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.

Show 106 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Tainted Love' by Coil

Matt, a reader in Seattle, has an unsettling selection for the cover series:

This is a probably bit out there, but I was reminded of it as I listened to yesterday’s Track of the Day. The song “Tainted Love” was originally written by Ed Cobb and recorded by Gloria Jones in 1965 (thanks Wikipedia). It became famous with the 1981 synth-pop version by Soft Cell.

Then in 1985, Coil covered it. Slowed it down. Released it as a benefit for an AIDS Charity. The slow version brought out a new meaning in the lyrics:

Once I ran to you, now I run from you
This tainted love you’ve given
I give you all a boy could give you
Take my heart and that’s not nearly all

It captured something of the despair and panic (the name of the b-side) of those early AIDS days in the gay and alternative world, where something terrifying was happening. I wasn’t aware of the video at the time, but it leaves little room for misinterpretation. Thirty years later and the emotion still comes through.

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

This cover song from a reader goes country:

On the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album, “Friend of the Devil” is a merry jig—a winking description of what fun it is to be an outlaw. Like other cover versions, Lyle Lovett’s take [embedded above] slows the song down. Unlike any others, Lovett makes you feel the narrator’s existential fatigue—both in the way the spare instrumentation evokes the vast isolation of his native Texas and in his delivery of lyrics such as, “If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.”

Update from a reader in North Carolina: “If your correspondent were a real Deadhead, he’d have noted that the Dead also often played ‘Friend of the Devil’ at dirge-like speed.”

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

A reader, Joe, adds another great song to the cover series—and the second one to appear from the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack:

I nominate “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede (1974). The original, by B.J. Thomas, was a sappy, unmemorable love song. This cover version is one of the strangest songs ever to hit to the top of the charts. I remember the first time I heard it, when I was a student in middle school. I thought it had to be a joke or a mistake, with its a cappella “ooga chaggas,” and I’m pretty sure it made me laugh. But there’s actually a lot going on here. Once the song gets rolling, the backing horn section is terrific, and when the “ooga chaggas” return, about halfway through, notice how they are shifted so they don’t match up exactly with the vocals. Even after 40+ years, this version still sounds fresh to me.

Update from a reader:

Blue Swede managed to transform a pretty insipid song into something pretty cool. David Hasselhoff took the opposite tact. He doubled down on the cheese factor and turned it into an epic celebration of sap. Long live The Hoff.

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

Fifty-three years ago today—on March 22, 1963—the Beatles released their first album, Please Please Me. The last of the 14 tracks? A rambunctious cover of “Twist and Shout”(the original version was recorded by Top Notes in 1961, followed by a chart-hitting version by The Isley Brothers in 1962):

In the June 2013 issue of The Atlantic, Colin Fleming argued that 1963 was “the year the Beatles found their voice”—in part through a series of covers (how appropriate):

In 1963, the Beatles were exploding in England. Their debut LP, Please Please Me, came out in March, followed by their megahit single “She Loves You” in August. Their second album, With the Beatles, and another hit single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed in the fall. Screaming girls, throngs of fans, bushels of albums being sold—this was when it all started.

But the Beatles were also a veritable human jukebox that year. One of their many commitments was to turn up semi-regularly at the BBC, horse around on air, read requests, make fun of each other, make fun of the presenter, and play live versions of whatever people wanted to hear, whether that was their own material or a vast range of covers: Elvis Presley numbers; obscure rhythm-and-blues songs by lost-to-time bands like the Jodimars; Broadway show tunes; Americana; vamps on Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry; rearrangements of girl-group cuts; torch songs. If you wanted to hear what made the Beatles the Beatles, here is where you would want to start.

Other artists who’ve twisted and shouted at some point in their careers: The Mamas & the Papas, Salt-N-Pepa, and Michael Bublé. Update from a reader with another version:

My wife and I saw The Who on four of their first seven farewell tours, 1982 to sometime in the 1990s. At least twice, their encore was “Twist and Shout.” Pete Townshend called it “the best song we know,” or words to that effect.

I love the Goldberg Variations [posted Sunday]—especially the Rosalyn Tureck version. She repeats the returns, as written, which makes the recording longer—over 70 minutes, I believe. I know of no better music in which to get lost in contemplation.

Enjoying this series.

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

I know next to nothing about classical music, so I leave it to our regular TOTD contributor to convey the transformative quality of two long compositions to enjoy over the weekend:

Strictly speaking, all classical music is a cover. The originals occurred long before any of us were around.These two tracks are unusual, however, in that it’s the same composition performed by the same musician to very different effects. “The Goldberg Variations” was the first recording Glenn Gould made, done in 1955. Showcasing astounding technical brilliance, the piece rushes head forth over in a scant 38 minutes, bursting with energy.

Gould recorded the Variations again in 1981 [embedded above]. It turned out to be the last piece he ever recorded before his untimely death at 50. This time the pace is considerably slowed (it clocks in at 51 minutes). There is a stately grace to the piece, a maturity found. It’s always seemed to me the two versions are the perfect expression of how we start out and how we end up—different temperaments, but no less impressive on either end.

A couple of words about Gould: A true eccentric, he was a hypochondriac and likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He hummed while he played (listen closely, you can hear him), often had his nose almost touching the keys and stopped playing concerts in 1964. He had a profound impact on how classical music was recorded and had an equal impact on how Bach and his music was regarded.

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

A reader flags a classic, inimitable cover:

When I first heard Devo’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” I couldn't believe it was the same song. Over the years I’ve come to see they’re both expressing frustration. The Stones do it almost languorously, while Devo give the song a frenetic, postmodern twist. Plus Scorcese used Devo’s version in Casino, if I’m not mistaken. Teen-tested, Scorsece-approved!

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

This cover series is starting to get meta:

While listening to Junip’s version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that you posted, I’m reminded of a song by José González (of both Junip and solo fame), “Down the Line,” covered by the Gutter Twins (Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs and Mark Lanegan of the cigarettes/whiskey combination). González’s original version is masterful and haunting; “Don’t let the darkness eat you up” lingers well after the song ends. But the Gutter Twins turn it into a full rock anthem—the perfect late night driving or running song. Dulli’s voice pairs well with the added violin and Lanegan’s deep background vocals.

This is a fun series!

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

Another day, another great cover—though this one’s closer to a remix:

Dr. Octagon, a.k.a. Kool Keith, put out one of the all-time great rap albums, 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. “Blue Flowers” was a standout track then, but what’s remarkable is that today, 20 years later, it’s still living, breathing, and mutating, as artists of all stripes and levels of fame remix it. Prince Paul’s “So Beautiful” mix [embedded above] is the best known (and arguably the best). But there’s a lot to like in ADP3000’s “Blue Flowers in Brooklyn Zoo,” Worksounds’s “Work Springtime Remix,” Black Grass's eponymous mix, and a dozen others. Jury’s out on Team Teamwork’s Nintendo-based Yoshi’s Island version, though.

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

One of our regular TOTD contributors serves up another gem:

The Monkees were likely the first manufactured pop group. A response to the overwhelming popularity of The Beatles, The Monkees were the star of a weekly sitcom where they had “zany” adventures, in the style of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The group was savagely panned by critics at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, their songs are pop gems with great hooks and catchy lyrics. “Last Train to Clarksville” was their first single, going to number 1.

Years later, Cassandra Wilson revisited the song, slowing it way down and turning it into a sultry jazz number. It’s a complete reimagining of the song, with off-the-beat drumming and scat singing added.

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

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@)