Mojo's 15 Essential Cover Songs

Following up on the previous post about Beatles covers, here is a list of other cover songs I have discovered over the years that I believe are essential listening. Again, the formula that produces the best results, in my opinion, is that the cover is a completely unexpected interpretation of the original. The more outside the original genre the cover is, the more interesting. The first tune that really sparked my interest into this novelty is a ska version of Hotel California I heard about ten years ago. I don’t even know who the artist is, and it didn’t make the list here, but it is a notable example of the art. There are, obviously a tremendous amount of great covers out there and this is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather versions of songs that mostly fall under the criteria of unique stylistic departures. If you are really into this whole cover thing, check out Coverville. This site is completely devoted to the whole phenomena (to an almost overwhelming degree) and features numerous lists, charts, polls and podcasts.

1. Johnny Cash – Hurt (original artist: Nine Inch Nails)
Let me preface this by first saying that my antipathy towards country music regrettably prevented me from learning about Johnny Cash until much later in my life. I have to say that I have since become more familiar with both his body of work and his life story and I respect both very much. This well known cover of the Nine Inch Nails song is one of the things that led me to learn more about Mr. Cash, as I was so surprised to find that a “country” musician would perform a NIN song. In any event, this version of the song is produced by Rick Rubin, and is so full of depth, character and emotion, it really is an amazing piece of work. Performed shortly before Mr. Cash’s death, it is a haunting, subtly searing legacy of an American icon.

2. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme – Black Hole Sun (original artist: Soundgarden)
I don’t quite remember when the whole “lounge” scene emerged; it was towards the latter part of the 90s. But whether it was William Shatner lounging it up on TV commercials or the numerous lounge CDs such as Richard Cheeze’s “Lounge Against the Machine” series, or even Paul Anka’s “Rock Swings” (which actually has a couple of noteworthy covers – check out his version of Van Halen’s Jump) the trend quickly became a parody of itself; which was probably the point. This lounge version of a dark grunge song, replete with a full backing orchestra, really epitomizes the whole fad and thus it earns its place as a cover classic.

3. Easy Star All-Stars – Money (original artist: Pink Floyd)
Easy Star All-Stars is a dub/reggae group and not only did they cover a Pink Floyd Song or two… they went big, and did the whole album. Their version is called Dub Side of the Moon. Now, being a very big Pink Floyd fan, my immediate thought was that this borders on blasphemy. How could anyone even think of trying to top such a brilliant piece of work? Truth be told, not only does this album work, but it works well. These reggae versions of classic Pink Floyd tunes such as Time or Us and Them pay proper homage to the originals, and you can tell that the band respects Pink Floyd’s work and took care to get these done right. However, for me, the real show stealer on this album is their version of Money. From the satirical opening montage to the heavy dub bassline and even maintaining the odd time signature of the original, this is about as good as a cover can get.

4. God Lives Underwater – Fly On the Windscreen (original artist: Depeche Mode)
I’ve heard several tribute albums over the years and I’ve never been much impressed. They may feature one or two decent tracks that pay proper respect, but much of the material is filler and does a disservice to the precedents. The album For the Masses, a tribute to Depeche Mode is a powerful exception. Most of the tracks are done very well, all of the tracks capture the spirit of the Depeche Mode versions and yet present them through the refraction of the covering artist’s style. Many, many standouts here including Smashing Pumpkins’ Never Let Me Down Again, Monster Magnet’s Black Celebration and Hooverphonic’s Shake the Disease. It’s hard to narrow it down, but I have to give the nod to God Lives Underwater’s version of Fly On the Windscreen, which gives the melancholy tune a funkdified electric breakbeat treatment that transforms it into a powerful adaptation.

5. Senor Coconut – Smooth Operator (original artist: Sade)
Senor Coconut was first introduced to me as a band that does Mariachi versions of Kraftwerk. Well, it goes without saying that that billing immediately captured my attention and I am grateful to have been introduced to this body of work. As ridiculous as it sounds, giving Kraftwerk, the pioneering godfather’s of electronic music, an organic, latin flavor… well it is highly entertaining and it actually sounds good. But it’s a song from Senor Coconut’s follow up album, Fiesta Songs, which makes the list. The entire album is a set of latin-inspired cover tunes of artists from Deep Purple to the Doors to Michael Jackson. But it is the Sade track Smooth Operator that captured me with its slick mambo groove. There are actually two solid mixes of this, so besides the original, there is a slower more Perez Prado-esque mix – the Suave Mix – which deserves equal merit.

