Originally, cover songs often carried a negative connotation — they were seen as a less talented and successful act of “stealing” the superior work of the original. Today, it’s the ability to sing a song that is predictable enough to trigger fond memories, yet unexpected enough to rattle the senses and create a new level of understanding and appreciation. Thus the art of the cover song.
Why covers? In this case, I think it’s important to reveal an artists’ taste and guilty pleasures. Below are twenty of my favorites. And before you start throwing stones, remember, I’m only a messenger.
19 Cover Songs Every Man Should Listen To:
The White Stripes // “Jolene”
Original Artist: Dolly Parton
The Stripes do a pretty straight-up version of the original, albeit with a slightly harder and punkier approach.
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals // “White Rabbit”
Original Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals manage to encapsulate the energy of the original while adding an intensity that feels both old and new.
James Morrison // “Sex on Fire”
Original Artist: Kings of Leon
This UK soul singer has a transcendent voice. And even though Morrison is the latest in a tiresome line of British imports, he immediately sets himself apart with this cover.
The Clash // “I Fought the Law”
Original Artist: The Bobby Fuller Four
The Clash stuck close to the original (which is considered a classic), yet they added a welcome dash of U.K. punk aggression allowing their version to become a legend in itself.
Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer // “Redemption Song”
Original Artist: Bob Marley
Two musical icons play a duet on the poetic justice of Jamaica’s patron saint — the result is the nectar of the gods.
Ray LaMontagne // “Crazy”
Original Artist: Gnarls Barkley
Yes, “Crazy” was one of the most over-covered songs of mid-2000s, yet this acoustic cover has the capacity for warmth and anger and can turn misery on its head.
Johnny Cash // “Hurt”
Original Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Cash brings a certain darkness to this already harrowing song. It’s spooky, melancholy, and depressing.
Big Daddy // “Ice Ice Baby”
Original Artist: Vanilla Ice
Who better than Big Daddy could copy the lyrical genius of Vanilla Ice to the arrangement of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and make it sound good?
Youth Lagoon //”Goodbye Again”
Original Artist: John Denver
Yes, the music is electronic and feels very high-tech. And, no, his voice is nearly not as soothing or warm as Denver’s, yet this cover makes perfect sense by adding particulars that enhance the standard folksy tune.
Jimi Hendrix // “All Along the Watchtower”
Original Artist: Bob Dylan
Dylan’s version is pretty damn good, but Hendrix completely re-imagines the song making it sharper, stranger, and tougher than the original.
Bruce Springsteen // “Because the Night”
Original Artist: Patti Smith
Who could give us a better rendition of this song than The Boss, himself? If it doesn’t make you want to go speeding down a desert highway under the stars, then maybe the night doesn’t belong to you.
Jeff Buckley // “Hallelujah”
Original Artist: Leonard Cohen
Yes, it was John Cale’s version from Velvet Underground that was the first to gain mainstream notice, but it was Jeff Buckley’s soaring and angelic cover that has since become known as the definitive version.
Nirvana // “The Man Who Sold The World”
Original Artist: David Bowie
Nirvana brings a sharp and focused reading of this David Bowie song from their live album Unplugged in New York, finding a depth we never knew was there.
Janis Joplin //”Me and Bobby McGee”
Original Artist: Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson was a hell of a songwriter but not much of a singer. And while other artists have covered “Me and Bobby McGee,” the definitive version of choice has always been Joplin’s.
Bruce Springsteen // “The Weight”
Original Artist: The Band
I found this Springsteen cover while researching his other tracks. What makes this cover great isn’t Bruce; it’s the 10,000 people in the Prudential Center coming together in a moment of shared elation. Listening to this song will renew your faith in humanity and get psyched about the same thing at the same time.
Guns N’ Roses // “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
Original Artist: Bob Dylan
This song has been covered by everybody from U2 to Eric Clapton, but it was Guns N’ Roses that introduced it to an entirely new generation and gave it the popularity it has garnered today.
The Beatles // “Twist and Shout”
Original Artist: Isley Brothers
Lennon’s raw, unrefined sound is what makes this cover so memorable.
Joe Crocker // “With A Little Help from My Friends”
Original Artist: The Beatles
One of the most indelible images from Woodstock was Joe Cocker belting out this Beatles song like it was an old, blues standard. The performance instantly became Cocker’s signature song. So much so that in the 1980s, “The Wonder Years” went with his version to represent the Sixties.
The Gourds // “Gin and Juice”
Original Artist: Snoop Doggy Dogg
People to this day believe Phish recorded this cover. Nope, it’s the Gourds — with their exaggerated drawl and enunciation of gansta lingo they manage to make Gin and Juice totally their own, providing an alt-bluegrass beat, all-the-while making it amusing and simultaneously poignant.
Image Source: CMA, PR Photos