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, and please include a short description of why you love it so much.

Show 63 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Billie Jean' by the Civil Wars

One of the best reader contributors to our cover series, Marcus Wong, flags another one—from the The Civil Wars:

It’s hard to imagine what would a folk duo have to do with a fast Michael Jackson number. It’s even harder to imagine the great music they would come up with had they stuck together, because I’d like to think it would exceed my expectations. Not only did they have great voices, they had a remarkable chemistry when they performed live. It’s a shame they lived up to the band name and had to deal with a civil war—some internal conflict that ultimately led to the demise of the band.

Personally I prefer the more mournful version from Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. If you can top either, let us know. Update: Chris Daly delivers:

I’d be remiss if I didn't point out two additional Billie Jean covers worth, um, covering. This version by Aloe Blacc, with a full string quartet, speaks for itself. Then there’s this version by The Roots w/ Erykah Badu, most notable for the background lines Ms. Badu drops.

And here’s Rob Henig, a “loyal follower of Notes, first time writing in,” and I think his version wins the award for most transformative:

Okay, so I listened to your Billie Jean covers and they’re all just so gimmicky. Here’s one that should garner repeat listening. It’s by the reggae artist Shinehead. I came upon it by way of the British hip-hop/rave/gospel outfit Faithless, as the closing track on their Back to Mine compilation.

(Track of the Day archive here. Earlier archive here.)

This entry from reader Ivey Glendon on Father’s Day is really poignant, especially for those who have complicated relationships with their dads:

I saw your call for transformative cover songs and wanted to add this one for your consideration: “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” by John Prine. It’s Father’s Day weekend, so I’m thinking about my father—a John Prine superfan who counts that song among his favorites. The original recording is a standard folk/country affair, juxtaposing a love story against a true and terrible tragedy. I’m a big fan of covers by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver [embedded above], whose indie, haunting version contextualizes the loss in the song, and by Todd Snider, whose stripped-down version recalls more of the romance (so it seems to me).

In any case, they all nail the chorus:

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrow

It’s pretty much excellent advice for transcending the tough times, no matter the genre.

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

I wish I had gotten this note from reader Scot Cooke prior to my long road trip to Provincetown last weekend:

I don’t have a creative story for this submission; I just think it’s an outstanding cover of an artist who probably doesn’t get the recognition as a songwriter that he deserves. Gram Parsons wrote many solid songs, and the cover of “Ooh Las Vegas” by the Cowboy Junkies is a great song to hear over the last few miles of a long road trip home. It just seems to get you through the home stretch, and at the same time get you looking forward to the next excursion ...

Here’s the original from Gram Parsons, whose much jauntier version is better for the beginning of the road trip, when you still have the energy to sing along.

Update from reader J.R.:

I saw the Cowboy Junkies years ago, opening for John Prine. Their show was like taking a nap—so, so dull. Emmylou [Harris]’s version of “Ooh Las Vegas” is my favorite.

Harris also joined Gram Parsons for an “Ooh Las Vegas” duet on his album Grievous Angel, which was released posthumously in 1974 after Parsons overdosed from morphine and alcohol. The pair’s cover of “Love Hurts” is their most famous duet.

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

A reader named Charity Quick picks “one of Bob Dylan’s most iconic tunes, all psyched up”:

What Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators did with “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” is nothing short of magical. Countless covers of this song have been done (Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Joan Baez), but they all pale in comparison to Bob Dylan’s version … until the 13th Floor Elevators completely transformed the song. The rhythm had a drag/slip shuffle to it that makes the whole song sound like it’s about to go off the rails. And the psychedelic guitar just sings its own song over the top. Amazing. My favorite cover ever.

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

A reader, Robert Clark, recommends a revamped version of a Bob Dylan song:

I love that you gave Richard Thompson’s rescue of a fine pop song [“Oops! … I Did It Again”] the recognition it deserves. One of my favourites. Another is Patti Smith’s disquieting version of Wicked Messenger. Not even Dylan could express his contempt more powerfully. From the chilling opening bars, it builds. “For his tongue it could not speak but only flatter.”

Robert adds as a bonus track, “I also love how Bob Dylan’s ‘Yesterday’ breathes life and credibility into an overworked standard.”

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

Marcus Wong, the reader who recommended Tanya Chua’s soulful-jazz version of “Drops of Jupiter,” flags one of my favorite songs:

It really surprised me when I found out that José González’s song “Heartbeats” is actually a cover. I went to listen to the original version [by the Swedish group The Knife] and almost immediately decided his version was better (no disrespect to the original artists). José’s version is velvety smooth and it really brings out the emotions in the words.

I tend to think the original is better, but as far as visuals go, the Sony Bravia ad that uses González’s cover (embedded above) edges out The Knife’s music video, which features crudely animated crows and kids riding vintage skateboards. But both are hypnotic in their own way.

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

Gary in Saskatchewan keeps our cinema series alive with two dramatic scenes from The West Wing, one of which features one of the most iconic cover songs ever, Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” (so I filed this note under the cover song series instead). But first Gary goes with Dire Straits:

Hope you’re still getting submissions. I just wanted to plug another couple of possibilities from The West Wing that were standouts in terms of embedding a song within a scene. The first one is the use of “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits (for context, this scene immediately precedes that one):

The original track begins with the sounds of a stormy sea, which the scene editors combine with an on-screen storm and the political storm after the revelation of the presidential cover-up. Everyone knows that a battle is coming—“Some day you’ll return to // Your valleys and your farms // And you'll no longer burn // To be brothers in arms”—but for now, everyone arranges themselves in formation around the president.  And with perfect timing, Mark Knopfler’s lyrics end as the President steps up to the podium, and the guitar solo gets mixed in with the flashbulb sounds and dialogue and reaction shots of everyone waiting for the answer to the burning question.  