6. Rodrigo and Gabriela – Stairway to Heaven (original artist: Led Zeppelin)
This duo of guitar players perform an exquisite flamenco acoustic guitar version of Stairway to Heaven. Their technical skills are superlative and the quality of their arrangement of this classic is outstanding.

7. Nouvelle Vague – Let Me Go (original artist: Heaven 17)
Here’s another cover artist and their focus, as their namesake implies, is primarily on New Wave and punk material. Thus they have a library of reworkings of songs from bands such as The Cure, Dead Kennedys, Bauhaus, Blondie and the like. Their M.O. is to transform their target compositions into down-tempo, loungey, almost Bossa Nova renditions. Again, a number of cool songs to choose from, but I settled on their version of Let Me Go by techno-pop group Heaven 17 as being the strongest example of Nouvelle Vague’s brand of knack.

8. Dynamite Hack – Boyz-n-the-Hood (original artist: Eazy E)
What do you get when you cross an all-white, post-grunge, alternative, acoustic rock band with a song from front man Eazy E of the pre-eminent, legendary gangsta rap group N.W.A? A hilariously satirical yet catchy and ultimately brilliant tune that has WTF? written all over it.

9. Jack Johnson – Badfish/Boss DJ (original artist: Sublime)
Jack Johnson, certainly a well-accomplished composer in his own right, scores with a solid acoustic tribute to Sublime. This is actually a medley of two Sublime songs, and Johnson’s soothing, mellow manner goes hand in hand with these particular numbers.

10. Radiohead – Ceremony (original artist: Joy Division)
During my last couple of years in high school, New Order released a “best of” compilation called Substance which wore itself thin in my tapedeck. The first song, Ceremony, also served as my first exposure to a band I would come to appreciate later in life, Joy Division. The somber mood of that song and guitar driven melodies struck me as such an unusual contrast to the rest of the album; this was prior to me learning about the tragic events that led to the dissolution of Joy Division and the subsequent formation of New Order. Despite the melancholic, non-dancey nature  of the track, it became one of my sentimental favorites. Therefore it is no surprise that when I heard Radiohead cover it years later, I was sold. Radiohead’s version does not depart much from the original and yet they still do the song justice.

11. Foo Fighters – Baker Street (original artist: Gerry Rafferty)
The Foo Fighters have performed several decent covers and this choice was a difficult toss-up between Baker Street and their version of Prince’s Darling Nikki. In the end, I went with this one, because Baker Street, while not a bad song in and of itself, as an 80s soft rock staple seems like such an odd choice for a harder-edged band to cover. The Foo Fighters do a bang-up job rockifying this easy listening hit.

12. Cake – I will Survive (original artist: Gloria Gaynor)
Another selection of source material from out of left field, this time by indie rockers Cake. Cake is well known for their diversity of styles, but to pull such an epic disco classic out of their hat and yet still maintain that unmistakable Cake sound is really a distinguishable effort.

13. Rachid Taha – Rock the Casbah (original artist: the Clash)
I suppose it is fitting to hear a version of this song performed by an arabic artist and accompanied with Middle Eastern instrumental stylings. Rachid Taha’s take on this cut does a fine job of adding ethnic, multi-cultural flavoring to an otherwise classic tune.

14. the Residents – This is a Man’s World (original artist: James Brown)
Where do I begin with the Residents? Not much is known about who they are or why they do what they do, but one thing’s for sure, they have their own very distinctive sound. And that sound can only be defined as weird. And I love it. I actually remember seeing this video on MTV of all places when I was a kid, although at the time I had no idea who the artist I was viewing was. I found out about the Residents in my early adult years and happened to see the video again at a party, which recalled the episode from my childhood. One of those deja vu kind of moments. As weird as the song is, it definitely has character and is therefore a justifiable tribute to the legendary James Brown.

15. Fanstastic Plastic Machine – Steppin’ Out (original artist: Joe Jackson)
Another one of those 80s soft rock cuts that may or may not have withstood the test of time gets lounge-ified here. This version is actually somewhere in between latin, drum’n’bass and acid jazz and I first heard it on one of the Hotel Costes compilation CDs. The CDs are a good representation of post-electronic chillout music, much of it flavored with latin grooves, which lie somewhere between trip-hop, house and Nu Jazz. I’ve been listening to a lot of this kind of music lately, having become a pretty big fan of Thievery Corporation and the artists they promote on their Eighteenth Street Lounge Music record label. This track is just a good, relaxing, yet still groovy modulation of a song that, if anything else, has a very catchy chorus.

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