There’s nothing better than taking a song you either love or perhaps aren’t super familiar with and hearing an artist recreate it into something that grows its own legs. The best covers can take you by surprise because they feel so uniquely original. There are many great covers out there, but I’m going to take an extensive look some of what I think are the best covers in the genres of Alternative-Rock, R&B and Pop.
1. Cover artist: The Postal Service
Song: “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”
Original Artist: Phil Collins
I think it’s equally great and extremely coincidental that both the original version and cover for “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”, were originally recorded for movie soundtracks. This song, along with others throughout his career, solidified Phil Collins as a successful solo artist. “Against All Odds” had great success on the U.S charts reaching all the way to number one. Although the original version drips with 80’s flare, the heart of the songs message, no matter how it’s construed, is always sorrowful and sweet. In The Postal Service’s 2004 cover, lead singer Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie) begins the opening verse, singing with all sincerity on what sounds like a cell phone voicemail recorded message. After the opening words subside, fragile piano synths come into play and both his voice and the message of the song become clearer. Not only do you feel the swell of honesty and emotion coming from Gibbard’s tone, the steady drum and intertwining guitar work well in not overcrowding the sentiment. This cover is modern with an (ahead of its time) dub-step vibe that gives it a new perspective, yet still maintains its character.
2. Cover artist: Nirvana
Song: “The Man Who Sold the World”
Original Artist: David Bowie
The meaning of the original song, “The Man Who Sold the World” can be a bit foggy depending on who you ask. Bowie, who wrote it, has been rumored to have been inspired by mid-19th century poet, William Hughes Mearns. Both Bowie and Mearns explore the ideas of split personalities and the confusion it ensues. Throughout Bowies’ career, he was able to effectively personify a wide range of music genres. This allowed the listener to experience all kinds of new music and styles from the same man. I feel “The Man Who Sold the World” is the most aware representation of an artists’ identity crisis and the journey it follows, portrayed in song.
Some might have thought it in odd choice for Nirvana to cover it, when they recorded their first live album in 1994. To much of their credit, instead of relying on their own songs that fans would be most familiar with, Nirvana chose to stand by their own mantra and do whatever they wanted to do. Some of the best renditions and covers that came out of the 90’s and early 2000’s are from MTV’s Unplugged sessions. This album was recorded in one single take, and it adds to its unscripted raw feel. Although this cover is pretty straightforward, Nirvana has a great advantage in being able to expose the music for its strong and persistent baseline and accompanying electric guitar. Where Bowie’s vocals on the original are futuristic in tone, Cobain’s are purposefully strained. The instrumental break that leads to the conclusion of the song really showcases Krist Novoselic and Cobain great musical abilities. Sometimes Cobain isn’t given nearly enough praise for the great singer he really was. This cover became so popular in fact that in the past when Bowie performed the song live, young people have come up to him and say, “it’s so cool you’re covering a Nirvana song”. Oh youth. If you haven’t heard this cover or album before please do yourself a favor a give it a listen. It truly is one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard. It’s available pretty much available anywhere for streaming.
3. Cover artist: Alien Ant Farm
Song: “Smooth Criminal”
Original Artist: Michael Jackson
“Smooth Criminal” is one of Michael Jackson’s most popular songs ever. Equally as popular is the music video which has given us some of the most copied and technically brilliant choreography to date. The song, released in 1987, was written by Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones. The song itself is pretty straightforward and a bit disturbing when you think about it. A man finds a woman that’s been assaulted by a “smooth criminal”, and he, throughout the song, is inquiring as to whether she’s alright; she’s not. When Alien Ant Farm released the cover in 2001, it was from their debut single from their second album Anthology. Although Alien Ant farm has released 5 albums within their career, they are best known for this cover. Alien Ant Farm lead singer, Dryden Mitchell isn’t going for an exact replica of Jackson’s style of singing which makes this version all the more refreshing. I’ve always loved Dryden’s tendency to over-enunciate his words when singing. You can hear the playfulness in his style especially when he mimics Jackson’s classic “WHOO” and “YAW”, at the end of the song and after the musical break. This cover is an outright alt-rock re-imagining, with its reliance on drum breaks and heavy distorted guitar. Although I wish I heard more AAF on the radio these days, I love that this cover still gets airplay because it’s just that good.
This is a tie!
4. Cover artist: Muse
Cover artist: Lauryn Hill
Song: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”
Original Artist: Frankie Valli
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” is a beautiful song. The lyrics paint the story of sweet, endearing admiration. It was originally and famously performed by Frank Valli in 1967. This was one of Valli’s most successful singles as a solo artist. This song has been covered by a multitude of artists. In the past 20 years, one of the most popular iterations of the song so far has been from R&B singer Lauryn Hill. As it seems to be the theme with a lot of covers, she like others, recorded this song for a movie soundtrack. Her version, much like Hill as an artist herself, is effortlessly soulful. Released in 1998, the production of this version turns it into a straight up R&B jam. Hill has such a strong vocal presence in anything she’s a part of. She never over-sings, but adds just enough of herself to make you fall in love with it as soon as you hear her beautiful voice. Four years after Lauryn Hill’s cover was released, English rock group Muse took a shot at the song and released it in 2002 . Their cover was part of a double-A side for their live album, Hullabaloo Soundtrack. Lead singer Matt Bellamy’s voice is more subdued than usual but that is largely in part because of his choice to rely on the song’s delicate nature. All of the subdued dreaminess is disrupted as the verse fades into the pre-chorus, and drummer Dom sing-screams into the mic. Chaos erupts for the chorus and heavy guitars and distortion flow throughout the most classic lines of the song. All of the chaos settles and we’re right back to Bellamy’s gorgeous vocals swaying us into the second verse. This cover is unexpected, definitely rock and roll, and just a lot of fun. Muse does a great of job of playing with the idea of keeping a classic intact, and then turning it on its head and amping it ALL the way up.
5. Cover artist: Sara Bareilles
Song: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
Original Artist: Elton John
There is something to be said about truly talented songwriters. Their words fall can like poetry, be discussed, and even take on all new meanings depending on the listener. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was released in 1973 as part of a double album of the same name. This album is considered one of, if not his greatest. A good amount of John’s most widely recognized and successful songs were co-written with Bernie Taupin. Taupin himself has said in interviews that his memories of writing this song aren’t as vivid as others, but the overall meaning of “Brick Road” stems from one’s desire to get back to your roots. The protagonist in “Brick Road” is over the lavish lifestyle he’s been submersed in and is sure those that dwell in this world won’t miss him when he leaves. John’s vocals on this are beyond superb. His falsetto (and delicious English accent) glide all over the track and pull you right into his despair. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles covered “Brick Road” for her live album Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse in 2013. Bareilles decided to remove all the glam-rock from the original and let her dynamic piano playing skills and powerful vocals re-tell the story. She mirrors John’s control in range and lets her voice soar high when appropriate, and cautiously still at all the right moments. Bareilles was able to effectively tell the story from an even more sobering yet gorgeous perspective, but gave it its justice by not drowning it with absolute sadness.