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 2 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: ‘Go Leave’ by Antony

Yesterday, we noted Barbara’s recommendation of “Proserpina,” sung by Kate McGarrigle’s daughter, Martha Wainwright. The second half of Barbara’s email highlighted many cover songs based on McGarrigle’s work:

Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Work of Kate McGarrigle has some great songs by Kate and a few by other family members. Rufus Wainwright sings “Southern Boys,” and he and his sister Martha team up for “First Born” (“Yes, he’s that first-born son, he’s that special one...”). I like the oh-I-know-that-kid serendipity of “First Born,” as well as the porch-rocker feel of Rufus’s “Southern Boys.” He also joins Emmylou Harris on “I Eat Dinner (When the Hunger’s Gone),” which is about divorce, but it could just as easily be speaking of my experience of widowhood.

There’s also Jimmy Fallon performing the fun-in-the-sun “Swimming Song.” I wallow in the melancholy of Antony singing “Go Leave” [embedded above] and Krystle Warren’s rendition of “I Don’t Know” (“You ask me what it’s all about/ I say I don’t know/ Should you stay and work it out/ I say I don’t think so”)—either of these versions could be good additions to your cover-song series. “Jacques et Gilles” is a story and a history lesson combined. And there are plenty of other songs in addition to the ones I’ve listed.

I have always liked folk music, so McGarrigle fits right into my preferences. But there’s also a little extra memory fillip regarding the Wainwrights that shows my age: Rufus and Martha are the children of Loudon S. Wainwright III (of “Dead Skunk” notoriety and the creator of “Swimming Song”), who is the son of Loudon Wainwright, Jr., whose work I grew up reading regularly in Life magazine. I absorbed certain lessons about writing from Time, Sports Illustrated, and Life without realizing it, and the writing of Loudon Wainwright, Jr., was work I particularly looked for and enjoyed.

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

A reader has some recommendations and anti-recommendations:

I really enjoy The Atlantic. I read it online and at the public library. Some covers I really enjoy: Dianne Reeves’ version of “River” (Joni Mitchell) and Stefon Harris’ cover of “Summertime” (George Gershwin).

If you are interested in bad covers, here are two: I did not care for any part of Tierney Sutton Band “The Sting Variations,” especially the songs from albums like Dream of the Blue Turtles. They were a perfect mix of pop and jazz already. Jessy J’s cover of “Feel Like Making Love” (Roberta Flack) is awful because she has such a weak voice, although the instrumentals are OK. But she does something nice with “In a Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington).

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

A new reader stumbles upon Notes:

Just saw your post on Lizz Wright … I actually do tour press for her, so it came up in a Google alert. Thanks for the love.  

Meanwhile, here is one of my favorite covers: Alana Davis doing Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”...

Sadly no cowbell, but a really enjoyable version nonetheless.

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

Alicia recommends an even more serene version of the ’60s counterculture classic by The Youngbloods:

My recommended cover song is Lizz Wright’s “Get Together.” I had heard the song before, and even knew the lyrics, having heard it growing up on radio stations that played oldies and soft rock. But I hadn’t really “heard it” until discovering Lizz Wright’s version. Hearing the song slowed down and mellowed out revealed a message about the Gospel that I wouldn’t have otherwise got.

I am a Christian. I listen to and read what appeals to me aesthetically and reject what is trite and/or in opposition to the basic tenets of Christianity, regardless of the artist’s professed belief. I am not saying that was The Youngbloods’ intention, just what I heard. Maybe Lizz Wright heard that, too. And it was nice she was able to bring out that aspect of the song without being backed by a choir.

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

A slew of cover-song recommendations come from reader Dan Paton:

(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.)

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.)

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 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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)