I'm not sure why I've been thinking about this lately. I think it's from hearing The Sundays' version of "Wild Horses" on the radio.It takes a lot to make a great cover song. An artist needs to truly bring something new and different to an established song that ultimately becomes as iconic as the original. It simultaneously needs to make the listener interpret the original a little different and stand on its own potential. There's a few easy ways to do this: 1) Rock band plays rap song, 2) Chick sings guy song or 3) Do Bob Dylan. There's only a handful of these that I'm going to talk about today.
"Free Fallin'" by John Mayer (Cover of Tom Petty)
Somehow I really like this version much more than Tom Petty's original. That's a tough accomplishment, especially because I like no other John Mayer songs. It's also strange because he almost gets into a little Dave Mathews voice and I despise DMB. Nevertheless he works the classic track over as a gentle ballad with a mourning, soothing quality that really dives into lonely nature of the song. It's uplifting though, there's this freeing quality of the way he sings the classic phrases a bit differently, but not terribly.
"Heartless" by The Fray (Cover of Kanye West)
I don't really get sick of alternative artists covering hip-hop (See also Hugo's "99 Problems" and Framing Hanley's "Lollipop") but this is probably the best. The Fray takes a largely AutoTuned song by the GREATEST RAPPER OF ALL TIME but it doesn't lose any of its emotional qualities (it improves on them in some ways) and it really doesn't force white rapping like some other tracks will. It's a truly transformative genre switching that's ultimately worth listening to on its own, which is the ultimate sign of any good cover.
"Smooth Criminal" by Alien Ant Farm (Cover of Michael Jackson)
As a friend of mine once said as he walked into a room where the original was playing, "What shitty version is this?" Alien Ant Farm has never really had another hit, except for that movie song, but they work it here. They're definitely part of that weird suburban middle-class punk movement whose motivations for being angry are always strange to me. It's half-punk, half-pop shit. So why is this better than Michael? I think it's as simple as replacing synth beats with some distortion guitar.
"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" by The Animals (Cover of Bob Dylan)
There are plenty of covers of this track by many artists but The Animals' version is the greatest. It flows and oozes through the rhythm while Eric Burden's voice gives the track more authority than Dylan ever could. Still, the one-man Dylan effort is a classic track. The backing of The Animals gives it a tremendously greater amount of musical depth. And a voice that's tolerable to listen to.
"All Along the Watchtower" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Cover of Bob Dylan)
Naturally this is the greatest cover song of all time as well as the second Dylan on this list. Jimi took Dylan's words and molded them into an epic rock experience with blistering new solos, incredible instrumental depth and a hell of a lot of soul. This should be the template for every cover song to follow. It takes an original great track and improves on it in every way. It's a brilliant piece of music.
Some bands such as Guns N' Roses and Limp Bizkit have made careers covering other songs (see "Live and Let Die" and "Faith"). There are also some great contemporary rock covers such as Lenny's "American Woman" or Eddie's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." I also thought about including The Gourds version of "Gin and Juice" but that's just a little too far out there. Entertaining though. While there are plenty of rock covers of rap tracks there doesn't seem to be that many that go the other way. Rap tracks are much more likely to sample a song (see um...see every rap song ever) but there are some notables such as Lil' Wayne's "Poker Face." Needless to say this list is incomplete - add your own favourites below!