1. Limp Bizkit, “Faith”
Is there a more diabolical act of commercial calculation than Limp Bizkit’s cover of George Michael’s signature hit “Faith”? One of the singles off Bizkit’s sadly unstoppable, functionally illiterate 1997 nü-metal smash Three Dollar Bill, Yall$, “Faith” finds backward-cap-wearing frontman Fred Durst more or less piggy-backing on Michael’s frothy pop confection through the verses. This way, Bizkit fans can have it both ways: They can sing along to a song they would never confess to liking, while knowing they’re in the hands of their favorite sludge-slinging badass.
2. Chris Cornell, “Billie Jean”
Taking on Michael Jackson’s song, Chris Cornell decided to correct all the obvious mistakes the King Of Pop made the first time around. Who hasn’t wished the original “Billie Jean” was slower, less danceable, screechier, and far less pleasant? Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is such a good song that it’s easy to wish it could go on forever, but Cornell’s cover actually does seem to go on forever, with each line about the kid not being his son drawn out to the breaking point—and then a few more notes past that. The original “Billie Jean” is a brilliant distillation of what it means to be really famous and really, really paranoid; Cornell’s “Billie Jean” captures the weariness of no longer being as famous as you used to be, and not having the faintest idea what to do next.
3. New Found Glory, “The Glory Of Love”
Pop-punk exploded in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and the recharged cover of a schmaltzy ballad from Dad’s generation became a staple of the young person’s genre. New Found Glory’s contribution came from the 2000 EP From The Screen To Your Stereo, which also contained covers of “That Thing You Do!” and the theme from The Neverending Story. This version of Peter Cetera’s “The Glory Of Love” is louder, shorter, and more cocksure than the original; the original’s musical theater-like keyboard riffs become throbbing guitars, with extraneous interludes cut completely, though lyrical touches like the rest of the band chiming in for the second part of the chorus remain intact. Thus a heart-wrencher comes out of its schmaltz shell as the unabashedly silly pop song it always was.
4. Marilyn Manson, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
Eurythmics’ 1983 original “Sweet Dreams” has too dark an undercurrent to qualify as innocuous pop, but who needs subtlety when Marilyn Manson can writhe around in a wedding dress, howling? This is how Manson introduced himself to the world on 1995’s Smells Like Children, ratcheting up the original’s ominousness with dirge-like guitars and creepy vocals. Without the visuals, it sounds like another post-Nirvana makeover of an ‘80s hit, but the song’s video pushes it into Alice Cooper territory, with Manson doing his best to look like an Arkham Asylum escapee.
5. Jay-Z, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
Jizza’s first international mega-hit lives up to its parenthetical. It’s a fine slice of East Coast neo-gangsta hip-hop, with perfectly serviceable street-life lyrics. There’s a reason it became a massive success, going gold and snagging Jay-Z a Grammy nomination. But just as surely, it was a sign that a certain streak of hardcore street cred had died out of the East Coast scene; although beatminers had been looking for inspiration in strange places for two decades of hip-hop, it took the guts of old-school vet DJ Mark The 45 King to convince Jay-Z to set his anthem of ghetto survival to a chorus of adorable moppets from a Broadway musical based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. In the hands of anyone with less conviction than Shawn Carter, there might have been something, well, slightly un-masculine about delivering rugged crime-rhymes over the pouty lament of a showtune-belting, red-haired 10-year-old girl. But he pulled it off, and that’s why he’s the king of this thing.
6. Alien Ant Farm, “Smooth Criminal”
Alien Ant Farm largely owes its brief time at the top of the early ’00s alt-metal heap to a joke perpetrated by bassist Tye Zamora during a hometown gig. Between songs, Zamora tossed off the main riff of the Michael Jackson single “Smooth Criminal,” guitarist Terry Corso joined in, and the crowd, as they say, went wild—an enthusiasm that didn’t greet the band’s standard Weezer and Bad Brains covers. Under the pseudonym “Slick Thief,” a full-song cover was included as a bonus track on the band’s debut record, but wasn’t among the songs considered for rerecording when the group jumped to DreamWorks Records in 2000. That is, until a savvy A&R rep at the doomed label realized that a roughed-up cover of an already rough hit could bridge the TRL-forged gap separating fans of Jackson-influenced teen pop and the mooks raging against the Lou Pearlman Machine by demanding Fred Durst give them something to break. Having enough melodic sense to know not to fuck with a good thing, Alien Ant Farm doesn’t put a personal touch on “Smooth Criminal.” Instead, the band chooses to add a few more beats per minute and a Guitar Center’s worth of drop-tuned, buzzsaw guitars to the original’s core, while doing away with its Quincy Jones excesses—so long, mid-bridge synth-brass. Fitting to the cover’s origin, its most memorable musical element is Zamora’s fleet-fingered work on the six-string bass; nonetheless, the song is best remembered for its video, which finds that MTV sweet spot by having the band members mug their way through suburban setpieces populated by easy, Jackson-based sight gags.
