From UK new wavers Soft Cell turning Gloria Jones’ 1965 song “Tainted Love” into an everlasting hit, to academia rockers Vampire Weekend taking on Robin Thicke’s current contender for song of the summer, “Blurred Lines,” cover songs are, and have always been, an intrinsic component of the alternative music landscape.
Cover songs have the power to introduce music from another genre or era to an unfamiliar audience. A great cover song prays on the listener’s love of the familiar, while at once creating something completely new. One of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ earliest breakout moments came with their raucous version of Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic, “Higher Ground.” Soundgarden earned major cred in the early ’90s by covering two rock movie favorites,”Big Bottom” from This is Spinal Tap and Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye” from Up in Smoke. Jimi Hendrix covered “All Along The Watchtower” so well that Dylan starting playing it the way Hendrix played it.
What makes an effective cover version is not an exact science. For some, a radical reworking across genres is what makes them special. For others, it’s by staying true to the original and simply updating a song for the next generation of listeners. While some of these versions have never hit the charts or been featured in a major motion picture, they’re all inspired takes that deserve to be heard.
These are ten of the most essential alternative cover songs of them all.
10. Matt Sweeney/Zwan: Iron Maiden, “Number Of The Beast”
If you woke Iron Maiden’s lead singer Bruce Dickinson up in the middle of a deep REM cycle and immediately shuffled him onto a stage with an acoustic guitar, he would still put more vim and vigor into it than Matt Sweeney, guitarist for Zwan, did in this narcotic version of the metal standard for the movie Spun soundtrack. Though Sweeny drains the blood and fantasy from the original, he also drains all the camp, leaving just a skeleton of original. It highlights the desolate country-western tune that lurked beneath it all the while, and instead of conjuring up some oversized fire-breathing devil — Sweeny it succeeds at conjuring something far more sinister.
9. Bon Iver: Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”/”Nick of Time”
For the B-side to his 2011 single “Calgary,” Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon weaved Bonnie Raitt‘s “Nick of Time” into the tail-end of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” though that’s not what makes the whole thing stand out. While Raitt’s 1991 hit has been covered by everyone this side ofAmerican Idol, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” has never sounded quite as vulnerable as Vernon wills it to be. With just the piano and his falsetto, the bareness makes lines like, “You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t,” inescapable.
8. Karen O with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: Led Zeppelin, “Immigrant Song”
After winning an Oscar for his soundtrack to film The Social Network, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor again teamed up with director David Fincher to make movie music magic for the big-screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s 2005 novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While much of the soundtrack is moody and ambient, Fincher suggested that Reznor take on this classic 1970 Led Zeppelin song. “That was David coming to me and saying, ‘What do you think about a version of this?’” Reznor told the L.A. Times. “I wouldn’t have thought of it. But I don’t think of it in terms of how he sees it in the film, and he doesn’t always explain himself. You learn to fill in the blanks.” Produced with longtime Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross and featuring Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O on vocals, the final result is a brutal, industrial-tinged reading that serves the film perfectly.
7. Aimee Mann: Harry Nilsson/Three Dog Night, “One”
Originally written by Harry Nilsson for his 1968 album Aerial Ballet, “One” was made famous as a No. 5 hit from Three Dog Night the following year. At the risk of being sacrilegious, our favorite version is by Aimee Mann. Hers owes more to Nilsson’s original than the Three Dog Night hit, and indeed, she recorded it for a 1995 tribute album,Everybody Loves Harry. Director Paul Thomas Anderson brought the cover to light in the opening sequence of Magnolia, and filled the film’s soundtrack almost exclusively with Mann originals. Where Three Dog Night turns the song into a sweaty soul workout, Mann sings with a sigh, reserved to the fact that one is the loneliest number, but she’s gonna have to get used to it.
