I’ll be the first one to admit it. I’m a bit of a music snob. This is not to suggest that I don’t recognize the place that artists like Justin Bieber, Susan Boyle and others have in the pop culture lexicon. But musically, they don’t do much for me. I feel the same way about cover bands. Baltimore is loaded (dare I say overloaded) with them. I cannot play an instrument and certainly have a great deal of respect for any musician, especially ones who put themselves out there. But I find most (I did say most) cover bands to be cringe-worthy. There’s just nothing as good as the original. Usually.
As far as cover songs are concerned, I basically have one rule (see snobbery above). Do the song justice. Either by putting your own spin on it or, dare I say it, by making it better. With that, here are some of the best cover songs I have ever heard and three instances (number six, seven and eight) where the cover version is far and away better than the original in my (occasionally) humble opinion.
1. Kathleen Edwards – “Money Talks” (originally by AC/DC). I was hesitant to put this on the list since the actual recording is difficult to find. But Kathleen is one of Canada’s least known musical exports and more people should be listening to her. Her (slightly) stripped down version of the AC/DC hard rock classic is amazing.
Listen: “Live From The Bowery Ballroom”
2. Wyclef Jean – “Redemption Song” (originally by Bob Marley). The circumstances surrounding this cover were the 9/11 attacks on New York City. Wyclef performed this version of the America: A Tribute to Heroes event which was subsequently released on CD and DVD. While Wyclef is not a great singer (by any definition), this version is just amazing and I love it despite being tied to such a tragic event.
Listen: “America: A Tribute to Heroes (Disc 2)”
3. Hootie and the Blowfish – “Driver 8” (originally by R.E.M.). Hootie and the Blowfish get a bad rap as far as pop music history is concerned. Sure, they were overplayed and suffer from one of the worst band names ever. But they were (are?) a solid group of musicians and this slowed down version of the R.E.M. alternative rock classic is spot on.
Listen: “Scattered, Smothered and Covered”
4. Jerry Lee Lewis – “What’d I Say – Part 1 and Part 2” (originally by Ray Charles). The Killer is in rare form in what I genuinely believe to be one of the best live albums of all time recorded in Hamburg, Germany in 1964. The music paints an incredibly vivid picture. Jerry Lee, hair flying, pounding on the piano, crowd completely engrossed and his backup band just trying to keep up with his manic American rock n’ roll. I do not have enough superlatives to describe this recording.
Listen: “Live at The Star Club”
5. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs – “Different Drum” (originally by Linda Ronstadt). One of my all-time favorite light rock songs from the 1970’s. I love Linda’s version but there’s something about Hoffs’ voice (still solid) and Sweet’s harmonies that makes this version extra special. They totally own this but pay tribute to the original. Great stuff.
Listen: “Under The Covers, Vol. 1”
6. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (originally by Nine Inch Nails). There’s not too much I can say about the legendary Johnny Cash that hasn’t already been said. Towards the end of his career, Cash and producer Rick Rubin sought out great songs for Cash to add his unmistakable vocals to. The result was a series of amazing cover songs (Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” etc.). But there’s something completely haunting, heart wrenching and totally authentic about this version.
Listen: “American IV: The Man Comes Around”
7. Joey + Rory – “Free Bird” (originally by Lynyrd Skynyrd). This has always been one of my least favorite classic rock songs. It’s just been played to death. But husband and wife country duo Rory Lee Feek and Joey Martin Feek make their version almost unrecognizable, but in a good way. Joey’s voice is smooth as glass and their harmonies are stunning. This is a perfect example of reworking a popular song and absolutely making it their own. Incredible.
Listen: “The Life of a Song”
8. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah” (originally by Leonard Cohen). If you don’t know Jeff Buckley, you should. The son of singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, Jeff released the album “Grace” in 1994. The buzz surrounding this record was amazing (pre-Internet) and his shows started selling out all over the country simply based on word of mouth. I had an opportunity to see him perform twice. Once at the 9:30 Club (at their old location on F Street) and once at WUST Music Hall (which is now, ironically, the 9:30 Club) and both shows remain some of the best live music I have ever seen. Buckley could go from a tender, whispered ballad that would hold an entire room captive to then close with the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” and rock as hard as the original Detroit punk icons. He tragically drowned in 1997 while working on a follow up recording and all of his posthumous recordings have fallen way short of the bar that “Grace” set. The entire record is amazing but this song stands out as the best of the best.
There are pair of songs that stand out but are not, as far as I know, available on any recording. One is the Goo Goo Dolls’ version of Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” which I saw them perform at the (old) 9:30 Club. The band had simply played every song they knew and came back out for a final encore and launched into a frenzied version of the camp classic.
The other was Deep Purple’s rock staple “Smoke on the Water” that I saw performed by the Reverend Horton Heat at the 8×10 Club in Baltimore. If you aren’t familiar with the good Reverend (born Jim Heath), the Texas native has been performing his brand of “psychobilly” music all over the country since making his debut on Sub Pop Records in 1992. A criminally underrated guitar player, Heat blasted the already exhausted crowd with those instantly recognizable opening notes and played for what seemed like forever to close out the best show I’ve seen him do (and I’ve seen many).
So there’s the list. In no way comprehensive but certainly the songs that stand out among the tens of thousands that I have listened to.
Feel free to comment below on anything I’ve written about or share some of your favorite cover songs or musical memories.