7. Alanis Morissette, “My Humps”
While her understanding of irony as a concept will forever be in question, Alanis Morissette’s parody of Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” demonstrated that she’s at least familiar with ironic juxtaposition. In Morissette’s hands, Fergie’s paean to the seductive powers of her ass is loosed from the moors of its off-the-rack club music and set adrift on a bed of Morissette’s typically overwrought piano balladry. Her new context lends the song unexpected poignancy without altering the lyrics, which are nothing more than the Peas’ usual grab bag of irrelevant brand names and poorly translated come-ons from some How To Score American Girl For Hot Sex Tonight! tape for Japanese businessmen, sweetened with the nastiest metaphor for anal sex ever committed to song.
8. Red House Painters, “Silly Love Songs”
Whether fronting Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon, or releasing albums under his own name, Mark Kozelek has made a habit out of softening up the abrasive rock of bands like AC/DC and Modest Mouse, and finding within them a tenderness that was never previously apparent. But on Red House Painters’ 1996 classic Song For A Blue Guitar—which also features a soaring rendition of The Cars’ “All Mixed Up”—Kozelek took the dated, sentimental, disco-infused Wings single “Silly Love Songs” in the other direction. Where Wings’ soft-rock programmer builds to a chorus in which Paul McCartney sings “I love you” ad nauseum, Kozelek’s cover expands to an 11-minute-plus, Neil Young And Crazy Horse-inspired jam session that doesn’t even hit the lyrics until the five-minute mark. The “I love you” part is still there, but its sap is minimized by Kozelek’s pleading vocals and glorious swirls of guitar feedback.
9. Placebo, “Running Up That Hill”
The opening track of Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds Of Love, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” became an unlikely hit single, carried along by a lush, ethereal mix of synthesizers and choral arrangements and Bush’s own haunting voice. The chorus fooled some into believing it had religious connotations—in fact, Bush’s skittish label forced her to change the title from “A Deal With God”—but it’s really more earthbound, a plea for men and women to “swap our places” and begin to understand each other. With that in mind, it’s actually pretty clever for Placebo, a British alt-rock band with an androgynous image, to tackle a song about reconciling the gender divide. But the result, frequently featured in movie trailers and TV shows to apply a goth edge, reduces Bush’s poignant original to a grinding dirge meant to underline the band’s “dark” bona fides.
10. David Cook, “Hello”
On the popular karaoke competition show American Idol, the judges are perpetually on the lookout for covers that are relevant to the kids today—“relevant” being shorthand for something not quite as wimpy as the music their parents listen to in the car. To that end, David Cook rode his cover of the cheesy Lionel Ritchie standard “Hello” all the way to the top, establishing a voice and a formula that he would exploit to eventual victory over early favorite David Archuleta. What starts as a spare, stripped-down version, with Cook alone onstage with his electric guitar—an advantage that wouldn’t have been possible in the days before Idol allowed singers to play their own instruments—builds to the soaring crescendos that viewers have come to expect. Simon called Cook’s Scott-Stapp-by-way-of-Daughtry routine “brave,” which says something about the current pop world’s standards for bravery.
11. Dinosaur Jr., “Show Me The Way”
It’s tempting to add Dinosaur Jr.’s version of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me The Way” to the list of indie-rock covers that take the piss out of the classic-rock canon. J. Mascis’ woefully out-of-tune vocals lend some credence to this theory, and obviously this is a departure from Frampton’s impeccably assembled and finely coiffed FM rock staple, which hardly sounds “live,” much less “alive.” There are two problems with this theory: 1. Mascis hardly ever sings in tune anyway. 2. Mascis has long been an unabashed lover of ’60s and ’70s dinosaur rock. (Get it? Like the band name!) Dinosaur Jr. mangles “Show Me The Way,” but it’s an affectionate mangle, resulting in a cover that’s about loving classic rock as much as the act of showing someone the way.
12. Reel Big Fish, “Take On Me”
Reel Big Fish’s cover of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” is a fascinating example of how a modern-rock “update” of a classic song from a prior era can end up sounding more dated than the original track. A-Ha’s “Take On Me” has aged pretty well. The song’s impossibly high-flying chorus has a lot to do with that, but so does the surprising durability of unapologetically fey synth-driven pop, which underwent a renaissance during the ’00s. There’s been no rebirth for ska, which was already chasing the swing-dance revival out pop culture’s back door by the time Reel Big Fish covered “Take On Me” for the BASEketball soundtrack in 1998. After enduring the gratingly chirpy horns that Reel Big Fish grafted onto “Take On Me,” it’s easy to imagine that it was A-Ha who came along to turn an older generation’s corny trash into cool-ass gold, not the other way around.
