Cover Songs Better than “Africa”

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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132 Responses

  1. Dan Miller says:

    Harvey Danger did a great cover of “Save It for Later” by the English Beat.

  2. Nathaniel Horadam says:

    Whoa whoa whoa. If we’re going with a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” it’s gotta be the Yes rendition.

    Other great candidates are the Who’s “Eyesight to the Blind” and Faith Hill’s “Piece of My Heart.”Report

    • atomickristin in reply to Nathaniel Horadam says:

      I sadly must admit the Yes version is not my cup of prog.

      And I don’t really love the others as well as the originals either – but they’re definitely valid remakes. (I will be seeing Faith Hill’s lacy blouse and blazer combo in my nightmares for some time)

      All of them are WAY better than “Africa”.Report

  3. Michael Cain says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the Mamas’ and the Papas’ California Dreaming, which has been covered a huge number of times. Of the covers, I’ll take the Beach Boys’ version.

  4. Pinky says:

    First Aid Kit’s “America” reminds me of the S&G version from the Concert in Central Park. Are you familiar with it?Report

  5. Aaron David says:

    Nick Cave covered Nina Simone’s Plain Gold Ring, giving it a sense of menace that only he can bring

  6. Chip Daniels says:

    Although Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was the bigger hit, I think Linda Ronstadt’s version was pitch perfect.

    Linda’s voice has that marvelous ability to span from whisper sweet to shaking the rafters that the song requires.Report

  7. Aaron David says:

    I have never been a Madonna fan, but here she is covering her brother-in-laws Stop, retitleing it as Don’t Tell Me. As he said, “I played it as a rhumba, she played it as a hit.

  8. Saul Degraw says:

    Liz Phair’s cover of Turning Japanese is very good.

    What I think we can all agree on is that random street musicians trying to do 100 percent imitations of Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah need to be muted.Report

  9. PD Shaw says:

    Otis Redding’s cover of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin.

    Wait a minute! Strike that, reverse it. Thank you. The original was really good though.Report

  10. Oscar Gordon says:

    One of the first covers I loved, You Can’t Hurry Love, by Phil Collins, original by The Supremes.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      I always liked that one too, Oscar. I remember it was one of the first songs I taped off the radio. Strangely enough, the same tape I recorded “Africa” on.

      As a child I remember feeling worried that a very mean girl had left poor Phil in the rain for hours. But, you can’t hurry love.Report

  11. Anne says:

    Kristen thanks this is a great column. Can’t write much now but just shared this with my husband and we can’t really define it it but there is a difference between a rendition of a song and a successful cover of a song.Report

  12. My lest favorite cover: Romeo and Juliet (Dire Straits) by the Indigo Girls. One of the greatest things abut the original is the progression of emotions: anger, sadness, resignation, and finally hope. Gone completely in favor of making it “rawer”.Report

  13. LeeEsq says:

    One of my factories artists
    Richard Thompson has an album of covers called A Thousand Years of Pop Music. He goes all the way back to the Middle Ages but also covers more contemporary music like Oops I Did It Again and 1985. It’s a skilled riot.Report

  14. dragonfrog says:

    Cover songs are kind of funny as a general thing – it’s a category we only recently even thought of. Go see a symphony or a jazz band, how many of the pieces they pay were composed by one of the performers? Zero is a pretty safe bet…

    Anyway, there are some great ones in this post – Cash’s cover of Hurt is the one I immediately thought of on reading the title. Morrissette’s cover of My Humps is awesome. Footnote to that – Fergie loved it and sent Alanis a cake in the shape of a bum to thank her.

    I like both Michael Buble’s and the Ramones’ covers of the Spiderman theme song. It helps that I watched that cartoon a lot growing up.

    I don’t know if you’d call Loreena McKennit’s Mask and Mirror am album of “covers” exactly, but it’s full of great adaptations of much older songs and poems.

    Matt Mulholland’s cover of Rebecca Black’s Friday is pure gold. Say what you will of the song, it inspired some fun covers.

    And if for no reason other than the amazing video, Andy Rehfeldt’s black metal cover of The Good Ship Lollipop

    • LeeEsq in reply to dragonfrog says:

      Glad you brought this point up. Cover songs only make sense as a concept when we strictly correlate song, song writer, and performer together. Before rock, the idea that a particular song belonged to a particular artist and everybody else was copying it would be ludicrous. Music was popular because everybody sung it. According to musical history Elijah Wald, if you went into a record song before rock, the shop workers would assume any good recording of a song would do.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to dragonfrog says:

      The cover of Friday is insanely good! That is CRAZY! The existential angst of “what seat should I take”…

      Lollipop is awesome and disturbing in all the right ways.

