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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Inventory: 14 cover songs that are better than the originals

Illustration for article titled Inventory: 14 cover songs that are better than the originals

1. Stevie Wonder, "We Can Work It Out"

The Lennon/McCartney-penned single "We Can Work It Out" comes from the middle of The Beatles' most radical creative reinvention, the 1965 shift from the straightforward pop of Help! to the multifaceted Rubber Soul, which would revolutionize their music, and by extension, everybody else's. So it's fitting that when Stevie Wonder covered the song on 1970's Signed, Sealed & Delivered, he was in the middle of a similar transition from Motown's teenage wunderkind to the socially conscious and superfunky artist he became in the mid-'70s. Wonder's performance is so powerful, in fact, that it changes the meaning of the song without changing a word. The Beatles' original is a desperate plea for reconciliation, delivered with passion but little hope. (The song was inspired by Paul McCartney's fractious, doomed relationship with then-girlfriend Jane Asher.) But Wonder's version is all about hope, and his joyous, sizzling funk makes "We Can Work It Out" a promise, not a plea.

2. Bryan Ferry, "It's My Party"

Few rockers have taken more irreverent glee in radically re-conceptualizing familiar songs than Bryan Ferry, who has made covers one of his specialties. On "It's My Party," a standout track from the early covers collection These Foolish Things, Ferry throws himself into the girlish teen emotions of the Lesley Gore hit with hilarious abandon. You can almost see Ferry sobbing softly in a corner, his tuxedo hopelessly rumpled, as he recounts the horrors of betrayal happening at his very own party.


3. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, "Way Down In The Hole"

Tom Waits' offbeat gospel song is one of the highlights of his 1987 disc Frank's Wild Years, and it's even better on the subsequent live album Big Time, where Waits interjects a grizzle-voiced sermon about using hydraulic-powered faith-healing to blast the devil out of your soul. But both versions take a mockingly ironic tone toward Waits' perspective character, a tent-revival preacher promising heaven in exchange for your cash, and neither completely shakes a sense of theatrical artificiality. That's definitely not the case for gospel group Blind Boys Of Alabama, whose smoking, bluesy rendition of the song on 2001's Spirit Of The Century hits with genuine fire and fervor. It also picked up added resonance when the producers of HBO's terrific The Wire used it as the theme song for its first season, perfectly encapsulating the series' complicated dance with good and evil.

4. Ike & Tina Turner, "Proud Mary"

As the Turners begin their version of "Proud Mary" with a delicate, subdued preface, Tina explains the plan: "We never, ever do nothin' nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough." Translation: "Thanks, crackers. We'll take it from here." The Turners—and, most importantly, their band—then tear that quiet intro to shreds by kicking up the tempo, adding horns, and driving it all with a beat which practically demands that people dance. By comparison, Creedence Clearwater Revival's original midtempo rocker sounds positively bland. The amped-up energy of the Turners' version makes the original's easygoing charm sound unnatural.


5. The Who, "Summertime Blues"

When Eddie Cochran recorded the snappy "Summertime Blues" in the late '50s, he was also writing a near-perfect Who single, at home next to both kinds of songs that consistently worked for The Who between studio albums. Roger Daltrey sings the part of a trapped teenager with just enough "My Generation"-style conviction, and John Entwistle's deep-voiced interjections as various stodgy grown-ups are reminiscent of oddities like "Boris The Spider." Cochran's lyrics weren't innocuous—they call out his congressman alongside Dad and the boss—but The Who's version makes the original sound a little jokey by comparison, especially alongside the other revamped covers on Live At Leeds.


6. Elvis Costello, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?"

Nick Lowe's original version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?", recorded in 1974 with his pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz, is a minor classic of English pre-punk, and it doesn't sound terribly different from the one recorded by Lowe's buddy Elvis Costello five years later. On the plus side, it actually kicks in with some sweet harmonies after the line "where is the harmony, sweet harmony?" On the debit side, there's Lowe's dated, hippieish talking bit about how we need to save the world for "the children of a new generation." Costello's arrangement is tighter and more assertive, all the better to get right to the point: Why the hell can't people stop being total bastards to each other? The passionate fury in Costello's voice transforms "Peace, Love, And Understanding" into a condemnation of humanity's propensity for cruelty, violence, and war—and elevates it into one of the greatest songs in the rock canon.


7. The Mountain Goats, "The Sign"

Though he doesn't play it any more, Mountain Goats leader John Darnielle turned his interpretation of Ace Of Base's cheesy mid-'90s hit into one of the best covers ever performed onstage. There's a relatively straight version of it—with the programming replaced by an acoustic guitar, of course—on the Songs For Peter Hughes seven-inch (which was later included on the Bitter Melon Farm compilation), but when Darnielle played it live, he'd pepper it with the Swedish band's backstory. The result was beautifully hilarious, and not just because he could get a club full of hip indie kids to enthusiastically sing along to the chorus. Though Darnielle starts off the recorded version by saying "I never get tired of this song," he eventually eliminated it from his set list because, as he recently explained, "It sort of seemed like every indie band in the world had some pop staple they played for laughs. I really loved 'The Sign,' thought it was an awesome song, [and] didn't want anything to do with anything that might resemble liking something ironically."


