When you love a song enough to learn the chords, words, and melody well enough to perform it, it’s almost like you gain a small degree of ownership over it. You can change the tempo, reharmonize the changes, add a few new licks, embellish the melody, change the key, or even flip the genre entirely. Even if you didn’t write it, you can still make it your own, and doing so is the ultimate form of musical homage.
That’s why I love hunting for covers. If an artist I know covers a tune I’m unfamiliar with, it means I get to discover a new song that helped form their musical DNA. If it’s a song I’m familiar with, I get to go “Huh, no kidding. X listens to Y. Who would’ve thunk?” It’s like discovering a shared secret between the band and me. Or, sometimes, an artist I don’t know at all covers a song I love, and I find a great new band to obsess over. The best of these covers unlock new meaning within the song by interpreting it in a fresh way.
Since I love hearing new versions of songs I dig, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of cover songs where I think the artist took that sort of ownership of the song by presenting it in a different light. These songs aren’t necessarily better than the originals, but I like them just as much. Since I’m always on a quest for new tunes, please drop your favorite cover songs in the comments! So, without further adieu, here are my picks, in no particular order.
Fu Manchu: “Godzilla” (1997):
I’m a sucker for doomy, slow, sludgy heavy metal, so it should come as no surprise that I love Fu Manchu (I also love Fu Manchu guitarist Bob Balch’s signature Reverend–in my opinion, it’s one of the best guitars out there for heavy music, regardless of price). Though Blue Oyster Cult’s original cut of this tune is plenty mean, this version cranks the heaviness to 11 as it lumbers along like a massive sea monster that just woke up from a century-long nap. It’s also really cool to hear Bob Balch pay tribute to Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Buck Dharma by copping some of his signature mixolydian-flavored licks. All in all, it sounds like a Blue Oyster Cult 45 played at 33rpm, and its plodding tempo hammers home a sense of eldritch dread.
Green Sky Bluegrass “Stop That Train/Salt Creek” (2004):
There are several Green Sky Bluegrass tracks that could make this list (see also their incredible live cover of Pink Floyd’s “Time”, but my favorite is their medley of Bob Marley’s “Stop That Train” and Bill Monroe’s “Salt Creek.” The first time I heard this song, I wasn’t paying close attention, and about halfway through, I said to myself “Wait, I know this song–Bob Marley does this tune.” But, the boys in Greensky made it sound so authentic that I actually had to google who wrote it because I sincerely thought Marley might have adapted a traditional bluegrass tune (not my finest hour)! After a couple times around, they seamlessly transition into the traditional Bill Monroe tune and do their very best to melt the fingerboards clean off their instruments before jumping back into another chorus of the Marley song. In the hands of lesser performers, this might have been the equivalent of a musical parlor trick. But, because of Green Sky’s considerable chops and respect for both traditions, it becomes something more: a meditation on the commonalities of music across time and culture.
“Wild World” by Jimmy Cliff (1976):
Let’s head in the opposite direction and examine a reggae legend putting his spin on a folk classic. I like Cat Stevens’s version of this song, but here’s my hot take of the day: this version is artistically superior. In 1971, the critic Ellen Willis wrote that Stevens’s version, while “gentle and sympathetic,” was ultimately condescending to the point of being a liiiitle bit infantilizing. Personally, I would find myself more than a little peeved if I broke up with someone only to have them lecture me about how the mean ‘ol world was going to crush my gentle little spirit without a relationship to protect me! But, Cliff’s version, with its bouncy reggae groove, joyous vocal performances, and gospel-tinged backing vocals, flips the lyrics on their head and lends them a new layer of emotional nuance. “Go on,” he seems to be saying. “I’ll miss you, and be careful, but enjoy that wild world out there.”
“If It Makes You Happy” by Screaming Females (2018):
Screaming Females are easily one of the best modern guitar bands out there, and I could have just as easily included their awesome take on Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” here, but I love this snarling interpretation of a nineties classic because it is a testament to Sheryl Crow’s songwriting brilliance. She’s one of the best songwriters of the past two decades (and a dedicated bass player to boot!), and that is a hill I am willing to die on. This cover version is a testament to her prowess. I’ve always thought that the test of a great song is whether or not it sounds good when you strip away all the layers of production. Here, played live in a room by a raw, punky power trio, the song absolutely rips, and the punchline to the chorus (“If it makes you happy/then why the hell are you so sad?”) hits with even more force. Also, guitarist Marissa Paternoster absolutely shreds!