      Thank you!!!Report

  15. Jaybird says:

    I am a huge fan of cover songs. I agree with your fourth point that if you’re going to do a note-for-note recreation of a song, you should choose a fairly obscure one.

    I think that Gnarles Barkley’s cover of Gone Daddy Gone is juuuust on this side of obscure, but it’s a great example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. Why not listen to the original instead?

    Well, if the answer is “nobody has heard of the original”, that’s a pretty good answer. (“Nobody but theater dorks has heard of the original” is a somewhat less good answer.)Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Jaybird says:

      That… Really does sound a lot like the original. I don’t really think of the Violent Femmes as obscure, more ‘not quite played to death whenever an album came out’ but maybe my circle of high school friends was non-representative.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Well, the original came out in 1983.
        St. Elsewhere came out in 2006.

        So there’s 23 years between.

        Africa came out in 1982.
        As we all know and use to justify why people ought to either believe things or stop believing things, it is 2018.
        That’s 33 years between.

        Surely there’s a formula to figure out the proper statute of limitations on whether you can remake any given song.

        Would it be okay to remake Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean? Maybe Thriller?
        The answer is: No. Hell no. Just forget even thinking about it.

        Would it be okay to remake Smooth Criminal?
        Eh. Maybe. If you speed it up a little.

        Would it be okay to remake… Human Nature?
        Ah, jeez. That’s a tough one, innit? The problem is that people wouldn’t really be able to improve upon it and, let’s face it, they’d probably take it in some weird Tori Amos direction without, you know, actually *BEING* Tori Amos and being able to get it there.

        Better not to try.

        But is someone wanted to remake… oh, what else came out in 1982… Avalon! If someone wanted to cover some Roxy Music songs, oh boy. They should.

        Why should I be stuck here with only Roxy Music’s version of Roxy Music songs?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think that there might also be a bit of a caste system as well.

      Let’s say someone tried to remake a Freddie Mercury song. People would get pissed off. I’m pissed off right now just thinking about it. WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? YOU COULDN’T SHINE FREDDY MERCURY’S BOOTS!

      Let’s say someone tried to remake a Phil Collins song. Who would care?

      Let’s say someone tried to remake a Tom Petty song. You know what? Tom Petty would probably be happy to hear that. Good for them.

      Let’s say someone tried to remake a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen song. Yeah, get in friggin line, pal.

      It doesn’t seem to have much to do with whether they’re liked or beloved or whatever.

      But there are people you can cover safely and people you can’t.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to Jaybird says:

      I had never heard that song before so I listened to the original too and yeah, it was pretty similar. But obscure, so it could be a rediscovered gem. Thanks!Report

  16. Pinky says:

    I recently ran across piano versions of Sweet Child O’ Mine. I can’t say that any one of them blew me away beyond the first few bars, but that intro is remarkably beautiful on piano.Report

  17. Jaybird says:

    Oh, and Hüsker Dü’s cover of Eight Miles High is sublime. I like it better than the original.Report

  18. Koz says:

    Postmodern Jukebox is a has reinterpreted into a different genre like a thousand pop songs on YouTube, and most of them are great.

    I also like the S&G cover. Probably most of you have seen it, but Bernie Sanders had an ad out with that song (the original), that for me was one of the two best ads during the 2016 cycle.Report

  19. Maribou says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for that America cover – it’s really lovely.Report

  20. Mike Dwyer says:

    I actually saw Weezer perform this live back in July at a concert in Cincinnati. It feels a bit like this one got away from them and Rivers kind of wishes he didn’t have to keep playing it, but the crowd did enjoy it in a cheesy way.

    As for covers in general, I’m a firm advocate that every concert is better for having at least one of them. I saw Jason Isbell shortly after Tom Petty died and they closed with ‘American Girl’. When that opening guitar riff started it brought the house down. I’m talking goosebumps and people in tears while they were singing at the tops of their lungs. Love those moments.Report

    • See I wonder if part of the reason I dislike the song as much as I do, is because I really do like Weezer (at least Weezer of a couple decades ago, LOL) and I wish some of their actual songs were getting as much love and play as “Africa” is.

