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: '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.)

A reader points to a font of new covers but singles out two:

Regarding your cover series, Bandcamp is a massive resource. There are very mixed results because it’s obviously an outpost for “amateur” musicians (i.e. there are too many punk bands with Ramones covers to count), but there are many, many pros who put things up just for kicks. And they’re usually free.

Example: Anthony Lamarca and his album Songs I Wish I Wrote. His cover of John Cale’s “Big White Cloud”—the original being kind of artsy treacle—is one of my most listened to songs of the past few years. The intimacy of Lamarca’s version is arresting versus the baroque Cale arrangement. Lamarca has backed or supported many big artists and bands—St. Vincent, Spoon, War On Drugs, Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500).

Another: Shilpa Ray’s take on Lou Reed’s classic “Make Up.” Reed’s original camp and macabre is replaced with Ray’s brand of powerful burlesque pop.

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

After seeing David’s note yesterday on the literary qualities of “Tangled Up in Blue,” a reader, Keith Wells, recommends another Dylan song:

Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was stunning, more for how long it took than anything else! It reminded me of a song to recommend for your cover song series: “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance. They took the 11-minute opus and cut it down to a 3-minute burst of pop-punk anarchy. They even managed to stick a few bars of the Star-Spangled Banner in there just for fun.

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

Reader Marc pivots off our track from Thursday by Willie Nelson:

Although I do love “City of New Orleans” (sadly, I’ve never ridden the train nor visited the city), I didn’t hear it until some time after I heard—and fell in love with—a song by Joe Dassin set to the same tune: “Salut les amoureux” (“Hello, lovers”).

It’s about a couple who are going for a walk to have The Break-Up Talk. At first neither of them has anything to say. Then, as they talk, they imagine that their relationship might be rekindled—but “we’re past that age; we don’t believe in fairy tales anymore.” At last, having settled their break-up, they pass the local café, where the proprietress sees them walking together and calls out “Hello, lovers!”

Joe Dassin and his dad (Wikimedia)

Joe Dassin had an interesting story; he was the son of Jules Dassin, a Hollywood director who moved to Paris after being blacklisted by HUAC. (Jules became famous in France for Rififi and Never on Sunday; moved back to Hollywood after the Red Scare died away, and was nominated for an Oscar for Topkapi.) Joe, having spent his teenage years in Europe and his college years in Ann Arbor, somehow emerged as one of the biggest French pop stars of the ’60s and ’70s. More than a few of his hits were French lyrics set to songs that were popular in the U.S. at the time; sometimes they were fairly straight transpositions—The Doors' “Mosquito Song” became “Le Moustique”—but others were, like this one, complete re-imaginings.

This isn’t my favorite Joe Dassin song—that would probably be “Mon village au bout du monde”—but I like it a lot.

The English-translated lyrics to “Salut les amoureux” are full of wisdom and pathos:

A reader dissents:

Your Track of the Day feature is opening me up to new music I appreciate, from the cover series to the locations series and all the rest. Notably lacking is any mention of Ry Cooder. This is a serious failing that really needs correcting.

I’m still especially fond of his first three albums (that’s what cool people say, isn’t it: “yeah, I like his old stuff”), but his work over several decades has been phenomenal, not least being The Buena Vista Social Club. I seem to recall him being referred to as a music archivist or curator as much of his opus involves his take on much older songs from Calypso to blues. One of the best guitarists of our time, it is his arrangements that make so many of his songs unique and identifiably Ry Cooder’s.

Among his many covers, it’s really difficult choose a favorite, but I’ll offer up Lead Belly’s “On a Monday.” The mix of slide, electric and Dobro is superb.

My favorite cover of a Lead Belly song is from Nirvana—“In the Pines,” embedded below—and it’s a bit more transformative than Cooder’s cover due to the grunge/blues genre-bending, so it’s a tad more fitting for this series. Enjoy both! (And for tomorrow, enjoy “Tuesday,” because it’s the day after Monday.)

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

A reader, Tom Schroeder, tries to lift us up as we approach the end of this death march of an election:

Aretha Franklin’s cover of “What A Fool Believes” is the best thing you will hear today—a bright light in dark times. The original version is a breezy number with Michael McDonald [of The Doobie Brothers] on vocals and a fun little synth line going on. You all know this song; it’s planted firmly in anodyne soft-rock canon (even serving as the central plot anchor in the first episode of Yacht Rock, a proto-web-series devoted to lovingly lampooning that era and genre). It won Grammys. Wikipedia calls it “one of the few non-disco No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 during the first eight months of 1979.”

Let’s fix that, said the Queen of Soul the following year. And oh, does she. There’s brass. There’s a slap-bass solo. There’s an ostentatious sax entrance near the end. There are, of course, delightful vocal vamps punctuating the whole thing.

