Under The Covers: Second Hand Songs That Matter
Artists have performed other people’s music since the beginning. Here we salute the best and worst, the career-making, the career-breaking and other highlights from the wide world of borrowed sounds
Imagine you have two days to rehearse with a band the size of a football team, people you’ve never ever played with, before performing at one of North America’s biggest festivals.
You would have to fall back on doing covers. Skrillex, invited to curate 2014’s “SuperJam” by the Bonnaroo festival, put on his idea of the all-star musical performance and included artists like Warpaint, Lauryn Hill and Janelle Monáe.
“A lot of the SuperJam is covers, because that’s kind of the traditional thing,” Skrillex offers. He mimics awkwardly calling up his contributing artists by holding his right hand to his ear. “Hey, I don’t really know you, and my name is Skrillex and I’m doing this thing named the SuperJam. And I want you to cover James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’… please.”
Cover songs have been a part of music history since the beginning of time—heck, technically even sonatas or or piano concertos are covers, since they were originally performed by, sometimes even written for, a certain artist. Of course, you’d never say that the New York Philharmonic’s version of Beethoven’s Ninth is a cover, but in pop music, even in traditional folk music, covers are a huge deal.
Hundreds, maybe even thousands of covers are released every year. Many bands start out by covering their favorite songs, making them their own, and therefore finding their own musical identity. That’s not a crime—even the Rolling Stones stuck to performing covers until their manager forced them to write original songs.
Back in space and time to Manchester, Tennessee in 2014. Warpaint chose the 1989 disco hit “Pump Up the Jam.” Their performance grooved seamlessly, as you can tell from the mini-documentary series called SuperJam that was just released via AT&T. As the crowd moves along in trance, you’re not able to tell this song challenged the Warpaint’s sonic boundaries. “Warpaint—their music just has a different type of energy,” said Skrillex at the time. “It’s very emotional, and it hits your heart very hard. I was surprised that they brought up ‘Pump Up the Jam.’” Nonetheless, they pulled it off, and the performance was a huge success. Emily Kokal, singer of Warpaint, admits: “The songs that we write and play are really not that straightforward. So I think it was really fun for us to get yourself out of your identity of who you believe yourself to be. You know just keep exploring.”
Cuepoint invites you to explore as well: below, see our lists of the best and worst covers, covers that were one-hit wonders, which covers are sexier than the original and more. While these lists surely aren’t comprehensive, they deal with a wide array of genres and eras, just as Skrillex did in his SuperJam. His performance at last year’s Bonnaroo, like the numerous covers released daily, demonstrate that covers will always be a part of the artistic process and our understanding of music. The lists below are for you to indulge in, to discuss, and to be inspired by. After all, the next cover you’ll come in contact with probably is a mere hours away.
Best Covers Ever
Johnny Cash • “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails)
The best cover song of all time, by far. There isn’t one covers list where Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” isn’t in the Top 20, and mostly you’ll find him in the Top 5.
Jimi Hendrix • “All Along The Watchtower” (Bob Dylan)
Let’s be real: Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but his songs often times sound better performed by others. Jimi’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” is one of them: his flying fingers and raunchy guitar licks just give the tune the “oomph” it deserves.
Sinéad O’Connor • “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Prince)
Prince originally wrote this song for his 80s side-gig The Family but wasn’t successful with it. Once O’Connor brought it back to fame in 1989 he started playing it live again (a LOT).
The White Stripes • “Jolene” (Dolly Parton)
Dolly Parton’s version of the song surely is a classic, she is, after all the unsung heroine of the karaoke booths across the world. But Jack and Meg White just take this song to another dimension. They manage to make the protagonist of song seem vulnerable, and the White Stripes’ instrumentation really carries the pain and the jealousy Dolly’s country guitars can’t.
Jeff Buckley • “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
Jeff Buckley’s Grace is one of the masterpieces that pop music has recognized too late. Buckley subtly transferred the heavier piano chords to his effortless guitar work, making the song airy, soft and transcendent.
Worst Covers Ever
Duran Duran • “911 Is A Joke” (Public Enemy) Whatever possessed five white dudes from Birmingham, U.K. to cover a song about lack of response to emergency situations in black American neighborhoods, no one may ever understand.
Limp Bizkit • “Behind Blue Eyes” (The Who)
This one kind of goes without saying: Limp Bizkit have been the best example for crème de la trash from the moment they released their first split single “Counterfeit” / “Nobody Loves Me.” Their cover of the Who’s epic ballad “Behind Blue Eyes” is no exception.
