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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 72 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Walk Away, Renée' by Rickie Lee Jones

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@.)

A reader with the initials B.H. flags one of the great and truly transformative cover songs: The Gourds’s version of Snoop Dogg’s ‘Gin and Juice’.” From the Wiki page for the Austin alt-country band:

Despite a sizable amount of original material, The Gourds are probably best known for a song they did not write. In fact, for most of the 16 years following their first live performance of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” fans could regularly be heard calling out for the band’s cover version of the song, sometimes before the show had even started. This led some to consider it an albatross, but the band continued to play the crowd pleaser, often adding a medley of impromptu cover songs to its midsection.

Update from our reader:

Glad you used it. The quote you included was quite apt. I saw The Gourds do a show here in Albuquerque once, and there were drunk frat boys howling “Gin and Juice!!!” after practically every song. They finally played it as an encore and it brought the freakin’ place down.

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

Reader Jason adds a few hardcore covers to the series:

So I’m thinking this one may be a little too “much” for your average reader of The Atlantic (but who knows!), but any time someone brings up crazy cover songs, I have to give an honorable mention to a couple tracks from seminal mathcore/hardcore/whatever-the-hellcore band Botch.

I’m sure most people are at least passingly familiar with “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s, and “O Fortuna,” from the opera Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. Botch gave them both their own special treatment, and I honestly think they both work extremely well as metal songs. “O Fortuna” especially lends itself well to the genre, and I would totally be down to see a full conversion of the opera done in this style (then again, I may just be nuts).

Botch’s “O Fortune” is here, but their “Rock Lobster” feels like more of a genre-bender, so it’s embedded above.

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

From Tim Baer in Oregon:

I’d like to submit Birdy’s cover of Passenger’s “Let Her Go.” Passenger’s song never really hit me; their flurry of analogies always seemed too cliche. However, Birdy delivers the lines with heartbreak on her lips; every word she utters her voices quakes; she seems on the verge of tears. The piano arrangement itself is okay, I guess, but there’s something in her delivery that yearns for lost love. Put your headphones on and close your eyes. This version is totally superior to Passenger’s hit in every conceivable way.

Couldn’t agree more, which makes it baffling that the Passenger original has nearly a billion views on YouTube, more than I can recall for any video on the site ever. And it’s not just me; the Wiki list for all-time most viewed videos puts Passenger’s at #25. Help Birdy catch up.

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

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@)