Taking another musician's work and trying to make it your own while staying true to the original is one of the most daunting tasks in the music industry. However, these ten artists managed to pull off near-perfect cover songs. Without further ado, here's my list of the top five cover songs of all time.
5. Dinosaur Jr. - "Just Like Heaven" (originally by The Cure)
Dinosaur Jr.'s version of The Cure's hit single, "Just Like Heaven," starkly contrasts the original in production and instrumentation, yet manages to leaves the foundation intact. The original track is a highly-polished, precise piece of '80's pop-rock, with shimmering guitars and clean drums. Dino Jr.'s take, on the other hand, features all the classic components that are identifiable with the western-Massachusetts band; sludged-out guitars, trashy drums, and chaotic, bursting-at-the-seams energy levels. Eventually, metal-esque screams of "NO!" infiltrate the chorus. Still, J Mascis & co. keep the song's structure up until the cover ends abruptly before the beginning of the last verse.
4. Pavement - "The Killing Moon" (originally by Echo & the Bunnymen)
'90's alt-rock gods Pavement took a stab at Echo & the Bunnymen's 1984 classic, "The Killing Moon," at a BBC concert in 1997. The song was later released in 1999 on an EP. Their cover version takes the tempo down a notch and includes Stephen Malkmus's signature vocal styles to create a unique revision of the song recently made re-famous by an Audi commerical during the 2012 Super Bowl. The cover still includes all of the original's major assets, including the famously long guitar solo.
3. Jimi Hendrix - "All Along the Watchtower" (originally by Bob Dylan)
This cover is a classic example of a reworked version of an already great song that became more well-known than the original. Whenever one rock legend covers another, you know you're in for a treat, and this track is no exception. "All Along the Watchtower" is one of Hendrix's most beloved songs, and its guitar solo is widely celebrated and considered by some to be the greatest of all time. The track has major cultural significance as well, as it is often associated with the Vietnam War and the late-1960's peace movement in the USA. This song only solidified Hendrix's status as a legend, which lands it at #3 on this list.
2. Nirvana - "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (traditional folk song, arrangement by Lead Belly)
There's no denying Kurt Cobain had the ability to touch people with his music. Nirvana's rebellious punk attitudes connected with an entire generation of people who felt like they didn't belong. Taken from their legendary 1994 MTV Unplugged set, perhaps the most famous concert of all time outside of Woodstock, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" showcases Cobain at his most sincere, his most raw, and his most transparent. What starts off as a simple folk song quickly evolves into Kurt's chilling, pleading howls or paranoia ("My girl, don't lie to me") and despair ("I'm going where the cold wind blows"). It's an instant classic, one that will surely never go away. (The performance starts at about the 0:50 mark, but there's some golden dialogue between Nirvana and the crowd right beforehand.)
1. Johnny Cash - "Hurt" (originally by Nine Inch Nails)
Did you really not see this coming? If not, allow me to enlighten you with a bit of background story. The original song, the closing track to 1994's dark, introspective examination of topics such as depression and violence, very authentically depicts suicidal thoughts and actions.When Johnny Cash released his own version of the controversial track, fans and critics alike were taken aback. But, instead of portraying suicide like the original, the country legend's take served as a final goodbye to his family, friends, and fans. He sounds as if he's apologizing for all of his wrongdoings. When he sings "I hurt myself today," it doesn't come across as a physical action. Instead, it seems like he is acknowledging how his poor decisions end up hurting himself more than others. It's an absolutely haunting song; lyrics such as "What have I become, my sweetest friend?" and "Everyone I know goes away in the end" pack just as hard a punch as they did when Trent Reznor spoke them, yet it's an entirely different kind of punch. While it still comes from a man nearing the end of his life, it comes from a place of regret instead of a place of hate. Often called Cash's epitaph, it was accompanied by an equally amazing and chilling music video, showing a decrepit Cash in a lonely, ornately decorated mansion.
Seven months later he was dead.
"Hurt" epitomizes everything a great cover should be: it completely changes the intended meaning of the lyrics without betraying the original; it transitions flawlessly across genres, from gloomy industrial rock to a saddened country lament; and, perhaps most importantly, sounds fantastic. Even original songwriter Trent Reznor to say the following: "Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure." The debate over whose version is better still rages on, but one thing's for sure: Johnny Cash went out with a bang, and left the world with one last incredible song to enjoy. The video is just as beautiful as the track, especially taking into consideration the surrounding circumstances of Cash's failing health, so I highly recommend paying close attention.
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