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 14 Newer Notes

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.)

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:

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.)

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.)

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.”