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.

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Track of the Day: 'Your Cheatin' Heart' by Beck

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 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 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.)

A reader writes:

Macy Gray just released a new song from her upcoming album Stripped, a jazzy cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” It’s available to stream via Spotify [and a live performance is embedded above]. It was premiered Wednesday on Vulture, who noted that the song is “performed now as if she were on the marquee at a local jazz club in the ‘30s.”

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

This selection from reader Dan puts a rock classic in the hands of a punk band and a woman’s pipes:

The Avengers’ cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” has been pretty much my favorite cover song since 1980. The original is one of the few Stones songs to hold up over time—with the increased pace of modern life, those old bits just drag. But the Avengers really rip it up.

You probably know that the Avengers opened for the Sex Pistols at the Pistols’ fabled last show on their American tour. I would have loved to have been there, but alas I was in Indiana.

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

James Blake is the type of artist that thrives in the elusive gray areas, the dark, moody subtleties of lingering pianos and trailing vocal harmonies. His style is a unique blend of somnambulic soul and thumping British post-dubstep. This music is not only notoriously difficult to cover, but also tough to make even moodier. Unless you’re BADBADNOTGOOD.

The Toronto-based jazz trio, who just released their fourth album, IV, have been quietly making some tidal waves under the surface of the indie music world. They’ve collaborated on an album with Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, jammed with Tyler, The Creator, and worked with Future Islands’ Sam Herring (of David Letterman fame).

On this cover from 2012’s excellent BBNG 2 (which also included versions of Kanye West and Flying Lotus tunes), BABADNOTGOOD take Blake’s choppy, hypnotic piece and add heavy, languid flourishes to it. The bass disappears on a spacey free-jazz ramble, the piano rings like a wild bell on the upper register, thick synth sounds roll in and out, and the drums—it’s hard to even describe. The snare is constantly twirling and rumbling with purpose, as drummer Alex Sowinski frantically alternates between playing his cymbals and toms with a loose, laid-back aesthetic and at break-neck speed. “CMYK” is old-school jazz run through the sieve of digital thinking, hip-hop production, and glitchy, internet-age rapidity. BBNG take one of Blake’s early masterpieces and transform it into something even stranger, groovier, and equally atmospheric.

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

I’m dancing in my seat to this reader’s pick:

Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is a noisy, distressing indie-rock classic, but in the hands of fellow Chicagoans JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, it transforms into an exuberant Motown-style pop song. It’s a full-bodied conversion, made even weirder when, two minutes in, the band momentarily switches gears to include a snippet of lyrics taken from “Theologians,” a mid-tempo Wilco song that’s closer to Emily Dickinson than American soul. And yet that embroidery feels seamless, mostly because it extends Wilco’s persistent sense of play, but also because it gets at how so much of rock, soul, and poetry have common roots in gospel music.

Update from the reader, Eric Beltmann, who adds:

Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman, has endorsed the cover and once surprised the Uptown Sound by joining them onstage at the 2011 Solid Sound Festival.

Watch that moment here.

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

A reader writes:

I’m really excited about these transformative cover songs—as an a cappella alumna, I love it when people rework songs and fit them to their own styles. My latest favorite cover is Joseph's cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” from a few years ago. They’ve nixed the sliding, sleazy electronicized strings that were stuck in my head for all of the sixth grade and highlighted their harmonies and moody tendencies. Complete with folksy oh-oh-whoas and layered pleas to “intoxicate me, I think I’m ready now” that is somehow less sexualized than the original lyrics, these sisters from Oregon take this song in a different direction that still has a lady-power vibe but in a totally different way.

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

This reader pivots off another recent pick:

I just read in your newsletter about your chosen song of the day—one turning an indie song into pop. If you’re looking to do the reverse, check out Calum Scott’s cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” A fun dance song turns into a discarded lover’s lament.

Update from a second reader, who flags a different version:

Hi—massive fan of Track of the Day. So disappointed Calum Scott’s cover of “Dancing On My Own” got on versus the Kings of Leon version though! See below:

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

This reader, Victoria Duda, sends a dreamy acoustic version of the Oasis classic:

Not sure if this counts as “transformative,” but I’m throwing Ryan Adams’s cover of “Wonderwall” into the ring? This haunting cover seeps into my soul every listen and life stands still ... until I hit the “Repeat” button.

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

A reader writes:

I love watching the Kennedy Center Honors for artists I like. In 2010 Bruce Springsteen was honored. John Mellencamp covered “Born In The U.S.A.” Not until I watched and listened to the complete video of his performance did I really understand what this song was saying: not the triumphal rock of a performance by Bruce, but how stark and gritty life could be, especially at that time for young men facing the draft and fighting in Vietnam.

Readers have written before in this series about the complicated patriotism of “Born in the U.S.A.” and other sad, proud-sounding songs. But this song, particularly in Mellencamp’s mournful rendering, felt right to feature on Sunday—15 years after the attacks that have so profoundly shaped, and deeply complicated, what it means to be American now.

I was 8 years old on September 11, 2001. I grew up in a political climate in which the phrase “9/11” has come to sound at times like a cliché, divorced from its meaning, ubiquitous and tacky as a pair of flag-print shorts on the Fourth of July. I knew only vaguely what the Patriot Act was and what the Iraq War meant, and so I understood them in terms of the symbols that gathered around them: flag pins and bumper stickers, shouted slogans of American pride. In the heat of the 2004 election, at the height of our preteen cynicism, my friends and I considered Springsteen and “Born in the U.S.A.” and classic rock in general of a piece with this noisy patriotism, until my mom caught us mocking some guitar-heavy track from The Rising and scolded us to think about what we were making fun of: an album responding to a tragedy in which thousands of people had died. “It’s fine if you don’t like the music,” she said. “But you listen to what he’s singing about.”

Mike Kludt, a reader who’s already served up two great covers, makes it a hat trick:

I came across the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It the other day and slapped my forehead: How could I not have thought of Ike and Tina Turner’s cover of “Proud Mary” for this cover song series? It’s one of the all-time greats, especially live. This video is all you need to get the essence of Tina Turner as a performer.

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