Creating a cover of a popular, or an obscure song really, that transcends the original and redefines the sound is no easy feat. The internet is flush is covers, too, with the YouTube trend of guy/gal with a guitar, etc., running through their favorite tracks. But more often than not, the covers, no matter how well-done and professional, are not built to beat out the original. Instead, they tend to be a delicate, thoughtful homage to the great work of a band said e-musician considers dear. The pros, and I call them that not because they are essentially better than some of the YouTubers out there, but because they are recognized superheroes of musicality, don't often take a song for their own, but below I break down seven instances in which the cover is better than the original. And no, I won't go anywhere near the question of whether the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" is a lesser version than the Iron & Wine cover. Prepare yourself for some A-B test listening and put on that music scholar hat.
1. "Round and Round" Originally by Ratt - Covered by Lou Barlow
Founding member of Dinosaur Jr., and Sebadoh, Lou Barlow does a cover of the Ratt "classic" on his solo album Emoh. Where the Ratt version is a steaming, hair and leather pants fueled party song with a gratingly simple barking chorus, Barlow takes everything down a notch, and accentuates the sweet, hopefully connotations of the lyrics. His use of acoustic guitar and subtle piano touches make the song a bright, hopeful, if still somewhat raunchy ballad, and ultimately "Round and Round" becomes a song you want to listen to, instead of being a song that you really only hear by accident.
2. "Private Eyes" Originally by Hall and Oates - Covered by The Bird and the Bee
I completely, utterly, and insanely respect Hall and Oates original version of "Private Eyes," and aside of the Bird and the Bee's additional electro-pop flourishes, these are exactly the same song. But the key for me that makes this cover better is Inara George's vulnerable, sweet vocals. The song's tone changes from the stalker version presented with male vocals, into something that seems like a love note defined by a slight undercurrent of a threat to go tough-girl and destroy the philandering man-goon subject of interest. Also, come on, the contemporary technology and dance beat add a lot too.
3. "Secret Heart" Originally by Ron Sexsmith - Covered by Feist
Ron Sexsmith is an incredible songwriter. I was lucky enough to bump into him at the Pearl Street Mall Starbucks in Boulder, too, on the day of his show at the Boulder Theater. In "Secret Heart" he creates one of the sweetest "why don't you love me?" tracks I can think of, but his version, which is slow and plodding and relies on his syrupy, if depressing vocals, just doesn't have the oomph provided by Leslie Feist's cover from Let It Die. Feist makes the song faster without losing the "heart" (yeah, it's a pun) making her version not only caring, but also a song in which courtship and gender roles are shifted. Also, she gets an A-plus for the subtle light drum work that accents the track.
4. "Funny Little Frog" Originally by Belle & Sebastian - Covered by God Help The Girl
I know this one doesn't count in the strictest sense, God Help The Girl is Stuart Murdoch's project, one that is to spawn a film which I have yet to see. Since Murdoch wrote the original, and performs it on The Life Pursuit, there shouldn't be that much difference, right? But there is. On God Help The Girl, Brittany Stallings adds the perfect vulnerability and beauty to the song, while making it a more soulful, orchestral song. She takes away the rock trappings of Murdoch's original, and injects the track with a new kind of hope of and doubt.
5. "Got My Mind Set On You" Originally by James Ray - Covered by George Harrison
This one is easy for me. A large chunk of my childhood is defined by this song, which was probably my first favorite song ever. Of course, the attachment is to the Harrison version, with its '80s hollow drums, horns, chorus harmonies and goofy-ass video of talking taxidermy. The James Ray version is a soul classic, but it remains so spare and lacks the vocal action that Harrison brings, so I'm afraid I can't back it up. George Harrison made the song. And I can't help but remember trips to the mountains when I think of it, so nostalgia-five!
6. "With A Little Help From My Friends" Originally by The Beatles - Covered by Joe Cocker
Another easy one. As much as I love Ringo's rough vocals and what they do for the opening lines of the original song, Joe Cocker (with help from The Wonder Years) permanently altered what the song feels like. I'd bet that if you asked 10 people to begin singing the song, they would all jump to the slow, but accelerating opening line that Cocker's version is known for, rather than the up-and-down gentle pace of the The Beatles. It's just a song that makes you smile, and feels alive, especially with the addition of Cocker's back up singers. Also done better by Cocker than the Beatles: "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window."
7. "I Hung My Head" Originally by Sting - Covered by Johnny Cash
I had no idea that "I Hung My Head was a Sting original from 1996's Mercury Falling. The Johnny Cash version from American IV is the definitive version. Sting's version operates too quickly with too much production (and frankly too much Sting-y-ness), and it ultimately takes away from the underlying sadness of the story. Cash, though, sounding weak and weary, nearing death himself, makes the song into a terrible anecdote of broken dreams and mistakes that cannot be righted. It's a tragic track, and for Johnny Cash, it seems to sum up every moment in his life that went wrong.
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