Cover songs are eternally popular with musicians and music fans alike. A good cover version can illuminate aspects of a song missed by the listener in the original version by changing the atmosphere, orchestration, vocals or styling of the arrangement. A different singer can put a new spin on a song’s lyrics and their meaning. A fast-paced dance track can become a dark ballad, showcasing the somber message of the words missed by those on the dance floor. A heavy-metal headbanger can be turned into a catchy pop song, revealing melodic lines originally lost to the thunderous beat. In crossing musical genre lines, a cover version can also introduce a song to an entirely new audience: for instance, the alternative-rock fan who never listens to county music might find a songwriter whose work he or she appreciates, regardless of the genre. Sometimes a cover version can even surpass the original, to the point where many forget who originally recorded the song.
Picking a short list of some of the best examples of genre-crossing cover songs is difficult as there are so many memorable ones to choose from. The following are my top five picks, along with my thoughts on what makes them noteworthy.
5. “Smooth Criminal” – cover version by Alien Ant Farm, original by Michael Jackson
Alien Ant Farm’s cover version
Michael Jackson’s original
In 2001, California alt-metal rockers Alien Ant Farm amped up Michael Jackson’s hit dance-pop track, and the results took them to the top of Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. While most “metal heads” would never admit to grooving on any of Michael Jackson’s music, this version gives the song driving, heavy guitars, an insistent metal beat, and makes the song a great one for both dancing and head-banging. Where Jackson was trying to give his song a harder edge than usual, Alien Ant Farm succeeds in taking the song where it was truly meant to go.
4. “I Will Survive” – cover by CAKE, original by Gloria Gaynor
CAKE’s cover version
Gloria Gaynor’s original
Gloria Gaynor’s disco smash hit “I Will Survive” has long been a favorite of karaoke nights and retro-dance parties, but not many rock fans would be seen singing along with it. Enter indie-rock band CAKE, turning the song into a slow-groove rocker and toughening it up for the 1990s. Changing the gender of the singer also has an interesting effect on the way the song plays out, as it is no longer a story of a woman’s strength and independence but a more bitter and caustic take on a relationship gone bad. Apparently not all are fans of CAKE’s version, however, as Gloria Gaynor reportedly objected to singer John McCrea adding some profanity to the lyrics.
3. “All Along The Watchtower” – cover version by Jimi Hendrix, original by Bob Dylan
Jimi Hendrix’s cover version
Bob Dylan’s original
A perfect example of a cover version which became so popular-and such a key performance by an artist-that some today don’t even realize it is a cover. Bob Dylan’s original folk-rock song of rebellion, noteworthy in its own right and influential to many, here became a showcase for Hendrix’s legendary skill as a guitarist. His psychedelic classic rock version is still a mainstay of radio airplay today.
2. “Lovestoned/I Think She Knows” – cover version by The Hoosiers, original by Justin Timberlake
The Hoosiers cover version
Justin Timberlake’s original
This pick is a little more obscure, but I had to include one from my current favorite band, who perform a number of great cover songs. In 2009, Britpop rockers The Hoosiers recorded this haunting, lyrical version of Justin Timberlake’s electronic-dance track “Lovestoned/I Think She Knows”. While the original by Timberlake is catchy, The Hoosiers transform it into an incredibly beautiful, sorrowful ballad. Irwin Sparkes’ amazing falsetto and the superb arrangement of piano, strings, bass and drums make this a wonderful showcase for The Hoosiers as a band, and a perfect example of how to make a great genre-crossing cover version.
1. “Hurt” – cover by Johnny Cash, original by Nine Inch Nails
Johnny Cash’s cover version
Nine Inch Nails’ original
Recorded not long before Cash’s untimely death, this version has become one of the most widely known and loved cover songs of recent years. The original Nine Inch Nails’ version was dark and sorrowful enough, but Cash makes the song his own and even darker, if possible, singing in a voice that resonates from a lifetime of loss and pain. With this cover, Cash became known to a new generation who might regularly bypass “country singers”, showing how good music knows know genre boundaries.
Smooth Criminal – Wikipedia
I Will Survive – Wikipedia
All Along the Watchtower – Wikipedia
Lovestoned – Wikipedia
Hurt (Nine Inch Nails song) – Wikipedia