There are only three possible outcomes for a cover song:
- Better than the original
- Faithful to the original
- Dumpster fire
And while dumpster fires can be fun from a distance, they’re usually not going to achieve the sort of enduring popularity that a passable cover or those rare brilliant reimaginings would. In this semi-recurring column, we’ll be providing a list of cover songs that are at least as good, and sometimes maybe better than the originals.
This time around it’s a different take on the song or an unexpected artist covering it that creates something surprisingly listenable.
Hot in Herre
Original by: Nelly
Covered by: Wang Chung
Back in 2005, there was a short lived show called Baby Hit Me One More Time, which caught up with artists from the 80’s to play their biggest hit, and cover something modern. We had extremely low expectations of Wang Chung covering Nelly, but it’s both undeniably somehow the original and a Wang Chung song. This is the rare case of an artist doing the completely unexpected and just stepping up to a cover song and making it their own.
Baby Got Back
Original by: Sir Mix-A-Lot
Covered by: Jonathan Coulton
There was some controversy over this one when the TV show Glee shamelessly ripped off Jonathan Coulton’s Peter Paul and Mary style arrangement of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ode to bodacious bootys. That subsequently led to Coulton releasing his cover of Glee covering him, covering Sir Mix-A-Lot. Basically? It’s coverception.
Gin and Juice
Original by: Snoop Dogg
Covered by: The Gourds
When a friend of ours said, “You gotta hear this: it’s Snoop Dog performed by some kind of jug band”, well, we most certainly did have to hear it, and it was absolutely, unabashedly everything we expected and kind of hoped for.
Cruel To Be Kind
Original by: Nick Lowe
Covered by: Letters to Cleo
Letters to Cleo puts a 90’s alt-rock spin on Nick Lowe’s 1979 hit. It’s something of a treat to hear this sung by a woman, especially since it appeared in the film 10 Things I Hate About You, which was a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It suits the character of Kat Stratford (played by Julia Stiles) perfectly.
Romeo and Juliet
Original by: Dire Straits
Covered by: Indigo Girls
The original song, which has an incredibly lovely melody, is sung quietly by Mark Knopfler and evokes a painful feeling of wistful love lost. Amy Ray’s solo vocal performance from the Indigo Girls album Rites of Passage is more passionate—even angry—about Juliet’s abandonment of Romeo and her casual dismissal. The versions almost sound like different songs entirely. Both are worth a listen.
Original by: The Rolling Stones
Covered by: The Sundays
Like “Romeo and Juliet”, the differences in these performances rely mostly on vocal delivery. Whereas Mick Jagger’s voice has his traditional rough edges that have brought with it an implication of being resentful, Harriet Wheeler brings a smooth, plaintive sound that implies that, as the singer, she’s sad but has accepted her situation and can deal with it. Wheeler’s voice is perfectly suited to the song, adding an almost ethereal quality that makes it soar.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Original by: The Tokens
Covered by: R.E.M.
Offered as a B-side to R.E.M.’s song “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, Michael Stipe delivers a smoother recording of The Tokens hit. Whether that’s because of better recording technology, or his College Radio aesthetics, well, you be the judge. Stipe has no problem hitting the higher notes perfectly, making this a fun listen.
Video Killed the Radio Star
Original by: The Buggles
Covered by: The Presidents of the United States of America
“Video Killed the Radio Star” was actually first recorded by Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club (with Thomas Dolby on keyboards) but the version you’ve undoubtedly heard (and seen as the first video ever to air on MTV) was by The Buggles. If anything was weak at all about The Buggles’ version it was the vocal delivery, which sounded a little hollow but still worked, considering the subject matter. The Presidents put a harsher, grunge energy on the new wave classic.
Justify My Love
Original by: Madonna
Covered by:Thanks to Gravity
If you weren’t familiar with the early 90’s music scene in Portsmouth, NH, then you’ve probably never heard this cover that turns the original into something appropriate for a wedding ceremony. The sultry delivery of the vocal makes the song sexier somehow. Thanks to Gravity also did an amazing alt-rock cover of Pachelbel’s Canon that is well worth checking out.
Whiskey In The Jar
Original by: well, it’s complicated, and it’s been covered a lot, but for a short history but let’s start with The Dubliners, but it was also
Covered by: Thin Lizzy, which was probably the version that inspired the
Cover by: Metallica
While the original goes way back in Irish music, the most well known traditional recording of this was the Dubliners. They were covered by Thin Lizzy, when they couldn’t find a B-side single, and ultimately by Metallica, completing it’s transition from folk ballad to heavy metal staple. The only way to listen to this? Is bass-thumping/speaker-destroying loud.