Best of all? Aretha managed to record a decidedly non-yacht-rock cover of a yacht rock song—with backing musicians from Toto.

If you can write a review of your favorite cover song as well as he can, please drop us a note:

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

This cover song submitted by reader Max not only jumps genres in a big way but transforms the song into satire:

Originally a raunchy fast-paced rap by the Ying Yang Twins, comedian Mark Jonathan Davis’ Richard Cheese recorded this largely as filler to a “greatest hits” album. But by swanking it up, slowing it down to Old Man River speed, the lyrics take on new—though no less vulgar or sexist—meaning. The narrators’ quest for a badd bitch (original title) is transformed from idle bragging to a deep yearning and appreciation (admittedly for the travails of exotic dancers). While I would never hold either as great art, Cheese is great satire, and occasionally he finds a deeper truth rather than just another dick joke.

For a much more earnest version of “Badd”—though more of a sampling than a cover—see Girl Talk’s “Minute by Minute”:

Update from Max, whom I’ve hopefully converted to Girl Talk fandom:

Damn, that track is fun to take apart. The yacht rock is deep in the covers ... Aretha covers Doobies with Toto ... Ying Yang twins with a backing sample of Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin” at :50. Probably taken from Warren G’s “Regulate.” Keep it smooth.

The full list of 16 tracks sampled on “Minute by Minute” is here. I’ve previously gushed about Girl Talk with a reader here.

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

From reader Max:

While I love the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac original (from a time when Fleetwood was a British blues band), Judas Priest takes the song from hard blues to metal. “The Green Manalishi” has more menace when Rob Halford sings it. The twin-guitar attack takes it someplace harder and meaner. Priest takes this song where Peter Green couldn’t quite take it, but probably looked at and nodded. There’s a reason the cover is the more famous version.

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

A funk/soul rendition of Woody Guthrie’s legendary folk song:

But it comes to us bittersweet; Sharon Jones died Friday night of pancreatic cancer at the age of 60. I caught wind of her death while catching up with the weekend postings of the Atlantic reader group known as TAD. As one reader put it:

What a badass. Like Candye Kane [the blues singer], she fought it right up to the end and going out the way she wanted to go. Fuck cancer.

Another adds, “While I was saddened to hear of her passing, it’s nice to know she died after having the best year of her professional life.” And it appears she kept her sense of humor till the end:

[As] the Dap-Kings’ Gabriel Roth tells The LA Times, Jones suffered the first of the two strokes that would hasten her death while sitting at home watching the election results at November 8. “She told the people that were [at the hospital] that Trump gave her the stroke,” Roth says. “She was blaming Trump for the whole thing.” Roth is quick to add that this was nothing more than a bit of light-hearted banter, though, and that Jones remained in good spirits surrounded by family, friends, and fellow musicians until suffering another stroke Wednesday. That stroke left her unable to speak, but she still sang. As Roth puts it:

She was just moaning at first, and then she was moaning in tune and then she started following chord changes and pretty soon she was humming “His Eye On The Sparrow” with [Dap-Kings member Binky Griptite]. We all just kept playing and singing with her, and little by little over the next couple of days she actually started moving her mouth and started singing lyrics. She just wanted to sing these gospel songs ...

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

Matthew gets bleak:

I bring you Low, covering The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.” The original is fine in its own way, if a little mawkish. But Low, a band quite comfortable working with the space between notes and then building from the depths to the heights, wrings every last bit of longing and despair out of this cover. Just hide the razor blades before you hit “play.”

Update from another reader, Darrell:

That Low cover reminded me of another bleak cover. Soft Cell made the song “Tainted Love” famous (itself a cover), but the version done by Coil gave it an edge not evident in earlier versions. The members of Coil were both gay and in a long-term relationship. They explicitly used their version, recorded in 1985, as a comment on the AIDS crisis. After hearing it, or seeing the video, it’s hard to hear the song as anything else but that. [We previously covered that cover here.] Enjoy(?)

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

A regular reader contributor, Barry, recommends a kid-rock version of Adele’s mega-mega-hit (which recently passed one billion views on YouTube):

Vázquez Sounds is a teen band YouTube phenomenon from Mexico. Their cover of “Rolling With the Deep” is pretty straight forward; the transformative bit is who’s doing it. Their music video got 90 million views in three months!

Their live version is above.

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

From reader Daniel:

I really like your “most transformative cover songs.” Here’s a suggestion for your series: Scissor Sisters’ “Comfortably Numb.” Talk about transformation; making a Bee Gees-type disco number out of Pink Floyd’s original song is really something. Some people hate it, but I think it works surprisingly well.

By the way, in the note for Booker T’s Abbey Road medley cover, your reader writes that it might be the only time that entire album has been covered. That is certainly not true; Laibach covered Let It Be in its entirety (it’s not very good, but their version of “Across the Universe” is not bad).

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