Best ever cover songs? Tough one. What makes a great cover song? Usually it’s not due to a faultness reproduction of the original – there’s no point. No, I reckon a great cover breathes new life into a song, it provides a new insight, one that wasn’t part of absorbing the original. Sometimes a cover can be great because you can understand the lyrics better, sometimes the newer vocals suit the song, in some instances the whole genre of the song is flipped on its head and you now have, say, a folk interpretation of a rock tune.
Either way, off the top of my head I would’ve said that covers seldom improve on the original. But there’s a small proportion of gems where the copy is actually better. Rare but it does happen. Anyway, enough from me. Guest writer Philip Osborne has tackled this task with gusto. He’s come up with a list of fifty great covers. Have a read, think and please comment if you are so moved. Take it away Philip.
By Philip Osborne
I began this task by selecting a list of perhaps 20 or so of my personal favourite cover versions of major artists e.g The Beatles,The Rolling Stones,Bob Dylan etc. Upon starting to compile the lists, it appeared Bob Dylan had volumes of great covers compared to any other artist, so the idea has changed accordingly. Surprisingly, The Rolling Stones have not had a lot of strong covers done of their songs and The Beatles have really only had maybe a dozen or so really good versions recorded. Seems musicians are perhaps a little reluctant to cover these bands.
My list is now all covers,but for Bob Dylan as he warrants his own list. Good on you Bob. This list will follow in a later edition of the blog.
I decided to select around 50 for my best of and I know most would want them listed from 50 down to 1, but it seemed unfair to grade them. I didn’t want my list to end up like Mike Sheahan’s top 50 footballers to be debated. At the end of the day they all good hopefully. See what you think.
TOP 50 COVERS EXCLUDING BOB DYLAN COVERS
“Cocaine” – Eric Clapton (1977) Original JJ Cale (1977) – Love the harder edge Eric gives this song,he delivers a groove that sits perfectly.
“A Song For You” – Donny Hathaway (1971) Original Leon Russell (1970) – Many artists have recorded this song however Donny captures the raw emotion like no other.
“Stand By Me” – John Lennon (1975) Original Ben E King (1961) – Over 400 versions recorded but Lennon delivers with his rough passionate voice to make it special.The Beatles played it in the Let It Be sessions.
“A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” – Renee Geyer (1974) Original James Brown (1966) – I must confess to being a huge Renee fan and this is still her signature song,soul and power.
“First We Take Manhattan” – Jennifer Warnes (1987) Original Leonard Cohen (1988) – Probably more famous for having Stevie Ray Vaughan play guitar on it, great production and done in 2-3 takes to finish at 4am in the morning.
“Shakin All Over” – Normie Rowe (1965) Original Johnny Kidd & The Pirates (1960) – A number 1 song in Australia for our first pop star.Stands the test of time.
“People Get Ready” – Rod Stewart (1985) Original The Impressions (1965) – Curtis Mayfield’s all time greatest song.Stripped back sensitive interpretation by Rod with Jeff Beck on guitar.
“Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley (1994) and K.D Lang (2004) Original Leonard Cohen (1984) – Could not split these 2 artists take of a superb song.Expect many more covers of this song to come I think.
“Sweet Jane” – Cowboy Junkies (1987) Original Velvet Underground (1970) – Recorded in a church,dark and spooky, Lou liked it a lot.
“Angel Of Montgomery” – Bonnie Raitt (1974) Original John Prine (1971) – Love everything Bonnie does and her ability to emotionally interpret other artists material is second to none.
“Eleanor Rigby” – The Zoot (1970) Original The Beatles (1966) – Australian band’s hard rock reinvention of this Beatles ballad. Rick Springfield on guitar.
“A Case Of You” – K.D Lang (2004) Original Joni Mitchell (1970) – She could sing the phone book and it would be riveting. She respects this brilliant song and K.D does a beautiful rendition.
“I’d Rather Go Blind” – Mary Coughlan (2003) Original Etta James (1967) – 100’s of versions of this song have been recorded,but the one for me is on a live album from a show in Sydney at the Basement
“Black Magic Woman” – Santana (1970) Original Fleetwood Mac (1968) – Carlos Santana’s first and biggest hit,full of latin rhythms and jazz styling.New music in it’s day.Gypsy Queen extends the song into a double dose of latin rock.
“Louisiana 1927” – Aaron Neville (1998) Original Randy Newman (1974) – A poignant performance with local understanding of the story helps this cover stand out.
“Our Town” – Vince Jones (2010) Original Iris DeMent (1992) – Have always loved this story song and the original is good,but upon hearing Melbourne’s own Vince sing this live version he makes it an even better song.
“Dear Prudence” – Doug Parkinson (1969) Original The Beatles (1968) – What power he projected with that big voice. Australian great who was seriously under recorded in his prime.
“Memphis” – The Faces (1971) Original Chuck Berry (1959) – Taken from Rod and the band’s best album and this reinvent’s Chuck’s song in many ways. Full of British swagger.
“Stairway To Heaven” – Rodrigo Y Gabriela (2006) Original Led Zeppelin (1971) – Mexican Virtuoso guitarists who strip back the song and turn it into an acoustic guitar gem full of light and shade,power and passion.
“I’m A Man” – Chicago (1969) Original Spencer Davis Group (1967) – Stevie Winwood wrote this at the age of 15 yrs and early Chicago do a great version with all that brass added and the mid song percussion break,great guitar work, timeless.
“Nothing Compares To You” – Sinead O’Connor (1989) Original The Family (1985) – This was actually recorded by a band called the Family (friends of Prince). Sinead’s face on Countdown for weeks on end, firmly cemented her version as the definitive performance.
