Adapting someone else’s art to your own style is risky business, and cover versions of tracks are always a point of contention among music fans. Some covers do downright suck, but sometimes some artists get it right. These Five Great Cover Songs may not be the absolute best cover songs of all time in everyone’s eyes (or ears?), but they do represent five different versions of songs that stand out from their originals either as just as good or better.
Cover by Jeff Buckley (1994)
Original by Leonard Cohen (1984)
‘Hallelujah’ may very well be the world’s most obvious choice for a discussion on great cover songs, and it’s for good reason. It’s not often that a cover version surpasses the original version of a song, but Jeff Buckley took Leonard Cohen’s dirge and turned it into something far more accomplished than the original. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with Cohen’s song in the first place, these are after all some of the most beautiful lyrics to ever make it into a tune (if there’s one thing Leonard Cohen can do is write astounding lyrics). Buckley’s version, appearing on his only complete studio album, Grace, was a musical marvel and its continued popularity proves that. Buckley isn’t the only artist to cover this song, and Buckley’s version was in turn inspired by John Cale’s version. There’s just something about Buckley’s angelic voice and jangly guitar, and perhaps his own tragic story, that hits a perfect resonance with this song.
Cover by Nirvana (1993)
Original by Meat Puppets (1984)
Nirvana performed their version of The Meat Puppets’ ‘Oh Me’ during their 1993 MTV Unplugged concert in New York. We might be able to argue that it wasn’t really a true cover version since two members of The Meat Puppets joined them onstage. But we’re going to let that slide on a technicality. The two versions are significantly different – Nirvana’s version quite a bit smoother and softer from its acoustic treatment, though I can’t say I prefer one to the other. Nirvana did what any successful cover artist does – they took a song and made it their own without disrespecting the intention of the original. The Meat Puppets were a formative influence on Nirvana, and tonnes of other bands of the era so this is a fitting homage. The show also featured covers of Meat Puppets’ tracks ‘Lake of Fire’ and ‘Plateau’, though ‘Oh Me’ tops the lot as a truly great rendition.
Cover by José González (2007)
Original by Massive Attack (1998)
And speaking of artists who take an original song and make it their own, José González’s cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ is a stunning example of a cover version done right. Massive Attack’s trippy electronics are nicely rendered into a simple acoustic guitar melody, almost bordering on a folk aesthetic but lacking none of the intensity of the original. Definitely one of the highlights of González’s otherwise quite samey second album, In Our Nature. These are two different to say which is the better song, but despite González doing a brilliant job on his version, I think I’ll always sway to the Massive Attack original. The deciding vote comes from The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser providing the smooth vocals for the haunting Massive Attack version. While González has a talented range, he’s no where near Fraser’s league of sound and power, and his vocals do come over as a little raw here. Not a complaint, just an observation on which is the favoured version.
Nothing Compares 2 U
Cover by Sinead O’Connor (1990)
Original by Prince (The Family) (1985)
There’s not really a great of difference between these two versions of the classic heartbreak song in terms of which is the better song – they’re both as good as each other. While Prince’s version, a single for his side project band, The Family, was barely a blip on pop music popularity, Sinead O’Connor’s version, the second single off her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was her breakthrough hit, propelling her to world wide fame and success. Her version is for many, the quintessential Sinead O’Connor song and is often considered one of the best break-up songs of all time. The minimalist film clip of O’Connor’s shaven head singing this track will remain one of the most memorable pop clips of the early 1990s.
Bizarre Love Triangle
Cover by Frente (1994)
Original by New Order (1986)
Another light folksy rendering of a tougher original, Frente’s cover of ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ charted and sold better than the New Order original and was Frente’s only international success. Again, this is a cover version that has taken a source and turned it into something completely new and different without ruining anything that came before it. Angie Hart’s sad and sweet vocals are perfect for these words and with the bitter-sweet nature of a lot of Frente’s catalogue, it’s easy to imagine this was always meant to be a Frente song. In Frente’s hands, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ is a sorrowful lament, in New Order’s hands it’s more aggressive and doesn’t seem as connected to the emotional core of the lyrics. Still, both are great tracks, but I’ll judge Frente’s cover as the overall better song.
What do you think about artists covering other artists music? What would your list of Top 5 Cover Songs look like?