"Hooo boy, Areala, do you really want to go here?"
Yes, yes, I think I do. Because it's my blog, and it's my opinion, and you're all entitled to it. Besides, what's better than potentially starting a gigantic flame war over music and personal preferences? OK, besides sex. Right, nothing! So here's the deal. I'm going to list some covers that are better than the originals and explain why. You're all going to tell me how correct I am or that I'm going to burn in hell for blasphemy, and either way we'll all have a lot of fun and maybe even learn something!
01 - Chris Isaak - Only The Lonely
Don't get me wrong, I love Roy Orbison dearly, but holy cow did he get this one wrong. If you're going to sing a song about how only lonely people understand what you're going through, perhaps you shouldn't do it with backup singers and a poppy, upbeat tune that makes it sound like something you'd want to listen to on the way to a bubblegum beach party.
Isaak's interpretation strips away all the gloss and performs it the way it should be performed: haunting, personal, and most of all...lonely. Just him and his guitar. And that's what real loneliness sounds like.
02 - Kenny Chesney - I'm On Fire
Springsteen's version of this song is perfect in every way, except that he sounds like some sort of creepy stalker intent on doing harm to the object of his desire. Now usually I'm not a fan of the country/rock crossovers, but Chesney has several things going for him. First of all, his voice is incredible (easily one of the greatest male vocalists working today), and secondly he can almost completely ditch the twang of his country voice when he wants to, which he does here to great effect.
Contrasted with The Boss, Chesney's version sounds innocent and contemplative, more like a guy looking out his window at home and wondering aloud to himself. Back in the day, Chris Hanson would have been on Springsteen's narrator in a heartbeat. Chesney leaves things firmly in the realm of this quiet, unassuming guy who wouldn't hurt a fly just dreaming about a girl he'll probably never have and wishing things were different. Both versions of this song are great, but let's face it, Kenny one-upped Bruce on this one.
03 - Nirvana - The Man Who Sold The World
It's often not difficult to tell when someone's covering a song they didn't write, and this is doubly so when anybody covers David Bowie because, let's face it, if you're not an alien from outer space or the Goblin King, you've got no zarking idea what it means to be David Bowie. On the other hand, sometimes someone covers a song so well you wish they'd been the one to write it in the first place, because screw the original writer, it belongs to them.
Such is the case with Nirvana's take on TMWSTW. Bowie's version is depressing, to be sure, but hearing Cobain belting out these lyrics is nearly soul-crushing especially when you consider that at the time he performed this song he was closing in on his final days on Earth. Nirvana's narrator for the song sounds like he's been dragged through the gutters of life, seen things no man should ever have to see, and depressingly lived to tell the tale. There's just no way to compare the two. Bowie sang it, Nirvana owned it. End of story.
04 - Rod Stewart - Downtown Train
Most of the people who read this blog probably have no idea that Rod Stewart didn't write this song (I certainly wasn't aware that Tom Waits penned it back when Stewart's version started getting radio play in the early 90s). But that's beside the point. Stewart may not have written the song, but he certainly gave it a life it never had from Waits who sounds as though he doesn't really care one way or another what happens to himself or the girl he's looking for.
Stewart's version is much, much lighter than Waits' under-produced, understated one, and for some people that's precisely the reason to hate it, but I'm in the opposite camp. Stewart's version captures that mystery, that youthful sense of joy, where one still believes in the ideal that love can strike between strangers on a cloudy New York evening. Plus, the final minute of Stewart's version, which ends with a solo piano medley playing over some subdued night train sounds, is tranquility to the Nth degree. It's close-your-eyes-and-lay-back-in-bed beautiful.
05 - Gary Jules - Mad World
"This is the way the world ends," so goes the saying, "not with a bang, but a whisper." And if that's the case, Gary Jules' cover of Tears For Fears' Mad World is the song that will lull each and every one of us to sleep at the end. There's no reason, no reason at all, for a song about the insanity that is day-to-day life to be so damn relaxing.
Tears' version has a Britpop sensibility about it, and there's nothing at all technically wrong with it. It's poking fun at the insanity of day-to-day life. But once Gary Jules slowly unfurls his depressing, dramatic rendering of the song, you've completely forgotten how the original version even sounded. Jules finds nothing funny about the fact that the dreams in which he's dying are the best he's ever had: he's resigned to it, and that makes it all the worse. The calming, matter-of-fact way he presents this gives the song a life it never had in its initial incarnation. That he covered it for the film Donnie Darko only makes it that much more powerful.