“Kiss the Bottle” by Lucero (2000):
The original version of “Kiss the Bottle” is a punk rock classic and one of my favorite songs of all time, but I also love this cover by alt-country heroes Lucero. Though the Jawbreaker version is a roaring rock rager, it works beautifully as a stripped-down country song. The sparse arrangement puts Blake Schwarzenbach’s vivid story of heartbreak and addiction front and center, and Lucero frontman Ben Nichols’s ragged voice lends the words a sense of brokenness. He sounds like he’s on the verge of either tears or a torn vocal cord (or both) for the whole performance, which imbues the song with a powerful sense of regret. This cover is proof that, while punk rockers and country musicians might look different, their songs are made of the same stuff: a handful of well-worn chords and the truth.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by Jerry Reed (1971):
Speaking of country, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jerry Reed’s irreverent take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Now, I love Bob Dylan, but I also believe it’s healthy to poke fun at legends every once in a while so that we don’t deify them, and this tongue-in-cheek cover walks the line between goof homage perfectly. Who but Jerry Reed would dare alter the words of America’s most venerated singer-poet and substitute jokes for literary aspirations? Ya gotta love it. This cover is also a perfect example of Jerry’s transcendent fingerstyle playing and the…ah, interesting tone he got by playing his cheap nylon-stringed guitar with a thumbpick–proof that you don’t have to sound pretty to sound good!
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” by Me First and the Gimmes Gimmes (2003):
It was hard to choose just one tune by all-star punk rock outfit Me First and the Gimme Gimmes for this list (I hemmed and hawed between this and their nitrous oxide-fueled cover of “Eastbound and Down”), but I love how perfectly the heartache from this beautiful Whitney Houston ballad translates in this bare-bones punk rock arrangement. Because I’m a perpetually caffeine-addled musician that grew up on punk and hardcore music, I sometimes find myself alienated by the dated production values and languorous tempos on classic pop songs even though I find the performances and melodies utterly captivating. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have a real gift for stripping these songs down to their essence and supercharging them. Frontman Spike Slawson might not have Whitney Houston’s pipes, but this muscular cover is still a fitting tribute to her incandescent talent. Fun fact: Chris Shiflett of the Foo Fighters is on lead guitar!
“No One’s Gonna Love You” by Cee-Lo Green (2010):
Indie rock darlings Band of Horses and soulful weirdo Cee-Lo Green might seem like strange bedfellows, but they actually released a split seven-inch about a decade ago where they covered one another’s songs (Band of Horses’ take on Cee-Lo’s “Georgia” is killer, too–they enlisted the University of Georgia’s marching band to lend some brassy bounce to it). Cee-Lo transforms the original from a wispy, pretty indie rock ballad into a gorgeous soul odyssey. It sounds like what would happen if some music-loving NASA radio tech beamed a bunch of Philly soul and hip-hop into space and aliens intercepted it and then tried to make a torch song to express the depths of intergalactic heartache.
“In Bloom” by Sturgill Simpson (2016):
I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard an artist flip a song on its head as well as Sturgill Simpson did when he cut this soul-drenched version of Nirvana’s grunge classic. Who on earth thinks to arrange a grunge tune into a horn-led ballad that sounds like it could be a forgotten B-side from a seventies Stax single? We almost didn’t even get to hear this incredible cover because of a lyrical mix-up on Sturgill’s part. Tracking live with his band, Sturgill didn’t look up the lyrics before hitting record, and he misheard the last line of the chorus as “to love someone” rather than “when I say”–an understandable mistake, given Kurt Cobain’s sometimes-unclear delivery. That lyrical tweak significantly changes the meaning of the song, so there was some trouble clearing the cover (Sturgill didn’t catch his mistake until he’d turned the master in to his label), but he sent a hand-written letter to the Cobain estate that smoothed things over.
Regardless, I’m glad this cover saw the light of day, because, with that accidental lyrical tweak, it works even better within the context of the album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.” Sturgill addressed the record to his son with hopes that he’d one day understand his father better, and “In Bloom” is a piece of fatherly advice for those tumultuous, angry teenage years that young boys often suffer through. According to an interview Sturgill did with Rolling Stone Country, “it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate—he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man.” With its straight-outta-Memphis horns and Sturgill’s impassioned vocal performance, this cover expresses a powerful sentiment: that the measure of a man’s strength lies in his capacity for kindness.
There you have it! I hope you enjoyed checking out some of these covers that are near and dear to my heart. Please, return the favor and drop me some covers you love in the comments below so I can hear all your favorites, too!