The Dirty Dozen- Cool Cover Songs

Here’s the first in a new series of my posts called The Dirty Dozen- my top lists of musical gems from various categories. And what better a place to start than my all-time favourite cover songs.

As a long-term perpetrator of late-night karaoke crimes, I take my hat off to the bands and artists that gracefully pay tribute to their musical idols through recreating their music. There is something instantaneously attractive about a cover song. This undoubtedly explains the reason why so many bands can make a living out of playing nothing but other people’s music, and I’m not just talking about aspiring wannabes at your local RSL…. I mean, can you truthfully remember when Rod Stewart last released an original song?*

So what’s the great appeal of a cover song? Is it the sense of comfort it evokes- akin to being in a bar like Cheers- where everybody knows your name? Is it the smug satisfaction you experience from knowing all the words the very first time you hear the song? For me, it’s all about appreciating the band’s artistic interpretation of the song. Whether that involves taking the skin and bones of the melody and pumping it full of steroids, or removing a track’s excess baggage to reveal its understated inner beauty, a truly great cover can inevitably outshine the original.

Listed below are my top 12 picks of cool covers. My choices were based on originality and long-term playability.

12. Mo’ Horizons- Hit The Road Jack (Percy Mayfield): The German DJ duo known as Mo’ Horizons certainly made this Ray Charles classic their own when they added a smattering of boogaloo, a touch of bossa nova and topped it off with sultry Portuguese vocals. I defy you to try and stop your hips from wiggling when you listen to it!

11. Johnny Cash- God’s Gonna Cut You Down (traditional): Also known as Run On or Run On For A Long Time, this traditional folk song has been given the once over by numerous artists (most notably by Elvis and Moby), but there’s something so powerful and foreboding in Johnny Cash’s rendition that makes for compulsive listening. The fact that it was released posthumously seemingly adds to the spiritual undertones that the lyrics invoke.

10. Israel ‘IZ’ Kamakawiwo’ole- Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Judy Garland): The big fella with the little ukulele… the Hawaiian singers stripped back version of this Wizard of Oz show tune is like a Kleenex ad with frolicking puppies and cherubic babies for me- it makes me so emotional every time I hear it that I am prone to burst into tears.

9. Jim Carrey- I Am The Walrus (The Beatles): This track was released on a tribute album to the legendary producer, composer, and musician George Martin, who is sometimes referred to as “The Fifth Beatle”. Whilst relatively unknown for his lyrical talents, who better to embrace the psychedelic subject matter of this track than the master of mischief himself. Carrey’s voice is difficult to distinguish at first, but my true enjoyment of this version arrives when he verbally unleashes the myriad of madcap antics he is famous for.

8. Scissor Sisters- Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd): I’ve gotta hand it to Scissor Sisters, they managed to transform a hypnotic ballad about an over-medicated psych patient into a glam-rock dance floor filler. Yet commendably their version still manages to retain the unnerving, catatonic overtones of the original.

7. Soggy Bottom Boys- Man Of Constant Sorrow ( traditional): Apart from George Clooney, this song is about the only thing I remember from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou, and for good reason. The chain-gang style harmonisations and catchy melody make it a track you’ll want to listen to again and again.

6. Matt Corby- Lonely Boy (The Black Keys): This track was recorded as part of triple j’s regular Like A Version segment, in which popular indie artists play live covers in the station’s studio. Corby’s stripped back acoustics and euphonic falsetto give way to a gut wrenching crescendo that seems to perfectly embody the essence of the lyrical content. Although The Black Keys are one of my favourite all time bands, I am hard pressed to pick which version I like more here.

5. Led Zeppelin- Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (Joan Baez): This traditional folk song was originally recorded by Joan Baez. It was reworked and released it on Led Zeppelin’s debut album in 1969. I love way the song constantly shifts between stripped-back acoustics and heavy, grunge-driven rock riffs, like the gentle lull of a low tide giving way to a tsunami.

4. Regina Spektor- Real Love (John Lennon): There’s a purity and angelicness in Spektor’s vocals that could convince even the cynics amongst us that  true love does exist. Her rendition never fails to give me goosebumps.

3. Joe Cocker- With A Little Help From My Friends (The Beatles): The original is akin to a group of geeky school kids singing their high-school break up song. Cocker’s version is the same kids 10 years on after they have battled drug addiction, become raging alcoholics and are living in one room bedsits that smell like an old man’s dirty socks. It’s got raw emotion and a desperate vulnerability which adds an undeniable credibility and a real connection to the lyrics.

2. Gary Jules- Mad World (Tears for Fears): For me, this haunting version of the 80s hit will be forever indelibly linked with the brilliant feature film, Donnie Darko. The dark, minimalistic treatment applied to the original results in a sublime cover whose tone is much more fitting to the lyrics. Phrases such as “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” just don’t seem to gel with the original pop version…

1. Beth Orton- It’s Not The Spotlight (Rod Stewart): It might not be quite as creative in its interpretation of the original tune as my other picks, but there’s something about Beth Orton’s tonality and dreamy delivery that absolutely stops me in my steps whenever I hear it. It’s heartfelt, honest, and recounts an age-old tale of lost love that hits me straight in the heart.

* OK smarty pants- so Rod Stewart did release an album just last month (May 2013) entitled Time, which featured all original music and entered the UK album charts at Number 1, but prior to that, it was around 1991 when he last released his own material.

So there you have it- my Dirty Dozen. How about you? What’s your favourite cover song and why?

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