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 33 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'I Can't Help Wonder Where I'm Bound' by Johnny Cash

A solemn pick from reader John Litt:

This cover song doesn’t cross genres. It’s basically a folk singer with acoustic guitar covering a folk singer with acoustic guitar.

But oh my goodness, is it transformative. When Tom Paxton sang “I Can't Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” it was about a young man looking ahead to where his life might take him. Johnny Cash, his voice almost gone, looks back over a long life that he knows is just about over. He’s regretful and resigned and without a trace of fear, but … he can’t help but wonder where he’s bound.

I don’t know if I would really have understood it when I was young, but now that most of my life is behind me rather than ahead, it pierces me like few other songs do.

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

Reader Jay is blown away by this cover from Donny Hathaway:

This is the best live recording I have ever come across. The ecstatic screaming at the beginning lets you know that something special is going to happen. Carole King [who wrote and first performed the song] and James Taylor both perform the song admirably. However, Donny’s fever-dream delivery is otherworldly. The audience brings a supernatural energy as they half-sing, half-shout the chorus and interject with wild yelps.

This song is proof of a “higher power” at work. There is simply no rational explanation for such a transcendent performance.    

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

A strong choice from reader John:

Thanks for the great series of cover songs. There are dozens of Hank Williams songs that have led to, I would guess, thousands of covers. Many of them are excellent, but they usually don’t reveal much that Hank didn’t already put into his own versions. His singing is deceptively hokey at first listen, but in true addict style (like Janis Joplin, Judy Garland or Art Pepper), he poured all his desperate emotion into every song.

But when Beck covered “Your Cheatin' Heart,” he didn’t try to be more romantic or heartbroken or country than Williams did. He made it haunting and creepy and obsessive and entirely unforgettable, and I thank him for that.

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

Reader Jim Elliott builds on a TotD from last week:

Metallica’s version of “Whiskey in the Jar” remains in perpetual status on my playlist. That said, their rendition comes from their Garage Inc. double set of covers, inspired by Thin Lizzy’s cover of the classic. (That same set has an under-appreciated cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.”)

Probably one of the most fun bands for taking Irish folk tunes and reworking them is The Dropkick Murphys. A good example of this is “Shipping Up to Boston,” which takes Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, appends them to a punk version of a traditional Irish air. [Their cover was memorably used in The Departed.] The Chieftains also put out a great album doing covers of traditional Celtic tunes (personal favorite: “Long Black Veil” with Mick Jagger).

Of course, the best cover ever remains The Gourds’ original bluegrass cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.”

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

Reader Allen K. serves up a Beatles-style version of the legendary Led Zeppelin song:

I can’t guarantee that you haven’t already included this cover—“Stairway to Heaven” by [the Australian Beatles tribute band] The Beatnix—in Track of the Day, as I only looked through the first 20 pages, going back to November. I don’t have a lot to say about this one, except how great it is. Do check out the video (not just audio).

Update from another reader:

Now that you’ve opened the “Stairway to Heaven” can of worms (there are so many covers that you could do just those from now on), here’s a quick way to close it: “Stairway to Freebird” performed by Dash Rip Rock since the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. (Not sure if covering two songs in a single mashup counts.) It’s also discussed in this article in The Wall Street Journal, which is referenced in the 55-second intro to the song.

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

From a long-time reader, Doug:

I’m PRETTY sure I haven’t seen this up on Notes yet, but I absolutely love Maxence Cyrin’s piano cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” (referenced in your call for “great movie scene” TotDs but not yet featured in a cover). I can’t quite put my finger on what I love so much about it. It’s so recognizable, and yet so different than the original version. The pacing and volume control are amazing, and I think it manages to maintain the same sort of slow / haunting feel as the original.

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

In Nine Inch Nails’ catalogue of gloriously spittle-flecked airings of self-pity, only “Something I Can Never Have,” off of 1989’s Pretty Little Hate Machine, is so raw as to be nearly unlistenable. That’s not a criticism. With a far-off-sounding piano, some bad poetry, and his inimitably ugly wail, Trent Reznor absolutely captured the devastation of a young man humiliated by his own desire.

