Friday Afternoon Jukebox: A Cover That Improves The Original


Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Related Post Roulette

118 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Leave John Denver alone.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Really. I take back my warm welcome to Sam. I don’t think this kind of offensive stuff is appropriate for the League.Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

        “Life ain’t nothing but a funny funny riddle, thank god I was born into a military family and moved around from base to base for the entirety of my youth living in places like Tuscon Arizona and Montgomery Alabama and Fort Worth Texas and yet still seriously claim that I’m a country boy!”Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          Weirdly, when I was living in Germany I found out this song is REALLY popular there, whole bars full of Germans will sing this. I was stunned. I guess John Denver is of German descent, and they have adopted him, plus the lyrics really do have a ‘Volk’ feeling to them, don’t they?Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            I guess John Denver is of German descent,

            His real name was Deutschendorf.

            But then the Germans really love the music of David Hasselhoff, too, so it’s hard to know what to make of them.Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              I don’t know what to make of them; but I do know I don’t want to make them angry.

              I kid, I kid. The Germans I know are lovely people.Report

          • I had a roommate from Korea once, and he and his Japanese girlfriend really liked John Denver. I remember them asking me where “Mountain Momma” was.Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              My roommate in college was American, but not raised in a religious household as I was.

              We were listening to Madness’ ‘Our House’ once and he asked me what a Sunday Vest was (he assumed it was some special piece of religious wear, and I had to explain, no, that’s just a generic ‘Sunday Best’).Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:


          Yeah, yeah, and Johnny Cash was never incarcerated in Folsom Prison. Damn, way to ruin all my heroes! 😉Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        I think you’re all missing the delicious irony of having a Sam Wilkinson post that talks about some versions of songs being categorically better than others.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          That was cold, man, cold. But @ LoOG, anything you say can and will be used against you.Report

          • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

            I’ve never said individuals can’t have preferences. I’ve merely said it is a mistake to think that those preferences are representative of truths about the art itself and not merely the individual expression of subjective tastes.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      I prefer this Toots cover myself, lyrically altered just slightly for geography 😉

  2. Avatar Ken says:

    I’ll add three that come to mind:
    Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe”, Neko Case’s “Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis”, and The Webb Sisters’ “If If Be Your Will”.

    And when I am king, anyone caught covering “Hallelujah” will be attained.Report

  3. Avatar dhex says:

    this is likely debatable, but i always thought mogwai’s “my father, my king” was a lot more moving than the jewish hymn it takes the melody from. particularly live.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      I didn’t realize that was from a hymn, I’ll have to track down the original. In my ‘Covers’ playlist it goes!Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The Beatles did this all the time: Twist and Shout, Please Mr. Postman. Words of Love.

    There’s a John Mellencamp cover of Under the Boardwalk I love. The Drifters are great, but for my money too restrained. That’s a song that deserves to have the hell sung out of it.

    For most pointless, The Indigo Girls cover of Dire Strait’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I love me some Girls, but they seem to misunderstand everything that makes that song great. It’s not a down and dirty blues, it’s a portrait of a performance, which makes it even sadder when the love-struck Romeo’s real heartache breaks through.Report

  5. Avatar dexter says:

    “Lefty and Pancho” with Willie and Merle.
    “Runaway” live version by Bonnie Raitt and that incredible harp player.
    And of course “Me and Bobby Mcgee” by that hippie chick from Texas.Report

  6. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    Ray Charles made everything Ray Charles. “America the Beautiful,” the Maxwell House anthem, no difference.Report

  7. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I loved the Cat Power cover of Wonderwall, which I had never heard before. It was very reminiscent of Neil Nathan’s cover of the ELO hit Do Ya, which has become a playlist staple in my car drives.


  8. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    Emmylou Harris is quite the cover artist — you could argue it’s made (or even BEEN) her career. Not always better, but typically good, and only rarely failures.

