Susan Boyle's new album officially comes out this week and features her singing other people's songs. It used to be a grand tradition. Heck, it still is. It's just not as respected as it once was. I decided to compile a list of my favorite cover versions. I can tell you I could use another 75 entries to finish skimming the surface. Every time I think I'm finished, I think of another one. I tried to stay away from too many obvious ones. Who hasn't covered "Yesterday" or "My Funny Valentine" or "I Saw Your Mommy and Your Mommy's Dead"? Certain songs just scream "Cover Me"! (And not just the one written by Bruce Springsteen).
This is by no means a definitive list. Surely, Elvis Presley's take on any number of tunes would make a definitive list, whether it be his take on Junior Parker's "Mystery Train," Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" or Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon Of Kentucky." Or how about Aretha Franklin's take on Otis Redding's "Respect"? Or Jimi Hendrix's version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower"? The Byrds covering "Mr. Tambourine Man." Country artists often sing each other's songs with great conviction. And then there's George Thorogood who told me he didn't do cover tunes. So, his version of Hank Williams' "Move it On Over" was taken out of the running, since it apparently doesn't exist. And I'm sure the Replacements should be on here for something. And Elvis Costello's cover of "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding"?
As you see, this could go on for days. I'm here to share with you some of my personal faves. The act doing the fine cover comes first, then the name of the cover, then the act that made the song famous. Feel free to write in your own favorites in the "Comments" section handily provided below. You have a voice, too! Why not use it?
25) Warren Zevon--"Back In The High Life Again" (Steve Winwood): Personally, I could never "hear" Steve Winwood's version of this tune. Too much glitz and fancy production to enjoy the melody and fine sentiment. But Zevon stripped it down to acoustic guitar and bass and sang it straight and true. Everybody loves you when everybody else already loves you. Here's to being mediocre!
24) Metallica--"Turn The Page" (Bob Seger): True story: I walked into a convenience store that was piping in Bob Seger's version of this tune and the kid behind the counter looked at me and said, "Man, this guy's ruining this great Metallica song." I explained that Seger's version came first. The kid replied, "Well, I'm not THAT old." Neither am I, kid, neither am I.
23) The Beatles--"You've Really Got A Hold On Me" (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles): Some people might take "Twist and Shout," but I've heard it too many times for it to be effective. This one always gets me, for Lennon's vocal. For Ringo's drumming. They can't outdo Smokey, but they found a way of making it their own without turning it into parody.
22) The Descendents--"Wendy" (Beach Boys): Punk rock bands always love to do covers. A local Jersey band, Bedlam, did a killer version of the Flinstones Theme and the MTV song. But we'll be here all day if I start recollecting all those possibilities. This Southern Cali band did a nice job on this other Southern Cali band's tune.
21) Agent Orange--"Somebody To Love" (Jefferson Airplane): While I'm remembering Southern Cali bands who did great covers, why not Agent Orange who did a fine take on this Northern Cali band's huge hit. If these bands were on the East Coast, they'd have like 10 states separating them. Not to mention a culture war!
20) Mark Eitzel--"Rehearsals For Retirement" (Phil Ochs): Mark Eitzel has always enjoyed playing the loser. Well, maybe "enjoyed" is the wrong word. But he's been able to relate to songs where the singer is clearly pulling up the short straw. This straw ain't just short, it's got holes punched in it.
19) The Rolling Stones--"Just My Imagination" (The Temptations): Actually, I have this live version from the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey that's pure slop. Jagger sings practically hoarse in spots and the band sound like they're about to take a break at any moment. Keith and Ronnie are playing with an effect called an "Envelope Follower" and they refuse to turn it off no matter how ridiculous it sounds.
18) Judas Priest--"The Green Manalishi With The Two-Pronged Crown" (Fleetwood Mac): Maybe I should've taken JP's version of "Diamonds And Rust" by Joan Baez since that's even more absurd. But this became one of the group's encores. Note: this is from the Peter Green edition of Fleetwood Mac, the one no one remembers anymore.
17) William Shatner--"Common People" (Pulp): William Shatner's often considered a campy joke. But he does a nice job on this one. Granted, the backing band deserves some credit for providing all the music. But that's not how things work here in America.
16) Rod Stewart--"Downtown Train" (Tom Waits): Tom Waits can't get hits on his own, so he lets the Eagles ("Ol' 55") or Rod Stewart do it for him. "Tom Traubert's Blues (Waltzing Matilda)" might be the obvious pick, but I've heard this one in shopping malls, supermarkets and diners. It always makes me laugh. What better recommendation do you need?