13. Sonic Youth, “Superstar”
The Carpenters’ music was always richer and more emotionally complex than people gave it credit for, even though most of the alt-rock bands on the 1994 tribute album If I Were A Carpenter used the opportunity to crank out an ironic Carpenters cover rather than a serious one. Funny enough, the edgiest group on the CD delivers the most respectful (though warped) cover: Sonic Youth, whose sumptuous, utterly haunted rendition of The Carpenters’ bittersweet, pillow-soft “Superstar” continues the band’s oft-stated interest in the doomed Karen Carpenter.
14. Shudder To Think, “So Into You”
Atlanta Rhythm Section’s 1976 hit “So Into You” gets classified as Southern rock, but its soft-rock-with-a-hint-of-disco formula has far more in common with Leo Sayer than Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s hard to imagine what the glam-prog geniuses of Shudder To Think were thinking when it decided to put a cover of the oldie on the 1994 album Pony Express Record. Then again, the band was already known for covering everyone from John Lennon to Jimi Hendrix, although nothing could prepare Shudder fans for the creepy, deconstructed, almost unidentifiable mutation of this particular song.
15. Seaweed, “Go Your Own Way”
Even though it comes from one of soft rock’s giants, Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” is a pretty intense jam. But on the soundtrack to Clerks, the melodic-yet-moody punk outfit Seaweed put a more blatantly aggressive spin on the song. Still, Seaweed doesn’t really have to do much to it: The guitars are louder, the vocals rawer, and there’s a thread of unsettling feedback lurking around the edges. But it’s remarkable how easily and well the Mac original translates into anthemic, early-’90s punk.
16. Killdozer, “American Pie”
Perhaps the most perverse band in rock history, the proto-grunge prank-machine known as Killdozer became as infamous for its bizarre covers as for its own formidable avalanches of wise-ass sludge. The biggest, funniest disconnect, though, is the band’s scorched-earth version of Don McLean’s overplayed, overanalyzed Bob Dylan pastiche, “American Pie.” By the time Killdozer frontman Michael Gerald barfs up the lyric “Can you teach me how to dance real slow?”, the proverbial room has been completely cleared.
17. Mark Eitzel, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”
Sometimes slowing a song down is the way to make it edgier, even if the song in question is the silky, mopey “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” by Culture Club. American Music Club’s notoriously glum frontman Mark Eitzel crooned a barely recognizable rendition on his 2002 covers album Music For Courage And Confidence that sounds less like a slow crawl than a forced march through an abstract, alienating soundscape. Eitzel’s version implicitly answers Boy George’s question even as it’s being asked: Yes, they really want to hurt you. And they already have.
18. The Residents, “Stuck On You”
The ever-enigmatic Residents specialize in a sort of quiet subversion; most of their best work is both familiar and inexplicably creepy. That approach serves them well on the 1989 album The King & Eye, a collection of Elvis Presley covers in which the version of “Stuck On You” is the most striking and effective track. Usually thought of as one of Presley’s frothier hits, the song becomes a stalker/rapist fantasy in The Residents’ hands, even though they don’t change a word. Replacing the bouncy country swing of the original with a martial beat and stabs of atonal keyboard, the Residents cover gets more and more disturbing as it progresses. Lines like “Hide in the kitchen! Hide in the hall! It won’t do you no good at all!” sound less like a charming boyfriend on the make than the antagonist of a slasher film.
19. Laibach, “I Me Mine”
No one can do more damage to art than someone with an axe to grind, and Laibach—the deranged Slovenian industrial art-rock outfit—definitely has a theory. What that theory is… That’s a whole different conversation. Accused at various times of being neo-Stalinists or neo-Nazis, Laibach’s members specialize in subversive cover versions of American, British, and European pop hits; when the band released its song-by-song remake of The Beatles’ Let It Be (complete with socialist-realist portraits replacing the original’s photos), it came with an impenetrable set of liner notes that bewilderingly “explained” the record’s purpose. Any one of the tracks could be chosen for this list; the moment when the lead singer bellows “Get back, Jo Jo,” sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his action-hero days, is a standout. But the transmogrification of George Harrison’s gentle ode “I Me Mine” into a sort of freaked-out fascist greed anthem, complete with booming martial drums and the singer croaking the chorus like Clarence “Frogman” Henry if he were possessed by Satan, goes well beyond even the spirited disrespect of the rest of the album.
