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.

Show 83 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Baby One More Time' by Travis

Jonathan comes across our reader series:

You’re doing cross-genre covers?!  Be still my heart. Many favorites, but I’ll narrow it to two entries in the grin-worthy category of “Brits with acoustic guitars covering Britney Spears”:

2. Richard Thompson, “Oops, I Did It Again” [previously Tracked here]

1. Travis, “Baby One More Time” [embedded above]

Watch for Thompson’s Renaissance-style deconstruction at 3:23, and Travis’s ability to play the whole song completely straight. In interviews, the band professes a deep respect for what they call “the perfect pop song.”

P.S. No, I’m really serious. That Travis song was revelatory.

(Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

    Reader Ryan offers up a truly transformative pick for the cover series: Cat Empire’s version of “Hotel California.” As he describes it, “The Eagles sung in French by an Australian Latin jazz/ska band. Good times!”

    Update from another reader named Ryan, in Denton, Texas:

    Look, if you’re going to talk about covers of “Hotel California,” you may as well merge this discussion with your series of songs used in movies. The use of The Gypsy’s Kings cover of “Hotel California” is absolutely essential in introducing the character of Jesus Quinta:

    That creep can roll, man.

    The Atlantic abides.

    (Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

    Reader Simeon serves up a great song for the cinema series (a song that’s also on the superb Rushmore soundtrack, featured in an earlier note):

    My nomination comes from Almost Famous, one of my favorite movies ever. While many may choose the use of “Tiny Dancer,” I’ll instead point to a little scene that’s my favorite in the movie, set to Cat Stevens “The Wind”:

    You never know if it’s happening in reality or inside William Miller’s head, but it is perfectly representative of soul of a film, which is about people dreaming and not wanting to wake up. It is an imagining and depiction of the beautiful futility of holding on to a moment and its afterglow, the sustain after a guitar solo or, if you will, an empty auditorium.

    (Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

    If a multinational company based in Belgium can rename its beer “America,” then a Swedish folk group can cover an iconic song with the same name.

    With news that Budweiser will change its label to say “America” up until Election Day, I was reminded of one of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs, one that inevitably makes it on every road trip playlist of mine. It’s hard for me to fully harness Simon & Garfunkel covers—see, for example, this one of “The Sound of Silence” by heavy metal group Disturbed that is inexplicably heard on rock stations nationwide right now—but the First Aid Kit cover of “America” is a beautiful exception:

    The sister duo, whose Old West feel might make you want to ride a horse through the desert at dusk, released the cover in 2014. Two years earlier, the duo performed the song in front of Paul Simon at the Polar Music Prize, and he rewarded them with a standing ovation. For their version of the song, the sisters dropped the saxophone and pipe organ of the original and paired their lofty vocals with an acoustic guitar, piano, and string orchestra—a gorgeous mix for the 1968 protest song (which, fittingly to Budweiser’s framing for the election, was used in a Bernie Sanders campaign ad).

    Indeed, at bars across the country this summer, Americans will be singing, “I’ve come to look for America.”

    Update from reader Jim, who begins, “Greetings (as my draft board put it to me)”:

    Holy shit, that version of “America” is gorgeous! I rarely like cover versions as well as originals, but First Aid Kit’s cover was better than the original. Now for the follow-up: Have they recorded “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her?”  I can’t think of any group I’ve heard that could cover that more perfectly.  

    (Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

    Reader Jenni Wiltz flags an acoustic rendition of a high-octane pop song:

    I just discovered your cover collection today. It saved my workday from total PMS destruction, so thank you! Here’s my nomination: Brian Fallon from Gaslight Anthem covering Kelly Clarkson’s “I Do Not Hook Up” for BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge. The BBC program host is a little overwhelmed at the end—understandably so, once you pass the 2:53 mark.

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful collection of songs!

