A few members of the collective share some of their favorite cover songs for this month's collaborative blog. We discuss the artists that we feel truly transformed the original to make something unique and call it their own.
Artist: Yo La Tengo
Song: “Friday, I'm In Love”
Album: Stuff Like That There
Original Version: “Friday, I'm In Love,” -The Cure
I love listening to love songs. They make us smile, they make us cry, and they sometimes make us feel disgusted for listening to something so sappy sweet. This cover from Yo La Tengo can evoke all of those things, as great love songs do, and dials back The Cure's synth-heavy tune into a dreamy, acoustic indie-pop song. It's a transformation from eighties new wave into indie simplicity, with one singer and no harmonizing. Still, they both retain the kind of rising sense of hope and excitement that has me blasting both versions every Friday, on the long drive to my girlfriend’s house. Where the original fits as the triumphant anthem for a coming-of-age drama, the new one is the quirky, playful introduction where the protagonist skips merrily down the street.
Artist: The Animals
Song: “The House of the Rising Sun”
Album: The Animals (U.S. version)
Original Version: (Traditional folk song)
Like many great traditional folk songs, nobody knows who originally wrote or performed "The House of the Rising Sun." While there are fantastic versions by Lead Belly, Bob Dylan (off his debut LP), Nina Simone (Nina Simone Sings the Blues), and nearly every folksy-leaning musician from the 60s and 70s, there might as well just be one. That’s because, among the bands of the British Invasion that excelled at electrifying American (and often black) folk and blues songs, The Animals stood apart. From their version of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” to Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” to Bo Diddley riffs galore, the Eric Burdon-led band transformed dark, low-down ditties into divine explosions of rock & roll. And nowhere is this more apparent than on their 1964 recording of “The House of the Rising Sun,” undoubtedly the definitive version.
Artist: Joe Cocker
Song: “With a Little Help from My Friends”
Album: With a Little Help from My Friends
Original Version: “With a Little Help from My Friends” - The Beatles
My parents didn’t listen to The Beatles that much. Bob Dylan, yes… Led Zeppelin, yes… Santana, yes. They did, however, give me the Woodstock DVD when I was young enough to see naked people rolling around in the mud, talking about acid, and freaking out about rock & roll. The festival is legendary for legitimate reasons: reasons with names like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix. One of my favorites from the show was the completely out-of-control Joe Cocker exorcising “With a Little Help from My Friends” out of his body. Years later, when I discovered the version on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, my mind was blown. “What a terrible cover,” I must have thought. “Where are the cheesy, out-of-tune backup singers? Where’s the raucous rocking out? And, most importantly of all, where’s the explosive, soulful singing?” And then I realized that Joe Cocker’s version was the cover.
Artist: Rage Against the Machine
Song: “How I Could Just Kill a Man”
Original Version: “How I Could Just Kill a Man” - Cypress Hill
This might be a bit sacrilegious to admit, but Renegades is probably my favorite Rage Against the Machine album from beginning to end. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it was one of my first CD purchases ever (along with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication), but I think it has more to do with the fact that it reveals the heart and soul behind the band: all the highlights are hip hop gold. The album, which consists entirely of covers, opens up with Eric B. & Rakim and Volume 10 before flowing through Afrika Bambaataa, EPMD, and Cypress Hill. While the opening track and title track are tempting choices for this list, I had to go with my favorite—“How I Could Just Kill a Man.” There’s nothing better to match the raw intensity of the lyrical content other than the fiery drums, bass, guitar, and voice that make up the greatest rap rock band there ever was.
Artist: Miley Cyrus
Original Version: “Jolene” - Dolly Parton
I’ll admit it: I used to be one of those poor saps dumb and shallow enough to think of Miley Cyrus as just another hypersexualized pop music puppet for sale. Then I watched her sing “Jolene.” Backed by a five-piece band locked in tight harmony, Miley is at her most naked as she beautifully belts out the emotional words of Dolly Parton’s classic country song. We see Miley for who she really is, one of the most exquisite singers of our time. While not a huge transformation from the original—tempo and arrangement aren’t too different—the performance is transformational from the perspective of the audience. We see the pop star unplugged and in a humble setting doing nothing but singing the song, no frills. And the result is eye-opening for anyone who never gave Miley a true shot.
