Two things people love: a good cover song and top five lists. That said, some of us at CT couldn’t help conjuring our own lists of our five all-time favorite cover songs. In the process, we reflected on the criteria for a good cover song. An excellent cover clearly distinguishes itself from the original. It may also elevate the lyrics or the music itself, change the overall mood, or make the song more relevant to a new generation of listeners. However, the reasons a given cover may be effective are extensive and by no means absolute, perhaps changing from one cover to another. With that in mind, peruse these lists of our favorite covers and find out what makes each rendition distinctly great.
5. Harry Nilsson – “Everybody’s Talkin'” (written and performed by Fred Neil) – Aerial Ballet (1968) – RCA
Originally a folk-country ballad, Nilsson’s version shines because of his huge vocal range. He experiments with using his voice as a harmonica-like instrument during breaks from vocals, and his delivery is buoyantly shaky. He takes something rigid and lets it breathe. In doing so, Nillson transforms the track into something celestial and beautiful but ultimately distant. It helps that the track appears in Midnight Cowboy (1969), a film of devastatingly disparate highs and lows.
4. Lou Reed – “This Magic Moment” (written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and performed by Ben E. King and the Drifters) – Till the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus (1995) – Rhino/Wea
Reed’s guitar incises Ben E. King and the Drifters’ version, transplanting guts for soul. The innocence of the track remains, but Reed’s purity is more mature. After originally appearing on a Doc Pomus tribute album, this song was included by Trent Reznor on the Lost Highway (1997) soundtrack and, in fact, mirrors Lynch’s directing style: Reed takes something nostalgic and flips it on its head to expose the beauty and sadness in its falseness.
3. The Fugees – “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and performed by Roberta Flack) – The Score (1996) – Ruffhouse/Columbia
This was the easiest pick for me. The song launched the careers of two great musical minds, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean, and the album, The Score (1996), on which the song appeared, injected a necessary fusion of soul into hip hop. When Hill sings, “Killing me softly with his songs, with his words,” she isn’t necessarily talking about a lover, which gives the track a richer texture than the original. By replacing the drug-house fogginess of Roberta Flack’s version with a sharp and sleek rhythm, the Fugees create a perfect modern-day song of longing.
Jack White wields a dynamic and slithery sonic weapon with his voice. He sort of takes the virginity of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; he did some bad things to Dolly’s “Jolene.” And she’s all the better for it. The combination of Jack’s minimalistic and schizophrenic production and Dolly Parton’s sassy lyrics makes this cover a spicy slice of American pie. (And yes, I just said “spicy slice of American pie” – and I meant it!).
1. Antony and the Johnsons – “Crazy in Love” (written by Rich Harrison, Beyoncé Knowles, and Shawn Carter and performed by Beyoncé and Jay-Z) – “Aeon” single (2009) – Secretly Canadian
Antony turns Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s upbeat pop song into a desperate plea. When he sings, “Your kiss got me hoping you’ll save me right now,” you feel as if Antony knows he can’t be saved and doesn’t exactly want to be, despite his longing. Antony melts Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s silver shimmering confidence down to scrap metal, and he sings from the rubble.
5. Madeleine Peyroux – “Between the Bars” (written and performed by Elliott Smith) – Careless Love (2004) – Rounder/Universal
It could be the Billie Holiday croon or maybe the jazz instrumentation, but Madeleine Peyroux does justice to Elliott Smith—a feat that I didn’t think was possible. Her cover works because it removes itself so far from the original that it begins to reveal even Smith’s secrets. His version is intimate, and his vocals are so understated, that it lulls you. It’s almost a love song when he sings it. Peyroux destroys the whole mirage, exposing the song as incredibly sad, sinister, and dark. It’s not a love song but the temptation of someone who finds solace in the bottle. Despite this, Peyroux still manages to turn it into a romance, albeit a masochistic one.
