When is a Cover Song Better Than the Original?

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When we go out for a live show, even to see our favorite band playing their hit songs, there is a certain excitement we feel when they decide to do a cover song.  Even legends that have 40 or 50 years of their own music, play covers and the crowd goes insane.  What makes a cover so special?  When is the cover better than the original song?  I’ve come up with a list of 10 songs that I think are better than the original.  This isn’t carved in stone and there will be countless songs that could have made the list that didn’t.  Music is such a fluid thing that my list next week probably wouldn’t be exactly the same.  That’s what makes music so special. It lives. It breathes. And sometimes, it dies only to be reborn.

10. Metallica’s version the Irish traditional song “Whiskey in the Jar”.  While they mostly despised working on their Garage Inc album and the covers that they barely knew like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page“, the light at the end of that album was “Whiskey in the Jar”.  It kicks ass and before you say anything, I realize that it was inspired by Thin Lizzy’s version of the same song.  Metallica’s is just better.

9. While on Irish covers, the Dropkick Murphy’s “The Wild Rover” was more of an anthem than a cover.  The band has dominated stages around the world and this song still gets the crowd in a frenzy.  Many know the lyrics from growing up in any Irish pub across the land, but when the Dropkick Murphy’s hit you with it, you feel it in your bones.

8.Disturbed’s take on Genesis’s “Land of Confusion”.  While I’m not sure this is actually better than the original, lead singer David Draimain is currently voicing his very loud opinions in support of Israel in these trying times.  I feel like the conflict, his current Twitter feed blowing up and the sentimentality of the song makes this one that fits this week, but may not be here in a month.

7. Talking Heads’ interpretation of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”.  Who knew that the Talking Head’s had soul and rhythm and could pull off this genre of music?  Apparently they did and this opened the doors for more soulful, funk direction for the band and further cemented them as musical pioneers leading into the video age.

6. Patti Smith’s “Gloria” was originally done by the band, Them, 11 years before the first mistress of punk dominated the scene and helped establish women’s roll in the NYC feminist movement of the late 70’s.  Smith’s version of the song carries an anger, an assertiveness the original couldn’t.  She was one of rock’s bad asses and had the chops to pull off this song like no one else.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJx5626euOo

5. Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”.  In fact there can be a whole article on Dylan songs that were done better by others than the legend himself.  Let’s face it, the man was a writing genius, but performing was hit or miss.

4. Alien Ant Farm doing Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”.  This really put AAF on the map, the talented alternative band from California has not shaken the success of this cover that seems to define them.  While they are looking forward to their 5th studio album, this cover from their first one in 2001 still casts a shadow over their worthwhile originals.

3.Nirvana had it’s share of incredible covers.  I am going to pick Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” thought this could have just as easily been the Meat Puppets’ “Lake of Fire” or Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World“.  Curt’s voice is soulful, raspy and carries a tone that fits the solemness and desperation that fits with the lyrics.  The shouting verse at the end seals the deal – the sadness tells you that Cobain has felt this loneliness in his core.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeJkbqjQvnk

2.Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”. Who even realized that it was recorded 17 years before it hit number 1 around the world in 1981 by Gloria Jones?  Soft Cell transformed the song and made it theirs while still holding true to some of the soulfulness of the original.

1. Johnny Cash’s version of NIN’s “Hurt”.  Perhaps it was the timeliness of this cover toward the end of Cash’s life when he recorded it or the solace in the video.  “Hurt” came to life and choked up the toughest person when the man in black unleashed it onto the world.

So there you have it, even as I wrote this I questioned myself a million times.  Should I include something from the greatest cover band in my opinion, the Grateful Dead? Or how about an incredible cover by Bruce Springsteen that typically holds more energy and vigor than the original.  There are countless versions of Beatles songs that I enjoy better than the originals, but I didn’t have help from my friends, I just pulled the plug and went forth.

What’s your favorite cover?  Be sure to like on Facebook and post links to your favorite covers from huge acts to local bands.  We’d love to hear from you.