06 - A-Ha - Crying in the Rain
Carol King wrote it, the Everly Brothers made it famous, but A-Ha owns them both with this little-known take on the classic oldies tune.
Folk rock sensibilities might be the last thing you expect from the group that brought us 'Take On Me,' a tune which almost single-handedly defines the 80's. And yet, somehow, these guys pull it off. Dammit, they pull it off, and I can't help it. It's now the definitive version of the song in my mind. There's really nothing else to say about it.
07 - Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
Buckley doesn't really change much of anything up on his cover of Leonard Cohen's original. But his delivery is smoother, more melancholy and (dare I say) a little romantic with just him and a guitar.
Cohen's version has raw power behind it, what with that chorus backing him up, and there's no denying that whoever's singing it gets the advantage of enough Biblical symbolism in the lyrics to move even an atheist to tears. But for my money, Buckley does it just right, with the perfect mixture of irony and loss.
08 - Ugly Kid Joe - Cat's in the Cradle
If anything's going to get me crucified and flamed for this post, it'll be my opinion that UKJ's cover of Harry Chapin's classic is better than the original. But that's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.
I think the biggest reason is that Ugly Kid Joe injects more emotion into their version. There's nothing technically wrong with the way Chapin sings the song, but the overall emotional rhythm is flat and unwavering. You listen to it and you have the sense that maybe dad doesn't even think there's anything that he could have done differently. UKJ's version, on the other hand, is angry and, at the end, faintly horrified at the way things turned out and are still going. There's a circle here that's going to remain unbroken. Chapin shrugs his shoulders, Joe lashes out in rage and sorrow. Give me the emotion over the neutrality any day.
09 - Type O Negative - Cinnamon Girl
Neil Young's original has this ethereal, almost dreamy quality to it, sounding every bit like a guy getting high between shows and fantasizing about how great it's going to be once he's made it in the biz. It's a fun little song, with an upbeat tempo, the sort of tune Neil Young's been turning out for decades.
Which is why it's such a shock when Type O Negative chucks it in a coffin, lashes it to the trailer hitch of a hearse, and drags it through the mud, only to have it come out sounding like it actually has some soul behind it. Peter Steel's voice is almost the anti-Neil Young: where Young's voice is higher, flightier, and folksier, Steel's is lower, rougher and downright abrasive at times. There are plenty of pop songs you wouldn't have wanted this guy getting anywhere near back when he was alive, but Type O's take on Cinnamon Girl proves that even the weirdest ideas can bear exceptional fruit.
10 - Mary Elizabeth McGlynn - Always On My Mind
Brenda Lee's 1972 song of love-gone-astray has been covered by everyone from Elvis to Willie Nelson to the Pet Shop Boys. If you were getting into music in the 1970s or 1980s, there was a darn good chance you knew how to belt this one out when someone requested it in the club. It's a simple tune, with a neat set of lyrics behind it, and it's no wonder everyone fell in love with it.
Then came "Silent Hill: Shattered Memories" where Akira Yamaoka re-scored it for much darker sensibilities. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn's treatment of this song draws it into the depths of suicidal despair. Elvis and Willie Nelson called you up to let you know they were thinking about you, and the Pet Shop Boys wanted you to dance to their beat. McGlynn is looking at your picture just as she's slashed her wrists, and this song's the last thing on her lips as she's bleeding out; there will be no second chance to get things right. Haunting, otherworldly, vaguely nightmarish, it's everything a song from a Silent Hill game should be, and it utterly demolishes every other version out there to achieve it.
11 - Johnny Cash - Hurt
This one's such a gimme it's almost not fair to include it on the list, which is why I gave it the eleven spot. Trent Reznor's version is gothic, angsty, and in great desire of inflicting serious damage on the people who caused him pain when he was younger. It's a dark and brooding song about working through one's anger at the world. You know, like most other Nine Inch Nails pieces.
But even Reznor agrees that once Cash decided to cover it, that was game over ("It's not mine anymore," Reznor said in reaction to viewing the video). It's Cash's song, through and through, sung from the point of view of an older man looking back on his life and telling the young buck across from him, "Sit down, son, and let me explain a few things to you." When Reznor says he'll make you hurt, you believe him: he's probably carrying a knife or a baseball bat and not afraid to use it. When Cash says it though, it's twice as frightening. He's not going to punch you in the face or knife you in the ribs, he's just going to lay out your whole life before you and show you each and every awful thing you'll do and have done to you in return. You'll be done with Reznor's hurt after a stint in the hospital. Cash's will stay with you until they close the lid of your coffin. That's true power.