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The Top Ten Best Cover Songs of All Time
What Makes a Great Cover Song
For good or bad there have been a lot of cover songs made over the years. While a good, technical rendition of a song from decades past is nice to hear, sometimes you just have to wonder why they even bothered. After all if I wanted to hear that song, I could easily just pop in the digitally remastered, greatest hits CD of the original band. But what separates a great cover from a good cover is when the band doing the remake breaths new life into the song and truly makes it their own. Taking a song that was great in it's own right and making it better is the holy grail of cover bands.
And so, I present my list of the top ten cover songs of all time (in no particular order). All of these feature the original, which for the most part were successful in their day, and a totally unique update.
Bryan Adams Original
Summer of 69
What better song for a punk rock anthem than one about a summer filled with oral sex, as pointed out by Bryan Adams during an interview:
BA:...I think 'Summer of '69' - i think it's timeless because it's about making love in the summertime. There is a slight misconception it's about a year, but it's not. '69' has nothing to do about a year, it has to do with a sexual position.
DM: Out of all the people who hear that song, how many do you think realize that as they listen to it?
BA: I don't know. At the end of the song the lyric says that it's me and my baby in a 69. You'd have to be pretty thick in the ears if you couldn't get that lyric.
Everybody deserves a summer of 69, accompanied by a kick ass punk beat.
Frank Sinatra Original
Sid Viscious Remake
It's probably hard to find two more different images than Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious, but they both certainly did it their way. Paul Anka originally wrote the song for the "Chairman of the Board" after Sinatra remarked that he was going to retire, which literally never happened. Anka tried to write it in the persona of Sinatra and it was so fitting that it became his signature song.
Meanwhile, Sid Vicious' version was meant as more of a coming out in order to establish his post Sex Pistols career. However, the lyrics are uniquely appropriate for someone who has been described as the attitude of punk rock. They are also oddly appropriate being that Sid's end really was near. His arrest for murder and subsequent death by heroine overdose followed less than a year later.
Anka says that he gave Vicious permission to record the song because he felt that he was sincere about it. Sid literally did it his way because he didn't actually know the words and had to improvise many of the lyrics.
Nine Inch Nails Original
Johnny Cash Remake
Johnny Cash hurt Trent Reznor by stealing his girlfriend when he recorded his cover version of the Nine Inch Nails song:
I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.
Johnny Cash was from a very different genre, but he wasn't exactly a stranger to drug abuse and depression. It was a very fitting retrospective for a legend who was so close to joining many others from his era in the great hereafter.
Marliyn Manson Remake
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
In 1983, a really outlandish looking band with a really odd sounding name had their first hit with a new style of music that was completely different than anything before. They made a crazy, visually exhausting video for the song involving really intense colors and cameos by farm animals, that had everybody talking.Then in 1996, a really outlandish looking band with a really odd sounding name had
their first hit with a new style of music that was completely different
than anything before. They made a crazy, visually exhausting video for the song involving
really intense colors and cameos by farm animals, that had everybody
talking. Somehow, the actual song managed to sound as completely different as the groups looked and acted from each other, in spite of sharing the same lyrics. You could pretty much conclude that the earlier version is from the perspective of the one being used, while the latter represent the user.
Snoop Dogg Original
The Gourds Remake
Gin & Juice
Hip-hop meets Hop-along Cassidy and two great things taste great together:
Kev “Big Daddy” Russell: I just liked that song so much when I first heard it, which was sometime after the fact, probably 1994 or 95. My sister Erin played it for me over the Christmas holidays that year up in Denton,TX where my folks live. I wanted to figger [sic] out a way to play it, just for kicks. I could not rap, thank the Lord, so I had to come up with a melody that would support all those words. It was like learning “Louie, Louie” if Bob Dylan had written it.
One night at the Electric Lounge in Austin I told the guys to follow me on it and we would play it. They had never played it before. I told them it was just A and D chords, very simple, and we did it. Again, the place came unglued. I think we all were a bit disturbed by the reception of this monster song. It gained in popularity around these parts. Of course our record label at the time wanted us to record it, so we did. They went out of business before they could really work it.
It's gotta beat and you square dance to it. Plus, even Snoop Dogg likes it.
Am I Evil? (Yes I Am)
Before there was Metallica there was Diamondhead, except with inferior vocals and really bad management. They pretty much created the musical sound that Metallica later became famous for. Then they got tired of playing heavy metal and broke up right as they were about to take off. Since Metallica was about 10 years away from the point where they would get tired of playing heavy metal, they picked up the baton and ran with it all the way to the bank.