6. Cowboy Junkies: The Velvet Underground, “Sweet Jane”
Written by Lou Reed, “Sweet Jane” was first released on the Velvet Underground’s fourth album, 1970’s Loaded. The song has been covered by a wide variety of artists over the years, ranging from Mott The Hoople in 1972 to the Sugarcubes in 1997. But it was Canada’s Cowboy Junkies who injected new life into the song with their hushed and reverent version from their lauded 1988 full-length, The Trinity Session. Based on the slower version of the song found on 1974’s 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, Lou Reed himself was taken with the remake, calling it “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.” The Cowboy Junkies’ version also got a boost from being included on the soundtrack to 1994 Oliver Stone movie Natural Born Killers.
5. Dinosaur Jr: The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”
While there are scads of cover versions of Cure songs from a litany of artists ranging from 311 to Adele (both of whom took on 1989 track “Lovesong”), few are more inspired than Dinosaur Jr.’s take on “Just Like Heaven,” originally featured as the third single from the Cure’s 1987 double-album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis’ rollicking run through the song added a layer of grunge fuzz to it, which the Cure’s Robert Smith absolutely adored. “J. Mascis sent me a cassette, and it was so passionate. It was fantastic,” Smith toldBlender magazine in 2003. “I’ve never had such a visceral reaction to a cover version before or since.” Dinosaur Jr. produced a puppet-laden video to accompany the cover tune.
4. Nirvana: David Bowie, “The Man Who Sold the World”
The swirling, psychedelic-tinged original was the title track of David Bowie’s 1970 album, also appearing in America as the B-side to the singer’s breakout 1972 single, “Space Oddity.” Kurt Cobain andNirvana revisited the song for their lauded 1994 live recording, MTV Unplugged in New York, released after frontman Kurt Cobain’s death in April of that year. It’s a poignant selection, with the lyrics mirroring Cobain’s own difficulty dealing with the trappings of rock and roll stardom. The album also features emotional versions of two Meat Puppets songs including “Lake of Fire,” ending on a heart-wrenching rendition of American standard “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” most closely associated with blues musician Lead Belly.
3. Sonic Youth: The Carpenters, “Superstar”
Sonic Youth have history when it comes to the Carpenters. The band’s 1990 album, Goo, featured the song “Tunic (Song for Karen),” an homage to the Carpenters’ singer and drummer Karen Carpenter, who died in 1982 from complications caused by anorexia nervosa. Written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, “Groupie (Superstar)” was originally found on the B-side to 1969 Delaney & Bonnie single, “Comin’ Home.” The Carpenters would turn the song into a bona fide hit in 1971 as simply “Superstar.” Sonic Youth took on the tune for 1994 Carpenters tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter, with Thurston Moore on vocals and guitar feedback in lieu of the Carpenters’ horn section.
2. Johnny Cash: Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”
This bleak track from Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 magnum opus The Downward Spiral that got as high as #8 on the U.S. Hot 100, found new life in the hands of country legend Johnny Cash on his Rick Rubin-produced 2002 swan song, The Man Comes Around. Cash’s mournful croon gives the song even more gravitas, so much so that Nine Inch Nails mastermind himself Trent Reznor said Cash’s version was so good that it brought tears to his eyes. The video (shot by longtime NIN collaborator Mark Romanek) was awarded video of the year by both the Grammys and CMAs.
1. Gary Jules: Tears for Fears, “Mad World”
Originally recorded by new wave duo Tears For Fears in 1982 (it peaked at #3 on the UK singles charts), San Diego singer-songwriterGary Jules and film score composer Michael Andrews stripped away the synthesizers and drum machines to create a sparse, brooding version for 2001 film and soundtrack, Donnie Darko. The new version went on to be the #1 UK Christmas single in 2003, continuing to chart around the world through early 2007, when it climbed to the top of the Canadian Digital Singles list. The original music video was filmed by famed director Michel Gondry. Jules may be a footnote in the recorded history of Tears For Fears, but his version of “Mad World” is the one that history will remember.
– Scott T. Sterling, Radio.com (With additional reporting by Jillian Mapes, Jeremy D. Larson & Brian Ives)