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 Read More »