Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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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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@)

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@)