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 68 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Heartbeats' by José González

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@.)

From a superfan of the series, Marcus Wong:

I have been reading your list of the most inventive cover songs, from which I have found a few great songs to listen to. I thought Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” was really refreshing, and I enjoyed Prince's cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” as well. I am writing to send in my suggestions for this good list.

Here’s one of a dozen covers that Marcus passes along—Tanya Chua’s version of a Train song you’ll recognize—and to me it’s better than the pop-y original:

Back to Marcus:

As I’m from Singapore, I can’t help but a recommend a Singaporean cover of a well-known song. Tanya is a singer-songwriter and producer who is renowned in the Chinese music scene. Outside of Singapore, she has a strong fan base in Taiwan, where she is a three-time recipient of the Golden Melody Awards, the Taiwanese equivalent of the Grammy awards. This relaxing jazzy rearrangement of Train’s song is littered with fleeting guitar melodies and vocals that soothe the soul.

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

For our cover series, this enthusiastic reader, Catherine G​, can’t pick one—or three:

Oh dear, I could go on and on and on regarding this topic, as it’s one of my favorites. I could bore you to tears (as I often do my friends), but I'll try hard to limit myself to three faves:

  • Aluminum Group’s cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”—an oft-covered tune (Sheryl Crowe’s got a lot of play at some point, I think), but this shoe-gazey set manages to transform an angsty rock ballad into, well, an angsty torch song, complete with a moody horn accompaniment.
  • Do you know about the Boogaloo Assassins? Their salsa-infused rendition of Big Youth’s reggae anthem “No, No, No” [CB note: The original seems to be from Dawn Penn] is on heavy rotation at my house. I love covers that cross over genres most of all. [Thus it’s featured above.]
  • In the category of “covers that have a slight edge on the original” is Earth, Wind & Fire’s cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.” I’ll stand by the claim. Rest in Piece, Maurice White, and thanks for all the joy.
  • Finally (yeah, I know I said three at the top), here’s a mellow, countrified version of “Age of Consent” (originally by New Order) by Grant Lee Phillips that should please all the Gen-Xers out there (myself included). Mr Phillips’ whole album of covers, nineteeneighties, should be in every covers-aficionado’s library.

​Thanks for the fun series! I’ve found a lot of new covers to add to my stash.

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

A reader whose first name is Jagger fittingly flags a Rolling Stones classic:

As far as cover songs go, one that always impressed me was “Start Me Up” by The Folksmen (one of the “fake” groups from the movie A Mighty Wind). Somehow it manages to be transgressive while playing it straight. Plus, I realized I never knew what the lyrics were until hearing this version!

Those sultry, unsubtle lyrics below:

After seeing Saturday’s TotD of The Gourds doing “Gin and Juice,” reader Adam picks another early rap anthem gone White:

I love this cover theme. (Huge shout-out to introducing me to that country version of SOM’s “This Corrosion”—wonderful!) Absolutely so many covers to chose from. Although someone already added in a crossover of a seminal rap song, I nevertheless have to call out one of my all-time favorites: Dynamite Hack’s version of Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood” was one of those songs that I taped off the radio back in the day and played for friends any time I could. (Sometimes, just for kicks, we would also throw in the Fat Boys’ cover of “Wipe Out” to balance things out—not quite as good a crossover, but not terrible either.)

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

The latest cover song comes from reader Les Carter:

This is a wonderful series and has alerted me to a number of excellent musicians and covers. I suppose “Sweet Jane” was one of the first songs I heard that gave me a real appreciation for such music. Where to draw the line at transformative is subjective, of course. One album I love and have listened to regularly is De-Lovely, the soundtrack of the movie about Cole Porter. Ditto The Commitments and The Blues Brothers.

And I was shocked when I found out that Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” was written in the 1930s and recorded by Bing Crosby! Then there’s Paul Pena’s “Jet Airliner”—actually the original but not released until years after the (lesser) cover by the Steve Miller Band.

But for a nomination, I’m torn between Joe Cocker’s “St James Infirmary”—just incredible—and my actual choice: “I Feel Love” by the Blue Man Group with Venus Hum. The driving percussion with the vocals bring the Donna Summer song well out of the disco era.

Speaking of Bing Crosby, on this day in 1942 he recorded “White Christmas,” which became the best-selling single in history. (In the February 2001 issue of The Atlantic, James Marcus called Crosby “The First Hip White Person.”)

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