I recently read this little, hipster blog about the San Fran band Girls doing a cover of a song called "It's the End of the World." You may remember that one, once done right by the glorious Skeeter Davis. Girls, the band, did an okay version of the song. I'll give them that. But, to see this hipster gushing on and on about it made me sick. I thought, "What an ass. She probably has never heard Skeeter's take on this." That was probably wrong of me, but it made me think of what covers almost bested the original.*
I'd be amiss not to mention a few of those that I found honorable to mention. It was a hard list to make, but these artists came damn close to capturing what the original song did while putting their own twist on it.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order): Rage Against the Machine - "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (Bruce Springsteen); Louis Armstrong - "Moon River" (Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini); Townes Van Zandt - "Dead Flowers" (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards); Marilyn Manson - "Sweet Dreams" (Dave Stewart)
5. Ray Charles - "You Don't Know Me" (Cindy Walker/Eddy Arnold)
To me, this version is amazing. The sheer beauty of it alone makes it an immediate classic for anyone who hears it, but when you put the song in the hands of Ray Charles, well, you have something that exceeds amazing. What you have is a song one that not only breathtaking, but perhaps the best song about goodbye one can imagine.
4. Pearl Jam - "Crazy Mary" (Victoria Williams)
Not being known for a spectacular voice, Victoria Williams is known in many circles for her impressive songwriting, focusing on her life in the South. Give "Crazy Mary" to Pearl Jam, though, and you've got a haunting set of lyrics about a good night gone bad. Veder's voice was made for this one. The song builds to the climax where you realize what the driver did, and there's no turning back. Though the studio version that Pearl Jam did for the tribute album to Williams is timeless, it can become even better live, where McCredy breaks through with an attacking lead that cuts with a build up of loud, erratic notes.
3.Lucero - "Kiss the Bottle" (Jawbreaker)
The idea of this list was to create a list of the five best works where an artist has taken the words and music of a song and made it his or hers, either by improving the original or by adding something that completely makes it new again. If you know Lucero, you know their sound. But listen to Jawbreaker's original version, and it's not quite the same, other than the lyrics. Lucero take take it, own it, give it that Lucero sound, and work it even better than Jawbreaker's. These lyrics were meant for Ben Nichols' whiskey-soaked voice to sing.
2. Johnny Cash - "Hurt" (Nine Inch Nails)
When Trent Reznor first heard Cash's version, he and Zach de la Rocha were about to leave the studio and go eat. Instead, Reznor had to sit down for a moment. That about sums up the first time I heard it, too, which was while watching the still desperate, gripping, amazing video. I dare you to listen and watch and try not to feel something.
1. Jimi Hendrix - "All Along the Watchtower" (Bob Dylan)
What else could there be? Let's be honest: there are so many bad, wretched versions of this song, which is only one of the reasons why Hendrix owns the number one spot. (Take Dave Matthews' cover of "Watchtower" where he simply builds and calms; it's so boring and tame -- too bad that's the version cover bands tend to try to emulate now.) Compare Bob Dylan's with Jimi's. No, they are nothing alike. Yes, they stand on their own, away from one another. They could even have different words or chord progressions, but they don't. (Hendrix does play his in Am, where Dylan opted for the C#m in his.) Even Dylan admitted that after hearing Hendrix's version, he can't help but try and play it like that. The original is a sparse, three-chord vision of the end of times. Hendrix makes it a full-blown apolocalpse.
*Editor's Note: Ham Bagby once said that there has never been a cover that even came close to the original version, no matter who or what it is. He's got a debatable point, you know.
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