But a haunting cover from Kite Base—a new band featuring Ayşe Hassan of the fearsome rock act Savages—uses female voices and electric bass to turn Reznor’s pathos into dark, dignified grandeur. With chanting used as rhythm and Kendra Frost’s steady, affectless delivery of Reznor’s lyrics, this new take on the song highlights the simple musical power of the original without taking too much emotional toll:

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

Reader Anthony says he “love[s] this cover concept, and my favorite so far is Peter Tosh’s “Johnny B. Goode.” His pick for the series:

So there I was driving down the highway and who should pop up on the local classic rock station but Metallica (no surprise there) playing “Whiskey In a Jar,” that old folk song that … uh … well just listen to it. Metallica owns it now.

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

Reader Mike Kludt recommends a sweet and pathos-tinged rendition of a classic Eagles song:

This came to my attention years ago. It’s from The Langley Schools Music Project, a compilation of 1976-77 recordings by a Canadian music teacher of elementary school kids singing contemporary pop songs. (Yes, you read that right. Look it up. It’s a cute story [’Tis].)

It’s a solo rendition by a young girl of “Desperado.” She does a very nice job, but to me the key is to imagine that she’s singing about her dad. This gives it an emotional edge that is almost startling to someone like me who remembers when the original came out and who frankly didn’t give it much thought.

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

Reader Barry Eisenberg recommends an artist known for his covers:

The one that comes to mind is Richie Havens’ cover of “Just Like A Woman,” and this live performance at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration star tribute is as good as it comes.

Reason? Really? The feeling of it conveyed by his phrasing, the drama, the power of his simple rhythm work on the guitar, just a broken hearted, woebegone, it’s over, it’s over. And “I can’t fit. I believe it’s time for us to quit, and when we meet again, introduced as friends, PLEASE don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world.”

A more transformative version is embedded above, featuring Havens segueing from Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” into the Dylan cover.

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

Reader Mike Kludt really lives up to the daily 4:20 p.m. timestamp for our Track of the Day feature:

I’m not sure I’d call these transformative, but they are eye-and-ear-catching. A friendly discussion of Bob Dylan led me to this: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs playing a bluegrass version of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” The sound is so completely different from Dylan’s, yet you can see a similar mischievousness in their faces as they play. Hearing two veteran bluegrass performers sing “everybody must get stoned” is priceless.

While channel surfing recently, I happened upon that fount of surreal covers, The Lawrence Welk Show. There on my television were Gail Farrell and Dick Dale singing “One Toke Over The Line” [seen above]. At first I couldn’t believe this snuck by Lawrence; perhaps the references to Jesus and Mary gave it cover as a spiritual. But I realized that despite the overt mention of marijuana use, it isn’t really a pro-drug song; the main character is in pretty rough shape. (Seeing Myron Floren choke on the introduction is good for a chuckle, too.)

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

Caroline from Los Angeles—“a long-time reader, first-time poster”—writes:

Most people, like me, probably experienced Beck’s “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” for the first time in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s haunting sci-fi fable about the desperate things we do to pretend that awful things didn’t happen. This fan video of the song is showing its age, but it’s maybe kinda cool and appropriate that it’s faded and blurry with time.

Beck did an unplugged version for some telethon or something, and it’s powerful that way, too.

What surprised me was that Beck’s version is a cover. The song started out as a 1983 synth-pop reverb-fest by an outfit called The Korgis. (Trivia note: James Warren said he wrote it in 10 to 15 minutes—it just came to him—and yet he we are.)  

The Beck version was also used in the Omega episode of the short-lived Fox TV series Dollhouse, scoring the moment when Echo started to reclaim her identity. But Eternal Sunshine will probably be how most of us remember it, to the extent that it lasts in our imperfect memories.

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