No one likes in when a new artists redoes one of our favourite songs. There are certain tunes that seem untouchable to people and the thought that anyone could do better is laughable. But as music history has taught us time and time again, cover songs are not always a cheap cash grab. Sometimes an artist takes a new approach to an old favourite that takes it in a new direction, offers you a new perspective and, on occasion, can ever surpass the original. Take a look at some of the songs that defied nature by taking something old and making it new. Who knows, there might be one or two on this list you didn’t even know weren’t originals.
“Hurt” by Johnny Cash (originally Nine Inch Nails)
Johnny Cash has a pretty solid record of taking on the songs of other artists but this one is perhaps the most unexpected and by far the best. Released as part of what would become his final album, Cash took the suicidal allegory of the original Nine Inch Nails version and transformed it into a song about his own mortality. It’s a powerful rendition, replacing the whispery delivery and heavy metal guitar of the original with the soft piano and guitar backing up Cash’s unmistakable, legendary voice. The song is made even more powerful given Cash’s long-time partner in life and music, June Carter, died shortly after the songs release followed by Cash himself only four month later.
“Atlantic City” by The Band (originally Bruce Springsteen)
The Band and Bruce Springsteen have both spoken to the blue-collar crowd through their music throughout the years. Springsteen is more overt about it, while The Band goes for the sort of good ol’ boys persona through their folksy songs. It makes sense then that they would overlap on this song, which is Springsteen’s biggest ode to the working man. But while the original paints the situation as bleak and depression, through The Band’s rendition and Levon Helm’s twangy vocals, the words are given much more hope. There’s a sense that we can make it out of this.
“Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley (originally Leonard Cohen)
I dare not suggest for a second that Cohen’s original has been surpassed by anyone, especially not to a Canadian audience. In fact, it was this very entry that caused me to rework the title of this article. But I must admit, Buckley, while never taking the song for his own, has created a beautiful version of this classic. In actuality, the song is perfect for reimagining. It is one of the most beautifully written songs of all time in terms of lyrics, and a singer with a more conventional delivery can bring something new out of those words.
“Nothing Compares 2U” by Sinead O’Connor (originally Prince)
Prince is not an easy artist to upstage, but in many eyes O’Connor did just that. And she did so in probably the smartest way possible, by striping the song down to the absolute basics. While a fine song in its own right, Prince’s original is another upbeat pop song in his catalogue of hits. O’Connor brought out the immense melancholy of the song with little more than her very powerful voice.
“All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (originally Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan, being one of the greatest songwriters ever, has seen many of his songs interpreted by other artists, however, few have made them better. Hendrix not only achieved that impressive feat, he did it so effectively, many people don’t even know this is a cover. It’s another example of an artist knowing what makes a song great a knowing what can bring it to another level. Pairing Dylan’s thought provoking words with Hendrix’s guitar skills made for a redefined classic.
“Respect” by Aretha Franklin (originally Otis Redding)
Franklin did so much with this song it seems strange to call it a cover. Redding’s original is a great song in its own right but there is an unmistaken power to the cover version that shows why it has so eclipsed the original. While the original is the type of song we would hear a lot in those days, Franklin took the same words and made it into a song about empowerment and female pride. Its long-lasting impact is evident.
“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles (originally The Isley Brothers)
The Beatles, just like any artist have influences and artists they admire, which is how this massively popular cover song came to be. The Isley Brothers original is a much slower yet still very upbeat tune that lacks the wild energy that The Beatles injected into their take. The story goes that Lennon was suffering from a cold during the session and hit voice was so hoarse he could only manage one take. Those elements helped make this one of the most out-and-out fun songs The Beatles have produced.
“I Love Rock N Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (originally The Arrows)
Similar to how Aretha Franklin redefined “Respect”, this cover improves on the original not only in terms of the music but how it changes based on who is singing it. The original, it must be said, is a bit lackluster. The lyrics are certainly not genius and the delivery is almost bored. It only every really picks up come the iconic chorus. Joan Jett infuses it with an angry edge and, of course, helped reaffirm women’s place in the rock world.
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston (originally Dolly Parton)
Some artists just know which songs they can take to another level. Dolly Parton’s original was a well-regarded tune in her catalogue, but Whitney Houston took it to a whole different level. This has no doubt become a Whitney Houston song, probably the one she is best remembered for and it’s not hard to see why. Her powerful voice brings down the house and gives you chills everytime.
“With A Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker (originally The Beatles)
The Beatles are a tough act to follow, and while many would say this cover version doesn’t out-do the original, it’s certainly a close call either way. Cocker has a certain guttural quality to his singing voice that definitely separated will from the Fab Five, but it also fits this song very well, as does the choral back-up.
“I Fought the Law” by The Clash (originally The Bobby Fuller Four)
This is a simple example of one generation taking a song from another time, for another purpose and expertly inserting it and re-contextualizing it to fit into a new movement. The original was a light, fun outlaw diddy that was embracing the cowboy lifestyle. The Clash, one of the leaders and most influential bands in the punk movement, took the song and made it an angry cry for rebellion.