There are many reviewers who cite this as one of the very best episodes of the West Wing. Here’s Jeremy Grayson of Critically Touched talking about the use of the track:

The buildup of this episode all on its own paves the way for a bravura culmination, but the episode grants its last few minutes an even higher pedestal by scoring them to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms.” I have mixed feelings about song endings in general – if not overused, they can provide a strong emotional close, but they always run the risk of coming off as heavy-handed. But “Two Cathedrals” soars with its soundtrack choice, a song that is simultaneously solemn and liberating, matched up perfectly with Bartlet’s walk to the press.

Given how well things worked out at the end of season two, it was only natural that the West Wing folks attempt to duplicate their feat at the end of season three.  There have been many covers of Leonard Cohen’s iconic song “Hallelujah”(I’m partial to k.d. lang’s myself), but Jeff Buckley’s is the one that seems to be the one most frequently used to accompany visuals:

Here again, timing is impeccable, with a distinct strum to coincide with the appearance of CJ in the audience, and Buckley’s vocals floating up as she is told the bad news. The song playing over CJ’s crying is powerful enough, but the real kicker happens when the song rises up again when Josh is told the news, stopping his argument with Amy dead in its tracks.

The only problem with drafting this note?  I can’t stop myself from pulling out my DVD sets of the seasons to watch the full episodes ;)

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

A reader in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Craig Hoffman, serves up a long sultry song for Saturday night:

For your consideration, this cover of the seminal Dione Warwick song upends her traditional pop arrangement for 12:03 of pure Hot Buttered Soul [Isaac Hayes’s second album] and turns a [Burt] Bacharach/[Hal] David weeper into an unrecognizable mash-up of R&B, pop, funk, and even psychedelica.

Isaac Hayes, whose first solo effort bombed, was given complete creative control by Stax head Al Bell after losing the publishing rights of their back catalog. Hayes essentially creates a new genre with this cut, with pounding drums (a rarity in soul music up to that point) and an almost-dub sensibility in the bass and guitar lines. With his passionate baritone chiming in from time-to-time, this version of “Walk On By” is a master demonstration of studio bravado and epic song arrangement.

Update from Chris Ward, who recommends an even bigger genre jump:

A punk band, The Stranglers, at the height of their sinister pomp in 1978, covering a Dionne Warwick standard. It has an amazing bass solo from JJ Burnel.

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

A grunge rock anthem gets the swing jazz treatment, courtesy of reader Jim:

Paul Anka covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I actually like it better than the original—no kidding. He captures the vibe but absolutely does it in his own style.

Especially the “entertain us” lyric. For more Anka covers, check out the whole album Rock Swings.

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

This reader, Bill, lauds a Left Banke song reimagined by Rickie Lee Jones:

“Walk Away, Renée” is one of those pop mysteries: A teenager writing a half-song about a crush that somehow shifts daily life into a dream and summons up all the sadness of the world. One time I heard Rickie Lee Jones apologize in concert for her extended version of a song. She explained that songs for her were like houses, “I go through the front door and just wander all around.” In this cover song, she checks out the depth of every room.  

I embarrassed to say I haven’t heard of Jones or The Left Banke, so if you haven’t either:

The Left Banke is an American baroque pop band, formed in New York City in 1965. The band often used what the music press referred to as “baroque” string arrangements, which led to their music being variously termed as “Bach-rock” or “baroque rock.” The band's vocal harmonies borrowed from contemporaries such as the Beatles, the Zombies, and other British Invasion groups.

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed “Walk Away Renée” at #220 in its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

And Jones, according to her Wiki page, “was listed at No. 30 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women in Rock & Roll,” and her songwriting has been characterized as “a blend of bravado and vulnerability [that] wavers on indefinable borders.” The video that YouTube recommends following her version of “Walk Away Renée“ is another cover, “Down on the Boardwalk,” if you want to follow her there.

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

James, a reader in Dubai, offers a great tip for fans of our cover-song series:

Several months ago I decided to subscribe to Apple Music, and almost immediately I stumbled on something that is now one of my favourite ways to pass the time: cover surfing. I search for a song and simply look at the list of all the songs with the same name, then listen through them one by one.

Mostly a few are good, a few are unremarkable, and the rest are awful. But once in a while, I hit on a cover that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me wonder how I missed hearing it before. Recently, the cover I can’t stop listening to is “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by The Once.

It’s a lovely rendition of the early Elvis ballad, and it jumps to life after the one-minute mark:

Back to James:

This cover constantly surprises. The harmonies, the key changes, the tempo changes—everything is just so different from other versions of this song, and it’s all awesome. When you are in dire need of a smile on the way to work, just pull this out of your emergency pack of pick-me-up tunes. It won’t fail.

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

Reader Scot picks a beauty—a Jamaican version of John Denver’s ode to West Virginia:

I went through the whole cover song thread tonight, great stuff. I always liked this reggae version of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” There’s a number of live performances on YouTube but this main tune has the better sound IMHO.

A German friend of mine once told me that John Denver is huuuge in Deutschland. Enjoy:

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