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 18 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Ring of Fire' by Lera Lynn

Reader Bruce submits a Lera Lynn cover of the Johnny Cash classic:

Where Cash’s ring of fire is the blazing love that symbolizes passion with its upbeat tempo, Lynn’s is melancholic, as if the hellfire of love has descended into the lover’s heart. With no hope, we wait to burn.

Any other covers of Cash’s song you really like? Drop us a note and I’ll update. Update from Richard: “Elvis Costello’s version of ‘Ring of Fire’ is marvelous; his voice really captures the emotions and the arrangement and production are top-notch.” From Peter: “I love Social Distortion’s version—a bracing blast of white-hot punk.” From Matt, with a reggae version: “You asked a few days ago so perhaps you’ve moved on, but here’s a cover of ‘Ring of Fire’ by Grace Jones.

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

Reader Tim recommends a country reboot of a late ’70s rock classic—though it didn’t even chart in the U.S. when it was first released as a single:

Man, I feel like the covers project needs some hemoglobin. Lenny Kravitz? My arteries run blue.

Here’s Dwight Yoakam covering Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.” In addition to being awesome, it’s one of those rare covers that would have worked on its own, without the frisson of association.

And it’s a cheap out, but Postmodern Jukebox’s jazzy covers of pop hits are reliably great, if best in individual doses. I think you posted on the Dish via me their cover of Wham’s “Careless Whisper.” Their “All About That (Upright) Bass” is even better.

Update from reader Mike Kludt:

Since Dwight Yoakam is the subject, how about his cover of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”? He does a nice job, but to me it highlights the versatility of Queen, a group that produced songs ranging from that one to “Stone Cold Crazy” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Speaking of versatility, Yoakam gave a surprisingly stellar acting performance in Sling Blade, the movie that gave Billy Bob Thornton his big breakout. Yoakam played the sadistic stepfather figure to the boy protagonist and could have inspired a sequel called Lawnmower Blade.

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

Reader Scott serves up a superb in-concert cover (but the version above is a bit better quality):

Keeping with the theme of alt-country/bluegrass covers in your series, one of the finest acts of the last decade is Nickel Creek. Here you will find them doing a fine cover version of “Toxic” by Britney Spears.

Jen Hance covered the cover eight years ago:

[It] was originally written for Britney Spears, and even won a Grammy in 2005 for Best Dance Recording. With the immense success of the song, there is no wonder why it has been covered numerous times by bands such as Local H, The BossHoss, The Zoo, and even Kevin Federline’s ex, Shar Jackson. [CB: We recently featured another cover by the group Joseph.] However, none of these versions has been quite as impressive as the one done by bluegrass group Nickel Creek.

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

A reader in L.A., Andrew, loves anagrams and Mañana Ice Worm:

Lenny Kravtiz’ cover of The Guess Who’s 1970 classic “American Woman” not only re-imagines the sleepier, more remorseful original, but also reinforces why the song should instead be so emphatic—because American women continue to be so very tempting. In that respect, Kravitz, I think, thought the song should be amped up just to help keep pace with them.

The cover was included in one of the films of the Austin Powers franchise, which makes it even more groovy, baby.  

Oh, and by the way, did you realize that if you rearrange the letters in the phrase “What’s the most transformative cover song you know?” you can get “What groovy cow farts! Ho! Artist’s movement. No nukes!”?

Just thought you’d like to know.


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

Reader Steve picks a song were covered several months with a gospel-tinged cover from Bob Seger:

A true classic is The Four Tops’ interpretation of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” The Motown arrangement of instruments seems like a precursor to Philip Glass, overlaid with the Tops’ wonderful “ooooHHHHs” and Levi Stubbs contrasting lead vocal.

Two other notable versions are from Johnny Cash and Bobby Darin, and the latter’s reached number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. Hardin, the song’s creator, would go on to perform it at Woodstock three years later.

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

A reader pivots from yesterday’s TotD pick, “Proud Mary”:

Speaking of Ike and Tina’s cover of a CCR tune, I nominate the CCR cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It is one of the few covers where the cover is better than the original. Marvin’s version is more tortured and “whiny.” CCR took that and made it menacing by doing it in a minor key. The “oooohh” to begin the song is telling the guy who messed with his woman to better watch out.

Our reader then highlights “several other favorite covers, where I think the covers are better than the original”:

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.)

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.”

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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)