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: 'Redemption Song' by Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer

The latest reader contributor to our cover series merges three giants of their genres:

I’m not sure this pick is as transformative as others, but I believe it is significant for its intersection of three true giants of music. “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley has been covered by many artists (Eddie Vedder with Beyoncé recently), but having Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer cover it [above] really cuts to the essence of the song.

Each of the three artists is a great singer songwriter and a pillar of their genre of music (Cash for country, Strummer for punk, and Marley for reggae) as well as being icons of their native countries (U.S., England, and Jamaica). They each rebelled through their music and, among many other things, sought to provide meaning and understanding to the individual’s struggle for freedom. Additionally, Cash and Strummer’s voices clearly and rawly convey the respect they have as artists for each other, as well as that they have for Marley, their fellow rebel.

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

Readers flag the best things:

I don’t know if this has already been submitted for your series, but here’s a cover of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” re-imagined as a slow country lament (with slide guitar) by Brooklyn singer-songwriter act The Last Town Chorus.

Another brilliant use of that Bowie song is in the film Frances Ha, when the title character runs and pirouettes through the streets of Chinatown.

Which reminds me: To diversify the Track of the Day feature, beyond this great cover series, I’ve been meaning to start a series compiling the best use of songs in movie scenes—when a song perfectly captures the scene or brings an exceptionally creative element to it, making it greater than the sum of its part.

Off the top of my head I’m thinking of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” in the ambulatory intro to Midnight Cowboy, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in the overdose sequence in Trainspotting, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” in the Parris Island/Vietnam segue in Full Metal Jacket, and the Pixie’s “Where Is My Mind?” in the closing scene of Fight Club (though that YouTube version censors out the flickering phallus, sorry to report).

Do you have any recommendations, especially ones you want to elaborate on a little? Please send our way: hello@theatlantic.com.

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

A reader writes:

Thanks so much for this cover series. The acoustic version of the metal tune “Jump” by Van Halen you posted yesterday reminded me of another band that covers metal songs acoustically, the Finnish group Steve 'N' Seagulls. Their version of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” is in my opinion superior to the original.

More covers from the Finnish band here.

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

I’ve heard a ton of transformative cover songs over the years, especially since this reader series started a few months ago, but here’s a micro-genre I haven’t encountered before: American glam metal turned Scottish new wave:

Seeing “Hey Ya!” as yesterday’s Track of the Day reminded me of a great cover of a classic ‘80s song: “Jump” by Van Halen covered by Aztec Camera. The song becomes timeless with guitar replacing the very ‘80s synthesizer in the original. Aztec Camera’s first version (with vinyl pops, clicks, and hiss) finishes with an electric guitar solo, while the second [embedded above] is shorter with only acoustic.

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

    One of the great pop songs of the 21st century goes acoustic:

    Chris Landry emailed it our way:

    Allow me to express my (faux) outrage if you’ve neglected to give credit to Obadiah Parker for his sublime cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” It’s simply amazing.

    More on that 2006 viral video:

    The performance was recorded at a local Open mic night, then obtained by a fan who mixed it with the original Outkast music video and uploaded it to YouTube. [Sadly that version seems to have been removed.] The song has earned nationwide media attention and radio play. It has been featured on The Howard Stern Show and Scrubs and was an answer to a question on Jeopardy!. It has reached the #1 spot on the iTunes Singer-Songwriter Charts in the UK, France, and multiple other countries.

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

    A reader recommends a cover song that doesn’t dramatically diverge from the original, but it’s an exceptional pick:

    I’ve been liking your choice of cover songs lately, particularly the Lyle Lovett cover of “Friend of the Devil” (my dad was a deadhead). I’ve got a suggestion of my own, by my favorite artist of today on Austin City Limits, Jason Isbell: “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” That rapturous opening guitar especially.

    Here’s the original from Guy Clark. And here’s a harmonized version from The Highwaymen—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. The Western Writers of America named “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” the #45 Western song of all time.

    Update from a reader, Jim Jolly, who helps with a clarification: The song was written by Guy Clark but first performed on an album by Jerry Jeff Walker, Viva Terlingua. Jim adds, “None of the other recordings comes close.”

    One more reader, James Thoroman:

    First time I heard this song was when I bought an album by Mallard, which consisted of several members of the The Magic Band who formed a group in England after they separated with Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. Since I didn’t listen to C&W music, I always heard the great songs when they were covered by a group or offshoot that I followed. When I got the album, I expected and wanted more Magic Band-type tunes. At first I was perplexed by why they would include it. Over time, I’ve come to like it. It’s a great song.

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

    Bear with me: Coldplay is pretty dull, but if you take away Chris Martin’s whingeing singing, it’s redeemable. This is probably the weirdest song choice from a 2005 collaboration between Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. Haden, daughter of the great bassist Charlie, is a former member of the Decemberists who’s behind fascinating projects like a solo, a capella cover of The Who Sell Out. Frisell is a versatile jazz-ish guitarist. “Yellow” is already soft rock—might as well remove the bass and drums and strip it down to the basics, just Haden’s voice and Frisell’s multitracked, fuzzed-out guitar. It turns out there’s a great melody and chord progression in there.

    To paraphrase my Coldplay-loving colleague Derek, this Coldplay song is awesome, if you ignore the lyrics.

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

    Is pop music getting worse? You might expect a 60-something guitar virtuoso, songwriter’s songwriter, and English folk-rock O.G. to be the sort of person who’d say so. You’d be wrong. In 2003, Richard Thompson released an album called 1000 Years of Pop Music, which is pretty much what it sounds like: A repertoire of Western vernacular, from the 13th century “Sumer Is Icumen In” through Abba, with stops in Henry Purcell, Lennon/McCartney, and Hoagy Carmichael. Your mileage may vary, but I think the best track is his rendition of Britney Spears’s 2000 hit.

    “Oops!... I Did It Again” was actually written by Max Martin, the Swedish genius behind “I Want It That Way” and “Since U Been Gone” and “Blank Space” and about two dozen other songs you guiltily sing along with when you’re driving alone. In other words: disposable pop confections. Or maybe not. As Thompson’s rendition shows, these are meticulously constructed songs—compositions that can withstand removal from fresh-faced pop stars to grizzled old folkies.

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

    Some of the greatest covers are the ones that totally efface and replace the original. How many artists can do that once? Aretha Franklin has done it over and over—most notably with “Respect,” which at this point is so tied to her that many people forget Otis Redding wrote and recorded it, as a rather less gender-progressive song.

    I heard her recording of “Border Song” on the radio and only realized years later it was by Elton John; I only listened to his rendition as I wrote this. Don’t bother: All you need is this version, which takes the ersatz gospel of the original and alchemizes it into the real thing. The main attraction is Aretha’s vocals, but the backing musicians bring it all together—Billy Preston’s organ, Chuck Rainey’s bass, Cornell Dupree’s chorus-drenched guitar solo, but especially the piano playing, which perfects the recording. Who’s that? Just a little-known studio musician named Aretha Franklin.

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

    For the Sunday sabbath, here’s a rock reimagining of a Bob Dylan song from reader Mikey:

    So I’ve been through your complete archive of cover songs—some very interesting and unusual selections for sure—but I am stunned, gobsmacked even, by the absence of the Guns & Roses cover of Knockin' on Heaven’s Door. I’m eternally fascinated by the vastly different routes Bob Dylan and Axl Rose take to finally get to the same place. And the weird “telephone” monologue [starting at the 3:40 mark] was classic Axl genius …

    I’m chuffed that our gobsmacked reader likes our series so much. Submit your own pick here.

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

    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@)