8. Self, "What A Fool Believes"

As an exercise in songwriting, the Michael McDonald- and Kenny Loggins-penned "What A Fool Believes" is amazing—a pop gem endowed with an expansive melody that flawlessly navigates tons of rhythmic quirks and about a million chords. Unfortunately, The Doobie Brothers' recording hasn't aged very well, mired as it is in late-'70s faux-soul maximalism and airwave overexposure. Rescuing it from the bargain bins just in time for the new millennium, however, Self's Gizmodgery version recasts the ultra-complicated song in the coolest possible way—using children's toys! Nailing all the essential elements on instruments such as the Little Tikes Xylophone and the Mattel Star Guitar, Self's resident genius Matt Mahaffey brings the ornate elements together in a leaner, funkier version that's a terrific tribute and a memorable piss-take.



9. Elvis Presley, "Hey Jude"

Covering The Beatles is often futile. The original versions sound as definitive as if they were issued from on high, which, in a manner of speaking, they were. There's nothing wrong with The Beatles' take on "Hey Jude," but it lends itself to interpretation more than much of the catalog. Maybe it's the unexpected lyrical content—like "She Loves You," it's an impassioned request for someone else to find love. Maybe it's because Paul McCartney's vocals sound like a blueprint for more dramatic readings to come. Wilson Pickett tore into it memorably, but for a truly transcendent version, look no further than Elvis. Presley recorded his version in Memphis during his late-'60s renaissance, but its slow-building gospel fervor remained unheard until the 1972 album Elvis Now, when the fires of his artistic revival had begun to flicker. Surrounded by Vegas-ready versions of "Help Me Make It Through The Night" and "Put Your Hand In The Hand," it's remained an overlooked track that captures much of what's great about Elvis and The Beatles in four and a half minutes.


10. Naked Eyes, "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me"

A beautiful song with slowly descending chords that match the theme of being brought down by constant reminders of an ex-lover, "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me" has long been a standout in the songwriting catalog of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The original 1964 recording by American soul singer Lou Johnson was actually pretty good, but its mediocre placement was all but obscured by Sandie Shaw's UK number-one version a few months later. Remember it? Of course not. It's awful—going all epileptic-showgirl at just the moment the lyric calls for introspection. But Naked Eyes achieved genuine pathos in its 1983 version, with emotive synths in place of strings. Of course, it didn't hurt that this tale of love leaving a painful reminder exploded internationally at the exact same time as herpes.


11. Jimi Hendrix, "All Along The Watchtower"

Bob Dylan is one of the most-covered musicians in history for a reason: Besides writing some of the best songs of the rock era, he's made lots of recordings that sound unfinished, even skeletal—in other words, perfect frames to flesh out. John Wesley Harding's "All Along The Watchtower" is searing and eerie in its own rickety way, but the song didn't become truly epic until Jimi Hendrix unleashed his rendition, a mere nine months after the original. Instead of stiff drums and tubercular harmonica, Hendrix summons a supple, elemental groove that channels pure myth and mystery. Of course, it wouldn't work without Dylan's apocalyptic lyrics and chilling chords, but Hendrix's solos actually sound like wind howling and wildcats growling—and his voice is a roar that stalks the song's despair-drenched depths. Prince played a decent version recently during the Super Bowl halftime show, but when it comes to "Watchtower," no one beats Hendrix.


12. Jackie Wilson, "Light My Fire"

Sometimes it's hard to listen to any Doors song with a straight face, let alone "Light My Fire," a serviceable tune that's been eroded by way too much airplay. Two years after its 1967 chart blitz, Jackie Wilson—surfing on a renewal of popularity thanks to Brunswick's in-house geniuses Eugene Record and Barbara Acklin—decided to have some fun on Do Your Thing, an album padded with covers both banal ("Hold On! I'm Comin'") and bizarre ("Eleanor Rigby"). Best, though, is Wilson's vastly superior version of "Light My Fire," which starts with a pseudo-Latin flutter before pumping out some stark, sinewy funk that predicts Al Green's imminent godhood. Punctuated by Wilson's patented squeals and screeches, the song—rendered more sexy than psychedelic—also benefits from one quality that The Doors never stumbled upon: understatement.


13. Devo, "(Can't Get No) Satisfaction"

Why is Mick Jagger so sexually frustrated? The Rolling Stones classic is a slow burn with a syncopated grind, a come-on disguised as a lament. Devo turns the song into a real soundtrack for impotence. Over a jittery bass riff, Mark Mothersbaugh stutters the lyric at breakneck speed like he hasn't got no satisfaction in his entire adult life. Before confessing his losing streak, he hollers "baby baby baby baby" for eight full bars without taking a breath, thanks to the magic of looping. This "Satisfaction" is all coke binges and Internet porn, with zero rock-star attitude—the perfect confessional for lonely, horny geeks.


14. Langley Schools Music Project, "Desperado"

Grade-school recitals are often exercises in well-meant musical torture. But in the late 1970s, a British Columbian schoolteacher named Hans Fenger orchestrated a piece of out-of-left-field wonderment almost by accident when he decided to let his children's choir tackle then-current pop songs by The Beach Boys and David Bowie, among others. The songs were forgotten for nearly 25 years until their rediscovery in 2001, when outsider-music archivist Irwin Chusid compiled them on the disc Innocence And Despair. The title came from Fenger's description of the album's haunting high point, a winsome, wistful performance of The Eagles' "Desperado" by nine-year-old Sheila Behman. Though Behman mangles the lyrics a bit, creating bizarre new imagery in the line "she'll beat you if she's a bull," the simplicity and seriousness of her sad-angel singing lends the song a surprising poignancy that Don Henley's considerably glossier original doesn't approach.


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