It became one of their biggest hits and a staple in their live set list. Also, as stated previously, it became a huge influence on their sound in the following years. How could anyone not like an uplifting, feel-good tune about a mentally deranged killer, who gets pushed over the edge by his mother's death?
Louis Armstrong Original
Joey Ramone Remake
What A Wonderful World
This is one of those odd instance where a song about how great the world is owes a very good amount of its success to all the worst things in the world. Louis Armstrong's original rendition about green grass, blue skies, and friends saying "I love you" was pretty much a flop at the time and earned him a lot of criticism from the jazz community for "selling out" with a song aimed at the pop audience. However, it finally reached that audience when it was included in a scene from Good Morning Vietnam juxtaposed against wartime images of bombs exploding and people being beaten in the streets. Ironically enough, since then it has become the go-to video for anybody making a movie about war, in general, and Vietnam, in particular.
Joey Ramone's version is everything you would expect from a Ramones song, intense, energetic, and defiant. In spite of the fact that it was recorded as he was dying from lymphoma, it's not a mournful eulogy, but an exuberant, celebratory, act of defiance against death. The contrast between the original and the updated version enriches both.
The Turtles Original
New Found Glory Remake
According to Denise Sullivan of allmusic.com, the Turtles wrote this to try and break out of the top 40's mold and be taken more serious:
Striving to break from the vacuous Top 40 mold in which they'd been cast and swept up by the movement toward serious, Beatles/ Beach Boys conceptual pop, the TurtlesZombies-chucked all their pop, folk, psychedelia, and style harmony expertise into one song. As legend has it, a demo of "Happy Together," recorded in a sparse, acoustic guitar and handclap arrangement, was passed on by a number of popular artists of the day only to be unearthed by the Turtles. "Happy Together" has literally bounced through decades of AM-car-radio-play unharmed, perhaps owing to its multi-layers of contradictions: Teetering near the brink of bubblegum, it rises above it; it's a rock & roll song with a martial beat; the vocal is desperate and strident -- convincing the object of affection that the couple will be happy, dammit!; the horns are buried, yet entirely essential. And then there are the flourishes like the sound of a tinkling piano very audible after the line "if I should call you up, invest a dime," mimicking a phone line. Plus, there's an "in-joke" (an added bonus for a good single), when the question "how is the weather?" pops up during the final refrain of "so happy together." Though there were more Turtle hits and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, as Flo & Eddie, formed an enduring vocal partnership in the years after their group's egregious breakup, this is a most sublime slice of pop heaven. "Happy Together" was pop perfection and, in fact, was never beat in Turtleland -- it was their first and last number one.
I'm not so sure if recording a real poppy, bubble gum song about teenage love was the best method of doing that. I'm thinking they shoulda done it like New Found Glory's version.
The Mamas and the Papas Original
The Faction Remake
The original, written by John and Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas (prior to it's formation), is about homesickness and trying to avoid the cold by pretending to pray at a church:
"California Dreamin'" was about longing for another place, and it left a legacy strong enough to cement a place for its performers, the Mamas and the Papas, in the pantheon of popular music history.
"The words 'California dreamin' kept going through my mind," John Phillips recalled in an interview before his death. "I stared working on some chords for the song. And I went through more chord progressions and things that fit the melancholy of the song."
Michelle remembers waking up to John asking for her help. He didn't like writing alone. In this case, her homesickness had provided the initial inspiration, and after they put their heads together, life in the city informed more of the lyrics. A few days earlier, Michelle says, she had wanted to visit St. Patrick's Cathedral. "I just loved going into churches. And that's where we got the lyric for the second verse."
The factions version is pretty much just about how everywhere except California sucks and, unlike Suicidal Tendencies' classic "Institutionalized", longing for a Coke instead of a Pepsi.
The Sex Pistols Remake
God Save the Queen
Okay, I cheated. This isn't an actual remake, but it is a great song and the names are the same. Plus, it really pissed the Queen off during a national celebration in her honor and you gotta give credit for that:
There are not many songs - written over baked beans at the breakfast table - that went onto divide a nation and force a change in popular culture. No one had ever dared question the Monarchy so publicly; and it wasn't without its repercussions. Members of the band were attacked in the streets; and Government Members of Parliament even called for the Pistols to be hung at London's Traitors' Gate!
On June 7th - the week of the national celebration of the Queen's Jubilee - the Sex Pistols arranged their own tribute with a boat trip along the River Thames in full view of the Houses of Parliament. After playing a handful of songs - including 'Anarchy in the UK' and 'GSTQ' - Police boarded the boat and arrested several people; including the band's then manager Malcolm McLaren.