22 Nov 2016

The world's best cover songs

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:06 pm on 22 November 2016

The World's Best Cover songs, as suggested by RNZ listeners and curated by Afternoons with musicologist Nick Braae of the Waikato Institute of Technology.

Johnny Cash singing Hurt

Johnny Cash singing Hurt, by the Nine Inch Nails Photo: You tube

Cover songs have an interesting history, Dr Braae says, and have been closely tied with race – often white people covering black artists’ songs for white audiences.

But they are also a way for artists to pay homage to musicians they admire, and to reveal something in a song which was not apparent in the original version, or too radically flip a song’s meaning.

‘I Want You Back’ – The Jackson 5, covered by Lake Street Dive

United States band Lake Street Dive play in in Dublin.

United States band Lake Street Dive play in in Dublin. Photo: Flickr / Sean Rowe

Lake Street Dive’s version is a complete stylistic change from the original – sung by an 11-year old Michael Jackson in 1969. It brings sultriness to what was youthful euphoria and the stripped back jazz arrangement shows the sweet simplicity of The Jackson 5’s version.  

 ‘Because the Night’ – Patti Smith, covered by Garbage with Screaming Females

Shirley Manson performs with Garbage in Montreal in 2013.

Shirley Manson performs with Garbage in Montreal in 2013. Photo: Flickr / Nat Ch Villa

This cover by Garbage, with Screaming Females Marissa Paternoster, is a classic hard rock revamp of the original. Hypnotic early piano gives way deep distortion and a stonking guitar solo by Paternoster. There’s danger in the night time romance…

 ‘Life on Mars’ – David Bowie, covered by Seu Jorge

Seu Jorge performs David Bowie's 'Life on Mars' on Wes Anderson's film 'A Life Aquatic'.

Seu Jorge performs David Bowie's 'Life on Mars' on Wes Anderson's film 'A Life Aquatic'. Photo: AFP

Seu Jorge’s version of Bowie's ‘Life of Mars’, popularised on Wes Anderson’s A Life Aquatic, highlights some of the beauty and simplicity of the original. With the stunning, but grandiose, orchestration removed, and it now sung in Portuguese, attention is drawn to the strength of the vocal melody.

Romeo and Juliet – Dire Straits, covered by Indigo Girls

Amy Ray, left, and Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls perform in the National Mall in Washington DC, US.

Amy Ray, left, and Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls perform in the National Mall in Washington DC, US. Photo: AFP

The Indigo Girls beautifully subvert this ode to straight-teen love.

Jolene – Dolly Parton, covered by Darcy Clay

Darcy Clay at the bFM Summer Series, Albert Park 1995

Darcy Clay at the bFM Summer Series, Albert Park 1995. Photo: AudioCulture

New Zealand musician Darcy Clay delivers a woozy, delightfully warped version of Dolly Parton’s classic ‘Jolene’. It is radical shift from Parton’s crystalline plea, where she exudes a quiet strength. Clay’s version is all twisted-up burbling euphoria, although he may be taking the Mickey.   

Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd, covered by Scissor Sisters

Ana Matronic and Jake Shears of the band Scissor Sisters perform in New York in 2012.

Ana Matronic and Jake Shears of the band Scissor Sisters perform in New York in 2012. Photo: AFP

The Scissor Sisters take a ‘serious’ song associated with a particular type of heterosexual masculinity and flip it to the more ‘frivolous’, or sensual, pop-oriented disco, historically associated with gay culture. There are a couple of great musical and vocal references nestled in there, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, and the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive.  

Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd, Covered by Sparklehorse and Radiohead

Sparklehorse, and US indie rock band led by the singer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous.

Sparklehorse, and US indie rock band led by the singer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous. Photo: AFP

Doubles down on the darkness and dislocation of the original - a tribute to Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett who left the band after having a mental breakdown.

Hurt – Nine Inch Nails, covered by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash singing Hurt

Johnny Cash singing Hurt Photo: You tube

In the original Trent Reznor seems completely overwhelmed by the world. But in Cash’s, he maintains a sense of nobility and dignity, as if holding off the darkness.