Madonna • “American Pie” (Don McLean)
Madonna does add some elements to the song that could seem clever—those annoying keyboard runs between first and second verse, for example. In the end, it’s just as fake as her plastic fingernails.
Joss Stone • “Fell In Love With A Boy” (The White Stripes)
This cover doesn’t work, because Joss Stone switches the punk rock guitars for steamy funk, and Jack White’s intense howl for over-sexualized moans. But then again, that’s what she does best.
Counting Crows • “Big Yellow Taxi” (Joni Mitchell)
The Counting Crows are a pretty good band, with some pretty good songs. In “Big Yellow Taxi,” though, they take a liberal song, and try to make it even more so, which is plain silly. Add Vanessa Carlton’s doo-wops and you have the perfect recipe for an annoying cover.
One Original and Five Covers:
The Beatles • “Come Together”
Technically, they ripped their famous hook line off of—ahem—were inspired by “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry. Well, imitation is the highest form of flattery, right?
MJ released the song at what you can call the peak of his career. Compared to the Beatles’ original, this version is infused with the essence of Jackson aka plenty of hip movements.
The former Supremes singer smoothed the edginess down of the song way down, but did not fail to flavor it with sass to it by adding big horns, background singers and grand hand gestures.
It’s just weird to hear the song like that, with synths and what is obviously a drum machine. Well, you can’t say that they didn’t make the song their own.
Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin
This might be one of the most interesting covers of the song, even though they stay pretty close to the original. The late Robin Williams starts out on vocals, while McFerrin does the human beatbox, and then they switch for the part. Vocal humming solos included.
Probably the version closest to the original. Still worth a mention because they recorded it with such swagger.
One Original and Five Covers:
Abbie Mitchell • “Summertime”
Abbie Mitchell “Summertime”
This is one of the most covered songs of all history—and of course, everybody forgets that the original was written by George Gershwin for a 1935 musical, and first recorded by Abbie Mitchell.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Probably the most famous recording of the song, and boy, for good reason. Ella and Louis own this song.
James Brown and Martha High
Thier version of the song, though also amazing, definitely gives it a raunchier vibe than the other versions. Typical of the Sex Machine.
Aaron Neville always does weird stuff to his voice, like he really needs to pee. This one’s no exception.
Ah, Billie Holiday, the grand dame of blues. She just gives the tune the extra swagger to make it danceable.
His recording should definitely be mentioned. His trumpet playing is just so earth-shatteringly beautiful.
Too Familiar? Songs That Aren’t Really Covers But More Like Plagiarism
Johnny Cash • “Folsom Prison Blues” ripped off Gordon Jenkins • “Crescent City Blues”
Oof, this one is way too obvious. Cash barely even changed the lyrics. No wonder he had to pay up after he lost the lawsuit.
Green Day • “Jesus of Suburbia” ripped off Bryan Adams • “Summer of ’69”
“Jesus of Suburbia” is a 9-minute-long (and probably too long by 7 minutes), three-part “rock opera” off of Green Day’s American Idiot album. The chorus of the “second act” sounds just like Adams’ 1984 hit single.
Led Zeppelin • “Stairway to Heaven” ripped off Spirit • “Taurus”
Honestly, I don’t think this has a valid claim. Yes the riff is similar, but you’ll find hundreds of riffs breaking down chords the way both bands do. And while Spirit actually stuck to the chords itself, Zeppelin created a melody that went down in music history. Still, Led Zeppelin lost the first round in the lawsuit.
Sam Smith • “Stay With Me” ripped off Tom Petty • “I Won’t Back Down”
Tom Petty actually was just awarded with 12.5% songwriters credit for Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” The iconic rocker and the pop shooting star actually already had settled out of court in October, according to reports.
Radiohead • “Creep” ripped off Albert Hammond • “The Air That I Breathe”
You have to listen closely, because instead of distorted guitars there is delicate fingerpicking involved; but yes, this also is a ripoff. Albert Hammond and his co-writer Mike Hazelwood successfully sued for co-writer credit.
Robin Thicke • “Blurred Lines” ripped off Marvin Gaye • “Got To Give It Up”
Thicke shot himself in the foot in last year with pretty much everything he did and said, from personal to professional matters. This hijacked beat, though mega successful, belongs in that category as well.
