I guess when you’re as annoyingly obsessed with music as I am, you surrender yourself to the chase: constantly looking for the new sound, the unusual “hook”, a piece of music which speaks to that part of your soul you rarely share with anyone.
You’re also looking to show off to your other rock snob friends, but I’m not supposed to admit to that part.
Anyhoo, I guess that musicians feel the same way. They discover a song so perfect that they wish they had written it. So they do the next best thing: they make a cover of their favorite song. Once in a rare while, an artist comes up with a version even better than the original.
This list is an homage to that most impressive feat.
Admittedly, trying to pick the Top 20 Cover Songs of All Times is a nearly impossible task. And I’m going to assume right off the bat that I’m going to forget a gem or two. In any event, here it goes:
20. “Satisfaction” (Original by: The Rolling Stones) (Cover by: Cat Power)
O.k., I’m not going to be foolish enough to say that CP’s version is better per se, but man, it’s good. Her take plays out The Stones’ classic with a slow-drippin’, cool kitten sensuality, making the song more of a come-hither call versus Jagger’s teenage boy temper-tantrum version. It’s definitely a more sophisticated cover, one that never got the play it so deserved.
19. “Hazy Shade of Winter” (Original By: Simon & Garfunkel) (Cover By: The Bangles)
While I adore Susanna Hoffs’ voice (although she’s married to Austin Powers director, Jay Roach, but there’s no accounting for taste), I’ve never been a big fan of her Eighties pop band, The Bangles. Songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian” were moronic and I thought their cover of Prince’s “Eternal Flame” was a sappy, PMS mess of a song (and will NOT be seen on this list). But their cover of S & G’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” was pure brilliance, with hefty guitar riffs combined with spot-on harmonies. In other words, it kicks the original’s ass. For those of you who have never heard it, you can find it on the Less Than Zero movie soundtrack. Never heard of that movie? Then you’re a baby who needs to take a film class next semester 😉
18. “Hallelujah” (Original By: Leonard Cohen) (Cover By: Jeff Buckley)
For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know my deep, deep love for Jeff Buckley. He was a truly elegant musician – with the ego the size of Texas, but whatev – and his untimely death will always leave us wondering what might have been.
Of course, Leonard Cohen was no slouch either. You’ll see MANY of his songs on this list because he is – by far – one of the kings of songwriting. I guess the reason why I prefer Buckley’s version is because his delivery seems more like a battlecry against lost love, and Cohen’s (like all his really) comes off more like the world-weary, almost bored requiem from a jaded, crusty old man. Not so appealing.
17. “Wild Horses” (Original By: The Rolling Stones) (Cover By: The Sundays)
Yes, this is the second song by The Stones on the list, but confession time: I actually am not that into them. I never got Jagger’s performative appeal and I don’t know how much more phormaldehide Keith Richards can mainline in order to look as if he’s barely alive. But I think they’re decent songwriters, and putting “Wild Horses” into the most able hands of The Sundays illustrates that point. For me, it’s actually a tie between The Stones’ version and The Sundays…both are extraordinarily heartbreaking (in a good way). But I’ve got to say, I adore Harriet Wheeler’s voice – so much so that I forgive their sellout of this song for a Budweiser commercial.
16. “Nothing Compares to You” (Original By: Prince) (Cover By: Sinead O’Connor)
About half of you who read my blog regularly are too young to remember her, but for all you Generation Xers still reading this, I’m sure you recall that voice, that face…Jesus, I still get knocked out by her video. In an age when video was king and exotic locales, pastel-colored suits, and vacant-eyed models were the standard, this kick-ass chick put a video out with her shaved head, black turtleneck, and a face close up. That was it. And trust me, that’s all she needed. There have been many others who have covered this song, but none have even come close to Sinead’s take. Even Prince – and he wrote the damn thing.
15. “Personal Jesus” (Original By: Depeche Mode) (Cover By: Johnny Cash)
Another confession: it wasn’t until the movie “Walk the Line” came out that I really got turned onto the brilliance that was Johnny Cash (June too, of course). The original was done by techno-pop divas, Depeche Mode. The group got the idea for the song from Priscilla Presley, who in a book described her relationship with Elvis as one in which he played a spiritual role. “Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone, by the telephone, lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.” Cash might appear to be an unlikely candidate to translate this staple of alternative airplay into his own brand of earthy country and western, but his “Personal Jesus” resonates with the Man in Black’s unique power. Cash did a series of recordings in the ‘90s with producer Rick Rubin, which helped him connect with a whole new generation of music lovers, and “Personal Jesus” appears on one of them entitled, “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”
Look further down the list for another diddy from this album.
14. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (Original By: The Beatles) (Cover By: Eddie Vedder)
Not only is Vedder’s version stunning in its simplicity – not that the original was some kind of frilly complex affair in the first place – but I admire Vedder for the way he uses his celebrity for causes he believes in. And he doesn’t do it in that prancing peacock, Hollywood sort of way – of sitting in an interview with sunglasses on and rattling endlessly about environmental awareness while being chauffeured around in a gas guzzling stretch limo. Nope, Vedder throws his muscle around in a more dignified, subtler fashion – and for causes such as the anti-war movement, environmental awareness, and for women’s reproductive rights. He’s a keeper, ladies…a guy with immeasurable talent that’s easy on the eyes and stimulating to the heart, brain, and spirit.
13. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Original By: Nirvana) (Cover By: Tori Amos)
While I still think that the original is better than any cover attempted, Tori Amos’ take on the early nineties grunge classic comes pretty damn close. I think Tori’s a rad chick…not just for humping a piano bench better than a porn star, but for putting out (no pun intended) some of the most intelligent rock music out there (if not, let’s admit, a bit out there at times).
12. “Tainted Love” (Original By: Gloria Jones) (Cover By: Soft Cell)
Okay, let’s be honest with each other. You didn’t know that “Tainted Love” was a cover, right? That’s okay pussycat, ’cause neither did I for the longest time.
Gloria Jones recorded songs for Uptown Records, a subsidiary of Capitol/EMI, since she was 14 years old. Included among these was “Tainted Love.” Marc Almond of the duo, Soft Cell, whose cover version of “Tainted Love” reached #1 worldwide, originally heard the song in a nightclub in Northern England. While most of us may not know a lot about her, so strong was Gloria’s following in England back in the day that she was proclaimed the “Northern Queen of Soul.
And it’s still one of the few songs that can make me sing at the top of my lungs in my car.
11. “Me and Bobby McGee” (Original By: Kris Kristopherson) (Cover By: Janis Joplin)
One of the ways I lovingly tease my husband is to tell him he suffers from “Knight in Shining Armour” syndrome, which should be, but isn’t in the DSM-IV Mental Health Diagnostic guide. I mention this because I am inflicted with waves of such aforementioned syndrome everytime I’m listening to one of my favorite, deceased-before-their-time, artists. You wish you could go back and save her. Hell, I wished I could have saved them all.
Her cover of Kristopherson’s seminal 70s classic was hers from the start. No one will ever be able to duplicate the intensity and vulnerability she brought to this song. And THAT, my friends, is the definition of the perfect cover song.
The only reason why it’s not higher in my countdown here is because this is one we all know and love. Time to bring some light onto some diddys you may not be as aware of…which brings us to our TOP TEN!
To Be Continued….