4. Fantômas – “Charade” (written and performed by Henry Mancini) – The Director’s Cut (2001) – Ipecac
Henry Mancini wrote some of the most beautiful and iconic film music ever. It’s often so orchestral that it seems silly for a band—let alone an experimental metal band—to even attempt to cover it. But there’s something to be said for musicians completely reconfiguring the source material. Listening to Fantômas you can hear their admiration for the Mancini arrangement. Their version is still orchestral, despite its being driven by electric guitars and Mike Patton’s vocal gymnastics. Unlike most metal covers of non-metal songs—which tend to be tongue-in-cheek and little else—there’s actual love in Fantômas’ “Charade,” which proves that you can make a cover that is miles away from the original yet still keeps its spirit.
3. Gipsy Kings – “Hotel California” (written by Don Felder, Glenn Fry, and Don Henley and performed by the Eagles) – Volare! The Very Best of the Gipsy Kings (1998) – Elektra
This cover gets major points for being on the The Big Lebowski (1998) soundtrack. And like the Dude, I too, have less than warm feelings for the Eagles. That said, the Gipsy Kings prove that a good song is a good song. Charged with the percussive thrust of flamenco guitars, their “Hotel California” is an exotic departure. It’s a place I want to visit. The Eagles offered a song that took us on a tour of a version of Hell. While the song makes Hell enticing, it also tries to warn us about getting stranded there. It definitely makes me think twice about walking into anything with California in the name (I’m looking at you, California Pizza Kitchen). But that all falls away when the Gipsy Kings play it. I never want to leave.
2. Cat Power – “Sea of Love” (written by John Phillip Baptiste and George Khuory and performed by Phil Phillips) – The Covers Record (2000) – Matador
Chan Marshall has a great ear for picking cover songs. Listen to her two covers records—Jukebox (2008) and The Covers Record, respectively—and you’ll get a sense of the way she can demolish a melody and smother it in a smoky, bittersweet lining. “Sea of Love” is, perhaps, the paramount example of this. Marshall turns Phil Phillips’ 50s’ hit into something softer and more earnest. Listening to this, you feel like you’re curled up with Marshall on a velvet fainting couch. She’s singing softly, barely audibly; your ears hum as her breath warms your cheek, your fingers entwine, and her hair cascades over you like the last winter’s snow. Or is that just me?
1. William Shatner – “Common People” (written by Jarvis Cocker, Nick Banks, Steve Mackey, Russell Senior, and Candida Doyle and performed by Pulp) – Has Been (2004) – Shout!/Factory
Yes, William Shatner is the king of covers. Sure, his acting and spoken-word delivery are easy to parody. And people may say that that his songs are novelties and nothing more, but I disagree. I might have felt the same way once, but then I heard “Common People,” which makes me reexamine his entire catalog. Pulp’s original is a synth-fueled anthem for the disgruntled working class. It’s an invective against those who fetishize poverty. Shatner channels that same anger, but because he’s an actor, manages to make it more convincing. Not only that, he houses that working class frustration alongside his natural charm and humor. That’s Shatner’s magic. No one can parody that.
5. Owen – “Never Meant” (written and performed by American Football) – The Rutabega/Owen Split EP (2004) – Backroad/Polyvinyl
Is it possible to cover your own song? After American Football came to a sudden end, frontman Mike Kinsella started a solo project under the name Owen. Kinsella covered the American Football classic—which he stripped down to voice and acoustic guitar—on a split EP with the Rutabaga. I audibly yipped when I came across this song.
4. Uncle Tupelo – “Moonshiner” (Traditional) – March 16-20, 1992 (1992) – Rockville
Countless folk artists have covered this traditional piece, but Uncle Tupleo turned it into a “stare-at-the-bottom-of-your-glass” ballad. When Jay Farrar sings, “If whiskey don’t kill me / Lord, I don’t know what will,” we have a tendency to believe him.
3. Two Gallants – “You Losin’ Out” (written and performed by the Reverend Robert Wilkins) – The Throes (2004) – Alive
Two Gallants have always paid homage to those who inspire their ferocious blues-folk romps, but opening The Throes with Wilkins’ classic Delta Blues piece was a perfect choice. This is a barroom stomper of a song if I ever heard one.
2. Florence + the Machine – “Postcards from Italy” (written by Zach Condon and performed by Beirut) – Live Cover (2011)
Boasting one of the strongest female voices in music, Florence took this ukulele-driven song of nostalgia and covered it in her prints. Gone are Zach Condon’s warm, warbly vocals and trumpet lines. Florence instead belts out the tune like she’s singing in her car with the windows down. It’s downright chill-inducing.
1. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (written by Trent Reznor and performed by Nine Inch Nails) – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) – American/Universal
The making of a great cover song lies in the covering artist’s ability to make the song their very own. Cash did just that with his stunning rendition of this Nine Inch Nails’ tune. Trent Reznor was rumored to have sworn never to play the song live again after hearing Cash’s version. The real beauty here is the song’s music video. An empty, dusty House of Cash, a noticeably propped-up Cash, and video footage of younger, healthier times accompanies the song. Cash had delivered his own eulogy.
5. The Smashing Pumpkins – “Landslide” (written by Stevie Nicks and performed by Fleetwood Mac) – “Disarm” single (1994) – Virgin
If a cover is too similar to the original, you might think, “Well, what’s the fucking point?” While the Smashing Pumpkins don’t veer far from Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” their cover works. Billy Corgan’s voice contrasts so sharply with Nicks’ voice—especially considering that members of the opposite sex sing the same song—that it adds a new element and feel to the original. While Nicks’ tone makes lyrics such as “Well I’ve been afraid of changing / Cause I’ve built my life around you” reflective and even sweet, Corgan’s renders them angst-ridden and somewhat frantic. Both versions are remarkable – what it comes down to is whose voice you are in the mood to hear.
4. Gary Jules and Michael Andrews – “Mad World” (written by Roland Orzabal and performed by Tears for Fears) – Donnie Darko Soundtrack (2002) – Enjoy/Everloving
Unlike the Tears for Fears original, Jules and Andrews’ cover of “Mad World” makes me want to slit my wrists. Slowed down from the original and overlain with a somber tone, this rendition undoubtedly elicits depression, but it’s beautiful. The Tears for Fears version is interesting because the music itself feels chaotic, reflecting the madness the narrator feels both within and without, but it masks the deep sadness underlying the song. Jules and Andrews’ earnestness and deliberation transport me into the music and consume me with the tragedy these poignant lyrics contain: “I find it kind of funny / I find it kind of sad / The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.”
3. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah” (written and performed by Leonard Cohen) – Grace (1994) – Columbia
While many covers of this song have transformed Cohen’s slightly cheesy, dated original into something more serious, heartfelt, and timeless, Buckley’s voice and his gentle, deliberate guitar strumming render this one of the most beautiful songs in existence. His candor elevates Cohen’s lyrics, the beauty and pain of which the original undermines: “She tied you to her kitchen chair / She broke your throne and cut your hair / And from your lips you drew an hallelujah.” Like Jules’ “Mad World,” Buckley strips the music down to really showcase the lyrics and subsequently allow the listener to experience the emotion with which he so earnestly sings.
2. Lou Reed – “This Magic Moment” (written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and performed by Ben E. King and the Drifters) – Till the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus (1995) – Rhino/Wea
Lou Reed’s cover is intoxicating and more relatable than the original. I absolutely love 1950s-1960s R&B groups like the Drifters, but at the same time, it can be hard to take them seriously. I listen to the original and sing along with fervor, but ultimately, the song feels naïve and I feel naïve when I sing it: “Everything I want I have / Whenever I hold you tight / … / This magic moment / While your lips are close to mine / Will last forever.” But when Lou Reed sings it, with his raw, visceral voice, the naivety vanishes. You think, “Wow, this guys feeling something heavy, and I want to feel that too – and goddamnit, I can feel it too.”
1. The Breeders – “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and performed by the Beatles) – Pod (1990) – 4AD/Elektra
I almost like this cover better than the original—which is saying a lot considering that I’m not a fan of many Beatles covers, and when I am, I still view them as inferior to the originals. Like “Landslide,” it’s intriguing to hear a song that you love sung by someone of the opposite sex. Kim Deal’s rendition is much darker and edgier than the Beatles’ original, especially compared to the second half, which is somewhat whimsical and reminiscent of doo-wop. What most of these covers I’ve cited do is elevate the lyrics by matching the music to their tone, and in that way, transform the songs into something more honest and even relatable.