I’ve always loved cover songs. They’re a perfect combo of recognition but hearing it in a new way for the first time, and my favorite way to experience them was always at concerts, where a performer you’re familiar with often has one or two weird covers up their sleeve they do on the road just for fun.
Later on, movie soundtracks and file sharing apps turned me on to a whole new world of covers, and during the Napster years, I spent much time collecting cover songs, the weirder, the better. At one point I’m sure half my catalog was by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes or The Gourds.
Recently, Kottke posted about some covers that are “better than the originals” and with such a high bar, the day he posted it, my spouse and I both texted each other at almost the same time going “did you read this and hear them, they’re terrible, right?”
This morning, I was running some errands in my car, a good cover came on, and I thought to myself, I should make my own list of covers I think are better than the original. So here they are, along with some liner notes.
Heard it through the grapevine
The original by The Miracles with Smokey Robinson (“what’s chaw-new-kah?”) is great but the cover by The Slits transforms it. It’s wild that it’s from 1979 (I had no idea until I looked it up, I first heard it maybe 5 years ago?) because it feels modern, fresh and recorded yesterday. Put this song on at a party and people will love it but won’t recognize the lyrics for a minute or two and realize why they instantly liked it. It’s the gold standard for covers that are different but better than the originals.
Everything Turns Grey
This punk classic was everywhere in the early 80s and I loved it then, but in 1999, I was showing Napster to a friend and I jumped on some random kid’s library and said “look there are 20 songs from the same band, this is probably a whole album, let’s grab them” and turns out I grabbed Lagwagon and fell in love with their cover. It’s tough to miss with a classic but Lagwagon’s take drives harder and sounds better and in the years since I’ve come to love it more.
ELO’s Livin’ Thing is a classic. It’s everything ELO was, which is smashing together a rock band combined with an orchestra combined with gospel singers. It’s ELO so it’s everything at 110% with over the top theatrics to match. Then there’s Matthew Sweet. An aging rocker doing tons of fun covers and fun projects instead of getting grouchy about showing up on “where are they now?!” lists every few weeks online. I love this track because it reminded me anyone can take an untouchable song from karaoke like Queen or ELO or Michael Jackson and if you sing it with heart it’ll still sound amazing even if you can’t do the high notes.
Yes, everyone covers Nena’s Cold War classic and you can hear loads of versions in different genres but I love the death metal cover that’s also from the My Name is Earl soundtrack that unfortunately has been completely scrubbed from the internet and I can only find a sample clip here.
It’s a little bit of a hat-on-a-hat to do a death metal kinda jokey version of an 80s song with a lullaby-like opening that makes the transition stick out even more, but with what sounds like Henry Rollins shouting lyrics gave me a whole new appreciation for the song, which I’ve never heard much in English or shouted over music. Fuck the copyright gods but try and find this, because it’s a gem.
You never mess with the Beatles and especially John Lennon, but another John, this time Hiatt, is yet another cover from the My Name is Earl tv soundtrack (what can I say? It’s all bangers) and it’s fucking great.
Since U been gone
I have to make a confession here. A friend saw Ted Leo on tour in the mid-2000s where he surprised the entire audience by doing a Kelly Clarkson cover of her current pop hit during encores (along with a bit of Maps). Everyone who went was enthralled, because it would happen late in the show and no one talked about it or spoiled the surprise for others.
Anyway, a friend said some magic happened at the Ted Leo show he just saw, and I couldn’t see Ted live (he already swung through my town) so I asked what it was. Another friend who is a superfan said on some music forums they found one way to hear it, as he’d done it during a promotional livestream for a new college social network sponsored by Coca Cola.
Ted Leo doesn’t know this (even though I’ve met him in a casual, personal encounter before), but I had to sign up for this network, run a special app on a PC and his live taping only played in Microsoft Windows Media Player. I had to use some pretty gnarly apps to record the stream’s raw audio to a WAV file I converted to MP3.
I know it was me because there were no copies of this cover anywhere online until I created a MP3 from the stream and shared it on this very blog. It got out and shared widely and a couple weeks later I heard he stopped doing the song at concerts because the secret had been spoiled, which was likely my fault.
I was a huge fan of his, missed his show and really wanted to hear it, and later on, share it with everyone else and I fucked it up and I’m sorry Ted Leo if you ever see this. You were nice to me that one time I met you and Amiee Mann. (looks like someone also captured that livestream and threw it on YouTube)
Rudy, A Message to You
There’s an excellent documentary called Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records that chronicles the quick rise and fall of a record label that discovered artists from Jamaica and England, came up with the term “ska” and “reggae”, put out the first albums of many famous godfathers of both genres, but crashed and burned within just a few years.
Rudy, A Message to You by Dandy Livingstone is one of my favorite tracks in the documentary but I realized I loved it even more when The Specials covered it in the 80s. It’s not just the remastering and recording on modern equipment, but the English Beat pep it up into a dance hit I can’t help but love.
OPPOSITE DAY: Jet Airliner
Everyone knows Jet Airliner from the Steve Miller Band, but few know the creator of it is Paul Pena and I’m gonna do a 180º here and say it’s better than the more famous cover. It’s slower, but the lyrics feel more real coming from Paul rather than a big ol’ popular megahit group doing it, plus the guitar solos will melt your face off.
PS: music licensing, man
Just a quick note that I tried to make an Apple Music playlist of all these tracks, then a Spotify playlist, then just a YouTube playlist, and no single system had all of them, so I tried to put one link to the song in each section but cover song licensing is a pain it seems.