    Johnny Cash’s version of Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road” is better than the original, if only because you’re hearing a man sing while knowing he’s not long for the world.Report

  9. Avatar Glyph says:

    Weirdly, had never heard that Cat Power one (I dig her and it) – did it come out before or after the semi-similar Ryan Adams one that reportedly made Noel Gallagher say in effect ‘it’s his song, now’?:

  10. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Manfred Man’s cover of Blinded by the Light is totally superior to IMHO the Boss’ . Little known songfact was listening to the MM version was a fireable offense for anyone on the Boss’ crew (and yes, I know someone who got fired, the good news is his next gig was with Led Zeppelin).

    Fun game: How many Mondegreen’s can you come up with from just that one song?Report

  11. Avatar Glyph says:

    Maybe slightly obscure to some, and I am not sure it bests the New Order version which is one of my favorite songs ever, but Galaxie 500’s cover of ‘Ceremony’ is at least nearly as good, in a very different way from the original.

    For those who can’t stand the singer’s voice (it is, admittedly, an acquired taste), try to stick with the song anyway until it lifts off (you’ll know when).

    There was a sticker on one of the Galaxie 500 LPs exhorting the listener to ‘Come Ride the Fiery Breeze’ and I can think of no better descriptor for this guitar tone. Epic:

  12. Avatar Glyph says:

    One more and I’ll quit (sorry, this is a topic I love, which I am going to now reverse):

    You probably know Blondie’s version, but I prefer the original:

  13. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across Ray Charles’s cover. Released first on his Live From Japan album, it has never received serious fanfare.

    A bit of context here: Olivia Newton-John’s version was a major hit in Japan, and the song has taken on a life of its own over there.Report

  14. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Any Dylan song done by anyone but Dylan.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      This rule holds up across a broad spectrum of genres and artists.

      All Along The Watchtower
      If You Gotta Go, Go Now
      You’re Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go
      Man in the Long Black Coat
      Blowing in the Wind
      Simple Twist of Fate
      Knocking on Heaven’s Door
      If Not For You

      …Oh, the list could go on and on and on. All to Mr. Dylan’s great credit as a masterful songwriter.Report

    • “Any Dylan song done by anyone but Dylan.”


      (except for “Lay, Lady, Lay,” I can’t imagine that song being done in a way that I’d say, “hey, it’s not a bad song.” YMMV)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Ministry had an awesome cover of Lay, Lady, Lay.Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          Don’t forget RevCo’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’.

          And Faith No More did a surprisingly straightfoward and smooth cover of Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Easy’.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Neil Diamond did pretty well with “Lay, Lady, Lay,” but I agree with this assessment. Dylan doesn’t sound like himself in the studio recording of “Lay, Lady, Lay,” he sounds like… well, he sounds like Neil Diamond.

        Similar to K.D. Lang covering “Crying.” She really has a fantastic take and it shows off all her strengths as a performer. But the original by Roy Orbison is just that much better.Report

  15. Avatar wardsmith says:

    What do you call a cover of a cover by the original cover artist? Jimmy Webb wrote some awesome tunes, and this one is the best.Report

  16. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    First saw it here and it’s still dripping with awesomesauce: The Gourds covering Gin and Juice.

    Better yet, Snoop Dogg enjoying The Gourds covering Gin and Juice.Report

  17. Avatar Glyph says:

    I promised to quit, but I keep remembering great ones. Howzabout this one (originally by Eddy Grant, yes, the ‘Electric Avenue’ guy, when he was in The Equals):

  18. I like Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version of “I Came for You” better than Springsteen’s, but Springsteen’s isn’t bad, in my opinion.Report

  19. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Just thought of another one: “Mack the Knife.” I guess that’s not entirely fair, since none of us can travel back in time and see an original run of Threepenny Opera. But we can compare Bobby Darin’s iconic cover with, say, Louis Armstrong’s, with the closest thing we can get to the original, Lotte Lenya, the composer’s wife, singing it in the original German.Report

  20. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    No one has yet mentioned the iconic example, I’m surprised:

    Aretha’s cover of RESPECT made it absolutely, positively, unquestionably hers forever.Report

  21. I don’t think I buy the general point about covers, but in jazz music (where what is and isn’t a “cover” isn’t always clear) excellent covers and re-interpretations are the norm: Miles Davis’ “Solar” is infinitely better than the piece it covers). And of course almost all orchestral music is in a sense a cover. So, meh. And Charles knows that jazz tradition.

