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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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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)