Artist: The Bad Plus
Song: “My Funny Valentine”
Album: Blunt Object Live in Tokyo
Original Version: “My Funny Valentine” - Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart
Originally a show tune from the late 30s, this jazz standard has been covered throughout time by countless sultry-voiced artists, perhaps the most notable being Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. I haven’t heard every cover, but these tend to feature the same gentle tune in the background with strong, smooth vocals, crooning the sweet nothings of the song. Now, take that classic vision, and imagine The Bad Plus. A group that's as avant-garde as it comes and fond of moody, introspective musical outbursts, this is among the least fitting bands to cover this supple classic. A background rhythm somewhat like a modern fusion riff with no respect paid to the original tempo or feel of the song assails the listener first, and then the vocals begin. The most grating, tuneless voice emerges starkly, singing scattered words and phrases picked out of the original melody with no attempt made to sing the entire song, or even complete sentences, as if a person had only learned to speak from an early text-to-speech program and was handed a few torn-off pieces of the original script from the classic show tune. Truly a horrific blend when one expects the standard creamy rendition of this oldie. And I love it. I love it so much that a band decided that a cover should change a song, and then proceeded to tear any semblance of the original feeling of the piece apart and scrawl it anew with their old crayon set and drops of their own blood.
Artist: A Perfect Circle
Song: “When the Levee Breaks”
Original Version: “When the Levee Breaks” - Led Zeppelin
Although this isn't the most popular A Perfect Circle album, it's one of my personal favorite and contains some of my all-time favorite cover songs. eMotive includes ten brooding political cover songs, and the most transformational track on this record is their rendition of "When the Levee Breaks". APC takes this twelve bar blues and turn it into a smooth and slinky lounge cover. Maynard's voice in this track also supports my theory that he's actually a heavenly saint guised as a rock 'n roll singer, gracing this Earth with all his musical glory . The vocals soar effortlessly in a high falsetto which contrasts beautifully against that deep bass groove. I should also note that the original version of "When the Levee Breaks" was written by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joy McCoy, but I feel that APC were inspired by Led Zeppelin's rendition nonetheless.
Song: “Turn Me On”
Original Version: “Turn Me On” - Cocorosie
The early 2000s were a prime time for Jamaican dancehall club bangers. I'm talkin' Sean Paul, Shaggy, and of course one hit wonder Kevin Lyttle. For some people, these songs might be nostalgic throwbacks at this point, but Cocorosie was able to give a new life to the 2003 Kevin Lyttle single "Turn Me On". In this live studio performance, Cocorosie sisters are accompanied by a full band to turn the massive dancehall hit into an intricate freak-folk extravaganza. I'm not sure where the accompanying band is from, but they provide a lush sound with traditional instrumentation (including drums, flutes, and perhaps an ektara?). There's a lot happening in this video, but they manage to keep the overall sound cohesive. The beatboxing, for example, keeps this song steady and rooted so that Bianca (singer) can experiment with her unusual vocal stylings, creating a nice balance between rhythm and chaos. The song builds epically, and it's definitely not a club banger but it's an excellent jam nonetheless.
Artist: Yaël Naïm
Album: Yaël Naïm
Original Song: “Toxic” - Britney Spears
One aspect of pop music that I find so interesting is how lyrics can be focused on a really negative subject, but it’s so sugar-coated with catchy beats and alluring imagery that the listener can hear a song a hundred times without realizing what it’s about. Britney Spears’ “Toxic” (which admittedly is one of my nostalgic jams) is about a woman slipping and losing her head for a toxic man, but you kinda forget that as the video contrastingly portrays her a sexy supervillan. What I truly love about the Yaël Naïm version is that it’s a true representation of the sickening feeling of falling for someone "toxic". The instrumentation is dilapidated and dark, with sparse churning noises scattered throughout that are reminiscent of a twisted lovesick gut feeling. The “too high/can’t come down” verse is accompanied by sweeping piano lines and ethereal “oohs and aahs” to remind us that this experience can be inebriating and blissful all the same. Naïm ends off the track on a haunting note, with her voice slowly drowning under the instrumentation as she repeats “I think I’m ready now…” to show that she’s quite literally “slipping under” for this kind of infatuation. Overall, this is not only one of my favorite cover songs but one of my favorite plays on mainstream Billboard hits in general.