    But in that vein, there are uncountably many _great_ “jazz” covers of pop tunes, so here’s a couple off the top of my head which I find much better than the originals.

    _Everyone_ should agree that Bobby McFerrin’s cover of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” Dave Douglas’ cover of Bjork’s “Unison,” and Cassandra Wilson’s cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” (really her cover of Miles Davis’ cover of it) are ridiculously superior to the originals. If you disagree, sorry, you’re just totally wrongheaded.

    Been listening a lot to Vijay Iyer’s new one which has a great cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”

    For me personally the definitive cover of “Wonderwall” is Brad Mehldau’s — check out the bass figure on that, how Grenadier drops a beat so he goes in and out of phase. Same album has a cover of “Black Hole Sun” that is beyond belief, and of course Mehldau is known for his many Radiohead covers. His “Knives out” is killing. I think comparing Brad Mehldau to any but a very very select group of musicians is a little unfair, though, so, back to earth….

    Bill Frisell’s cover of Madonna’s “Live to Tell” on “Have a Little Faith” (an album all of covers). I love Bill. I saw him do that song live before the album came out, people in the audience heard the riff and tittered, then he stopped and said, “No, I really like this song, please listen.” And he was right — he heard something there we hadn’t.

    Of course Ethan Iverson first gained fame with the Bad Plus’ covers on its first album: the Aphex Twin piece is the standout, but Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is amazing – Iverson had never heard it and he just rages.

    Staying with Nirvana, I think Charlie Hunter’s best album is “Bing BIng Bing, and it has a great “Come as You Are.”

    I’ve heard Christian Sands do Kanye West’s “Runaway” and liked it better than the original.

    It would be easy to go on and on and on….Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Yeah, great point.

      I don’t think of “covers” when I think of jazz. It seems that so much of jazz is wrapped up in what you can do with an already iconic melody or rhythm, that when I see, say, Marsalis doing an Ellington piece I just don’t hear myself saying “He’s covering an Ellington song” they way I would for something in the pop genres.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Glen Gould had some great Bach covers.Report

        • Avatar mark boggs says:

          Sometimes he even put in vocals where there were none in the original.Report

        • Yeah, that’s what I meant — the concept doesn’t quite work outside of pop/rock, and it only works _in_ pop/rock because _comparatively speaking_ those forms put much less of a premium on originality and composition so there’s a special quality to a “cover” where even that is abandoned and the artist traffics in style and arrangement instead.

          Check out Uri Caine’s “Goldberg Variations.” They sure aren’t Glenn Gould’s! But they are in an odd sense truer to the original.Report

    • Oh! VIjay Iyer’s cover of MIA’s “Galangal” gets a lot of play here too….Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

      No actual jazz song has been written since “Take Five,” 1959. All there are is countless re-dos and covers of popsongs.

      Except “Birdland,” but you can’t keep playing that all night. “Satin Doll,” boys, one…more…time, and then we’ll do that Cyndi Lauper one again.

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        My favorite song to hear jazz covers of: Autumn Leaves.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        Also, the purist in me wants to rail against that list being called “jazz.”

        Seriously, Chantilly Lace?Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Stanley Crouch had it right: Jazz is Ray Coniff zombies with B.A.s from East McKeesport State, passionately winding their watches.

