Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cover Songs That Improve on the Original Versions

It's really difficult to improve on a great song, but there have been occasions where the cover has outshone the original version. In these instances, an artist or band took an already great song and raised it to a whole new level of excellence and made it their own. These covers accentuate the strengths inherent in the original version and add a little something extra. I've made a list of 11 cover songs in which I feel that this has been done. The list is in no particular order.


"We Can Work It Out" (1970) - Stevie Wonder  [original by the Beatles released in 1965]

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Beatles fan, but I  feel that Stevie's soulful cover outshines the original. No doubt about it, the Beatles' version is great, but Stevie brings an infectious joy and positive energy to his rendition that makes the original seem rather sedate by comparison. Plus, he delivers a kick-ass harmonica solo on his version.

Listen to it here

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"Blinded by the Light" (1976) - Manfred Mann's Earth Band [original by Bruce Springsteen released in 1973]

Some feel that Manfred Mann's version of "Blinded by the Light" is overblown and overproduced and lacks the soul and emotional depth of Springsteen's gritty, bare-bones original that appeared on his critically acclaimed debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973). However, I believe that Manfred Mann's cover brought the track to new epic heights and made it even more powerful. It is superbly arranged and underscores Springsteen's great lyrics. It is also Manfred Man's biggest hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Listen to it here

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Twist and Shout (1963) - "The Beatles" [original version by the Top Notes released in 1961]

The Beatles' galvanic cover of "Twist and Shout" leaves the tame original version by Philadelphia R&B group the Top Notes in the dust. John Lennon turned in one of his best vocal performances on the song. He put tons of passion and soul into his larynx-shredding lead vocals. In an interview for The Beatles Anthology, legendary music producer George Martin said that Lennon recorded his vocals for the song in two takes and had no voice left when he was done. The only cover I've heard that even comes close to touching it is the Isley Brothers' version, which was released a year before the Beatles' cover. In fact, the Beatles emulated the Isley Brothers' stellar arrangement of the song, but improved on it, which was no small feat.

Listen to it here


"Hazy Shade of Winter" (1987) - The Bangles [original version titled "A Hazy Shade of Winter" by Simon & Garfunkel released in 1966]

The Bangles bring a sense of urgency to this classic Simon & Garfunkel song. Simon & Garfunkel's original is also excellent, and I really dig both versions. However, I enjoy listening to the Bangles' rendition a bit more. The cover just has so much raw energy and is also quite poignant. The band definitely did the song justice and then some. The Bangles' version was featured on the soundtrack for the cautionary teen drama Less Than Zero in 1987. Many props to Paul Simon for penning this incredible track.

Listen to it here

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"Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" (1973) - Sly & the Family Stone [original by Doris Day released in 1956]

Sly & the Family Stone's gospel-drenched interpretation of "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" adds a whole new dimension to Doris Day's cheery classic. You really feel the emotional impact of the lyrics on the Family Stone's cathartic, soul-bearing version, which appeared on their Fresh album in 1973. And here's a bit of related  trivia: Sly was friends with Day's son, Terry Melcher, who was a record producer. Sly met Day once while visiting Terry at their Beverly Hills home. Sly began playing a gospel version "Que Sera, Sera" on their piano, and Day joined in to duet with the funk legend for a few verses. Too bad no one had a tape recorder around. There were also rumors that the two dated for a time, but those rumors turned out to be false. The two would have definitely made an interesting couple.

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"Georgia On My Mind" (1960) - Ray Charles [original by Hoagy Carmichael & his Orchestra, with Bix Beiderbecke released in 1930]

Ray Charles' majestic cover of "Georgia On My Mind" has become the quintessential version of this classic song. Charles' powerful vocal performance will move even the most jaded souls. The cover was very well-received upon its released in 1960 and shot to number one on the Billboard Top 100 chart. The song also earned Charles two Grammys. Willie Nelson also released a top-notch rendition of the song in 1978 and put his own personal touch on the track. "Georgia On My Mind" was designated Georgia's official state song in 1979.

Listen to it here

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"Respect" (1967) - Aretha Franklin [original by Otis Redding released in 1965]

Aretha Franklin took Otis Redding's song about a man asking for respect from his woman and turned it on its head, transforming it into an epic feminist anthem. The power of Aretha's cover was so undeniable that even Otis had to concede that his version had been usurped by the Queen of Soul. The late soul giant famously said, "That little gal done stole my song!" And Otis meant that as the highest of compliments to Aretha for making the song her own and taking it to another level. And I'm not taking anything away Otis' original version, which is also amazing.

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"Mad World" (2006) - Wise Guys  [original by Tears for Fears released in 1983]

German a cappella band Wise Guys' beautifully elegiac cover of  Tears for Fears' hit "Mad World" will damn near move you to tears. Although Gary Jules' excellent rendition (featured in the film Donnie Darko) is far more popular, I feel that Wise Guys' moving interpretation packs even more emotional power. Their vocals sound amazing here. That reminds me, I need to check out more of their music.

Listen to it here

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"All Along The Watchtower" (1968) -  The Jimi Hendrix Experience [original by Bob Dylan released in 1967]

Jimi Hendrix's blistering overhaul of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" is widely considered one of the greatest cover songs of all time. Dylan's plaintive folk-rock original is terrific, but Hendrix's brilliant reworking of the song launched it into the stratosphere. And the song showcases the left-handed virtuoso's incredible, mind-blowing guitar playing. Dylan was so impressed with the cover that he began performing Hendrix's arrangement at his concerts. Hendrix's version of the song was voted  "The Greatest Cover Song of All Time" in a Rolling Stone magazine reader's poll.

Listen to it here

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"I Feel for You" (1984) - Chaka Khan [original by Prince released in 1979]

With her smash hit "I Feel for You," soul/funk diva Chaka Khan transformed a forgotten Prince album track into a rousing club banger in 1984. Chaka injected a shot of adrenaline into the Purple One's song and made it her own, scoring her biggest hit as a solo artist in the process. The original version of the song was featured on Prince's self-titled second album and is quite good. Chaka's remake features a great rap from Melle Mel, who was a member of influential rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And Stevie Wonder contributes a cracking harmonica solo. The song also samples some of Stevie's vocals from his 1963 hit "Fingertips." Chaka delivered an amazing vocal performance on this song and let everyone know that she was still a forced to be reckoned with in the '80s.

Listen to it here

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"Hallelujah" - Jeff Buckley  1994 [original by Leonard Cohen released in 1984]

The late singer/songwriter/guitarist's exquisite interpretation of Leonard Cohen's song is filled with beauty, sadness, wistfulness and hope. It's just an amazing rendition of an already powerful song. Buckley's tragic death at the age of 30 from drowning makes the cover even more poignant. It's comparable to Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay," which was released shortly after his untimely death in a plane crash. Both songs are sad but beautiful remembrances of two extremely gifted artists whose lives were cut short in their prime.

Listen to it here

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1 comment:

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