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The Most Transformative Cover Songs
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Readers recommend their favorites. Submit your own—especially if the cover goes across genres—via hello@theatlantic.com, and please include a short description of why you love it so much.

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Anne Tek

What happens if you take Raw Power and rip it out of the socket? That’s the landmark 1973 album from the Stooges, a fierce burst of electric guitar that prefigured punk and hard rock.

But guitarist James Williamson, who wrote the songs with Iggy Pop, actually composed the guitar parts without amplification. “We were in a little mews house in London and you couldn’t be loud in there anyway, so I used acoustic to write the songs,” Williamson told me this week. “I got so I liked it better because you can really hear the notes really well.” The reason for his preference is even a little punk: “Sometimes the electric doesn’t have the same kind of punch that acoustic does. Acoustic is a little bit percussive, and sometimes the electric has the big sound, but it isn’t always as percussive.” (There are also some acoustic guitars on the David Bowie-produced record, notably on “Gimme Danger.”)

What would those classic songs sound like played unplugged? There’s no need to wonder, because on a new EP, Williamson teamed up with Deniz Tek, the guitarist in Radio Birdman and the Visitors, to record a handful of acoustic versions of songs Williamson wrote with Iggy Pop, including “Penetration.” Here’s the premiere of that track:

Acoustic K.O. (the name is a joke on the live Stooges release Metallic K.O.) also includes “I Need Somebody” from Raw Power as well as “Night Theme” and “No Sense of Crime” from the 1977 Pop/Williamson album Kill City, the former of which gets a full orchestration.

Williamson said the new EP represented the confluence of a couple currents. A Stooges superfan named Hakan Beckman (“He kinda knows what I had for breakfast in 1970,” Williamson chuckled) had long advocated for an acoustic record, and the duo of aging rockers Williamson and Tek decided to to do it after joking about playing lounge gigs together.

On “Penetration,” Williamson laid down an acoustic guitar part as well as some licks on Weissenborn lap slide. The recording process went a lot more smoothly than Raw Power. “At this point in time I think we have a clue as to what to do, and back in the day, that was my first album on Raw Power, so I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. The only hitch came when he sent his tracks to Tek, and the singer discovered they were out of concert pitch, thanks to a miscalibrated electronic tuner. It was an easy fix, though. Plus, the weird tuning was an echo of the way the Stooges did things: Eschewing tuners, they just tuned to each other’s instruments.

Williamson said he hasn’t talked to Pop about the new version. “I doubt if he cares. It’s just another version,” he said. But Williamson likes the way it compares to the 44-year-old original. “I think it stacks up very favorably. The original of course is the original. This one has more of a rhythmic thing going on with it.”

For comparison, here’s the original version:

Do you have a favorite reworking of an electric tune for acoustic instruments? Let us know at hello@theatlantic.com.

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

Reader Barry highlights a band of two young kids and their father that became a YouTube sensation several years ago:

DMK is a Depeche Mode cover band from Bogotá. They have a ton of videos, including a concert in Poland from last year. “Enjoy the Silence” when the kids were still pretty small and really cute.

Likewise with “Everything Counts,” the band’s mega-hit embedded above. More details on DMK (short for trio’s names—Dicken, Milah, Korben) from their Wiki page:

DMK is noted for crudely emulating the sounds of Depeche Mode using an old keyboard and various toys and household items as instruments. … The band was featured in MTV Iggy’s “10 Colombian bands on the rise” article, by JetSet Magazine as the most famous Colombians in YouTube, and their remake of “Everything Counts” has been selected by Electronic Beats magazine as one of the ten best Depeche Mode covers ever.

Here’s a much more produced video with a wonderful dream-like vibe:

From an interview with the dad:

“The first video we made was kind of an act of psychomagic,” he said. “We never expected that it would evolve beyond that. I made one video and I invited my kids to join me and sing a song with me. I am not a professional musician. I have never taken a music lesson in my life. Everything I know about music is just for the love of it; it’s empirical. … We never expected [the fame]. It was organic and natural.”

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

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.)