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The Most Transformative Cover Songs
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Readers recommend their favorites. Submit your own—especially if the cover goes across genres—via hello@theatlantic.com, and please include a short description of why you love it so much.

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Track of the Day: 'One Toke Over the Line'

Reader Mike Kludt really lives up to the daily 4:20 p.m. timestamp for the Track of the Day feature:

I’m not sure I’d call these transformative, but they are eye-and-ear-catching.

A friendly discussion of Bob Dylan led me to this: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs playing a bluegrass version of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” The sound is so completely different from Dylan’s, yet you can see a similar mischievousness in their faces as they play. Hearing two veteran bluegrass performers sing “everybody must get stoned” is priceless.

While channel surfing recently, I happened upon that fount of surreal covers, The Lawrence Welk Show. There on my television were Gail Farrell and Dick Dale singing “One Toke Over The Line” [seen above]. At first I couldn’t believe this snuck by Lawrence; perhaps the references to Jesus and Mary gave it cover as a spiritual. But I realized that despite the overt mention of marijuana use, it isn’t really a pro-drug song; the main character is in pretty rough shape. (Seeing Myron Floren choke on the introduction is good for a chuckle, too.)

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime'

Caroline from Los Angeles—“a long-time reader, first-time poster”—writes:

Most people, like me, probably experienced Beck’s “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” for the first time in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s haunting sci-fi fable about the desperate things we do to pretend that awful things didn’t happen. This fan video of the song is showing its age, but it’s maybe kinda cool and appropriate that it’s faded and blurry with time.

Beck did an unplugged version for some telethon or something, and it’s powerful that way, too.

But what surprised me was that Beck’s version is a cover. The song started out as a 1983 synth-pop reverb-fest by an outfit called The Korgis. (Trivia note: James Warren said he wrote it in 10 to 15 minutes—it just came to him—and yet he we are.)  

The Beck version was also used in the Omega episode of the short-lived Fox TV series Dollhouse, scoring the moment when Echo started to reclaim her identity. But Eternal Sunshine will probably be how most of us remember it, to the extent that it lasts in our imperfect memories.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Cortez the Killer'

Sarah G. is a big fan of the cover series:

I’ve been following it intermittently for a while now, especially when I need a break from political coverage. It first caught my eye when you featured Richard Thompson, [who also sang] “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” I had just shared that video, again, on Facebook, and friends were certain that I had suggested it. But I digress.

Covers of songs—sometimes they are great, sometimes they are terrible. Pearl Jam has covered so many songs that I could spend all day just talking about and listening to their covers. Scrolling through the archive, I thought first of Jeff Buckley, which of course led me to think about I’m Your Fan, a compilation of Leonard Cohen covers by various artists. [CB: There’s another compilation of Cohen covers, I’m Your Man, which I bought after seeing the 2005 documentary of the same name, and two of its best covers are Rufus Wainwright’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” and Antony Hegarty’s “If It Be Your Will.”]

But I think I’ll take this opportunity to show some love to The Church’s album of covers from 1999, A Box of Birds. They cover the Monkees, the Beatles, Ultravox, and Neil Young, among others. I enjoyed the eclectic song selection and the hints at the band’s sense of humor and fun. Some of the tracks are faithful to the originals, others are uniquely The Church. Here’s their cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” in all of its trippy glory.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Ho Hey'

A reader, Richard, lets the cynicism melt away:

I am the type of person that doesn’t think TV soap operas are cool. I certainly disapprove of “kiddy country” acts. I also like to think that I don’t go for over-produced, artfully designed to tug-at-your-heartstrings music or video.

But I love this video of two young girls singing a Lumineers song on an extremely soapy network TV show, Nashville. So sue me.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Say My Name'

Amy Jones, the reader who sent the creepy cover of Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” serves up another great one:

After his 2013 album For Now I Am Winter, Bafta award-winning artist Ólafur Arnalds collaborated with vocalist Arnor Dan, with whom he also performed on the Broadchurch soundtrack. Most of Arnalds’ music is classified as “neo-classical,” and though Destiny’s Child may seem a strange choice for such an artist, his cover of “Say My Name” emphasizes the desperation in the lyrics with slow, lush strings and somber acoustic piano.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Don't Fear the Reaper'

A reader in London, David Durant, takes out the cowbell but adds a lot more:

Without doubt, my favourite totally transformed cover song is Apollo 440’s version of the classic Blue Oyster Cult 1976 hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” (The Bangles cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” is also awesome, but Apollo 440 takes the crown here.) I love the way the timeless smoothness of Blue Oyster Cult’s lyrics remains in place but is enhanced by the high energy of a rhythm section. This is what I want played at my funeral.

