original, reinventing an old song or bringing to light a never-before-heard one. There are even those that you probably didn’t know were covers. Here are our top pics.

Cover Songs That Beat The Originals:
“Tainted Love,” Soft Cell — Archetypal of early ’80s dark pop, this was originally composed by Ed Cobb, of The Four Preps, and then recorded by Gloria Jones in 1965. UK synthy duo Soft Cell discovered the song in ‘81 and recorded their version in a day and a half, using singer Mark Almond’s first vocal take. They were on the verge of being dropped by their label if the single didn’t sell, but then “Tainted Love” became a worldwide success. Interestingly enough, they also wrote a song called “Mr. Self Destruct,” which Trent Reznor would later use as a title.

“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” Led Zeppelin — I’ll be honest, I had no idea this was a cover. Kind of upsetting, in a way. It was written as a traditional folk song by Anne Bredon in the late ’50s and then recorded by Joan Baez for a 1962 live album. Thank god Led Zeppelin got to it in ‘69 and transformed Joan’s foofy, high-pitched version into the dynamic and emotional song we all know, with powerful Page licks and Plant’s witchy “woman’s!”. For me it beats “Stairway,” and I simply can’t imagine life without it.

“All Along The Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix — Bob Dylan wrote and recorded this magical, harmonica-laden song, then Jimi Hendrix came along with his electric guitar in ‘68 and took it to another galaxy. Apparently even Dylan admitted that Jimi’s version was better. Nobody can sing “And the wind began to howl” like he did, and to tell you the truth, I’m convinced that he was actually from another planet. The Grateful Dead also recorded a pretty nifty version, but of course it pales in comparison.

“With a Little Help From My Friends,” Joe Cocker -I know it’s pretty blasphemous to say that anybody recorded a Beatles song better than The Beatles, but let’s be reasonable here. What began as a cute little ditty with that lovely “get high” line became a soulful, longer, and almost crazed song Joe Cocker performed at Woodstock. Sorry John and Paul, I love you guys, but Cocker can have this one. It was also used as the theme to The Wonder Years, which I guess carries it’s own sort of charm.

“Piece of My Heart,” by Janis Joplin — Written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns and originally recorded by Erma Franklin, Athena’s sister, in 1967, the original was a really good blues/soul song…until Janis Joplin wrapped her smoky vocal chords around it and blew Franklin’s version out of the water. While both versions are worth a listen, Joplin gives the song such strength and power that it’s hard to go back to the first one. Come on, come on, come on.

“Jolene,” The White Stripes — I can’t even really listen to Dolly Parton’s original version of the song, released in 1974. But luckily, in 2004, The White Stripes turned her country single into an inspired garage rock gem. All the better that Jack White is begging Jolene not to take his man. Darcy Clay’s version is also of note.

“English Rose,” Darcy Clay — Speaking of Darcy Clay, and now we’re talking really obscure, he recorded a live version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” during a performance in New Zealand opening for Blur. Clay’s two six-track EPs, including a live one from this show, came out posthumously after he committed suicide in 1998. When he played and recording “English Rose,” it was two months after Princess Diana’s death, and Elton John had reworked a previous version of “Candle in the Wind” from honoring Marilyn Monroe to honoring the Princess. Clay offers a somewhat humorous but precious and sentimental spin on the otherwise bland ballad; it’s easy to see how he was a forerunner of simplified indie music, as his voice cracks on every other note.

“…Baby One More Time,” Fountains of Wayne — How annoying was that original, with a barely sixteen-year-old Britney doing back handsprings in a school auditorium? Fountains of Wayne decided to give the pop song a lazily-delivered acoustic treatment, and what you know—there’s actually a good song buried under there!

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Nirvana — Nirvana covered The Vaselines, Shocking Blue, David Bowie, and The Meat Puppets, but this was their very best. Originally called “In the Pines,” it’s a traditional American folk song dating back to at least the 1870s, and while the identity of the songwriter isn’t known, it’s usually associated with Lead Belly, who recorded it in the 1940s and whose music Kurt Cobain was into. Nirvana performed it as the finale of MTV Unplugged in New York, and Kurt screams the final verses from the depths of his soul while calmly strumming the acoustic guitar. Note too that Mark Lanegan, a friend of Kurt’s (who may have been the one to even tell him about it), also recorded it.

Toss Ups!
“Sweet Dreams” — Annie Lennox has always been cool and slick as fuck, and The Eurythmics offered this dark and catchy signature song in 1983…long before Marilyn Manson had the chance to turn it into something so much darker and scarier than the duo ever intended. The two version are so different in tone, arrangement, style and meaning that it’s hard to even compare them.

“Stand by Me” - The original version was written and performed by Ben E. King in 1961, and one of the best covers was John Lennon’s, with an appropriately John-and-Yoko-in-love video, which he recorded in ‘75. Both versions are enticingly good, and all others should be forgotten.

“Dead Souls” - Joy Division has been covered by so many bands who wish they were them, but NIN got it right, preserving the spirit of the 1979 song but also taking it in a new, ever more grating direction. Even the voters on this website give it a tie.

“Comfortably Numb”- As much as I love Pink Floyd, the gay, glam, disco-y Scissor Sisters gave this 1979 treasure a wonderful makeover in 2004. I think both versions can exist in harmony.

Close But No Cigar!
1. Siouxsie Sioux has performed some very cool, gothy covers of non-gothy songs, such as The Stooges’ “The Passenger” and The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and “Helter Skelter.”

2. Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright have both covered John Lennon’s “Across the Universe,” and both versions are lovely.

3. Sun Kil Moon put out an acoustic record of all Modest Mouse covers, called Tiny Cities. So beautiful, and such unique takes on some beloved Mouse tunes.

4. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is one of U2’s most revolutionary songs, and Saul Williams did it justice with his powerful, crunchy cover.

5. The Smashing Pumpkins once gave iconic Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” a try, and Billy Corgan’s little-boy voice fit the song to a tee.

6. Very recently, Local Natives covered Televison’s “Careful” and it’s brilliant.

7. “No Quarter” was a chilling Zeppelin song (on Houses of the Holy), and Tool transformed it flawlessly into one of their own, while still preserving the original murky feel.

Honorable Mentions
1. Mini Kiss — a Kiss tribute band made up entirely of midgets in makeup. Hmmm…

2. Dread Zeppelin — the name alone cracks me up; this cover band takes Led Zeppelin songs and cover them in a reggae fashion with the added twist of an Elvis Presley impersonation on the lead vocal.

3. Apocalyptica — this Finnish symphonic metal band is comprised of four cellists who cover Metallica tunes. These guys rock.

4. Levi’s Pioneer Sessions — Levi’s asked a dozen of their favorite ‘pioneering artists’ spanning multiple genres to record a song for their “2010 Revival Recordings.” Naturally some are better than others, but I’m digging The Kills’ version of “Pale Blue Eyes” by Velvet Underground, and The Dirty Projectors doing Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”