Bad Songs Made Great By Brilliant Cover Artists

November 4, 2013
Kurt Cobain, cover artist extraordinaire

Just because an artist or band recorded a song first doesn’t mean they recorded it best.
Far from it, in many cases.

Luckily for all of us, saving terrible songs with brilliant covers seems to be a tradition as old as music itself.

“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen – saved by Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley

The phenomenon of cover artists rescuing terrible songs first hit me when I heard the Leonard Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah.” I had previously discovered and fallen in love with the song by hearing Rufus Wainwright’s cover.

It’s a gorgeous song. One of the best ever written. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to Cohen sing it. The songwriter’s original recording of the song is comically bad. Thank god for Rufus, who covered the song for the soundtrack to “Shrek” (what the hell?). But there’s another that’s even better. The stunning, simple and haunting version by the late Jeff Buckley. Buckle up for this one:

(Trivia bonus: Although Rufus’ version appeared on the “Shrek” soundtrack, yet another cover of the song actually appeared in the movie.)

“Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan – saved by Adele

Cohen isn’t the only prolific, aged songwriter to ruin one of his own gems. The legendary Bob Dylan’s original “Make You Feel My Love” just makes me feel like Jimmy Fallon is at it again. In steps Adele with one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard:

“Jumping Jesus” by Sordid Humor – saved by Counting Crows

If you ask me what my favorite band is, I’m gonna hem and haw and hedge my bets and explain how that question is more complicated than you think and how it depends on the seasons and the mood I’m in and how Tool is wildly underrated so I’m tempted to say Tool just to make a point and so on.

Then I’ll probably eventually stop blathering and say “Led Zeppelin and Counting Crows.” Adam Duritz, Counting Crows’ songwriter and singer, is a damned genius. And the guys from Sordid Humor, friends of the Counting Crows guys, should be thanking him for fixing their really weird-sounding “Jumping Jesus.” (It’s so obscure, that 30-second clip from Amazon is all I could find.) Check this out:

(Another trivia bonus: Marty Jones of Sordid Humor is the “Mr. Jones” made famous by the Counting Crows song of the same name.)

(Bonus Counting Crows cover song: This doesn’t count as a “bad song saved” because the original is genius, too, but I love Counting Crows’ cover of Ryan Adams’ moderately vulgar – F-bombs! – “Come Pick Me Up.“)

“Lake of Fire” by Meat Puppets – saved by Nirvana

Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged” performance is rightly regarded as a major musical milestone. One of its highlights was the band’s cover of “Lake of Fire,” the original of which feels rushed and flat and sounds like an alt-rock cliche. Cobain & Company turned it into a mellow, tortured gem, with some help from the Meat Puppets themselves (and check out Dave Grohl’s turtleneck!):

“Mad World” by Tears for Fears – saved by Gary Jules

Original? Bad 80s-tastic nonsense. Gary Jules’ cover? Beautiful. Thank you for your service to our country, Gary.

“The Letter” by the Box Tops – saved by Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker is, dare I say, the best cover artist ever born. I’m pretty sure he’s never written a song in his life, but he’s made more money as a singer than I can even comprehend. How? Every song he covers is better than the original, even the numerous Beatles songs he covered (yeah, I said it). Among his finest work is taking this snooze of a 60s “rock” song from the Box Tops and kicking its ass straight into the 70s:

“Love Vigilantes” by New Order – saved by Iron and Wine

This is my submission for Song Most Improved by a Cover Artist. The original, by New Order, is atrocious. Unlistenable. Garbage. Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron and Wine, did a masterful job of polishing that New Order turd and creating a gorgeous acoustic number I simply can’t get enough of:

What songs would you add to this list?