    (Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

    It’s an icon of the MTV era: Sinéad O’Connor staring at the viewer, her shaved head piercing an otherwise black frame, as mournful synths crescendo and she wails that nothing compares to you:

    But as many people discovered or rediscovered this weekend, the most iconic of O’Connor songs wasn’t really hers; it was a cover of Prince’s more MIDI-fied 1986 original. “Nothing Compares 2 U” was actually one of many Prince songs that weren’t popularized by Prince. The Bangles, Stevie Nicks, TLC, and others also greatly benefited from his talents as a songwriter.

    So it made sense this weekend that, as the country and bluegrass star Chris Stapleton looked for a way to honor the Artist, he’d choose “Nothing Compares.” Before Stapleton was a star, he was a Nashville songwriter, scribbling hits for other artists up and down the charts. In Berkley, California, on Saturday night, he delivered a bluesy and soulful tribute performance of “Nothing Compares” with an orchestration not that far from the kind that Prince chose later in his life. It’s a stirring, transformative cover—and very much worth a listen:

    If you’re interested in more on Stapleton, Spencer wrote about his runaway success at the Country Music Awards last fall.

    (Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

    A reader who goes by DWD flags a lovely Spanish-language cover of a Cure classic:

    I’ve been enjoying the Track of the Day feature and would like to do my part by nominating a song for inclusion. A standout track from Tributo a The Cure: Por Qué No Puedo Ser Tú, a great album of Cure covers issued in 1999, this transformative version of “Just Like Heaven” (“Como El Cielo”) is performed by the NYC band Si*Sé.

    (Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@)

    Reader Paul joins the popular cover series:

    When I first saw your “most transformative covers” thread, Curtis Mayfield’s version of “We’ve Only Just Begun” automatically popped into my head. Not only did Curtis transform the song musically, but he changed the lyrical meaning without altering a word. Many of the compositions in his mighty catalog dealt with the civil rights issues of the day, and in this live setting, he takes a song that was written to envision a newly married couple and gave it a twist. Curtis explains it best in the spoken intro to the song (Rap #2, available on Spotify):

    A lot of folks think this particular lyric is not appropriate for what might be considered ‘underground’, but I think ‘underground’ is whatever your mood or your feelings might be at the time so long as it’s the truth. I think it’s very appropriate that we might lend a few words of inspiration about that here.

    At the end of the song,  he then segues into the most beautiful reading of one of his most famous songs, “People Get Ready” [on Spotify] to further emphasize the new lyrical spin on “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

    Here’s that song in its original, live form:

    (Track of the Day archive here. Submit via hello@.)

    Prince was notoriously wary of the Internet. He sued YouTube and eBay over unauthorized use of his content and—as people lamented on the day of his death—he pulled his catalogs from all streaming services except the Jay Z-led Tidal. This aversion to digitization of his performances led to an unusual spat with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in 2008.

    That year, Prince played Coachella. He glided onstage, almost ephemeral in the evening light, and blew the audience away with a soaring rendition of “Creep,” imbuing the Radiohead song with the gravitas and sensuality only Prince could. The crunching guitars before the chorus are softened by synthesizers, and he builds to a roaring guitar solo and then into a delicate falsetto interlude before returning to the solo, reminding all in attendance why he is a musical icon. The lyrics played perfectly into Prince’s otherworldly persona, with the occasional pronoun flipped around for further personalization of the song’s intensely inward gaze. It was a transcendent experience to behold.

    But then, in standard fashion, Prince issued takedown notices to all YouTube videos of the performance. “Really? He’s blocked it?,” a confused Thom Yorke said. “Well, tell him to unblock it. It’s our... song.”

    Prince didn’t. And it wasn’t until 2015 that his version was made available online. Oddly, it was Prince himself who released the recording, via a tweet linking directly to the video. The video title includes a nod to this controversy, stating that the recording is “Uploaded via Permission from Radiohead & NPG Music Publishing.” Whatever his reasoning for the change in heart, music fans everywhere are better off for it.

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