Covers are a contentious issue. How exactly do you judge the merits of something that isn’t the brainchild of the artist performing it? Where do you draw the line between “replica” and “reimagining”? Can a cover ever be considered better than the original? Is the “Punk
It’s complex and I have no intention of delving into such a deep topic. What I’m going to do is run down what I feel are the best (relatively recent) examples of an artist taking another artist’s work and making it their own.
Shoot, I know I said I didn’t want to get into the thorny philosophical debate of covers and just wanna talk about good tunes but I GUESS we have to go deeper now though.
“Toxic” is not something written with any sort of genuine intent. It wasn’t written by Spears, and may not have even been originally written for Spears. It was a piece of commercial pop assembled to move units, and it did that well. So when we talk about cover versions of it, we’re not really discussing an organic “tree diagram” type scenario where the band took a genuinely written work by an individual and moulded it into their own image. It’s more a “sun diagram” type scenario where there’s a core version created by Christian Karlsson, and anyone who performs it is simply making their “own” version (not taking into account copyright, of course). It’s less a case of a movie director doing a remake of an old classic and more a case of a chef following a recipe.
Simply put, it’s not “Local H covering Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic'”, but “Local H doing a version of ‘Toxic’, as originally performed by Britney Spears”.
The band fully comprehend this situation, which is why this cover was recorded as a laugh and stuck at the end of their 2005 live album. It’s an unpolished, almost sardonic take on the pop hit, which is precisely what makes this version more fun. At points it sounds like something a latter-day Kurt Cobain might have taken a swing at, or Arctic Monkeys if they’d been around in 1995. It adds a burst of energy missing from Spears’ version, and in this case it’s entirely arguable that it’s better than the original.
9. “Cowgirl in the Sand”- City and Colour [Original Artist: Neil Young]
It’s no secret that Dallas Green considers himself the true successor to Neil Young‘s throne. Over the course of five albums the former Alexisonfire frontman moved from sweeping emo ballads to full-fledged folk n’ blues, to the point where he’s rewritten old songs like “Coming Home” to fit better with his live repertoire. This cover of the Canadian icon’s tune works so well because frankly, Green is a lot better singer than Young was. It’s incredibly faithful to the original, but if you’re not a fan of Young’s muppet voice then it’s a lot more palatable.
There’s not too many differences between the original and White’s version recorded for the Achtung Baby anniversary compilation, as the former White Stripe played it relatively straight. It’s more like an old heirloom that’s been polished, old parts replaced with modern ones. Jack White was on the forefront of the dark blues revival that every artist in every genre’s dabbling in now, so a lot of his material from the past decade has aged incredibly well. This cover’s from 2011 and still feels fresh, vital to the scene. It’s a testament to White’s “cool factor” that he was able to use his magpie sensibility to pick a song from the 1991 album that would play best to his strengths, creating a lasting cover that won’t be losing its lustre any time soon.
Oasis’ mega hit is a perfect example of ideal pop songwriting. The hooks fit like LEGO bricks, and the melodic precision is exactly why the song’s become a worldwide standard. Make no mistake, if Adams had originally written the song it wouldn’t have been half as popular as it was. But there’s a relaxed nature about the changes Adams made to the song that allow it to breathe. It’s as if he loosened a valve and allowed the melody to float out into the ether. Noel Gallagher approved of it so much in fact that it’s the version he plays live now. It might not be as immediate as the original, but the delicate arrangement makes for a wistful treat.
Out of the entire hard rock movement of the late 90s/early 2000s, the only group that ever enjoyed any sort of critical approval was the Deftones. Both then and now they’re the sole band associated with nu-metal that could even be mentioned in a serious conversation about music without being glared at disapprovingly. Their singular “The Cure-on-opioids” sound and singer Chino Moreno‘s distorted wail have become somewhat of a respected cultural touchstone. It’s fairly difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but their affinity for sweeping, dreamlike atmospheres was a large part of it.
It’s this dark mood they bring to the table when covering this R&B staple, making the subtlest of changes to it while at the same time completely overhauling the vibe. It’s heavier, but far from meat-headed. More emotionally invested, but nowhere near cloying. It’s dynamic and at times cathartic, but never loses the underlying sensuality of Sade’s original.
Alphaville‘s new wave ballad captured the spirit of youth in the Reagan era in its entirety. It’s all TV bloom, nostalgic reverb, and voluptuous mullets. Youth Group‘s version updates it for the plaid flannel shirt crowd, but does a similarly precise job of defining the essence of millennial youth. The pinwheel guitar lines, the terrycloth vocals, the crashing-waves bridge- they all bring to mind the Instagram filtered imagery of late summers and early autumns before school started. It’s the quintessential sound of 2000s indie rock taking on the quintessential sentiment of 2000s indie culture. This is music for writing blogs, walking down piers, and coming of age. It encapsulates what it meant to be caught in a timeless moment of youthful joy in the first decade of this century, making an old classic relevant again.
The “tender all-acoustic cover” is so overdone it’s basically a joke. It’s shorthand for faux-emotion, a college bro level display of feelings. So an acoustic cover by goose-voiced troubadour James Blunt should be a laughingstock, right? Except it’s not; it’s actually pretty great. The sparse, truncated take on the original is surprisingly harrowing for a middling pop superstar like Blunt, miles away from the simplistic pap of “You’re Beautiful” despite using a similarly basic chord progression.
It’s almost a shame that Monica Birkenes used the instrumental of this track to back a cover, as with a different set of vocals this would be a pretty great original song as well. It retains very little of Arcade Fire’s Bowie-esque jaunt, eschewing the chipper piano chords for late-nite electronica circa 1999. It’s perhaps more appropriate for a downtown core rather than the titular suburbs, and stands not only as a truly original cover but as a pretty unique song in the climate during which it was birthed.
Can production make or break a song’s intent? Listening to these two versions of the song, it seems like the recording quality is very much a factor in best establishing the core sentiment the artist is trying to convey. While Kate Bush‘s songwriting shone, the 80s trappings of the instruments diminished the effectiveness of the lyrics. Placebo took the bleak story and put it in appropriately dark binding- something Bush approved as she guests on this cover. The pounding rhythm, minimalist piano, and raw textures that float in and out fit the original’s words like a glove, letting it be the song it always should have been.
Come on, were you really expecting anything different? This is the definitive cover of our generation- and that’s a sincere statement. This is the sound of a man who understood the power of songwriting and how it transcends genre. Cash, the weathered veteran of an era only remembered in sepia tone, wasn’t content to cover peers or ingenues of the same ilk. He instead decided to record an earnest rendition of a bleak industrial ballad from another man with a penchant for all black clothing: Trent Reznor. With his trembling baritone he sung every word with the honesty and emotion of a man who’d lived through many trials; it laid bare the core of an already raw song. It’s one of the very few situations where the cover is almost objectively better than the original. Don’t worry, Trent gave it the thumbs up and said basically the same thing.
Aside from the song itself, the circumstances very much led to the mythic status of this cover as well. A music video that featured both the legend and his similarly talented wife along with footage from the man’s past seemed to indicate that Cash knew he was making somewhat of a final statement. Both he and June Carter Cash passed away soon after the song exploded in popularity, which seemed to imbue the heavy, heavy lyrics with even more weight. It ended up being a semi-prophetic missive, a final confession that turned into one of the most powerful covers ever put to tape.