The following are in my opinion the cover songs that most improved on the originals, or just made it infinitely more fun. They are not necessarily the best covers. And this is not to say that the originals are not great in their own way, even if I don’t like all of them. These are just the covers that brought a much needed energy or color that was missing in the original.
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – Guns n’ Roses (original artist: Bob Dylan)
First off, far be it from anyone really to call the poetry of early Dylan into question. But this song itself, though I do suspect it was recorded this way to put the focus squarely there, on the lyrics, is just plain dull. Guns n’ Roses injected an energy (nay, a virility!) into the song that honors the spirit of the original and calls the attention to it like the original recording could not. They keep the verses fairly simple. Maybe they added some texture. But the chorus is where GnR took this song to where it needed to be. And all they did, aside from making it much heavier, was add some “hey…hey….hey hey yeah”s in between the repeated phrase “knock knock knockin’ on Heaven’s door” where in the Dylan version you just had ol’ Bob strumming his six string. It plodded along a bit. Guns n’ Roses kept you engaged.
Sound of Silence – Disturbed (original artist: Simon and Garfunkel)
Weirdly, I remember thinking before the Disturbed version of this was released that “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel was “the softest heavy metal song I’ve ever heard.” I don’t know what is about the song that struck me as so metal. I guess it is something in the minor tones that are used throughout. In any case, the Disturbed cover just felt absolutely right when it came along. Anyway the super serene and quiet acoustic duet of Simon and Garfunkel to me always seemed a bit on the nose, too literal. It needed to be made heavy.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – Marilyn Manson (original artist: The Eurhythmics)
I swear, I am not even a metal head. Having said that, I think there is something about a metal artist covering a song that was decidedly on the softer side in its original form that will always impress me simply for the new vitality the heavier treatment gives it. But this one, particularly, hits the essence of the song right on the head without being too on the nose (see above). There was always something dark and ominous about the content of “Sweet Dreams” even in its original form. So it was just asking for the death metal makeover Manson gave it. Too me, 1980s synth is the stuff of nightmares to begin with, so maybe I am biased. Probably.
Lovers in a Dangerous Time – The Barenaked Ladies (original artist: Bruce Cockburn)
My wife brought the Barenaked Ladies to my attention almost 20 years ago, and their cover of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” quickly became one of my favorites. The production on their version gives it the feel of a purposeful journey mired in a haze of uncertainty. Open road in the middle of nowhere on a foggy night. I did not know it was a cover until just a few years ago. I immediately went to listen to the Cockburn version. I did not like it. Maybe it’s because to me it sounds like it is drenched in synth and the drum machines. It simply does not have the personality, the heart that the BNL version has. That is saying a lot of a band that is so well known for silly lyrics, that to many they are one step to the right of being a comedy troupe rather than a band. Like the Canadian Blink-182.
Rainbow Connection – Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (original artist: Kermit the Frog)
Speaking of bands that are almost a comedy troupe, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are a cover band. They only do covers. And all of their albums have a theme. Whether it be country music, psychedelic 60s or show tunes, the Gimmes take whatever they are doing and turn everything into punk rock. Thus, anything they touch is bound to sound like a staggeringly innovative work of genius. Maybe. Anyway you start with the imagery of a puppet playing a ukulele and they take this song and transform it into a Ramones-like bash out.
Honorable Mention: Every song that Joe Cocker ever covered. Also, the Whitney Houston cover of “I Will Always Love You” goes without saying.
What are your favorite covers?