      Live covers I don’t mind and in fact enjoy – the spontaneity of it all. There are a lot of fun live covers I really like even when they’re not perfect or better than the original.Report

  21. Kolohe says:

    I enjoy this take on take on me by some middle aged dudesReport

  22. Burt Likko says:

    I’ve got a bit of a musical crush on an indie band called State 2 State, who does exactly one cover song in their live sets:

  23. My leader in the clubhouse is the absurdly talented, and absurdly eccentric, Cat Power. Her covers of “Satisfaction” and “Wonderwall” are both excellent

    (My leader in the clubhouse for worst cover? Elvis Pressley’s unforgivable hatchet job on “Hound Dog” which renders the song’s lyrics entirely meaningless. Eww.)Report

  24. Slade the Leveller says:

    Ben Folds Five doing Flaming Lips “She Don’t Use Jelly.

    Nouvelle Vague‘s take on The Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).

    Listen with pleasure.Report

  25. Slade the Leveller says:

    One more. Jimmy Webb covers his own song.Report

  26. George Turner says:

    I was told to come to this thread, so I’m going to cite all the covers of Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Bach, because that’s all orchestras play these days – covers.

    But seriously, here’s a Procol Harum 2006 cover of Whiter Shade of Pale, originally performed by Procol Harum. The song debuted in 1966, so the video is 40 years later. It’s just spooky, like something out of Doctor Who.Report

    • That’s actually a good point. Hadn’t thought of it that way.Report

    • Pinky in reply to George Turner says:

      Oh, if we’re going to count people remaking their own music, I’ve got to bring up Neil Young. He’s been doing this so long that he doesn’t have any undue respect for early rock – he can cover it, even his old stuff, without having to pay tribute to it or prove something by tearing it down. His live stuff is sometimes sloppy, but that’s part of the charm (at least, it’s charming when you can listen for 20 seconds then try another video).Report

  27. Rob says:

    Can a token metalhead throw in Volbeat’s cover of “I Only Wanna Be With You”

  28. Bill D says:

    The better than Weezer Africa cover:

  29. Nathaniel Horadam says:

    One other I really like is John Mellencamp’s rendition of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” The latter is good, but Mellencamp’s is just better.Report

  30. atomickristin says:

    Several people have raised the point of classical music. Symphonies perform versions of the same pieces and that’s expected. This whole deal with a song “belonging” to anyone is definitely a 20th century+ concept.

    But this got me thinking – an oboe is an oboe is an oboe but with modern music, the voice is the instrument. Tom Waits and Kelly Clarkson are just not playing the same instrument. It seems to me like a cover song can be like taking a piece written for a violin and performing it with a piccolo and then changing the tempo markings and essentially turning it into a new song. Classical musicians don’t do that (at least that I’m aware) and in fact their goal is to play the music as written. So it’s no wonder the London Symphony can play the same piece as the Chicago Symphony and it really doesn’t matter what recording people buy.

    But add in the vocal instrument and people do start wanting to hear the different versions. People might want to hear the same piece sung by Maria Callas and Marion Anderson and it will still be the same song, but definitely worth hearing both versions. Modern music takes this even further, with the potential to change pretty much everything about a song. I think the ability to change voices and tempos and instrumentation really does make modern covers an entirely different animal than classical music.Report

  31. Oscar Gordon says:

    Groups like Bond put new spins on classical pieces.

  32. Kolohe says:

    (I’m not sure the word “fun” has ever been used to describe anything sung by Alanis Morissette)

    Is it then ironic that the video for Ironic looks to be the most fun Morissette ever had in the music industry?Report

  33. Kolohe says:

    This is a performance of a song that Sia actually wrote in the first place so I’m not sure if this is even a cover exactly but it’s still really good.

    There’s gotta to be a name for the entire genre of songs that were written by someone, made popular by someone else, and people then discover the original songwriter. Carole King was pretty famous for this. Dan Navarro a bit less so, (and partly because his brother Dave is a lot more famous).

    One of the best concert experiences I ever had was when Navarro opened for another band (Eddie from Ohio) and at the conclusion, Eddie from Ohio brought Navarro and his bandmate* back on the stage and they all did a rendition of We Belong that burrowed into my soul.

    *I can’t remember who, Lowen had long since passed awayReport

  34. Kolohe says:

    Most of BBC Radio One’s Vevo channel is current artists doing covers of other current artists along with some ‘oldies’

    Australia radio station triple j’s Like a Version is even more dedicated to that theme.Report

  35. Sam Wilkinson says:

    The internet has provided Kristen with the spiciest of takes that I suspect she will very much enjoy:

    • atomickristin in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      Agh, that’s mean! You know what they say, never ask a question you don’t want the answer to.

      Seriously, I do like Weezer and would love to hear an actual new Weezer song that was a) getting this kind of attention and b) was worthy of getting this kind of attentionReport