20. Leatherface, “Message In A Bottle”
The Police’s “Message In A Bottle” is close to a perfect pop song, but the band makes the song’s desolation largely a matter of metaphor. Leatherface’s Frankie Stubbs, on the other hand, sounds as if he’s been baking in the island sun for weeks, his skin cracked and his throat scraped raw. Tacked onto the end of the incendiary album Mush, the Sunderland, UK trio’s version brings to mind what Hüsker Dü might sound like if Bob Mould’s larynx lost a fight with a belt sander. Stubbs’ distorted arpeggios and Andrew Laing’s hammering drums sound loud enough to let them hail a passing ship instead of relying on a bottle-message, although even that might not save them.
21. Confide, “Such Great Heights”
You can’t have it both ways, Christian metal kids in the band Confide. You can either succumb to the gentle wussiness of The Postal Service’s terrific electro-pop gem “Such Great Heights,” or be tattooed bad-asses who scream with metallic abandon. When the two worlds collide, it just sounds like a horrible, jokey mess. Confide’s version begins exactly like the original—only experts could tell the difference—but when the vocals begin, it’s as if the song was hijacked. The disconnect between the saccharine lyrics (“the freckles in our eyes are mirror images / and when we kiss they perfectly align”) and the brutal (yet somehow intensely wimpy) music becomes unintentionally hilarious. Unlike the wacky covers that mellow artists are always doing of rap songs (think Ben Folds’ version of “Bitches Ain’t Shit”), the members of Confide are clearly serious. And delusional.
22. Orgy, “Blue Monday”
There’s a vague undercurrent of menace to New Order’s “Blue Monday,” created by lyrics and droning new-wave chords combining to berate an unthinking person who’s been careless with the singer’s heart. Orgy’s take on the same song, however, turns the subtle threat of the original into an outright screamfest. It’s like the difference between Norman Bates and Jason Voorhees.
23. Revolting Cocks, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
One of the roughly 1,000 side projects Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen started in the ’80s, Revolting Cocks provided a goofier complement to Ministry’s unsettling post-apocalyptic-biker assault. For 1993’s Linger Fickin’ Good, the band stripped whatever subtlety the original “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” had—there were only trace amounts anyway—and upped the sleaze quotient. A salacious bassline locks in with the machine-like percussion, with washes of a wah-wah guitar straight out of a ’70s porno. Atop it all, singer Chris Connelly offers a piss-take croon, reworking some lyrics for maximum lasciviousness. Jourgensen balances Connelly’s smooth voice with his distorted shouting in the chorus, and he embellishes other parts of the song with blasts of noise, but even this version remains danceable.
24. Ministry, “Lay Lady Lay”
Ministry’s sound—characterized by aggressive guitars and pummeling rhythms—created the industrial blueprint for the late ’80s and ’90s, so it’s a little surprising to see the band tone it down for its Bob Dylan cover from 1995’s Filth Pig. “Tone it down” being a relative term, of course. Fans will instantly recognize the slightly robotic percussion and Al Jourgensen’s heavily delayed howl. And yes, a distorted bassline propels the song. Still, in terms of badass sonic makeovers, Ministry’s numerous melodic flourishes—the acoustic guitar, the tasteful solos—make this one far more reverent than ironic.
25. Circle Jerks, “Golden Shower Of Hits (Jerks On 45)”
Long before Me First And The Gimme Gimmes made punk-rock punchlines out of easy-listening songs, Circle Jerks released “Golden Shower Of Hits” on its 1983 album of the same name. During the song’s five-plus minutes—an eternity for a band known for its 60-second blasts of snotty hardcore—original Black Flag singer Keith Morris and crew craft a distorted medley of ’70s AM-radio staples such as The Carpenters’ “Close To You,” Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight,” and Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” The high point of the medley, though, is the band’s mauling of Paul Anka’s and Odia Coates’ warm-fuzzy “(You’re) Having My Baby,” delivered in a fit of sheer panic and topped off with samples of screaming infants.
26. The Ataris, “Boys Of Summer”
Don Henley was in his late 30s when he recorded what’s easily the best song of his solo career, “Boys Of Summer,” which creates a palpable sense of middle-aged regret and nostalgia-eschewing bitterness. Henley’s “Boys Of Summer” is the sound of a man looking back on a love he isn’t ready to let go of, precisely because he has no chance of ever getting it back. The only thing The Ataris’ version of “Boys Of Summer” retains from Henley’s original is Mike Campbell’s haunting guitar riff, though it’s been run through a pop-punk buzzsaw. Otherwise, Ataris singer Kris Roe whines away the heartache in “Boys,” sounding more like a dude who broke up with some chick last week than a grown-up mourning the loss of his childhood. Nevertheless, switching out the Grateful Dead reference for Black Flag is a nice touch.