Saturday, December 4, 2010

The four types of great cover songs

coversIIC


Cover songs are nothing new; just about every artist records them. Some do it to pay tribute to the original artist, others to help get their own names out there and gain some attention. As my interest in music has grown over the years, I’ve also been exposed to a broad spectrum of cover songs, ranging from the expected to the surprising; from artists building their entire careers around cover songs to those honoring similar artists with just that recording.

The above image, from Cracked.com, takes a humorous look at the types of covers out there, both good and bad. While I think there’s quite a bit more overlap between the categories than the graphic would suggest, it presented a great way to segment the types of covers out there. So, this post will explore covers in the categories from the graphic (on the good side, of course).

Like I mentioned earlier, covers are nothing new. As long as there has been widely-distributed popular music (and even longer), there have been artists performing and releasing music already performed or released by others. In the early days of rock and roll, many of these "covers" consisted of traditional or folk songs long in existence. Perhaps the best example is "Scarborough Fair" by Simon and Garfunkel. The song has existed, in some form, since around the mid-1600s.


Many other artists also covered many traditional songs during the 1950s and 1960s. Both The Animals and Bob Dylan recorded versions of "House of the Rising Sun," a song of unknown origin, believed to be based in songs from the 18th century. Bob Dylan also recorded a version of "Man of Constant Sorrow," a song you know if you've seen O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for his debut. That album contained a total of seven traditional songs, including the aforementioned "House of the Rising Sun."

Not only would many artists record traditional folk songs, they would also record recently released songs from other artists. Just for a few examples:

  • Sam Cooke's "Bring it on Home to Me" recorded by The Animals, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Lou Rawls.
  • Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a-Changin'" recorded by Nina Simone, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel.
  • The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" recorded by Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles
What's listed above is only a sampling of songs originally released and covered by others during that period. Even for each song, it's a only a small section of the covers that are out there.
Ray Charles' "Eleanor Rigby"

In more modern times, most artists still record covers, though they're less often first recordings of decades (or centuries) -old folk songs or attempts to benefit from the success of another's song, but often a show of reverence or respect from the covering artist to the original artist. At least, that is, among the better artists; others are still just trying to profit from a song that had already found success.

So, based on the graphic, there are four major categories of covers on the good side: "The Equaler," "The Successful Genre Swap," "Soul Added" and "The Whole New Level." While I do believe that there is some crossover between the categories, I present some work I feel fits these categories.

The Equaler
"The Equaler" is the artist that creates a very faithful cover of the original song. Instrumentation, composition and lyrics remain largely unchanged with the only different factor usually being the vocal (as, generally, no two people sound exactly alike). There's a thin line between this category and "The Palette Swap" on the bad side of the graphic, but an "Equaler" must be good.

Gnarls Barkley - "Gone Daddy Gone" (originally by Violent Femmes)
I started listening to Gnarls Barkley around the time of their success with "Crazy," long before I'd heard of or even started listening to Violent Femmes. I was surprised to realize "Gone Daddy Gone" from St. Elsewhere was a cover. Even more surprising is how faithful the cover is and yet the song fits the styles of both bands, despite how different they are.
Original
Cover

John Legend and The Roots - "Wake Up" (originally by Arcade Fire)
John Legend and the Roots supposedly named their album, Wake Up! after this track, but didn't end up including it on the final release. Pity. This is a surprisingly faithful cover, considering that John Legend and Arcade Fire produce pretty different types of music. There is a slight difference, in that Legend's version added a funky refrain after the second verse.
Original
Cover

The Bees - "A Minha Menina" (originally by Os Mutantes)
The Bees' (also known as Band of Bees, primarily in the US) version sounds remarkably like the original, even down to the vocal style. There is a difference of course, still, in that the verses, which are in Portuguese in the original, are now in English.
Original
Cover

The Successful Genre Swap
"The Successful Genre Swap" is exactly what is sounds like, an artist who takes the original song and covers it in a completely different genre. Most are stand-alone, an artist covers one song every few albums. Some artists, however, create entire careers around successful genre swaps.

