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 89 Newer Notes

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@)

A reader writes:

Hey Chris, I saw you put out an open call for “the most transformative cover songs.” The Nashville-based group SHEL just released a music video for their haunting cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” I think it’s a great example of a unique cover.

SHEL is the acronym of four classically trained sisters: Sarah on violin, Hannah on keyboards, Eva on mandolin, and Liza on percussion and beatboxing. They’ve been compared to Haim and have a new record coming out soon.

I love how Nerdist’s Matt Grosinger puts it: “Let’s be honest, what is more metal than a creepy lullaby version of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’?”

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

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:

(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@)