27
Aug
2011
Random Pop Culture Top 10 List
Musical Covers
Rachel & Jordan
Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) biweekly list in which the Review to be named gang take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

Top 10 Best Musical Covers

We here at RTBN absolutely adore cover songs. We like when new acts effectively take on old favorites. And we like it even more when favorites, old or new, take a song (of varying levels of obscurity) that was actually someone else's and do things to it that transform it into something unrecognizable. The best covers are the ones that take a song and do something new and different with it, creating an original experience rather than providing a rote regurgitation of the original. The ones that add something that allows the artist to truly make the song his/her own instead of making it seem like they're walking around in someone else's ill-fitting clothes. This wasn't an easy list to make. It caused many fights and frustrations and compromises, because it meant something to us. But at the end of the day we're willing to stand by it, because we're (relatively) reasonable people who work together. Take a lesson from that, Congress.

10. Manfred Mann, "Blinded by the Light" ( Bruce Springsteen Cover)



Bruce Springsteen is a poet, and (if possible) we mean that completely without irony. Many of his songs are musical masterpieces that would be impossible to touch. Yet every artist has deep cuts that never really shone as brightly as they could have, missed steps that were masterpieces that never got their proper treatment (hell, there's an even more notable one sitting down at #2 on our list). Springsteen's "Blinded By The Light" is pure poetry, a song about coming up in the music world and the potential hazards of fame, but Manfred Mann turned it into pure bliss. Altering the lyrics slightly (and unfortunately, as many people still hear a line in the chorus as "wrapped up like a douche") and the music almost completely, Mann took the song's poetry and added a bubblegum appeal that turned the song from a forgotten deep cut in Springsteen's repertoire into his only #1 hit as a song writer (which, honestly, is a tragedy). Sometimes speeding up the tempo and upping the fun quotient is all it takes to turn a great (but criminally underrated) song into a classic.


9. Soft Cell, "Tainted Love" ( Gloria Jones Cover)



The synthesized beat that opens the track (yeah, the one you're hearing in your head right now) kind of says it all. Gloria Jones' original song was soul-crushing in a fairly straightforward way, but Soft Cell's reinterpretation is soul-crushing in a way that could only be produced by the "˜80s. The song feels synthetic, produced, and commercial like only "˜80s music can, but it also keys into the emptiness of that culture with something that can only be described as subtlety. And it's one of the few songs that can be called ""˜80s in a good way." With an infectious beat, a passionate yet disaffected vocal performance by Marc Almond (that can almost be called heroically melodramatic), and an acid house feel that never leaves behind the soul at the song's heart, the Soft Cell cover of "Tainted Love" takes the best parts of the original, interprets them for a new culture and a new time, and comes out with something even better than the original.


8.CCR, "I Put a Spell on You" ( Screamin' Jay Hawkins cover)



"I Put a Spell on You" might be among the most covered songs ever. Which is strange, considering how amazing the original version by the aptly named Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the voodoo king via Cleveland, Ohio. According to lore, Hawkins came up with the bewitching orchestration of the song during a blackout session of binge drinking, but who's to say he didn't work it so hard he cast the spell on himself? Everyone from Tim Curry to Iggy Pop to to She & Him and back to Marilyn Manson has covered this song, but the only cover really worth mentioning in the same breath as Screamin' Jay's original is that done by Creedence Clearwater Revival (I mean, they played it at Woodstock. That's a thing). Somehow the voodoo tune seems right in the hands of these (faux) Southern Rock gods, with John Fogerty's raspy vocals transforming the song into something that manages to depart from the original in an interesting way while maintaining a similar spirit. The epic guitar solos inspire a swaying that makes you feel actually possessed, the pitch-perfect percussion replaces Hawkins' screaming, and everything combines to create a sense of danger that is far from repellent.


7. Nirvana, "The Man Who Sold the World" ( David Bowie cover)



In making this list, we here at RTBN encountered some constant repeats on either side of the equation. Certain people (like Bob Dylan) get covered often, with varying levels of success. Others, like Johnny Cash, apparently have a soft spot for playing a good cover every now and again. Bowie falls into the former category, probably because his long and multifaceted career opens the door for adoration while providing something that everyone wants to try. But no one takes on the behemoth that is Bowie quite like Nirvana, a band with a Bowie-like mystique (but, sadly, a significantly shorter oeuvre). Kurt Cobain harbored a particular love for Bowie and "The Man Who Sold the World," ranking it among his favorite albums in his journals (don't pretend you haven't read them, too!), prompting the band to play the titular song in their groundbreaking, heart-stopping, hyperbole-inspiring MTV Unplugged set in 1993. If there was an album that defined a generation of music, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York was it, and "The Man Who Sold the World" was a big part of it. Cobain's characteristic pleading mumble drips over Bowie's original words, swelling ironically on choruses about control in a way that is both heartbreaking and delightful.