(Submit your own via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'One Way or Another'

A reader in Mississippi, Amy Jones, recommends a cover that really brings out the creepiness of the lyrics:

An episode of the American drama series Stalker highlighted the cover of Blondie’s hit in its fifth episode, though I first stumbled upon it via Spotify. I try not to look at my phone while driving, but I had to glance down to check if this was a cover of that old song I had never thought much about but dismissed as silly.

The band, Until the Ribbon Breaks, describes their style as one that “blends genres like electronic, pop, rock, and hip-hop … with a sharp alternative edge.” Their cover of “One Way or Another” certainly fits that description, with soft beats underlying harmonies with just enough dissonance to be beautiful but interesting. My favorite covers are those that recast the lyrics in such a different light that the listener considers them in a new way, and this British band succeeds as their vocalist croons the old playful words with haunting conviction.

Debbie Harry was inspired to write the original song after her experience with a stalker. She told Entertainment Weekly:

I was actually stalked by a nutjob, so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event. I tried to inject a little levity into it to make it more lighthearted. It was a survival mechanism.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Let It Be'

A reader in Pittsburgh, Josh, has a moving tribute to his friend:

I’ve been following your cover series and would like to contribute a favorite. In March, I lost my best friend Chris—far, far too young at only 36. In suburban Pittsburgh in the ‘90s, we were an unlikely pair. He was black, I was white, and about as physically and socially different as could be. In 10th grade, Chris joined the marching band, and playing together in the trumpet section, we became inseparable.

In band, you played a wide variety of genres and were exposed to many influences. Chris and I cultivated eclectic musical tastes, and in the pre-Napster/iTunes/Spotify days, when people defined identity by the contents of their CD binder, we could exchange any band or genre without shame. He blew my mind with a Prince record; I floored him with the White Album. It united us, and as we passed through the momentary catastrophes and tender triumphs of adolescence, we always had a soundtrack.

So my selection for this cover series is “Let It Be” by Gladys Knight and the Pips:

McCartney’s sparse hymn is transformed by Gladys’ soaring gospel performance and the call and response into an urgent demand. It almost seems as if the Pips’ plaintive echoes are restraining her from ascending to another plane of existence.

The Beatles began by playing Motown songs, and after their explosion, Motown artists covered them frequently. This cover of “Let It Be” has been solace in my personal grief, but also as an echo of the troubled times in which it was written and recorded, and a tonic to the current unrest in our civic society. I know Chris loved this song, and I know he would agree.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'The Weight'

From reader Conor Murphy:

I nominate Aretha Franklin’s cover of “The Weight” by The Band. Taking a song as moody and solemn as that and singing it the way she does transforms it in startling ways. Switching to a soul arrangement and foregoing the piano for horns creates an entirely new dynamic within the song, while the pure power and depth of her voice is almost overwhelming.  

By the way, if you want to continue the Beatles covers, you could also use Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby,” which is similarly incredible.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'We Can Work It Out'

Reader John Maschoff ends a despairing week of national news on an optimistic note:

This version of “We Can Work It Out” so wonderfully injects the groovy funk and soul that Stevie Wonder has been creating for decades. It’s a must-include on this list.

He follows up:

If you’re looking for an extra lift for the weekend, might I impose and suggest an extra Stevie gem from the same album. So, so good.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Enjoy the Silence'

Lance goes with a cross-subgenre pick—Nada Surf’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”:

I love this song because it takes a classic synthpop song and turns it into a classic power pop song. When I listen to the original, it’s hard for me to imagine it as a power pop song; when I listen to the cover, it’s hard for me to imagine it as a synthpop song. The Nada Surf arrangement works on its own, without depending on knowledge of the original for its effect.

(Submit a cover via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Track of the Day: 'Ticket to Ride'

I recently asked readers for their favorite Beatles covers, specifically ones that transcend the rock genre. One reader pointed to a reggae-jazz version of “She’s a Woman” while another highlighted an eclectic a cappella version of “Helter Skelter.” This next reader gets right to the point:

The Carpenters’s “Ticket To Ride.” Brilliant. Period. End of sentence.

Here’s some trivia regarding that song title, relayed by Don Short, a Daily Mirror music journalist:

The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe these cards. He could have been joking – you always had to be careful with John like that – but I certainly remember him telling me that.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

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