Saturday, July 21, 2007

My list of Greatest Cover Songs of All Time

Well, it's music time again.

I've put together my list of greatest cover songs -- tunes recorded by another artist sometime after the initial release. When I call them 'great covers', I mean that the second time around was a vast improvement over the original version. Additionally, I award additional points for originality. So… in no particular order:

Tainted Love - Soft Cell
Perhaps the quintessential successful cover -- few realize that this song wasn't a Soft Cell original. A cover of a '60's Motown tune, it also explains the fact that Marc Almond and crew are one-hit wonders -- they simply couldn't come up with enough material on their own.

Turn, Turn, Turn! - The Byrds
Pete Seeger must have something going on that I simply don't see. Others (such as Steven Stills) get it and turn his songs into classics. That's what happened here. Pete got a HUGE leg up from the ultimate source of wisdom (the Bible - see Ecclesiastes 3), so I'll give him credit for reading the right stuff.

Money - Flying Lizards
A personal favorite. I love the repetitive beat, the vacantly delivered vocal, everything. The whole thing works with the lyric, 'Money, I just want MONEY!' Yep.

Jump - Aztec Camera
Roddy Frame was really on a roll when this little gem was released. Unfortunately for him (and us, I suppose) he lost the knack shortly afterward. I've always seen this as a personal challenge on his part; he proved that he could make something great out of anything, even a piece of garbage like Van Halen's "Jump". It's also a sly jab at some absolutely inane lyrics.

Gimme Shelter - Sisters of Mercy
I can't claim to be a huge fan of the Rolling Stones, but I like this song a lot. Andrew Eldritch managed to squeeze it into a dark, black place and still sing the lyric, 'just a kiss away' with a straight face.

Take Me to the River - The Talking Heads
Eternal redemption and illicit sex rolled into a single ball. It shows how conflicted that the Rev. Al Green truly was, but in David Byrne's hands the song gains neurotic desperation that Al just didn't possess. That moves the emphasis to catharsis. An absolute pop classic.

Crazy - R.E.M.
This is obscure, I realize. R.E.M. had just released their debut record, 'Chronic Town'. Cross-town comrades Pylon were also recording their first major-label release, and 'Crazy' was the featured song. Peter Buck writes in the liner notes of 'Dead Letter Office' that he was 'depressed' at "how much better" the Pylon record was compared to theirs. R.E.M. meant the song as a salute to Pylon, but somehow the R.E.M. interpretation added the extra ingredient that made all the difference. To this day, R.E.M. claims that Pylon was the best pop band in history.

Sister Ray - Joy Division
The ultimate song of denegration by the most self-deprecating band in history. What don't you get?

Hang on to Your Ego - Frank Black
Charles Thompson IV, aka Frank Black, is one smart cookie. Selecting an alternate track from one of the most lauded records of all time also takes guts. Top that off with the fact that it's technically a cover of a cover -- 'Hang On to Your Ego' is a Beach Boys alternate version of their own 'There Must Be an Answer'. Frank pulls it off here with an anthemic take on what was originally a melodic song (Brian Wilson, remember?).

Cheer Up Sleepy Jean - the Monkees
OK, I'll admit to actually liking this song. By the Monkees. In the hands of Anne Murray, this is a grindingly sappy mess. Who is she cheering up? I hope that for her sake that Sleepy Jean is deaf!

Blinded by the Light - Manfred Mann's Earth Band
Manfred Mann changed everything on this one. Bruce Springsteen's original version is a rasping, breathless piece of Americana (what a stretch). Manfred Mann plugs in the Hammond and the tune is transformed into a psychedelic showpiece.

Twist & Shout - the Beatles
How many times has the Beatles version of 'Twist and Shout' been played at parties all over the world? I couldn't hazard a guess. Something about their performance certainly improved on the original by the Isley Brothers. Like, oh, a little guitar?

Wild Thing - X
Another personal favorite. I like both versions of this song, but I love the punk update that features the 'wild INSANE thing' delivery of Exene Cervenka. Genius selection, and Billy Zoom contributes his usual perfect guitar arrangement.

Crazy - Patsy Cline
Patsy Cline was truly one of the best performers of her day, or likely any day for that matter. Her low smooth alto makes "Crazy" a salacious song of wonton devotion, while Willy Nelson's thin tenor laments loss. It's that easy.

Honorable Mention

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
This San Francisco-based all-cover band turns yesterday's hits into punk classics. Their versions of Barry Manilow's "Mandy" and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" are not to be missed.

Tears of a Clown - English Beat
I liked this version of 'Tears of a Clown', I'm just not sure if it's any better. Different, yes. Better? Maybe.

Silly Love Songs - Red House Painters
Mark Kozlek loves to re-write songs. This sounds NOTHING like the original (that's a good thing) but it's nearly twelve minutes long (not so much). Mixed.

Smooth Criminal - Alien Ant Farm
If they weren't such poseurs, this might have worked.

Worst Covers

Love Will Tear Us Apart - Paul Young
What was he thinking? Joy Division as blue-eyed soul? Please.

Will the Wolf Survive? - Waylon Jennings
Kudos for selecting a song with great crossover potential. Low marks for a predictable, bland execution.

I Will Always Love You - Whitney Houston
Goodness gracious! If becomes possible to sue for song slaughter, Dolly Parton has perhaps the world's strongest case. I've always said that Whitney Houston approaches every song as an athletic competition, not as an artistic opportunity. She over-sings this song of patient devotion into an annoying case of show-and-tell. "Look ma, big vocals!!" And we have to hear it at least twice a week until we die! Huzzah!

It's So Easy - Linda Ronstadt
I think that Linda was on one of her coked-out spells when she recorded this one. She slurs through every chorus with the vitality of housecat caught in a sunbeam.

Come on Feel the Noise - Quiet Riot
Based upon lyrics alone, did this song really need to be resurrected?

It's My Life - No Doubt
Talk Talk nailed it, No Doubt didn't.

Mony Mony - Billy Idol
This is simply one of the worst recordings ever to make the charts. Period. Nonsensical lyrics, repetitive hooks and a snarling Billy Idol (nee William Broad). Not a winning combination.

Sweet Child O' Mine - Sheryl Crow
Anything related to Axl Rose doesn't come to a good ending. It really doesn't.

Abracadabra - Sugar Ray
Please, for the love of humanity, make it stop!


Anonymous 1985 Gripen said...

I have to admit I don't know most of these songs, but I know a lot of the bands.

Another great cover of a great song, IMHO, was Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt". Weird that a legend would cover a contemporary band. Trent Reznor must have been tremendously honored. Also DEVO did a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole". Again, a legendary band covering a contemporary they themselves influenced. It's like a big circle!

Get the idea I might be a huge NIN fanboy!?!?

A funny thing I was just discussing with my wife today is that I heard a cover of a song on the radio which I knew as a Smashing Pumpkins song. I told my wife, "I like the Smashing Pumpkins' original better". My wife, being older than I am politely pointed out that the Smashing Pumpkins' version was itself a cover of a Fleetwood Mac original.

That wasn't the first time I'd thought a cover was the original! :-0

12:38 AM  

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