RELEVANT Roundtable is when we ask our slate of culture writers a question and compile their responses. This week’s question: Which cover song is better than the original?
Matt Conner: The musical Midas touch of Ryan Adams turns anything into gold (or even Gold), which means his take on everything from T. Swift to Gram Parsons is always going to surpass the original. That said, the showpiece among his many covers remains his popular take on the Oasis classic “Wonderwall.” Adams’ take is plaintive, even haunting, which brings a new layer of meaning to overly familiar lines like “I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.” By the time he reaches the hook, he’s deflated the arena-ready construct for the sake of something so fragile and beautiful that it feels like an entirely different song.
Mary McCampbell: I have long loved the Pixies’ cover of Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You.” The song’s a lesser-known B-side: crunchy pop guitars, sped up percussion, 1990’s post-punk energy. Kim Deal’s sharp, sultry vocals are a beautiful contrast to Young’s sad, slow and familiar lilting twang. The Pixies’ version is less warm and melancholy, more luscious and tight. It captures the feeling of an era, and the addition of a quintessential Joey Santiago guitar riff at the end is an unexpected payoff. David Bowie’s cover of this tune also packs a major punch, but the fuzzy nostalgia of The Pixies’ cover has won me over.
Jon Negroni: This might be a controversial pick to some, but Obadiah Parker’s cover of “Hey Ya!” by Outkast wasn’t just better, it was revelatory. It uncovered an uncomfortable anxiety behind a catchy Top 40 song that inspired countless artists to continue stripping down popular songs with masked meanings (usually to great effect). When music lovers continue to talk about the benefits of covers, they rightfully reference Parker’s incredible insight into the pain of broken marriages without sacrificing what made Outkast’s original tune so joyful in its sadness.
Seth Tower Hurd: I’ll take the favorite: Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” from Nine Inch Nails. The original is Trent Reznor’s painful ode to fighting drug addiction, something Cash knew a lot about. But Johnny’s version was recorded just months before his death, voice little more than a rasp and chords picked out by fingers failing from arthritis. It is the swan song of a legend who’s putting his affairs in order, knowing it won’t be long until he sees his maker face to face.
Editor’s Pick: It’s not easy to cover a classic; it’s even harder to improve one. But in her cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Aretha Franklin shows why she is the queen of soul, and always will be.
Tyler Daswick: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” is one of my favorite songs ever, but through its continual memeification and skewering, no one has hijacked its resonance more than Disturbed. On paper, the combination is cringe-worthy, but in practice, it’s a miracle. Frontman David Draiman’s deep-as-a-well voice bends the words into something equal parts lamentation, horror story and prophecy. It’s repulsive, but also beautiful, and for that, it’s astonishing.
Josh Pease: Yes, “Hallelujah” has been covered and recovered and then covered again so many times it’s basically become background noise. That being said, I will fight to the death in my attempts to fight for the soul of this song. Leonard Cohen’s version is where this song’s power is really at. What almost no one knows (I certainly didn’t, until reading the magnificent book The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light), is that Cohen, who wrote all the verses, was cribbing the chorus from an obscure recording decades prior. So why is Cohen’s take best? Because unlike every cover since, Cohen’s is the sad reflection of an old man, looking back at his life with regret, yet still longing for some sort of transcendent beauty. Cohen famously wrote over 80 verses to the song, and one of them (which almost never gets used in covers) might be my favorite stanza of any song ever: “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but ‘hallelujah.’” I got chills just typing that.
Editor’s Pick: The song that propelled Lauryn Hill to superstardom, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” is actually a cover of a Lori Lieberman tune. However, it will now always be synonymous with The Fugees.