“Baby Please Don’t Go” – Van Morrison & Them (1964) Original Big Joe Williams (1935) – This was a very early blues song, reinterpreted many times over, but for me Van turns it into a rock song, uptempo and exciting.
“You Shook Me” – Led Zeppelin (1969) Original Muddy Waters (1962) – Zep loved the blues and this version from their first album packs a punch, psychedelic blues rock if there is such a thing.
“Pipeline” – Dick Dale & Stevie Ray Vaughan (1987) Original The Chantays (1963) – Great playing from 2 masters of the guitar,surf rock you gotta love it.
“You Take My Breath Away” – Eva Cassidy (2003) Original Claire Hamill (1974) – I have all her albums,so had to pick one song. A very difficult decision. This is very beautiful and displays her immaculate voice.
“Susie Q” – Credence Clearwater Revival (1968) Original Dale Hawkins (1957) – Southern swamp rock, locks into a groove and doesn’t let go.
“I Heard It Thru The Grapevine” – Credence Clearwater Revival (1970) Original Gladys Knight (1967) – Many versions recorded, feel Marvin’s was the best of the early takes, but CCR produced an 11 minute meandering jam, that we all loved.
“Mad World” – Gary Jules (2001) Original Tears For Fears (1982) – This was a stark piano ballad used in the movie Donnie Darko. It makes for intense listening.
“Blue Bayou” – Linda Ronstadt (1977) Original Roy Orbison (1963) – What a great voice and her remake of this song is superb.
“Light My Fire” – Jose Feliciano (1968) Original The Doors (1967) – Reached no. 3 in the USA, latin fused version that gave the song a fresh alternative appeal.
“Get Rhythm” – Little Richard (2002) Original Johnny Cash (1959) – Rock & Roll ripper that only Little Richard could reinvent from the original. This was from a Johnny Cash Tribute album.
“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – The Chimes (1989) Original U2 (1987) – Kicks in with a groove and doesn’t let up,soulful and cool. Who was this singer and what happened to her?
“Mr Bojangles” – Nina Simone (1971) Original Jerry Jeff Walker (1968) – What a great singer Nina was the master interpreter, impeccable and commanding artist. Many to choose from but this is a favourite.
“Dimming Of The Day” – Bonnie Raitt (1994) Original Richard & Linda Thompson (1975) – Bonnie again delivers a superb cover here of one of Richard’s best.The version on the live album is even better.
“Me & Bobby McGee” – Janis Joplin (1971) Original Kris Kristofferson (1970) – She inhabits this very simple striped back recording and makes it a Texas country blues song It was put to tape only a few days before her death.
“I Shot The Sheriff” – Eric Clapton (1974) Original Bob Marley (1974) – Love Bob but this is a much better version of the song, more grunt. It’s tight and funky.
“With A Little Help From My Friends” – Joe Cocker (1969) Original The Beatles (1967) – Lifts the tune to far greater status by his sheer power to make this an epic song.
“You Can Leave Your Hat On” – Joe Cocker (1986) Original Randy Newman (1972) – Again a total remake of the original and brilliantly done.Joe is the master cover version artist.
“Have A Little Faith In Me” – Joe Cocker (1994) Original John Hiatt (1987) – Ability to take a great song and make it ever better.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – Jake Shimabukuro (2006) The Beatles (1968) – George would have loved it given his joy of the ukulele. 3 strings and totally captures the mood. Was placed on YouTube in 2006 and currently has had 13 million views.
“Without You” – Harry Nilsson (1972) Original Badfinger (1970) – Turned a rather dull original into a piano power ballad and still stands the test of time.
“Hound Dog” – Elvis Presley (1956) Original Big Mama Thornton (1953) – Had not really heard the original till now and it is great, but Elvis launched himself and this song into the public consciousness hip swinging across America.
“2.19” – John Hammond (2001) Original Tom Waits (2006) – Did not think anyone could do Tom like Tom but a whole album of Tom’s songs (Wicked Grin) here and all are great covers. The first track gets the groove going so its my pick.
“Superfly” – Lisa Miller (2010) Original Curtis Mayfield (1972) – Melbourne’s own and taken from Car Tape 2, Shane O’Mara on guitar.Original was funky this is done in a very different smooth folk style.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Tori Amos (2005) Nirvana (1991) – Brilliant cover again stripped back to reveal a different song with lovely piano accompaniment.
“Temptation” – Diana Krall (2004) Original Tom Waits (1987) – Not a fan generally, but Tom’s songs are so good she has a head start and captures the mood with a great sexy jazz interpretation here.
“Moonlight Mile” – Kimme Rhodes (2013) Original The Rolling Stones (1971) – From Austin Texas and from an album of covers. Delicate voice with a dreamy feel and an alternative reading of this Stones song.
“Help – John Farnham” (1980) Original The Beatles (1965) – Australia’s greatest singer,perhaps not,but given the right material and his ability to immerse himself in the song he does do a very good job here. Totally delivers with a different version
“If I Were A Carpenter” – Robert Plant (1993) Original Tim Hardin (1967) – Sounds like Led Zep 111 era with the acoustic folk production, only now with orchestra added and Plant’s smooth singing of a great love song.
“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” – The Temptations (1972) Original The Undisputed Truth (1972) – Like a lot of Motown material it was originally released by one band,not so successful and then another Motown band makes a huge hit of it.The production is excellent for the era,funky,with lots of clapping to keep the basic groove pumping along for 9 mins of pure joy.
That’s it folks. Remember they are not in order just a selection, and of course I have had to leave out some gems. Maybe a second 50 another time. Would love to hear any reader’s thoughts and what you would put into your 50.
Bob’s best cover versions will be coming shortly.
By Philip Osborn