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 52 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'We Can Work It Out' by Stevie Wonder

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@.)

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@.)

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@.)

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.)