Reporter's Notebook

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: 'My Sweet Lord' by Nina Simone

A spiritual song for Sunday:

I’m late to the TOTD party, but I can’t resist a good covers party. Here goes:

Nina Simone did a number of covers. I think the one that far surpasses all others is her live rendition of “My Sweet Lord.” Nina takes this rather hippie-dippie, kumbaya post-Beatles Harrison treacle and turns it into something urgent, confrontational, and subversive. Not to mention she does it as a medley with the David Nelson poem backed by a baptist choir from South Jamaica and performing before soldiers at Fort Dix.

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

A reader sends a classic cover ahead of Saturday night:

I don’t think anyone can argue that Saturday Night Fever isn’t one of the defining albums of the ’70s: Grammy Award for album of the year, 120 weeks on Billboard’s album chart (24 of those weeks at #1),  seven #1 singles. It’s included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry as being culturally significant. It’s the album that epitomizes disco for better or worse.

The majority of the songs were original compositions, but two different tracks took familiar classical compositions and “disco-fied” them. “Night on Disco Mountain” is a take on “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky (that particular piece had previously undergone the Disney treatment in Fantasia). “A Fifth of Beethoven” took the well-known Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, sped it up, adding a thumping drum track and and turned into a #1 dance track. I kind of wonder what Ludwig would have thought of it all.

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

From reader Peter Schafer:

I’m old enough to barely remember the Beatles singing Hey Jude on television as a small child and it captivated me, the endless child-syllable repetition. But I came to dislike it intensely in later life (for the same reasons I liked it as a child?).

Then in my late teens I came across the Duane Allman Anthology album, an incredible body of studio work with artists such as Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Boz Scaggs, and Wilson Pickett. Pickett’s cover of Hey Jude liberates it from its origin story so that its greatness freely emerges, rising.

And then skyrocketing at the 2:40 mark. From another reader who recommends it, Alyson Vaughan:

Now, I’m a big fan of The Beatles. So much that it I feel guilty for loving a cover of such an iconic song. From what I understand (my source being the music documentary Muscle Shoals), there was initially some hesitancy to produce this cover due to the fact that in 1969 The Beatles’ original was still soaring in the charts. They did it anyway, transforming the song with Wilson Pickett’s soulful vocals, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (aka “The Swampers”) featuring a young Duane Allman on guitar. Just wait for his solo. You can’t miss it.

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

Todd Litton emails a “haunting and hypnotic” cover song from Cowboy Junkies:

The Junkies’ quiet, rhythmic guitar stands in real contrast to the Velvet Underground’s amped up speed. And Margo Timmins’ ethereal, otherworldly voice transports the listener to another place.

Thanks for doing this series; I wouldn’t be hoping to see Sturgill Simpson in Houston in a couple of months if you hadn’t.

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

From reader Amit Routh:

As someone who loves both Springsteen and song covers, I was delighted to see you post Town Mountain’s cover of “I'm On Fire.” That submission, combined with all the conversation this election cycle about the millions of Americans left broken by decades of economic inequality, inspired me to submit Junip’s cover of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

As I read more about the profound disenchantment and anger expressed by so many voters, particularly from Trump’s supporters, I keep returning to lines like “No home, no job, no peace, no rest” and “You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand.” Over 20 years later, these lines have lost none of their resonance in describing the experiences of many Americans.

José González, co-founder of Junip, is actually best known for his ethereal cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats”, but it’s Tom Joad’s ghost who haunts me most these days.

Update from another reader:

Your reader Amit is indeed onto something: “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a great song and as relevant as ever. But, for my money, if you want to really FEEL it— and feel like somebody might actually do something about it—you have to listen to the cover by Rage Against the Machine. Makes me want to hit the streets every time.

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

A reader, John McKie, writes:

Have you considered Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life”? One definition of a great cover version is when it’s so good, it doesn’t just surpass previous incarnations but eviscerates them to a degree that you forget they even existed. (Donald Trump’s current wife is presumably mapping out that pathway as we speak.)

