Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Most Transformative Cover Songs
Show Description +

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.

Show 128 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'I Will Survive' by Cake

A classic cover song and great analysis from reader Lia P.:

“I Will Survive” was so identifiable with a particular time, place, and culture. When Gloria Gaynor first belted it out, it was a 1970s anthem of empowerment for women. A few years later, it was a heart wrenching self-affirmation for gay men in the darkness of the AIDS crisis. Then, Cake covered it in 1996 and transformed it again.

It starts with a rough and ragged guitar line, and John McCrea’s almost spoken word delivery grounds the lyrics, making them less aspirational than Gaynor’s. In this version, the survival is a done deal. Adding the expletive to the lyric, “I should have changed my fucking lock…” isn’t gratuitous. It asserts the total end of victimhood on the part of the singer; it’s not even a work in progress anymore.

The fact that survival, and rising from the ashes, is always a difficult journey is expressed so effectively by the raw guitar solo in the middle. But at the end, there’s a sweeping, swooping horn line that is such a satisfying representation of the new found freedom that this former victim now feels.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

No playlist of transformative cover songs would be complete without this classic Nine Inch Nails cover by Johnny Cash:

The music video for “Hurt” directed by Mark Romanek took home a Grammy in 2003. Cash and I share a birthday—today, February 26. He would’ve been 84. On Cash’s distinct singing style, here’s Francis David in a piece from our March 2004 issue titled “God’s Lonely Man”:

To read his obituaries, one might think that his credibility as a singer depended entirely on his credibility as a man. True, he never developed his upper range to the point where he could trust it, and the clear emphasis he gave every single word would have precluded gliding from note to note even if he had been able to. Among the singers of his own generation he lacked the bravura and the sheer lung power of such country Carusos as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, Ferlin Husky, and the young Waylon Jennings. We tend not to value deep voices as much as we do high, soaring ones, perhaps because the effort involved in producing a low note is less apparent. Something about hearing a singer go low strikes most ears as a trick, a human special effect. The bass singer does the grunt work in doo-wop and rhythm and blues, sometimes literally.

There is a style of country music, however, in which a male singer's descent to a virile low note at the end of a phrase, or for the closing chorus, supplies the same payoff as a soul singer’s falsetto-one conveys masculine certainty and the other uncontrollable passion, but each signifies a moment of truth. No country singer was better at this than Cash, and few singers in any field of music have been as expressive or as instantly recognizable.

Happy birthday, Mr. Cash.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

A reader throws another cover song in the mix:

Harry Nilsson’s “Lime in the Coconut” has been covered multiple times, probably because it’s such a fun song with an Island lilt. Obviously, though, the best cover is by the Muppets. You can argue that it’s not that different in terms of arrangement, but I would counter that any song sung by a frog is automatically transformative.

In 1998, Australian singer Dannii Minogue (yep, Kylie’s sister) did a dance-music version that peaked at #62 on the ARIA singles chart. Someone on YouTube made their own dance version of Homer Simpson singing “Beer in the Coconut” to himself in a hammock. But for me, the silly song will always make me think of the blood-soaked heist movie Reservoir Dogs, which has a brilliant soundtrack in general.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

For our cover song series, a reader in San Francisco wants to “nominate hundreds of songs over many decades in the great tradition of reggae covers of non-reggae songs”:

The genre is deep and wide. The Easy Star All Stars famously covered the entire Dark Side of the Moon album—here’s “Time.” Little Roy did “Come as You Are.” The Heptones covered “Yesterday." Shinehead did “Billie Jean.” The Dynamics covered “Whole Lotta Love.”

But if I had to pick just one for you to highlight, it would be Peter Tosh’s reggae-ized “Johnny B. Goode.” Even the lyrics got a bit of Jamaica in them.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

Bruce Springsteen is a natural fit for bluegrass. I realize this may sound sacrilegious to the followers of a man who defined late ’70s and ’80s rock, and who can still fill stadiums for four-hour concerts where thousands of fans scream along to anthems “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run.” But he’s already gone down that path in recent years, flexing his folk muscles in his 2005 album Devil & Dust and his 2006 album of Pete Seeger covers, singing with his natural gritty twang and switching his electric guitar for an acoustic one.

