I just saw this the other day. It’s AOL’s list of the ten best cover songs ever. As you might expect, a company that knows fuckall about providing good internet service to people also knows fuckall about good music. First off, the Guns ‘n’ Roses cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is a bloated, overwrought mess. I’ll take Bob Dylan’s original version over that douche-fest any day. I would point out how shitty Metallica’s cover of “Turn the Page” is but that would be a case where a shitty band took a shitty singer’s shitty song and made it, somehow, shittier. Shit. Nonetheless, Shitallica’s cover made AOL’s list.
But I didn’t come here merely to bury AOL’s list (nor did I come here to say “shit” five times in one sentence) – after reading it, I’ve decided to propose a tasty alternative. Granted, the bar is pretty fucking low here, but, without further ado: here’s the Bollocks! List of the 10 Best Covers Ever.
10) Sonic Youth, “Within You, Without You”- this is a bonus track on the Deluxe Edition of Daydream Nation, and it’s really awesome. It manages to out-weird the original, while maintaining a distinctly Sonic Youth-y flavor to it. Meaning, if you hate Sonic Youth, you’ll hate this song. But I love Sonic Youth, so make your own goddamned list.
9) The Clash, “I Fought the Law” – Everyone thinks that the Bobby Fuller Four did this song originally – it was actually originally done by Sonny Curtis, but made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four. If you have the U.S. release of the first Clash record, you have a version of this song that is far more awesome than all other versions of this song, largely because The Clash cranked it up to the rowdy song it should have been.
8) Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” – Hendrix’s cover of this Bob Dylan tune is so definitive that a lot of people think Jimi wrote it. He might as well have. In fact, let’s pass a law: we’ll call it Jimi’s Law (people like laws named after people) and it will be a simple law. Basically, it will make it illegal for anyone besides Jimi Hendrix to cover “All Along the Watchtower.” This is largely because the Dave Matthews Band’s version of this song is embarrassingly awful and I want a legal precedent to lock them up if they ever play it again.
7) R.E.M., “Pale Blue Eyes” – R.E.M. got their start covering the Velvet Underground and two VU covers show up on R.E.M.’s awesome odds-‘n’-sods collection Dead Letter Office (“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale”; both are awesome). Their version of “Pale Blue Eyes” is pitch-perfect, and about a quarter the length of the original. Peter Buck is an underrated guitarist and he does a lot with the minimal chord structure of this gorgeous song. A good tune for fans of The Velvet Underground, R.E.M., both bands, and/or awesome music.
6) Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” – Nirvana was really fucking good at covers. I mean really good. They did wonders for The Vaselines’ “Son of a Gun” and “Molly’s Lips” (if you haven’t listened to the Vaselines, though, you totally should) but perhaps their best moment came on MTV Unplugged of all things. Their rendition of this early Bowie tune actually makes it hard for me to listen to the original and you’re not apt to find many bigger fans of 70s Bowie than yours truly.
5) Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen is a case, in my opinion, of a guy who writes great songs and doesn’t perform them as well as other people do. The original version of “Hallelujah” is actually pretty cheesy. Jeff Buckley’s version, found on his stellar Grace album, is truly incredible. Buckley sounds as haunted as a person ought to be when they sing, “Maybe there’s a God above/ but all I ever learned from love/ is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya”. I know this song has been covered a lot, too, but every other version of this song can go fuck itself. Buckley owned it and still owns it.
4) Patti Smith, “Gloria” – Okay, okay, this isn’t, strictly speaking, a cover. Patti Smith borrowed a lot from Van Morrison’s original but upped the awesome considerably by starting the song off with “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine” and from their she took a revered classic and treated it like she just didn’t give a fuck about it. This song is fully 30% of why Horses is an essential album.
3) Johnny Cash, “I See A Darkness” – Everyone has a giant boner for Cash’s version of “Hurt”, but I much prefer the Nine Inch Nails original. The Man in Black did much better with the lesser-known (but absolutely essential) cover of Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See A Darkness”. Featuring BPB on backing vocals, Cash plays this song like its pouring out of him. It’s one of his most beautiful performances ever and people really need to stop sucking off his “Hurt” cover and just listen to this one. Seriously. Do it now.
2) Tom Waits, “The Return of Jackie and Judy” – This cut originally appeared on We’re a Happy Family, which was a fuck-awful Ramones tribute album. Seriously bad. For example, it featured Rob Zombie ass-raping “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Fortunately, because Tom Waits is unbearably awesome, you can find this tune on his Orphans album which is 3 disc of Waitsy goodness. His rendition of “The Return of Jackie and Judy” is one of the most old-school, sloppy, broken-ass punk tunes I’ve ever heard. The guitars chug along while Tom’s son Casey beats the shit out of the drums. Waits’s vocals are at their shrieking best here as well. This is everything a cover should be – an artist paying homage, but also making the song their own. Tom Waits takes this Ramones tune and puts his own stubbly stamp on it in a way that only he can.
1) Joe Strummer, “Redemption Song” – First off, it takes balls for a white guy to cover this particular Bob Marley song. And a lot of white guys do (Chris Cornell has, and he should be jailed for it), but nobody – regardless of race, color, or creed – has done more with this song than the late, great Joe Strummer. Strummer shifts the accent of the chorus to the phrase, “These songs of freedom” and just nails the whole thing. Strummer got this cover so right that it’s not only a great cover, it’s one of the best songs ever recorded, beating the original in a landslide. Like Tom Waits’s Ramones cover, Strummer shows us how to cover a song and gives a compelling reason why he should have been given an official license to Play Whatever the Fuck He Wanted. His “Redemption Song” isn’t just a tribute, it’s a revelation. And I bet you those dipshits at AOL don’t even know it exists.
Honorable mentions should go to Boston’s Frank Smith for their cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” and also to The White Stripes for “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.”And Yo La Tengo’s version of “Little Honda.”
Also, a few of the worst covers ever: Sheryl Crow’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” makes me miss the original, which I never really cared for. But her version is maddeningly saccharine. I’d also like to raise a big middle finger to Uncle Kracker’s cover of Lynard Skynard’s “Simple Man.” I’m not a huge Skynard fan, but Kracker murdered that tune. Oh, and pretty much every cover Smash Mouth ever did. Fuck Smash Mouth.