This week’s question is a simple but important one:
What’s your favorite cover song?
My wedding’s “first dance” song was Passion Pit’s cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams,” a choice strongly influenced by the different cover of the song in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. That’s a fantastic version as well, but Passion Pit’s bouncy beat on top of The Cranberries’ sweet song makes it a more danceable and appropriate choice to kick off the fun part of a wedding. The cover retains the original’s quieter verses, but goes to the hilt for each chorus. My favorite part is the end: Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos mimics Niall Quinn’s wildly cantering undulations, adding his own thick layer of instrumentals and bringing the song to a rousing finish.
I was all geared up to write a very serious ode to Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” the Grammy-winning, heart-breaking interpretation that Trent Reznor famously compared to having his girlfriend stolen, so powerful was Cash’s take on the pains and miseries Reznor had been trying to capture with his original lyrics. Cash’s “Hurt” was and is a revelation, a master musician letting his weariness at this bitter world creep ever more steadily into his voice. But it’s also, upon reflection, not my favorite version of “Hurt.” That distinction has to go to a cover of Cash’s own cover by YouTube artist Jon Sudano, who manages to take Cash’s musical expression of sorrow and “improve” upon it by the simple tactic of swapping out all the lyrics for those of Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” (as he has for many other beloved songs). Am I goddamn moron for giggling at this every time it comes up on my autoplay? Obviously, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring legitimate joy into my world.
I sort of feel like to really love a cover version you should have some affection for both versions, so I’ll go with My Morning Jacket’s take on Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone.” Badu’s one of my, say, 10 favorite musicians ever, and I’ve always had a soft spot for those first three MMJ records, thanks in part to the band’s thunderous, cover-filled live shows. It only makes sense that one of Badu’s biggest hits, initially released on a live album, would become an MMJ live staple, transforming her low-key diss track (reportedly written off the top of her head on-stage) into a characteristically slow-burning cry of anguish from the band. She’s even joined them onstage to perform it, which works about as well as you’d expect, although Jim James is wonderfully capable of handling the track himself. My question has always been: Did he initially cover the song because he gets to say his own name in it?
This is one that I could see getting a lot of flack for, but I still adore The Futureheads’ take on Kate Bush’s “Hounds Of Love.” I’m not about to claim it’s better. Bush’s original is brutally spare and dramatic, with enough power in the emotional range of her performance to tear me up every once in a while. The Futureheads cover is a hell of a reimagining, though, filtering Bush’s classic through the band’s weird mix of mid-’00s dance rock and a cappella-style vocals. As in the original, it really takes off in the final stretch. In Bush’s version, it’s the swelling strings and synths that represent love’s uplifting rush, floating her off the ground and into wide-eyed bliss once she’s finally decided to accept it. For The Futureheads, it’s a rapturous explosion of guitar, cymbal crashes, and the song’s various a cappella parts, all of which finally come together after circling each other for the first few minutes. And inconceivably, the song just keeps going, growing louder and more harmonious, and reaching climax after climax.
The best covers have a reverence for the original song while adding a unique spin, offering new interpretation of a well-worn creation. My favorite example of this particular combo is Dinosaur Jr.’s version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” The original is a breathy, wispy take of a love lost at sea. But Dinosaur Jr. digs out the menace in the song, adding a ferocious beat to the “you” in the chorus, eventually ending on that frightening note (the band also hilariously chimes in only on the word “head”). And naturally, a trippy J Mascis guitar solo makes every song better. Not only did Dinosaur Jr. love this particular cover—the band recorded it for a compilation album, then refused to give it up, releasing it themselves—but it’s Robert Smith’s own favorite alternate version of the song. J Mascis sent it to him on a cassette, and Smith told Blender, “It was so passionate. It was fantastic. I’ve never had such a visceral reaction to a cover version before or since.” Smith says that the Dinosaur Jr. version even affects how The Cure now plays the song live.
Going through my mental catalog of beloved cover songs, I’ve lighted on the pointed and political Dead Kennedys (“Viva Las Vegas,” “I Fought The Law”), dreamlike TV On The Radio (“Mr. Grieves”), and perennial favorite Devo (“Satisfaction”). But If I’m being really honest with myself, what cover could possibly compete with They Might Be Giants “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”? The song’s combination of clever lyrics and historical, nerdy subject matter are such a concise encapsulation of the They Might Be Giants charms, it was years before I discovered (with some disappointment) that the song was originally done in 1953 by a (Canadian!) group called the Four Lads. As zippy and fun as the song is, I think a huge part of its lasting appeal is seeing it for the first time with its accompanying video on MTV’s Liquid Television. Done in a combination of busy 1980s-underground comic-style animation and rough-hewn Pee-wee’s Playhouse stop-motion animation, the video was one of those enthralling pre-internet tidbits that gave a little thrill of satisfaction very time it aired.
I’ve exhausted this topic in the pages of The A.V. Club, but: it’s the Devo version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” So here’s a bonus track: Otis Redding’s cover, a more conventional reading than Devo’s post-punk deconstruction, one that makes the song’s pent-up frustrations feel that much more visceral. Through no fault of the Rolling Stones, the original “Satisfaction” is one of rock’s most overplayed songs. It’s a Library Of Congress-recognized classic and a bona fide standard, but at this point in my life, I’d much rather hear its virtues reinterpreted through trilling brass or disjointed rhythms.
Where would Urge Overkill be without Neil Diamond? It must be kind of a mindfuck for your band’s best-known song to be a cover, but the Chicago alt-rock band’s take on Diamond’s 1967 song “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” is seductive, intriguing, and just a little bit dangerous—qualities that, for all his vocal prowess, Diamond is too terminally clean-cut to convey convincingly. Where Diamond’s original evokes a cowpoke in a crisp button-down shirt serenading his best (underage) girl, Nash Kato’s throaty baritone purr makes him sound like a guy that your parents really would hate—which, of course, only adds to his forbidden appeal. The comically naive xylophone on top of the midnight-in-a-border-town guitars also gives Urge Overkill’s cover a hint of very ’90s irony, which must have influenced Quentin Tarantino’s decision to include it on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack—a move that has made Urge Overkill’s cover arguably more famous than the original.
What a Sophie’s choice, if Sophie had like 30 kids. Nirvana doing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Talking Heads covering “Take Me To The River”? Ike and Tina definitively performing “Proud Mary”? There are so many iconic ones that don’t really need a boost (e.g., Jeff Buckley on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), so I’ll stump for a lesser-known cover deserving of more love: Low’s indelible take on Joy Division’s “Transmission.” A cover so good, they made an entire EP around it, the Minnesota three-piece takes the U.K. band’s danceable masterpiece and turns it into something so achingly lovely, it becomes another case of a song that sounds like it couldn’t have been performed any other way—all the more impressive in a case like this, where the original always seemed perfect in its own right.