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Greatest Cover Songs of All-Time

May 1, 2011

The cover song is a puzzling art-form. It is a reconstructive process in which one must honor and preserve the beauty of the past with the refreshing and renewing tools of the present. From Sonny Curtis to Trent Reznor, artists of the distant past and even yesterday have shown their capabilities to produce instant classics. Yet, its the ever-pressing challenge of music’s vehicles of today to occasionally remind us why these songs hold something golden. It’s not just in the artists, but in the art, that the time-defying values lay.

Here’s Hot Hot Music’s examination of a handful of classic cover songs that best exemplify a smooth transition from original, to cover.

“Take Me To The River”

Original Composition: Al Green & Malbon “Teenie” Hodges

Covered By: The Talking Heads

This 1974 soul classic by Al Green seemed hardly a choice cover for David Byrne and the rest of the Talking Heads, with zany, deconstructionist approach to 1980s new wave. Then again, the antithesis of mainstream turned out to be just that, as the Head’s translated Green’s chill, soulful vibrations into a dance hall classic of their own styling, employing multiple voices in their live performance with ingenious layers of instrumentation. A great example that songs know no such lines or barriers of genre as we do.


Original Composition: Collective Soul (Ed Roland)

Covered By: Dolly Parton

Parton has been on both sides of the cover song, as an orginator and reviver. Regardless, she has revealed the flexibility of her musicianship in dual retribution.

What turned out to be one of the signature hits from post-grunge leaders Collective Soul went on to become much more than another rock-radio recyclable. The tune was the first single off the Georgia band’s 1993 debut album Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, before being inherited by country songstress Dolly Parton for her 2001 album Sparrows. Hiring on members from prominent bluegrass group Nickel Creek, Parton took the spiritual and ethereal angles of “Shine” and molded them into a song of harmonic rejoice. Although Ed Roland and the rest of Collective Soul sternly denied any religious connotations within the lyrics of “Shine,” we’re eternally grateful that Parton carried its message with own angelic vocals; however you choose to interpret it.


Original Composition: Nine Inch Nails (Trent Reznor)

Covered By: Johnny Cash

From the heaven of “Shine” to the hell of “Hurt.” That’s how far you fall when listening to the ugly truths of life within Trent Reznor’s immortal tune. The 1994 single from Nine Inch Nail’s unforgettable album The Downward Spiral was nothing more than a counterculture goth relic until the late Johnny Cash inherited it for his own 2002, Rick Rubin-produced album American IV: The Man Comes Around. The cover would become, in many ways, an epitaph for Cash, who died only seven months after its release. Reznor hailed the cover, citing that it “still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.Even Mark Romanek’s music video produced for the song was a dark, silencing piece of film-making that haunted you far beyond its closure. That’s true ‘hurt.’

“I Fought The Law”

Original Composition: The Crickets (Sonny Curtis)

Covered By: The Clash

Joe Strummer and Co. further solidified their legacy as political punk all-timers with their perfetly executed rendition of "I Fought the Law."

One of rock’s all-time classics, “I Fought the Law” sits alongside “Louie Louie,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock Around the Clock” and “You Really Got Me” in rock song nobility. Arguably one of the greatest rebellion ballads ever, there was no better band to cover the tune in the late-1970s than political rock vanguards The Clash. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and new drummer Topper Headon gave Sonny Curtis’ 1959 rockabilly classic a much heavier and attitude-driven sound, with heavy drums, distorted guitars and a unified wailing from the British youngsters. The ‘never-say-die’ attitude of punk never sounded so organized and effective.


Original Composition: Dolly Parton

Covered By: The White Stripes

White Stripes’ guitarist and lead singer Jack White always had a faithful affinity for classic female vocalists. Whether he was honoring Wanda Jackson, Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, the Detroit native reflected his respects for their harmonic musicianship with his own twisted garage-rock renditions. Dolly Parton’s 1974 tale of a daunting seductress invading the marriage of a loving wife strangely, translated well in White’s own, bluesy delivery. Thankfully, White protected the sanctity of the lyrics, not changing the perspective for his own, male approach, but rather saluting one of the most important rock songs written by a female.

“Live and Let Die”

Original Composition: Paul McCartney & Wings (Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney)

Covered By: Guns N’ Roses

Paul McCartney reminded us with his 1973 hit that the Beatles were not just about John Lennon. Alongside his bandmates for his post-Beatles band “Wings,” McCartney composed one of the most epic songs of the modern rock era in “Live and Let Die.” Strangely enough, the song was not included on any Wings album, excluding their  Wings Greatest compilation, but rather was originally written for the James Bond film of the same title, where it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. It wasn’t  until 1991 when a rowdy bunch of rockers from Los Angeles, known as Guns N’ Roses, resuscitated the song from obscurity. The song was the second single from their Use Your Illusion I album. The intimate beginning was perfectly suited by Axl Roses’ vocal range and piano work, before Slash and Co. brought the noise, ingraining the eternal glory that has made this one of rock radio’s greatest staples.

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