Everyone likes good covers, except for weird, greasy hippies who obsess over living “in the now.” And when I say good, I mean it. What this means is that you’ll see no Alien Ant Farm, no Avril Lavigne and for the love of God, no Glee. (And don’t even get me started on the musical abortion that is Pat Boone’s career.) So maybe you’ll disagree with my picks for the best covers—you know, if you’re stupid—but here they are anyway.
(With apologies to Santa Esmerelda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and Gary Jules’s “Mad World.”)
10. “Weird Al” Yankovic: “The Saga Begins”
Yankovic’s affectionate spoof of Don McLean’s “American Pie” isn’t technically a cover, but I couldn’t resist. Especially in how well he imitated McLean’s timbre and singing style, “The Saga Begins” really demonstrates Weird Al’s chops not only as a parody artist, but as a singer/songwriter. A humorous account of Episode I through the eyes of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, “The Saga Begins” was written primarily based on Internet spoilers prior to the film’s release. Impressively enough, Al didn’t have to do much editing after watching an advance screening. According to Al, Don McLean “couldn’t have been nicer” about letting him use the song and as a fan of McLean’s, he was honored to have recorded the second funniest version of the song—“right behind Madonna.”
9. Reel Big Fish: “Take On Me”
Back in the summer of ska, ragtag groups of scoundrels formed bands in the third wave of the jazz/reggae-inspired rock. One of the many was Reel Big Fish. Of course, RBF were also influenced by ‘80s new wave, a fact evidenced in their tendency to cover ‘80s acts both on their albums and during live shows. And while their covers of The Cure and Lita Ford are fun as hell, one stands proud and tall above the others: A-Ha’s 1985 hit “Take On Me.” Unlike certain other covers of older songs (I’m looking at you, Limp Bizkit…), Reel Big Fish treated the original with respect while managing to update the song for a very different genre.
8. Cake: “I Will Survive”
Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic has been covered by artists ranging from Diana Ross to Conan O’Brien. (I am not making this up.) But of all the covers out there, it’s Cake’s that takes the gold. This version is actually Gloria Gaynor’s least-favorite due to its use of profanity (“I should have changed that stupid lock,” became, “I should have changed my fucking lock.”), but Cake’s laid-back, lounge-style vocals and instrumentation just can’t be beat. I’m biased on this one, because this is the song that first got me listening to Cake, but after Gaynor’s now-legendary break-up anthem, this version stands above the rest.
7. Blind Guardian: “Dream a Little Dream of Me”
Maybe a cover of a big band ballad isn’t something most people would expect from a power metal band, but Blind Guardian (and their side project with Iced Earth, Demons & Wizards) have covered all different sorts of music. “Mr. Sandman,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “White Room”… You name it. But again, there’s one cover that’s miles beyond the rest. The German group’s metal cover proves that even scary metal guys have a soft side. Some are probably wondering, “Don’t they do a lot of screaming in this version, then?” Actually, no, they don’t. Unlike in their Beach Boys and Chordettes covers, the vocals only so often have the harder edge you might expect from metal. They played it safe and reined in their usually abrasive sound, and you know what? It worked in this case.
6. Cream: “Crossroads”
What happens when one legendary guitarist covers another? You get Cream’s cover of the ill-fated bluesman Robert Johnson’s signature song. This version bears little resemblance to the original, apart from the blues-key and the lyrics, but again, both are great. Eric Clapton’s up-tempo, unrestrained guitar work in this cover is brilliant. Hearing it, there’s little wonder that Clapton is hailed as one of the greatest guitarists ever.
5. Elvis Presley: “Hound Dog”
Far from a media darling in his time, The King was no stranger to controversy. After millions of viewers watched his group perform this cover of Big Mama Thornton’s emphatic middle finger of a blues song (and I mean that in the absolute nicest way possible), Presley became a controversy overnight. His swagger, his hip gyrations, his vocal style—The King’s persona pissed off all the wrong people at just the right time. The kids loved him, though! There’s no doubt the performance played a role in Presley’s meteoric rise to rock and roll stardom. No wonder ”Hound Dog” is one of his best-remembered songs.
4. Marvin Gaye: “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”
Did anyone know this was a cover? Chances are good your answer was no. Although Gaye’s version was the third release, he owned the song from that day forth. The Prince of Soul really showed what he could do when he covered Smokey Robinson, letting the tension and anguish show in his vocals, enhanced by the combination of keyboard, guitar and “horror strings.” Although other artists would go on to cover the song, nothing would ever hold a candle to Gaye’s psychedelic soul rendition.
3. The Animals: “House of the Rising Sun”
Another one of those cases where it seems like most people don’t know it’s a cover. (Not that I wasn’t guilty of it until a few weeks ago when I heard the Lead Belly version—also a cover.) Truth is, nobody really knows where this some came from. Some say it’s an American folk song, perhaps written by mountain hermits. Others say it’s as far removed as 1600s England. Wherever it came from, The Animals defined it for decades to come with their haunting, bluesy reimagining. It’s received credit for starting the folk-rock movement, it’s been called revolutionary—call it whatever you want, “House of the Rising Sun” is a great tune.
2. Johnny Cash: “Hurt”
Maybe it’s trite, but I practically had to include the Man in Black. He was even more obligatory than Elvis (and arguably my #1 pick) for his stunning cover of Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt.” Cash was well into his twilight years when he sang this song, reflecting on a life of failures and successes. Trent Reznor is quoted as being flattered when asked if Cash could perform a cover, though he was worried it would be “gimmicky.” It turns out those fears were misplaced: The cover blew the original version sky-high. What’s most impressive to me is that Cash took a song I disliked and made it good. Hell, better than good. Even Reznor admitted to getting misty-eyed when he heard it for the first time. For a song, especially a cover, to have that kind of impact on the original writer, that speaks volumes.
#1. Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower”
I’ll admit, this is kind of a cop-out. I’ll also admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Bob Dylan. Hendrix’s cover of him, on the other hand, is fantastic. Hendrix spent months overdubbing and cutting the song again and again in the studio. The end result was arguably his masterpiece. It’s also his only song to become a Top 40 hit, if you can believe it. Dylan himself remarked upon Hendrix’s cover, calling it an improvement. So much so that he was quoted as saying, “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.” If that’s not the sign of an amazing cover, I don’t know what is.