Notes

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 49 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'One Way or Another' by Until the Ribbon Breaks

A reader in Mississippi, Amy Jones, recommends a cover that really brings out the creepiness of the lyrics:

An episode of the American drama series Stalker highlighted the cover of Blondie’s hit in its fifth episode, though I first stumbled upon it via Spotify. I try not to look at my phone while driving, but I had to glance down to check if this was a cover of that old song I had never thought much about but dismissed as silly.

The band, Until the Ribbon Breaks, describes their style as one that “blends genres like electronic, pop, rock, and hip-hop … with a sharp alternative edge.” Their cover of “One Way or Another” certainly fits that description, with soft beats underlying harmonies with just enough dissonance to be beautiful but interesting. My favorite covers are those that recast the lyrics in such a different light that the listener considers them in a new way, and this British band succeeds as their vocalist croons the old playful words with haunting conviction.

Debbie Harry was inspired to write the original song after her experience with a stalker. She told Entertainment Weekly:

I was actually stalked by a nutjob, so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event. I tried to inject a little levity into it to make it more lighthearted. It was a survival mechanism.

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

A reader in Pittsburgh, Josh, has a moving tribute to his friend:

I’ve been following your cover series and would like to contribute a favorite. In March, I lost my best friend Chris—far, far too young at only 36. In suburban Pittsburgh in the ’90s, we were an unlikely pair. He was black, I was white, and about as physically and socially different as could be. In 10th grade, Chris joined the marching band, and playing together in the trumpet section, we became inseparable.

In band, you played a wide variety of genres and were exposed to many influences. Chris and I cultivated eclectic musical tastes, and in the pre-Napster/iTunes/Spotify days, when people defined identity by the contents of their CD binder, we could exchange any band or genre without shame. He blew my mind with a Prince record; I floored him with the White Album. It united us, and as we passed through the momentary catastrophes and tender triumphs of adolescence, we always had a soundtrack.

So my selection for this cover series is “Let It Be” by Gladys Knight and the Pips:

McCartney’s sparse hymn is transformed by Gladys’ soaring gospel performance and the call and response into an urgent demand. It almost seems as if the Pips’ plaintive echoes are restraining her from ascending to another plane of existence.

The Beatles began by playing Motown songs, and after their explosion, Motown artists covered them frequently. This cover of “Let It Be” has been solace in my personal grief, but also as an echo of the troubled times in which it was written and recorded, and a tonic to the current unrest in our civic society. I know Chris loved this song, and I know he would agree.

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

From reader Conor Murphy:

I nominate Aretha Franklin’s cover of “The Weight” by The Band. Taking a song as moody and solemn as that and singing it the way she does transforms it in startling ways. Switching to a soul arrangement and foregoing the piano for horns creates an entirely new dynamic within the song, while the pure power and depth of her voice is almost overwhelming.  

By the way, if you want to continue the Beatles covers, you could also use Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby,” which is similarly incredible.

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

Reader John Maschoff ends a despairing week of national news on an optimistic note:

This version of “We Can Work It Out” so wonderfully injects the groovy funk and soul that Stevie Wonder has been creating for decades. It’s a must-include on this list.

He follows up:

If you’re looking for an extra lift for the weekend, might I impose and suggest an extra Stevie gem from the same album. So, so good.

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

Lance goes with a cross-subgenre pick—Nada Surf’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”:

I love this song because it takes a classic synthpop song and turns it into a classic power pop song. When I listen to the original, it’s hard for me to imagine it as a power pop song; when I listen to the cover, it’s hard for me to imagine it as a synthpop song. The Nada Surf arrangement works on its own, without depending on knowledge of the original for its effect.

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

I recently asked readers for their favorite Beatles covers, specifically ones that transcend the rock genre. One reader pointed to a reggae-jazz version of “She’s a Woman” while another highlighted an eclectic a cappella version of “Helter Skelter.” This next reader gets right to the point:

The Carpenters’s “Ticket To Ride.” Brilliant. Period. End of sentence.

Here’s some trivia regarding that song title, relayed by Don Short, a Daily Mirror music journalist:

The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe these cards. He could have been joking – you always had to be careful with John like that – but I certainly remember him telling me that.

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

A reader in NYC, David Leitner, has the perfect cover for the day:

Marvin Gaye’s “Star Spangled Banner” is the ultimate song transformation. What only he could sing, solo with a beat box …

If you have any Star-Spangled suggestions of your own, let us know and we’ll update. Update from Noam:

This version is my fave because Sufjan [Stevens] captures the menace of it. The song is fundamentally about a war, and although patriotism compels us to ignore the fact that war is hell, this cover doesn’t.

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

In response to my inquiry for the most genre-bending Beatles cover, Jay in Cincinnati remembers a truly unique, a cappella version of “Helter Skelter”:

Somewhere in the mid-1980s, I was working late ... really really late, after 3 A.M. late. Finally driving home, my brain competed with only two thoughts: staying conscious enough to survive the trip, and how good it would feel when I finally could collapse into bed.

The radio was on—nice and loud, to help me avoid nodding off, tuned to a small non-commercial station that played non-mainstream music. When this song came on, it must have been close to 30 seconds before I even realized it was a song I knew. It was so different—not just different from the original song, but from almost any kind of music I’d ever heard—that for my own safety I pulled off the road so I could listen. Nobody identified what I’d heard; they just kept playing more music. Sometimes on this station it could be 40 minutes before anyone came on to list what had been played.

There were no cell phones, there was no internet. When I got home, I did not go to bed. I had to get a phone book, look up the station’s number and call. I had to know. Unlike today, when hardly any radio station in America has a live person on the air overnight, someone answered.

I’ve since seen this group [The Bobs] in concert maybe ten times, occasionally planning family/friend visits to other cities based on when they would be performing there. They’ve done covers of other famous songs, sometimes as radically different as this, but also in versions more recognizable. Mostly they sing their own songs, which range from hilarious to weird to touching. Every time I see them do this song, it brings back that night.

Update from a reader in Bend, Oregon:

I nominate Tiny Tim’s cover of the Beatles song “Girl.” Tiny was generally not taken seriously, but he was very serious about music:

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.)

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 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@.)

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@.)