Even the Boss’s earlier music had hints of folk influences. Just listen to “I’m On Fire,” his moody, synthesizer-heavy track off of “Born In The U.S.A.,” where he aches for a woman to cool his desire. If you shed away the ‘80s keyboard sound and emphasize its steady drum beat and folk guitar melody, the song has room in the bluegrass genre. And in today’s bluegrass resurgence (check out how many bluegrass festivals there are around the country right now), I keep turning to one cover, which I admittedly listen to more often than the original. It’s from Town Mountain, a string band based out of Asheville, North Carolina. They dropped the synthesizer, added a banjo, a fiddle, and another singer for harmony, and made a gem:

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

Jason in Portland, Oregon, sends a loooong song for the series:

One of the most radically inventive covers I’ve ever heard is Miles Davis’ version of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song “Guinnevere,” which was featured on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. The original CSN version, which clocks in at a little less than five minutes, has held up very well over the decades despite its typical-for-the-time, fantasy-themed lyrics, mostly due to its intricate tonal play and guitar work. David Crosby once remarked that it “might be my best song.”

In the hands of Miles Davis, those tones get unraveled and explored in intimate detail, trading dense instrumentation for a sensuous, hazed-out journey that gives it a whole new life. Even at 21 minutes long, the trip seems over too soon.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

A reader gets really obscure:

Everybody knows the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main St. (If you don't know it, immediately stop reading, obtain the album and listen to it.) What you don't know is that Pussy Galore did a track-by-track cover of the album in ’86. Only 550 copies were released on cassette. It’s full of tape hiss and noise, sounds like it was recorded in a closet that had no acoustics, no one can play, everyone is off key when they sing and apparently they understood Mick’s mumbles about as well as I did since at various points; they just stop singing altogether. By any objective standard, it’s awful. (And NSFW)

And yet …

Stripped down to almost incoherence, every song reveals its primal heart. Listening to this, it’s obvious why Exile is likely the greatest rock & roll album ever recorded.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

The latest reader submission via hello@:

One of my favorite cover songs is also an old standard, “Cry Me a River.” Julie London made it famous, I believe, and Ella did a terrific job, in her prime. Somehow, though, only a few years later, the late, great Joe Cocker saw a spark of soul in this song and made a gospel-tinged, blues-shouter version for the ages. Mad Dogs and Englishmen, indeed.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here.)

A reader gets the new series going with a classic:

In terms of covers that are completely different from the original yet stand on their own as classics, I submit for your approval: “Try A Little Tenderness”—Otis Redding’s version. A lot of folks don’t know that the song was originally an old show tune. Bing Crosby did a version.

Which sounds like it’s from a different planet compared to Redding’s soulful 1966 version, as does a subsequent one from Engelbert Humperdinck. An orchestral version was used for the opening credits of Dr. Strangelove to serenade the mating ritual of mid-flight refueling.

On the flip side, one of the most famous songs of the 1960s, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” was originally Redding’s. She also covered “Try a Little Tenderness.”

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)

A reader writes:

I love all kinds of music, but I particularly love covers. There’s the “what the heck?” cover—e.g., who would have guessed that U2 are huge ABBA fans? There are all those millions of tribute albums (a particularly good one is “I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen”). But my favorite type of cover is when something completely new is done with the song. Probably the most famous example is Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which so improved on Bob Dylan’s original that even he does it “Jimi’s way” now.

But my favorite example of a song being reinterpreted is “Superstar.” The song was written by Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie fame) and Leon Russel and was initially done by Rita Coolidge way back in 1970. It’s an emotional telling of a women in love with a man who’s seemingly forgotten her on his climb to rock stardom. It’s been covered many times since then (I personally own five versions), most famously by The Carpenters. But my favorite cover is by Sonic Youth, who turn the song into the creepy tale of a stalker.

Embedded above. My favorite mini-cover of “Superstar” is from Girl Talk, a mashup DJ and one of my all-time favorite artists, who sampled the song on “Like This,” the seventh track off Feed the Animals (starting at the 2:07 mark).

So what’s your favorite, most inspired cover story that veers significantly from the original? Let me know at hello@theatlantic.com. Update from our reader above:

Chris, you name checked Girl Talk!!!