Bruno Mars • “Treasure” ripped off Breakbot • “Baby I’m Yours”
After his epic 2014 Super Bowl performance, Bruno Mars should have convinced even his harsher critics that he slays as an entertainer on stage. As a songwriter, not so much, seeing that he ripped off Breakbot’s “Baby I’m Yours.” Considering this seems to be a one-off, he get’s away with a stern glance and a slap on the hand—even though he should be sending checks to the electronic artist’s residence in France.
Katy Perry • “Roar” ripped off Sara Bareilles • “Brave”
You only have to listen to both songs for about 3 seconds, until you hear—yup, that’s a rip. Apparently, though, the singers are friends, so Bareilles is cool with it.
One Direction • “Live While We’re Young” ripped off The Clash • “Should I Stay or Should I Go”
While teens across the globe almost wet themselves in anticipation of the release of this song, us older folks couldn’t help but notice—that riff? Isn’t that…? Yes, it is. Harry Styles of the band later flat-out admitted it to the BBC.
The early Red Hot Chili Peppers ripped off Funkadelic “Cosmic Slop”
Granted, those funky licks really sound like all of the Chili Peppers early stuff. But it’s so well done, you don’t really care, do you?
Artists Who Have Covered Entire Albums
Phish • Remain in Light (Talking Heads)
Phish covers everything they can get their hippie hands on, even entire albums. This one was performed at one of the band’s Halloween shows in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996, and they made the record phishy—adding a slight reggae-feel and just jamming for hours.
Dave Depper • The Ram Project (Paul McCartney)
This project by the American folk singer was supposed to sound as close to the original as possible—and if he managed to do that, he felt it was okay for him to do his own record. Weird, but whatever fits his bill.
Laibach • Let it Be (The Beatles)
The Slovenians decided to cover the entirety of the album, but for some reason they chose to omit the title track. It surely isn’t for everyone to endure the orchestral metal version of those classic Beatles’ songs.
Camper Van Beethoven • Tusk (Fleetwood Mac)
After a ten year hiatus, Camper Van Beethoven decided to step back into the spotlight with the remake of the infamous 1979 double album in 2002. Their blend of ska, folk, punk and world music added a really different feel.
Mother Falcon • MF Computer (Radiohead)
The Austin ensemble is a fully equipped orchestra and even has a brass section—their reimagination of Radiohead’s classic naturally sounds pretty epic.
Pussy Galore • Exile on the Main Street (The Rolling Stones)
Yes, Pussy Galore paid homage to the Stones by covering what is probably their best ever record. As they stated themselves, rather poorly.
Deer Tick • Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (Devo)
For their 10th anniversary show at Brooklyn Bowl, Deer Tick covered Devo’s debut in its entirety. People who were there say it was amazing.
Artists Who Reached Their Fame by Covering Others
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts • “I Love Rock ’n Roll” (The Arrows)
Lots of people don’t even know this actually is a cover. Well, there you go. Recorded originally by the Arrows.
Soft Cell • “Tainted Love” (Gloria Jones)
One of the best and most beautiful covers ever to be recorded. It’s just amazing how this old R&B track was transformed into a sultry pop noir song.
Jeff Buckley • “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
Next to this song by Leonard Cohen, Buckley’s one and only studio album also featured two more covers: “Lilac Wine” from Nina Simone and “Corpus Christi Carol” from Benjamin Britten’s A Boy Was Born.
Birdy • “Skinny Love” (Bon Iver)
This song gave the young British artist her breakout moment: She released a collection of cover songs in 2011, which was followed up by her mainly unrecognized sophomore record in 2013.
The Animals • “House of Rising Sun” (folk standard)
Although this song is an American standard, the Animals have basically been connected to this song by default now.
The Lemonheads • “Mrs. Robinson” (Simon and Garfunkel)
The Lemonheads is one of those bands that aren’t very recognized by the mainstream. This song was their one big hit, even though the music video was pretty goofy.
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band • “Blinded By The Light” (Bruce Springsteen)
Another example where many people don’t realize it’s a cover. It’s the Boss’ first ever single, and since he wasn’t really on people’s radar until “Born to Run,” it dwindled and was forgotten until Manfred Mann brought it back to life.
Urge Overkill • “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” (Neil Diamond)
This track probably belongs to the category “Better than the Original.” Neil Diamond’s version just sounds kind of creepy in a weird way—the song was directed to his young lady-fans, because he accumulated quite the following around that time.
UB40 • “Red Red Wine” (Neil Diamond)
Another Neil Diamond cover! UB40’s hits seem to all have been reggae covers of other people’s songs, if you think about it.
