by staff on March 15, 2016
The concept of the cover song has existed for about as long as music has. In some cases, good covers take on lives of their own; they transform a song's meaning, help it or its writer find a new audience, and sometimes turn a throw away a major hit. Here are the top ten that trumped the originals.
Written toward the end of the Velvet Underground's existence and for their final album, Loaded, which was intended to be "loaded with hits" but effectively failed to yield a hit single, "I Found A Reason" finally turned into a hit of sorts when Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, included it on her 2000 album The Covers Record. Marshall's version strips the song down to a simpler but far weightier piano and voice arrangement, and its immediate appeal can be seen in the fact that soundtracked key scenes in several movies during the mid-2000s, most notably V for Vendetta.
When Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman covered "Someone To Share My Life With" on one of his early EPs, the song sounded so in line with his own worldview that it was almost impossible to recognize it as a cover. Cleverly, Lekman had also sampled Television Personalities' singer Dan Treacy's vocals from the original version in his own hit single "Maple Leaves," further bridging the gap between original and cover.
Waits opened his debut album Closing Time in 1973 with "Ol'55", a song covered by a number of artsits, most notably the Eagles. While Waits did not build a following until a decade later, the Eagle's version made it on the charts. Waits described the cover as "antiseptic", the masses did not agree.
Daniel Johnston's history within the music world is anything but conventional. An artist who made his name through a run of self-recorded cassettes making apparent a love of the Beatles and an utterly unique worldview."King Kong" saw Tom Waits rework the song - itself a retelling of the film King Kong - from a more inaccessible near a cappella track to a booming percussion and voice composition, helping it find a new audience upon its release on the excellent compilation The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, on which a number of other musicians, including TV on the Radio, Bright Eyes, M. Ward and the Flaming Lips build full-bodied reinterpretations of Johnston's work.
Kurt Cobain famously described the Vaselines, a Glasgow-based indie pop band active in the 1980s and again recently, as his "most favorite songwriters in the whole world," and often covered their songs in concert and on Nirvana records. The band performed "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam" on its now-famous episode of MTV Unplugged, giving the song and the Vaselines much greater exposure than they ever had before.
At a time when more and more performers were expected to write and sing their own songs, Jimmy Webb found success by working within the old model of the career songwriter, writing for other performers who gave his songs their most popular arrangements. "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" is no exception to this, as it became a huge hit when Glen Campbell performed it; by 1990, and it would go on to become one of the most performed songs in history. One version worth checking out is Isaac Hayes' cerebral reworking of the song on his album Hot Buttered Soul, which goes on for upwards of twenty minutes and sees Hayes explain the central narrative of the song for almost ten before he sings a note of the song itself.
Initially written as a tossed-off, semi-ironic B-side to a single for his pub-rock band at the time, Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe's song "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" proved a hit for Elvis Costello and the Attractions, who performed an utterly sincere-sounding version of it in the late 1970s and turned it into a hit single. Stranger yet, Curtis Stigers' cover of the song was featured on the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which went on to become the best selling movie soundtrack of all time and has essentially provided Lowe with an endless stream of revenue through royalties since its release.
Few people think of Phil Medley and Bert Russell, or the Top Notes, when they think of "Twist and Shout,". The song charted first for the Isley Brothers and then several times for the Beatles, who sold well over a million copies of the single and only failed to hit number one on the American charts because "Can't Buy Me Love" was already occupying that space. Additionally, it had a longer chart run than any other Beatles single in America, as the song began selling well again following its inclusion in the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Despite Leonard Cohen's reputation as one of the greatest lyricists and songwriters of the 20th century, he's nowhere near as well known as the original author of "Hallelujah," one of the most covered songs of the last twenty years, as he is for his somewhat more obscure back catalogue. Singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley's cover of the song - itself a cover of John Cale's reworking of Cohen's version - and similar versions by Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, and countless other musicians have made the song into a new standard of sorts. On this topic and after versions of the song appeared in Shrek, Watchmen, and in a number of other films and television shows, Cohen famously said that "it's a good song, but [that] too many people sing it."
While songwriter Richard Berry had achieved a minor hit with "Louie Louie," when a Portland, Oregon based band called the Kingsmen covered the song and rendered what was essentially intelligible utterly incomprehensible, they had a smash. The Kingsmen's version of the song garbles the lyrics, botches the structure, fractures its rhythms, and even features a moment in which singer Jack Ely very audibly comes into the chorus too soon, all of which now defines what "Louie Louie" is essentially supposed to sound like. Within 15 years, playing "Louie Louie" at a crowd would become the easiest way to express contempt for one's audience, with Iggy Pop famously doing it to a crowd several times in a row at one gig and groups such as Motörhead and Black Flag making it staples of their live sets. To top everything off, the Kingsmen's cover was also the subject of an FBI investigation pertaining to the supposed obscenity of its utterly incomprehensible lyrics. However, after several years and a number of interviews, the bureau concluded that the song was in fact completely impossible to make any sense of, and the investigation came to a swift end.