Reporter's Notebook

The Most Transformative Cover Songs
Show Description +

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 None 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@.)

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@.)

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@.)

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@.)

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@.)

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.)

Reader Richard White details an obscure (less than 1,500 views on YouTube) but certifiably solid cover of a hippie anthem:

My nomination is “Let’s Get Together” by soul/psych band Smith, their amazing cover of “Get Together” by the Youngbloods, an American rock band led by Jesse Colin Young. The L.A. blues-rock band Smith (whose version of “The Weight” appeared on the epochal Easy Rider soundtrack because, due to contractual reasons, The Band’s version, which appeared in the movie, was unavailable) featured Gayle McCormick on lead vocals, and released this transformative cover of “Get Together” on their 1969 LP A Group Called Smith.

Smith was discovered by ‘60s rocker Del Shannon, who arranged the Burt Bacharach song “Baby It’s You” for the group and got them signed to the ABC-Dunhill label. This disc sold over one million copies between July and October 1969, out-charting popular versions by The Beatles and The Shirelles, and received a gold record awarded by the R.I.A.A.

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

The official new Ghostbusters theme song was released today, and for everyone reading this who was in middle school in 2005 (and for those who decidedly weren’t), this might be confusing:

Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott recorded the new theme song.

It’s a reworking of the original “Ghostbusters (I’m Not Afraid)” by Ray Parker Jr in 1984 that was nominated for Best Original Song at that year’s Academy Awards, won a Grammy, and followed the franchise for the past 30 years.

Not everyone’s a fan of the new version. Jezebel’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd calls it “bad.” The Verge’s Kaitlin Tiffany says it’s “specifically designed to make you realize what could actually retroactively ruin a 30-year-old movie.” BuzzFeed’s Katherine Miller tweeted that it “sounds like something we would've had to pretend was good in 2006 because everything was bad.”

So was it worth it? Well, they reworked it, put their thing down, flipped it, and reversed it: The 1980s synthpop was replaced with 2000s pop punk, but that same altered reality version of the city vibe holds true. This is the Chris Cornell version of the Casino Royale theme song.

Fake cover seen in the original movie (Wikia)

Noisey loves it. Entertainment Weekly likes it, but felt that they should’ve picked Carly Rae Jepsen. (I, for one, am a proponent of all new Carly Rae ventures.)

This soundtrack, like the film itself and any good remake, won’t sound exactly like the original. The new one is set to include Pentatonix, 5 Seconds of Summer, and Elle King. Future generations may look back and see 5 Seconds of Summer and Fall Out Boy as this generation’s BusBoys and Thompson Twins.

The film will be out in theaters on July 15th, and maybe we at The Atlantic will get another nice shout-out like this one in the original movie 30 years ago.

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

A gospel-tinged track for Sunday, sent by reader Keith Wells:

Before he became a superstar, Bob Seger released an album of almost exclusively covers, titled Smokin’ Ops, including his version of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter.” Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of versions released over the years, it’s my favorite. His passion comes across as authentic, and Skip Knape’s beautiful Hammond organ throughout gives it an almost gospel feel.

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

From reader Steve Hunter:

Hiya Chris, I’m enjoying your cover series, so thought I’d have a go myself. Kate Bush is my favourite artist, and she has been since her first jaw-dropping appearance on Top of the Pops in January 1978. “Wuthering Heights,” a song about a ghost calling on her lover to join her in death and based on the classic novel, went to number 1 in the British Charts for four weeks—the first time a female artist reached number 1 with a self-penned song. And all this from a 19-year-old “girl” appearing, it seemed, from absolutely nowhere.

“Wuthering Heights” marked the start of a career of singular originality and innovation, and it’s been covered many times—mostly badly or indifferently. However, I just love the cover by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain [embedded above], which turns “Wuthering Heights” into a swinging song you could almost imagine Frank Sinatra singing. Yes it’s a mickey take, but an affectionate one, and I know that Kate herself really enjoys it.

The YouTube link that Steve provided for Kate Bush’s version of “Wuthering Heights” is a pretty fantastic live performance at Hammersmith Odeon in 1979. To give you a sense of the spectacle, the stage credits include one for “Illusions, magic and mime.”

I don’t know much about Kate Bush but she seems fascinating, so I found a BBC documentary from a few years ago and watched the first six minutes—on the impact of her “Wuthering Heights” debut:

Several of the talking heads discuss her “high-pitched voice, warbling and dropping,” as Viv Albertine of the punk band The Slits put it. And this quote from John Lydon of Sid Vicious especially stood out:

[Kate Bush’s voice in “Wuthering Heights”] was extremely challenging, the vocal—it was almost hysterical, and so up there, the register. But it was absolutely fascinating. And I know at the time a lot of my friends couldn’t bear it—that it was too much. But that’s exactly what drew me in.

I felt the same when I first heard Joanna Newsom years ago on her first album Walnut Whales (e.g. “Peach, Plum, Pear”). Newsom has a similarly eerie and challenging voice as Kate Bush’s, but it became irresistible. Ditto for Alec Ounsworth with his band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah when I first heard their self-titled album (e.g. “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away”). If you have a favorite artist who initially grated on you, and you want to write a short note about it, let me know. Update from Steve: “We’ve had a pretty depressing week here in the UK, this has cheered me up no end.”

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

Jeremy writes a wonderful reader review:  

Your cover song series is a such a great idea. I’d like to recommend Lake Street Dive’s cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” The original version—with its young Michael Jackson vocals, instantly funky baseline, and infectious riff—has been called “certainly the fastest man-made route to pure joy.” It’s almost impossible to hear it and not want to move, bop your head, and crack a smile.

Lake Street Dive takes the raw material and transforms it into an almost plaintive lament about lost love that fits the song’s lyrics much better. By slowing down the tempo, changing the harmonies and adding a meandering jazz trumpet that echoes and elaborates the joyous guitar riffs of the original, they completely change the song.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the third verse. Whereas the Jackson version features a joyous a-ba-ba-bum-bum under Michael’s soaring “all I want, all I need” lyric, the cover goes all in with an upright base solo. In their reading, it is a jazz/country ballad, not a pop anthem.

Although “I Want You Back” is by far my favorite of their covers, Lake Street Dive has a ton of compelling cover songs on YouTube. Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl,” George Michael’s “Faith,” Annie Lennox’s “Walking Through Broken Glass,” and even “Bohemian Rhapsody” have all gone through their unique jazz/Nashville/’60s Atlantic Records filter with great results.

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

From reader Keith Wells:

One cover I still love to hear after 30-odd years is Jeff Beck’s cover of The Beatles’ “She’s A Woman.” It manages to be faithful to the original and, yet, so very different with a talk-box vocal—an early use of the effect—and a laid back, reggae-jazz vibe with amazing, complicated musicianship. (I still find it a bit hard to believe the drummer was 19-years-old at the time.) Widely considered one of the greatest rock guitarists, at the time Beck had tired of backing up singers like Rod Stewart, even though his albums were released as The Jeff Beck Group.  Instead of another rock album, however, he came out of left field with an instrumental jazz-fusion effort produced by George Martin, The Beatles’ producer, which became a huge hit.

Here’s a thought: What’s the best, most genre-bending Beatles cover you know of? Drop us a note with your pick and why you love it.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)