Covers that were Originally a Different Genre
Antony & The Johnsons • “Crazy in Love” (Beyonce)
Just so awesome, so creepy and gloomy and not Queen Bey at all. Antony is the Anti-Bey.
Walking Shapes • “Lost” (Frank Ocean)
Widely unknown and wildly underestimated cover of a great song. The indie band from New York gives Ocean’s gloomy R&B-track a really different feel.
Tori Amos • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana)
“Teen Spirit” has been covered a lot, but probably not one has nailed it as much as Mrs. Amos just sitting at her pianoforte all by herself.
Tricky • “Black Steel” (Public Enemy)
You have to give it to Tricky to transform Public Enemy’s hardcore hip-hop into an amazing trip-hop track.
José Gonzáles • “Heartbeat” (The Knife)
To use the language you will see on tumblr and various social media outlets: this song is everything. Gonzáles turns the original around entirely.
Mark Ronson & Phantom Planet • “Just” (Radiohead)
Radiohead’s “Just” is basically a punk anthem, while Mark Ronson adds some horns and funky guitars et voilà—it’s a pop song.
Al Green • “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (The Beatles)
The Beatles’ melodic pop and Al Green’s soaring soul aren’t that far apart, but yes, it’s a different genre, and yes, Reverend Green sounds beautiful.
Poolside • “Harvest Moon” (Neil Young)
Neil Young’s Harvest Moon might be one of the most beautiful records ever written, and the title track is no exception. Poolside render the track barely recognizable, and make it entirely their own. Amazing.
The Blanks • “Hey Ya” (Outkast)
Have you ever seen the TV show Scrubs? This is lawyer Ted Buckland’s a cappella band, and they covered this song in the most peculiar way. Just imagine four white guys in various stages of baldness singing an a cappella version of a song known for Andre 3000’s booty shake.
Covers That Are Also One-Hit Wonders
DJ Sammy • “Heaven” (Bryan Adams)
DJ Sammy gives his version of soft-rocker Bryan Adams a nice techno beat that makes us never want to listen to the song again. Naturally, he peaked with the song.
Sybil • “Don’t Make Me Over” (Dionne Warwick)
Typical of the late 80s, Sybil adds electro beats and chimes to the song, steering it away from the classy soul track we love.
Nazareth • “Love Hurts” (The Everly Brothers)
This song is a classic, no doubt about it. The fact that it was originally recorded by the Everly Brothers remains widely unknown.
Santa Esmeralda • “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Nina Simone)
If you’re a Tarantino fan, this song will have been brought back to you in 2003 with the release of Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Toploader • “Dancing In The Moonlight” (King Harvest)
Remember this fun little ditty? Toploader’s mayfly was always a smash hit at a summer party in the early 2000s—probably still is.
Big Mountain • “Baby, I Love Your Ways” (Peter Frampton)
Peter Frampton’s original is one of the songs, that will stand the test of time. This cover by Big Mountain, though a huge hit in 1994, won’t.
Ataris • “The Boys of Summer” (Don Henley)
Who would have thought the alt-rock band still recorded and played shows? Probably just die hard fans.
Taco • “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (Irvin Berlin)
Now this is a weird one! This show tune, also recorded by Fred Astaire, was brought to second life with Taco in the early 80s. But now, all you think about is Mexican food, amirite?
More Sexy Than The Original
Fugees • “Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack)
Yes, Roberta Flack is amazing. But her version of this song is nothing compared to the classic chemistry the Fugees have in the recording.
Etta James • “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (Muddy Waters)
Honestly the original and the cover are pretty much neck-to-neck on the hotness scale. Etta pulls in first by a split second, just because she’s got that sultry voice.
Little Dragon • “Millionaire” (Kelis)
Every song Little Dragon touches oozes sex.
Violent Femmes • “Crazy” (Gnarls Barkley)
While Gnarls Barkley’s version of the song is a powerful pop smash hit, Violent Femmes spin it around and turn it into the kind of song that turns you on, even though you’re not exactly sure why. In reverse, Gnarls Barkley covered the Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone.”
Sade • “Still In Love With You” (Thin Lizzy)
Obviously a Sade cover belongs on this list, because, like Little Dragon, she manages to make everything sound sensual.
Mark Ronson feat. Lily Allen • “Oh My God” (Kaiser Chiefs)
Leave it to the Brits to continuously produce good music. Mark Ronson’s arrangement paired with Lily Allen’s voice gives the chorus an orgasmic feel.
James Blake • “Limit to Your Love” (Feist)
This song, so simple, so understated, yet so powerful. It’s quivering with anticipation.
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