15) Johnny Cash--"I See A Darkness" (Will Oldham): Johnny Cash covered a ton of unexpected tunes near the end there, thanks to producer Rick Rubin. Covering a tune about clinical depression, however, is a perfect fit for the Man in Black. Who needs that sad little egg in those Zoloft commercials to convey human misery?
14) Cyndi Lauper--"Money Changes Everything" (The Brains): When I was growing up, the DJ on the New York radio station said this was a song written by a group called the Brains that "nobody ever heard of." Well, I had! But I guess it's like when I just said in the Fleetwood Mac entry that no one remembers the Peter Green edition of the band. Sometimes, it's fun to lie!
13) Mark Kozelek--"Celebrated Summer" (Husker Du): Red House Painters / Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek has done plenty of covers, but this Husker Du cover is my personal fave. When Husker Du did it, it sounded like your head was caught in a buzzsaw, while now it sounds like you're having your head gently stroked in the evening breeze. Ocean waves, optional.
12) The Flying Burrito Brothers--"Wild Horses" (The Rolling Stones): Gram Parsons is often a mess and nowhere more so than on this Rolling Stones ballad. He sounds sloshed. Wild Horses might not drag him away, but Wild Turkey might have an advantage over him, among other things.
11) The Swans--"Love Will Tear Us Apart" (Joy Division): The Swans used to want to crush your skull. Then they figured it out it would be easier to make you want to give up and crush your own skull. Slow a Joy Division tune down and you've got....zzzz..zzzzz........zzz.
10) Jay Farrar and Kelly Willis--"Rex's Blues" (Townes Van Zandt): One of the few Townes Van Zandt tunes that doesn't really move me when Townes sings it. Instead, it takes the harmonies of Farrar and Willis and Farrar's forlorn mumble to convey the weepy, crappy feeling. Hmmn, "Weepy, Crappy Feeling." I might have a new Eagles song on my hands. Someone get Henley on the phone!
9) Sisters Of Mercy--"Gimme Shelter" (The Rolling Stones): Grand Funk Railroad managed to pound through this tune. But the Sisters of Mercy give it a robotic charm that makes it sound as if a machine is coming to take us away. Maybe one is.
8) R.E.M.--"First We Take Manhattan" (Leonard Cohen): I know plenty of people who will take all the many covers of "Hallelujah" but I still prefer Leonard's version. And then there's "Suzanne" and "Bird On The Wire." I'm a bigger fan of this tune and was completely surprised that R.E.M. pulled it off. They really screwed up Aerosmith and Pylon. But with Leonard they turned it into a pop song. Who knew Leonard could be so catchy? I almost like Michael Stipe!
7) Dinosaur Jr.--"Just Like Heaven" (The Cure): Just got a catalog in the mail advertising the J Mascis Fender Jazzmaster for fans of "Fuzz Rock." Well, I like the Cure and I like this song and it's pretty much indestructible, considering the "Fuzz Rock" kings do everything they can to tear it apart.
6) Mudhoney--"Hate The Police" (The Dicks): Who doesn't hate being hassled by the cops? Especially when it's something like "rolling through a stop sign" that gets plea-bargained down to a $100 parking ticket. Where did I park? The mayor's lawn?
4) X--"Crystal Ship" (The Doors): From the X-Files soundtrack. John Doe and Exene take their off-kilter harmonies and channel the spirits for this one. Then again, maybe Jim Morrison really is in Africa getting old and wondering when he can "come back" for a world tour. Damn that Ian Astbury. And damn all that money!
3) John Cale--"Heartbreak Hotel" (Elvis Presley): I'll take the version from John Cale Comes Alive. I like it best when it's mostly his voice doing the breaking down. An Elvis hit transformed into psychological torment. Fun for the whole family.
2) Isaac Hayes--"By The Time I Get To Phoenix" (Glen Campbell): Jimmy Webb gave this one to Glen Campbell. Then Isaac Hayes turned it into an 18-minute epic, where it takes him forever to get anywhere. Hayes moves so slow, the only way he gets to Phoenix by the end of this song is if he started out in East Phoenix.
1) Marianne Faithfull--"Working Class Hero" (John Lennon): Marianne Faithfull sounds like she's been scraped off the ground for this one. Her voice cracks in all the right places and she nails the sentiment of how much it stinks to be left with only religion, sex and TV to distract oneself. Now we have the Internet and everything's GREAT! Hug your kindle, kids!