Just because you didn’t write it doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own. Whether they stay true to the original or take a radically different approach, cover versions breathe new life into old songs. And if they catch on, they may even outsell their predecessors — just ask Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston.
An iconic new wave tune gets a slow-building, atmospheric rework.
What could easily have been a generic Beatlemania filler for Al Green’s debut album is instead turned into a two-minute bottle rocket soul recording. We hear the man himself shadowboxing his way through the preparations, raring to go, egging the band on. “Shut up, Al Green,” says a voice from the control box, but Green is already in full flight. He turns hand-holding into a euphemism for anything but. His delivery dances around the previously straightforward melody, finding inflections in it that hardly seem possible.
Jolene is one of the most covered songs in country music, so it’s a no-brainer for a list like this. Dolly Parton sings harmony on Mindy Smith’s version and appears in the music video. This single launched Smith’s career, and Dolly has said Smith’s cover is her favorite version of the song.
As with any good cover, Mazzy Star makes this song completely their own. I can’t say it’s better than the original by Slapp Happy — that is one of the few $100 records I have purchased — but it is on equal footing.
Anika — “Yang Yang” (Yoko Ono)
Deapan singer/journalist Anika teams up with Geoff Barrow of Portishead for this cover of “Yang Yang,” originally by Yoko Ono. Anika’s charming and disaffected talk-singing is expertly supported by Barrow and his Krautrock leaning band Beak>. The band provides a beat-driven and dubby foundation to Anika’s dry, Nico-like delivery, while the hook is handled by a lone synth siren.
It was already a wonderful composition by John Lennon, but Hathaway infuses “Jealous Guy” with a little more soul. I prefer the live version to the studio recording, as the former is a little slower and more apologetic.
Faker’s lilting vocals create the perfect vibe for this song. Stripping out the polished ’90s R&B production lets this song stretch out.
It’s crazy that it took three hippie kids to make me realize this song is about a renaissance fair, a nuclear explosion and an alien abduction. I’ve never stepped onboard a UFO, nor have I ever witnessed a WMD. But I have been dragged to “the ren faire” more times that I’d like to admit, and despite enjoying the turkey legs and John Courage ale, I’d rather endure intergalactic probing or split atoms. But seriously, these three-part harmonies are impossibly pretty.
This hauntingly beautiful version of Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” encapsulates the soul of Velvet Underground and the lament of Cat Power in one fell swoop. While Velvet Underground’s version is reminiscent of doo-wop and filled to the brim with Lou Reed’s incomparable vocals, Cat Power strips the song down to a single piano line and breathy, aching vocals. The former fills us with hope; the latter leaves our heart heavy, wanting more.
A wonderfully cheesy punk-pop cover of an equally cheesy ’80s song, and an accidental hit in the early 2000s. I love this version. Even the subtle changes in the lyrics (replacing the “deadhead sticker” with “Black Flag,” so you know they’re extra punk) are enough to make you scream the words in your car.
This adaptation is the benchmark of a great cover. Parker’s flipping of the main riff into a laid-back groove is genius. You can clearly hear the framework of the original version in this rendition, but the vibe and sentiment are those of the interpreter, which makes the whole endeavor seem natural and necessary.
I love this stripped-down live version of Sandy Denny’s classic. While the Fairport Convention version will always have a special place in my heart, there’s something about the sparse arrangement and stillness of Nina Simone’s version that always takes my breath away.