(Just for fun, check out an example of an interesting role reversal for Nirvana)


6. John Coltrane, "My Favorite Things" ( Rodgers & Hammerstein cover)



John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" is spring (or maybe early fall) and long walks through Central Park in the late afternoon sun. It is a classic, completely embodying one of the primary features of a good cover: the ability to step out of the shadow of the original to transform the music into something new and spectacular in its own right, not because of a residual legacy. Originally recorded using a soprano sax given to Coltrane by Miles Davis (yea, no big deal), "My Favorite Things" was the standout track (later supplemented by two additional versions) on Coltrane's seventh jazz album, one of four classic covers that give the inclusion of this track a substantive symmetry. That Coltrane could take the saccharine sweetness of the original song and transform it into something edgy, pushing jazz (and music in general) to a new level, all on an instrument that had fallen out of fashion, contribute to its inclusion on this list.


5. Johnny Cash, "Hurt" (Nine Inch Nails Cover)



While the Nine Inch Nails original is the best part of The Downward Spiral, it can't help but feel like the over-emoting of an angst ridden teenager with a self-harm fixation when compared with Johnny Cash's cover. The song matches Cash's personal trajectory so well it can be difficult to even remember this isn't a Johnny Cash original, and that the song's release came just a year before Cash's death makes it all the more resonant. The music video showcases images from throughout Johnny Cash's life, and watching it flash before your eyes, there is little doubt that while Trent Reznor may have written this song, Johnny Cash lived it. His version is so emotive, so bleak, and so subtly powerful, it almost always takes our breath away. Hell, even Trent Reznor admits, "This is not my song anymore." And you know your version of the song is the superior one when Sad Kermit deigns to cover it (notice who gets the credit in that video. Even Kermit the Frog knows to pay his due to The Man in Black).


4. Aretha Franklin, "Respect" (Otis Redding cover)



Some how, this song managed to be the only offering by a woman that made the list-proper. But really, is there a better song to be the emblematic female contribution to this (or any) list than "Respect" by the incomparable Aretha Franklin? This song has become so iconic that most people probably don't even realize that it's even a cover. Just try to imagine anyone other than Aretha Franklin singing this song. It's hard, huh? Nothing beats a young Aretha belting out this anthem on the golden rule of any functional relationship, paired with some killer horn solos (they just don't make "˜em like they used to, really) and delightful doo-wop backup vocals that basically invite you to bounce around your residence singing this song very loudly whenever you're alone (or is that just us?).


3. The Beatles, "Twist and Shout" (Top Notes Cover)



The Beatles recorded their cover of "Twist and Shout" (which had already been covered, and popularized, by The Isley Brothers) at the end of a long day of recording, giving it a raw, urgent feeling. The song was recorded in just one take, as John Lennon's voice was about to give out, but that's all The Beatles needed to change the world. "Twist and Shout" was always a good song, but once you've heard The Fab Four's take on it, no other version will ever suffice. It's what got the girls screaming during Beatles concerts (not that there was much of a challenge there), and it also provided cinema with perhaps it's most iconic parade when Ferris Bueller got his hands on it.


2. Jimi Hendrix, "All Along the Watchtower" ( Bob Dylan Cover)



Most musicians can't hold a candle to Bob Dylan. Few even try. But Dylan's version of "All Along The Watchtower" is a ballad sung with a light touch and a nearly acoustic performance. Hendrix manages to outgun Dylan by turning an almost whimsical little song into an epic of foreboding, a mammoth monument to Hendrix's guitar mastery that changed the song's tone and completely re-engineered its very feel. Dylan's lyrics sounded an ominous epitaph for the 1960's, but Jimi Hendrix made sure the music matched the lyrics, and turned what likely would have been a footnote in Dylan's discography into a titanic achievement in sound, feeling, and iconography.


1. Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah" ( Leonard Cohen cover)



We started this adventure in musical covers with a massive list that eventually peaked somewhere around 70. For the most part, however, the crown jewel of this exercise was never really in question. With his version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" Jeff Buckley earned a special place in musical history (and a very special place in some RTBN bloggers' hearts. Rachel will admit to almost crying every time the song is played, particularly in season finales of certain stellar television shows ). Sure, there are other great covers of "Hallelujah", including the ones by John Cale and Rufus Wainwright . But no one can touch Buckley, with his languid, unrushed guitar and earnest, emotive vocals, all of which show so blatantly on his face if you're lucky enough to be watching a video of a live performance of the song. Perhaps it's the way the tragic song matches Buckley's own tragic story. Buckley died entirely too early, drowning in the Mississippi at the age of 30, depriving the world not only of the second album he was waiting for his band to record, but of what we can only hope would have been a long, fruitful career.


Honorable Mentions

Rachel

-Florence + the Machine, "Not Fade Away" ( Buddy Holly Cover)



This is the song that nearly ended my friendship with Jordan. While the Rolling Stones also have an impressive cover of this song, Florence + the Machine's version adds an interesting bayou orchestration and bewitching vocals that manage to mimic that sense of believing that your love will last forever because it is somehow supernatural. The way Florence's voice breaks over the line "my love bigger than a Cadillac" makes me melt. She is clearly some kind of voodoo witch and I'm fine with it.

-Ray LaMontagne, "Crazy" ( Gnarls Barkley cover)



Covers can be really fun when the combination seems incredibly unlikely, and that's part of what makes Ray LaMontagne's version of "Crazy" absolutely fantastic. Reducing Gnarls Barkely, now identified with frontman Cee Lo Green's extravagant, over the top stage performances, down to a single bearded mountain man with whisky voice and an epic beard was a great idea, I'd like to hug whoever came up with it (particularly if it was said mountain man himself).

-Cat Power, "Sea of Love" ( Phil Phillips cover)



This poor song was the sacrificial lamb of the list. We loved it, but it got edged out of the top ten by some icons. For the (admittedly short) length of this song, I completely forget that Cat Power is a crazy hipster goddess prone to onstage meltdowns and weird screeching. Also great is Power's cover of "Satisfaction" .

-Seu Jorge, David Bowie Covers, Life Aquatic



I can't pick just one particular cover, because each of the five Bowie covers included in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the nine additional tracks featured on the extended soundtrack are absolutely fantastic. Watch the movie, you'll love it. And then sit in your room alone listening to the soundtrack pretending you're in a submarine. You'll thank me later.

-Fleet Foxes, "It Ain't Me, Babe" ( Bob Dylan cover)



What is it about Dylan that makes people think he can be covered (obviously not including Jimi Hendrix, the man is a god himself)? Maybe it's the fact that even he never really seems to know the words to the songs he's singing, or the fact that even most toddlers could probably beat him in a fight. But Dylan is not something easily replicated. Somehow Robin Pecknold makes it work, however, probably because he makes the song work for his sound rather than attempting to be Dylan. And if you like this, check out the version by Johnny Cash and June Carter to hear an interesting, completely different counterpoint


Jordan

-Eric Clapton, "Cocaine" (JJ Cale Cover)



Eric Clapton is well recognized as a masterful guitar player, and the sheer virtuosity of his work here explains why no one ever even mentions the JJ Cale original anymore. Unless they're trying to look cool at a party (in which case, I still suggest avoiding this tidbit. Clapton is definitely cooler than JJ Cale).

-Blue Swede "Hooked on a Feeling" (B.J. Thomas Cover)



Sure, Blue Swede kept the "ooga chaka" opening from a previous cover of the song, but the emotion is all their own. And these Swedes really understood how it feels to be pulled along during the early days of infatuation.

-The Clash, "I Fought the Law" (The Crickets Cover)



When The Crickets fought the law, they made it sound like they were cutting class or stealing some bubble gum (and Buddy Holly wasn't even there to help them out). The Clash made the song sound like it was about actual outlaws, with an opening riff that conjures the idea of a jail break. When The Clash fight the law, people end up hurt, and it's all the better for it.

-Elvis Costello, "(What's So Funny "˜Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" (Nick Lowe Cover)



The original version satirizes the failures of the hippie movement. Elvis Costello dared to take the question seriously, with all the doubt, pain, and longing that implies (and probably less acid). As a testament to the cover's brilliance, it is apparently impossible to find a version of the original online. Damn Internet.

-Robin Pecknold, "Crayon Angels" (Judee Sills Cover)



This one is all about the power of the voice, kids. Judee Sills' version is beautiful, but Robin Pecknold takes it up a notch. I liked the original, but I love the cover.


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