Nouvelle Vague
Nouvelle Vague is a French band (Nouvelle Vague meaning New Wave) who covers '80s punk and new wave songs in a bossa nova style. They have released three albums of these covers, all pretty awesome. On the third album, they even partnered with the original artists to produce the songs. Once of my favorites of theirs is "Guns of Brixton," originally by The Clash.
Original
Cover

the bird and the bee - Interpreting the Masters
the bird and the bee is an indie pop band who had some success with Ray Guns are Not Just the Future. Their follow-up had them covering nine Hall & Oates songs. While this is a genre swap, it's not a far cry from the original music, which is just pure '80s. The music's fun, I never really was a fan of Hall & Oates, but love this album, especially "Private Eyes."
Original
Cover

Local Natives - "Warning Sign" (originally by Talking Heads)
While I've listened to Talking Heads for a few years now, getting into Local Natives gave me a whole new appreciation of the band, as they are influenced by Talking Heads. As soon as I realized "Warning Sign" was a cover, I sought out the original, as I did not yet have that particular song in my collection. I was amazed by how well they were able to turn the song into something completely different while still honoring the original. Both are beyond amazing.
Original
Cover

Soul Added
According to the graphic, these are artists that take dismal songs and make them great. I'm taking a more liberal approach to the idea of "Soul Added," as covers that do just that...add soul. Where the original song, good or not, isn't necessarily soulful in nature, the cover has applied that element to create a new sound around the song.

Adele - "Make You Feel My Love" (originally by Bob Dylan)
I love Bob Dylan, this is not one of those examples of a lackluster song made great by a better artist. I, however, don't think anyone could ever say that Bob's voice and style is particularly soulful. Adele's version of the song turned it into a soul-fest, a clear departure from Bob's fairly bare original.
Original
Cover

Cee-Lo Green - "No One's Gonna Love You" (originally by Band of Horses)
I've loved Band of Horses' original for more than a year, it was one of my favorite tracks on "Cease to Begin." However, it wasn't until I heard Cee-Lo's version that the song gave me chills. Both versions truly are great, but there's just something about the cover.
Original
Cover

Yael Naïm - "Toxic" (originally by Britney Spears)
At one point of time, long ago, I was a Britney fan, now I can't stand her music. This cover was perhaps one of the most surprising I'd ever heard. While this one isn't soul-added in the sense of applying R&B to the original, there's a certain soulfulness to Yael's voice, something completely devoid in anything Britney has ever done (sorry if any of you are Britney fans).
Original
Cover

The Whole New Level
This is the category that fully puts the original to shame. Not only is it better than the original, it can completely make you fail to realize that it's even a cover in the first place. I find these to be some combination of the other categories. Whether the artist is simply trying to copy the original or completely reinterpret it, these versions become the better remembered.

Gary Jules - "Mad World" (originally by Tears for Fears)
Tears for Fears was a very successful band in the '80s. However, when they released this song, it failed to chart. Gary Jules' version charted at #30 on the US Hot Modern Rock Chart and #1 in the UK, Canada and Portugal. While the bulk of its success may have to do with its inclusion on the Donnie Darko soundtrack, there is still something about the song that propels it beyond the original. Maybe it's that the style of recording better matches the lyrics of the song, which are dark, rather than the strange upbeat-ness in the original version.
Original
Cover

Iron & Wine - "Such Great Heights" (originally by The Postal Service)
This is another cover perhaps elevated by a movie soundtrack, in this case, Garden State. I've actually gotten into arguments as to whether the Iron & Wine version is the original (it's not). The original was not without its success, being rated as one of the best songs of decade by Rolling Stone Magazine. Yet, it seems Iron & Wine's sticks out better in many people's minds.
Original
Cover

Jeff Buckley - "Hallelujah" (originally by Leonard Cohen)
I like Leonard Cohen and I like the original, but Buckley's version of this song is truly at a whole new level. It was actually the only version of the song I'd ever heard until I heard of Leonard Cohen. I've come across a lot of people who think that Buckley's is the primary version and I certainly don't blame anyone for thinking so. It's soul-added, to an extreme degree was included on Rolling Stones' list of the top 500 songs of all-time. It is perhaps Buckley's most well-known song and it's not even his.
Original
Cover

In a mark of great timeliness, NPR has released a list of the best covers of 2010. Included on this list is Cee-Lo Green's "No One's Gonna Love You."

If any of you have favorite covers, tell me in the comments.

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