Song: “Billie Jean”
Album: Billie Jean/Mama Used to Say
Original Song: “Billie Jean” - Michael Jackson
Well, if you’re gonna cover Michael Jackson it better be fuckin’ good, and this cover by reggae fusion artist Shinehead is exactly that - real fuckin’ good. The song starts off with a dope hip hop sample and Shinehead whistling The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly theme, and suddenly it merges into a dancehall version of “Billie Jean”. I mean, what other song can you hear Michael Jackson, Ennio Morricone, dancehall, reggae, and hip hop all in the first thirty seconds? Shinehead’s singing at times has an uncanny MJ resemblance, but it has just enough personal moody flair to distinguish it from the original. All the elements work together so smoothly in this track to make it a truly transformative cover and a stellar tribute to our fallen Pop King.
Artist: Rodrigo y Gabriela
Album: Rodrigo y Gabriela
Original Version: “Orion” - Metallica
Rodrigo y Gabriela are a duo known for their Latin-tinged classical acoustic guitar instrumentals, but they were also influenced by classic rock and thrash metal bands during their formative years. As a tribute to one of their biggest influences, Metallica, they put their unique twist on the instrumental “Orion.” What I like about this cover is the fact that, apart from using nylon-stringed acoustic guitars, Rodrigo y Gabriela made very few changes to the structure of “Orion” and it still sounds like a completely different song. It’s a testament to both their ability to cross genres AND the high art lurking in Metallica’s original. Even more impressive – those percussive sounds you hear that imitate Lars Ulrich’s drums aren’t coming from a studio percussionist. That’s Gabriela slapping her guitar while simultaneously handling the rhythm riffs.
Artist: John Mayer
Song: “Kid A”
Album: Bigger Than My Body - Single
Original Version: “Kid A” - Radiohead
John Mayer eschews the synths and processed vocals of one of Radiohead’s first forays into predominantly electronic music and strips the song down to one acoustic guitar and his signature smoky vocals. Listening to this version feels strange. Not only is it so different from the original, but it also doesn’t sound like the John Mayer that I’m used to hearing. I’m really only familiar with his adult contemporary pop hits and, to a lesser extent, his seriously impressive blues chops, so to hear him show off his indie credentials like this is an unexpected treat.
Song: “Blue Monday”
Album: For Sleepyheads Only
Original Version: “Blue Monday” - New Order
I’ve never been terribly fond of pop music from the 1980’s. With very few exceptions, (Depeche Mode and Devo notably come to mind), I feel like the cheesy synths and overproduction associated with that decade’s music took what were otherwise great songs and made them sound like a novelty. For that reason, I love this cover. Flunk slows the song down, strips back the production just enough, and adds some mellow acoustic guitar picking in place of the heavy club beats. Singer Anja Oyen Vister’s icy, Norwegian-accented vocals make you realize just how painful the lyrics really are, which is something that I feel was lost on the dance floor back in the 80’s.
Song: “No Quarter”
Original Version: “No Quarter” - Led Zeppelin
It’s very easy for metal bands to fall into clichés when they attempt covers of less-heavy songs. Often times, it seems like bands have it down to a formula – crank up the guitar gain, throw in some double-bass drums, maybe scream instead of sing, rinse, lather, repeat. Leave it to Tool to break the cycle on this Led Zeppelin cover. They simplified the song structure, slowed down the tempo to a sludgy crawl, and took a few liberties by changing some of the lyrics around, resulting in a cover that is absolutely crushing and somehow sounds even darker and more explorative than the original. Justin Chancellor’s bass lines, in particular, do a wonderful job at playing off of Adam Jones’ guitar and Maynard James Keenan’s vocals to contribute to the song’s spacy vibe.