This week Jason Isbell released a charity album of cover songs of Georgia artists and it’s fabulous. Among the great tracks is a cover of Kid Fears by Indigo Girls with Brandi Carlile and Julien Baker performing the Amy and Emily parts and Jason lending a hand with the Michael Stipe bits. Kid Fears is one of my favorite Indigo Girls tracks and Isbell and friends do a great job with it.
I know some people don’t care for covers, but I love it when an artist I like covers another artist I like. I think it’s sort of a tribute to the original song, and it’s awesome to know a newer artist appreciates the same older songs that you do. For me the key is not worrying about whether the cover is true to the original version but rather enjoying the new take even if it jumps genres. In fact, I kind of like it better when the track jumps genres. A great example of this is Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Train in Vain by The Clash. He countryfies it, but it works as a country song because the lyrics resonate in the country world.
A few years back Rolling Stone magazine readers ranked their favorite cover songs of all time with Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower topping the list. Jimi’s version, for me anyway, is better than the original. I think that’s rare, and as I said I’m not looking for better but rather different. I like U2’s version better than Dylan’s as well, but I think Dylan is a far better songwriter than he is a performer.
Sometimes a band or artist can have a huge hit with a cover. Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sold 1.2M copies and nearly topped the charts while Cohen’s original didn’t chart at all when it first came out. Buckley’s cover makes most “best covers” lists but for my money k.d. lang’s version sung at the 1988 Calgary Olympics is even better. The Fugees took Killing Me Softly With His Song to number one in 1996 while Roberta Flack’s original version peaked at number six. Heck, Alien Ant Farm took Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal to number three while MJ’s version only reached number eight.
Once in a while a hit song comes along that listeners don’t even know were covers. UB40’s Red Red Wine is one example — it was actually written by and performed first by Neil Diamond. Bow Wow Wow is most famously known for their hit I Want Candy but it was written and performed in 1965 by The Strangeloves. Tainted Love by Soft Cell was 20 years old when they recorded it and had a hit. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was a mega hit for Cyndi Lauper but it was released earlier by its writer Robert Hazard (yep, the same guy who had a new wave hit with Escalator of Life).
I like covers so much I have a growing playlist of them on Spotify and whenever I hear a new one I like the playlist grows. It’s currently at 179 songs and counting! To make my list, I either have to like the song itself, the cover band, the original artist, or all of the above.
Some highlights for me include The Beautiful South covering the Pebbles hit Girlfriend (because why wouldn’t a British alternative band cover a 1987 R&B hit by an American New Jack Swing artist. The Beautiful South is one of my favorite bands and they love a good unexpected cover. They’ve also covered diverse hits by Blue Oyster Cult, the Bee Gees, the Smiths and Ramones to name a few.
Another favorite if mine is Tori Amos covering Smells Like Teen Spirit, which she does in her own raspy sexy way.
California-born Gary Jules is mostly known for his cover of the Tears For Fears song Mad World, which the band liked so much they covered his toned down version at a live show I attended. How’s that for a tribute?
All this is to say a good cover song can be a hit on its own, or be a nice diversion from an artist’s typical work, or can just be a ton of fun. What are some of your favorite covers? Let me know and I may add them to my Playlist.