          • I can’t come up with an interpretation of Tom Van Dyke’s comment here that makes a lot of sense but — that Crouch column got him fired, and got a lot of pushback from everywhere, and it’s not smart to cite it. For one thing it is ridiculously racist. The idea that Dave DOuglas — who was digging up crazy new talent and introducing all kinds of new ideas to the music in the ’90’s and 200’s, and still is — was getting so much critical approbation because he’s _white_ is _beyond stupid_. Saying that instead that approbation should _obviously_ be going to Marsalis — who many jazz musicians, notably Keith Jarrett, hate — is also _stupid_, and to have a columnist who has a financial interest in Wynton Marsalis writing it (but not disclosing that interest) is transparent. To say that _Bill Evans_ was somebody white critics went and found so they could have some white guy to praise instead of black pianists, is _just stupid_. Tom doesn’t know what he’s talking about.Report

        • Thoughts — (1) I am not a big Stanley Jordan fan, not digging that “Autumn Leaves” (2) “the “jazz purist”? I worked at Yoshi’s, man — and why the hell isn’t Brad Mehldau qualified to say what’s jazz? Or Ethan Iverson? Fact is it’s a continuum, and it’s a much more inclusive form than pop — since the ’90s it’s been totally globalized, most jazz players worth anything can play a raga or a maqam — and that particular list is all players who are just as happy playing post-bop (3) Yeah, “Autumn Leaves” exemplifies why “cover” doesn’t quite apply — I mean, you can reorchestrate or reharmonize, or anything else, and once the thing becomes a standard… Davis’ version is famous but check out the Chick Corea/Bobby McFerrin duets, there’s a couple of them.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Yoshi’s…. jeebus, that must have been great.

            Jazz has always waged a continuous war against those who would capture it and try to pin it in a box like some butterfly. In a sense, “Jazz” is nothing but a catch-all, a default case for music which didn’t fit into the other pigeonholes in the record store.

            I particularly like the description of jazz as a continuum. Jazz, like a healthy language, happily absorbs any useful terms it encounters and attaches them to itself.

            At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
            Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
            Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
            Where blood-begotten spirits come
            And all complexities of fury leave,
            Dying into a dance,
            An agony of trance,
            An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
            Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
            Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
            The golden smithies of the Emperor!
            Marbles of the dancing floor
            Break bitter furies of complexity,
            Those images that yet
            Fresh images beget,
            That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

  22. Avatar Tod Kelly says:


    This is as great a conversation stemming from a Friday Jukebox as I’ve seen ’round these parts, Sam. Kudos.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill Mobile says:

      I for one don’t like this post one bit. I want to just be able to post a music video and call it a day. Yet here’s the New Guy setting a new standard and crap. Bah!Report

  23. Avatar Will H. says:

    I believe the Coroner reggae version of “Purple Haze” deserves at least an honorable mention on such a thread.
    Not only is it Coroner playing reggae, but they chose to do “Purple Haze” when they did.Report

  24. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Flower Kings covering Genesis Cinema ShowReport

  25. If we’re talking covers of “Country Roads,” I’d just like to throw Mr. toots Hibbert into the mix:

    Also, for what it’s worth, I seem to recall that in the early days of this site, we had a contest to determine the Best Cover Ever. I am not opposed to doing another round of that contest.Report

  26. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The two Bojangles are worth comparing, if you’re drunk and feeling like a good cry.Report

  27. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    There’s also:

    -Benny Goodman’s cover of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”
    -The Righteous Brothers’ cover of “Unchained Melody,” Todd Duncan’s version being the original. Personally, I’m partial to Al Hibbler’s cover, but I’ve been outvoted, it seems.
    -And the Righteous Brothers’ cover of “Ebb Tide.”Report

  28. Avatar mark boggs says:

    What about the kickin’ bluegrass covers by Hayseed Dixie. “Highway to Hell”? It is a thing of beauty.Report

  29. Avatar Kolohe says:

    This was tagged on another site as a ‘bad cover’ but hell, I like it


  30. Avatar Kolohe says:

    The thing about Country Roads is that the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River are both almost entirely in *western* Virginia, not West Virginia. The quip growing up is that he must have wrote that song in Harper’s Ferry.Report

  31. Avatar Kazzy says:

    That John Denver’s full of shit…Report

  32. Avatar misterxroboto says:

    two additions:

    Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a cover of Prince

    and Cat Power’s “Fortunate Son.”Report