Everyone enjoys it when a recording artist uniquely reinterprets a well-known song. Covers exemplify the multifaceted essence of music and lyrics. Without altering the lyrics, a simple change in the melody or singing style may add new layers of meaning to a song. In terms of success and critical acclaim, covers can often outperform the originals, with someone else’s cover outgrowing the artist who first brought it into existence, with some of the world’s most well-known, famous songs being just masterful takes of someone else’s work.
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Music, like all mediums of art, is subjective and I won’t say that some covers are “better” than the original, so here are five covers that expand upon and come into their own, despite the challenges of living in the shadow of the original song.
“Hurt” was first written by the experimental rock band Nine Inch Nails in 1998 for their second debut album The Downward Spiral. This confessional ballad is a deeply emotional song, a brutally honest reflection by the band’s lead singer and songwriter Trent Reznor’s on the slow transition towards a worse version of himself.
Reznor’s candid way of describing the perils of fame and drug addiction resonated with many, but possibly none more than Johnny Cash, a famous American country-rock singer from the 1960s, who had struggled with addiction as a younger man. Cash’s music contains themes of sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption, so the lyrical honesty of NIN’s hurt truly spoke to him.
Cash decided to pay tribute to Reznor by releasing his own country-rock cover, which was to be Cash’s final single in 2003 – and a smash hit. Cash turned an experimental rock ballad into his own Last Confession, adapting Reznor’s lyrics regarding self-reflection, transforming the song into a final warning from an old man, urging us to reflect upon the lessons of his life and his experiences.
“NOTHING COMPARES 2U.”
Prince first wrote and composed the song “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1985. The original song was written for The Family, a pure funk-inspired band created and led by Prince, which assisted him in the creation of his record label. The band never released the song as a single and received little to no attention for it in their debut album. But the song would eventually be released as a single on Prince’s The Hits, after the success of Sinead’s cover in 1990.
Sinead O’Connor famously covered the song, releasing it as the second single from her second studio album, I Do Not Want What I Don’t Have (1990). Her beautiful, angelic vocals helped the cover to become a global sensation, far surpassing the reception of the original, soon reaching No. 1 on charts all over the world, launching the young Irish singer’s career to superstardom.
“ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER”
Bob Dylan originally wrote and recorded the song “All Along The Watchtower”, which first appeared on his eighth studio album, John Wesley Harding (1967). Hendrix fell in love with the mysterious characters created within the song. His own hypnotic psychedelic rock cover was released as a single by The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968, soon reaching No. 5 on the British charts and No. 20 on the American Billboard chart. It quickly became Hendrix’s most successful American-single, outgrowing the original’s success by a considerable margin.
Dylan no longer plays his original song at performances, choosing to honour the man who shot his music into the stratosphere by playing Hendrix’s revised version, Dylan has since said
“It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent; he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He saw something that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using.”
Charles Bradley’s cover may be the only one on this list to be less well-known than the original. It’s often called the “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”. After many years of obscurity and a part-time music career, Charles Bradley came to prominence in his early 60s, when his career as a soul singer finally took off, with the widespread success of his cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes.” Though it is the title track of Bradley’s 2016 album, this cover of the famous Black Sabbath song was originally a single titled Record Store Day 2013.
Bradley soon stated afterwards that he accidentally stumbled across Black Sabbath’s “Changes” by pure accident, never hearing Ozzy Osbourne, original lyrics until late in his life, but he found the lyrics called to him, as he was still mourning the recent loss of his best friend, his mother.
The song was written and released by Otis Redding in 1965, but it wasn’t a success until a soulful Aretha Franklin’s cover was released in 1967. Franklin’s version includes the classic “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” as well as a repeat of “Sock it to me” by the backup singers, led by Her sister Carolyn. It’s fair to assume that Franklin’s version is the most accurate. After Redding heard Aretha’s rendition for the first time, he told Jerry Wexler: “This girl has taken that song from me. Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.”
Many believe that Aretha was drawing on her own tumultuous marriage at the time for inspiration. The song became a declaration of independence from the control of her then-husband, very different from the originals call of respect from the women Otis redding was dating in his life. Unfortunately, Redding would never get to see his original song, become a massive success through the soulful talent of Aretha Franklin, as he died in a tragic air-traffic accident soon after the songs initial release.
Music is a subjective medium, one person might love a cover and another hate it, that’s the beauty of listening to another artist’s rendition, every single little influence comes out in every single interpretation, so with that, which cover songs do you think are better than the originals?