For an artist who would go on to become a master song-writer, Stevie took a slow ballad, got The Funk Brothers and Henry Cosby in the studio, and whipped up something even Berry Gordy couldn’t turn down—he wasn’t keen, but eventually relented. The song reached number two in the Billboard Hot 100 behind Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” another song Gordy had initially vetoed as a single. Now everyone is keen on “For Once In My Life,” even Ari Gold.

As far as the original:

There are differing accounts of its earliest versions, although it seems that it was first recorded by Barbara McNair, but first released in 1966 by Jean DuShon. Other early versions of the ballad were issued by The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross and Tony Bennett whose recording was the first to reach the pop charts.

Here’s Bennett’s version. Update from another reader, Allan Moyes:

Now, as fine as Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett’s versions are, neither come close to Judy Garland’s version on the Mike Douglas Show in August, 1968.

A reader goes country:

To your series on transformative cover songs, I’d like to submit “The Promise” by Sturgill Simpson. It took me several listens to even recognize this plaintive country ballad as a cover of When in Rome’s new wave hit.

Digging the Notes section, BTW.

And I’m digging the song stuck in my head now. I also remember it—the original version—featured in the closing montage of Napoleon Dynamite.

The latest in our popular reader series:

Lemme just throw in something different: Nick Lowe’s cover of “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road.” Popularized by Elvis and also covered by Percy Sledge—both in rather more up-tempo treatments—it was written by the prolific Frazier-Owens country songwriting team. But for my money, Lowe, a Brit from Suffolk, is the only one to do it justice.

And who is Lowe?

A reader sends a twofer for the cover series:

1) “Love in Vain,” The Rolling Stones (originally by Robert Johnson). The Stones have done a number of incredible blues covers, but this one really sticks. Though it’s a masterpiece out of the studio on Let it Bleed, the most magical versions of the song are, I think, from live sets—especially when Mick plays lead. The link I send along with this email is one of the clearest examples of what made the Keith/Mick dynamic so special: Mick showcases his magnificent soloing ability while Keith glues the thing together with a hypnotic, rhythmic backing riff.

2) “I Shall Be Released,” Jeff Buckley (written by Bob Dylan, recorded first by The Band). Buckley’s live cover (off Live at Sin-é) is a simpler rendering than The Band’s version: just his electric guitar and his voice. And it is hard to imagine a more effective showcase of his talent, as his soaring vocals carry the song to new heights. This cover is worth a listen for its sense of catharsis—and for the reminder that when Jeff Buckley passed, the world lost a legend in his prime.

But nothing beats Buckley’s “Hallelujah.”

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

From a reader who’s submitted multiple cover songs to our series:

I’m going to be contrary with this pick. Laura Nyro was a brilliant songwriter, as evidenced by the many, many people who had huge chart successes with her songs. Sadly, the one person who didn’t have that success was Laura herself. That is one of the music industry's great mysteries.

“Eli’s Comin’” was a top ten hit for Three Dog Night, but it can’t hold a candle to the original. In addition to lead vocals, Laura plays all the keyboards and does all the backing vocals—an early example of overdubbing. The note she hits at 2:15 never fails to give me chills.

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

A reader sends a great one for the weekend:

It’s not too far fetched to claim that The Beatles are the most covered band of all time. “I Am the Walrus” alone has been covered over 30 times! But to my knowledge, there was only one time where an album was covered in its entirely. (I do not count Danger Mouse’s Grey Album—that’s a mash-up, a different animal.) After hearing Abbey Road, Booker T. was so blown away, he felt that he had to come up with a response; McLemore Avenue takes the entire Abby Road album and not only recombines the songs in surprising ways, it turns them into soulful, bluesy, R&B jams. I’ve chosen the final album cut, a stellar instrumental re-magining of The Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window/I Want You (She’s So Heavy).

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