Many song covers are nothing special. However, some musicians take a song and make it their own, producing a work of art that’s at least as good as the original.
I’d like to take a moment to honor some particularly good covers, in no particular order. They’re listed by original song instead of by cover because a couple of these have been beautifully covered multiple times.
In the Air Tonight
Phil Collins’s But Seriously… was the first CD I ever owned. I bought it to replace my worn out, warbly cassette tape. This is one of my favorite songs from that album, and it’s probably his most famous song. Although the urban rumormill claims that Collins wrote the song after witnessing a drowning that someone could have prevented, he actually wrote the song while dealing with divorce.
While covering a classic can be chancy, I’ve encountered two fantastic covers of this song. The first I’d like to share with you is a rock cover by Nonpoint. Their version was used for the Miami Vice film a few years ago — which is spiffy, since the Phil Collins original was used in the original Miami Vice TV show. I love how this version emphasizes the dark nature of the song.
The second cover I want you to listen to is by Naturally 7, a seven-man a capella group whose members all have the ability to emulate the sounds of one or more musical instruments. They’re amazing. Their cover has modified lyrics, and in spite of one member keeping the rock drum “instrumentals” going throughout, they give the song a very R&B feel.
The above video shows them performing on the streets of London for the BBC, so it’s light on the instrumentals and shows off some of their skill. The ability to mix tracks makes their album version (no longer embeddable; here’s a link) a different kind of sweet, delicious cheesecake.
The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything
The original is a simple silly song from Veggie Tales. It’s pretty catchy even if singing Christian veggie-people just aren’t your thing.
And here’s a punk-pop version of the song by a group called Relient K. (I’m pretty sure this is an unofficial music video… but I’m pretty sure there’s no official video, so enjoy the Lego men.)
Have you ever bathed in yogurt?
The Boy is Mine
This collaborative effort by Brandy & Monica is one of my favorite songs, and has been since the summer of ’98. It’s an R&B song with broad appeal. I have learned recently that there are many more African-American women than men, which makes me wonder how common this kind of situation is. Forget the social issues, though, and it’s still a good song.
Now, I’ve only encountered one cover for this, and it’s from Glee. All the Glee covers are good quality — there are some very talented performers in that show — but this is my favorite. (Well, my favorite after the It’s My Life/Confessions, pt. II mashup, but I’m not covering mashups here.)
Since it’s not one of the glee club’s performance pieces, it doesn’t get the harmony/chorus treatment. What really makes this cover shine is that the two arguing parts are more distinct in the Glee version than in the Brandy & Monica original. Brandy & Monica have similar linguistic backgrounds and singing styles, which makes their voices difficult to distinguish from each other in the song. The Glee girls’ voices, however, are two different balls of wax, which gives the whole song more texture and makes the two parts easy to tell apart. The vocal embellishments also pop out from the background better.
My Favorite Things
If this song from The Sound of Music doesn’t bring joy to your heart, then your heart must be two sizes too small.
There’s a famous cover of this song by John Coltrane. It’s lovely. The page on YouTube for the video below has several paragraphs about the album for which it is the title track, but I think the following paragraph sums up the song itself nicely:
The title track is a modal rendition of the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein’s seminal song My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music. The melody is heard numerous times throughout the almost 14-minute version, and instead of soloing over the written chord changes, both Tyner and Coltrane taking extended solos over vamps of the two tonic chords, E minor and E major. Tyner’s solo is famous for being extremely chordal and rhythmic, as opposed to developing melodies. In the documentary The World According to John Coltrane, narrator Ed Wheeler remarks: “In 1960, Coltrane left Miles [Davis] and formed his own quartet to further explore modal playing, freer directions, and a growing Indian influence. They transformed “My Favorite Things”, the cheerful populist song from ‘The Sound of Music,’ into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance. The recording was a hit and became Coltrane’s most requested tune—an abridged broad public acceptance.”
Then there’s this wonderful, haunting recording by Pomplamoose. Pomplamoose is a duet; the woman does most of the singing and the man plays most of the instruments. When they make a video, they record and mix multiple tracks, compiling a video to go with it that shows everything they play at some point. Unlike most multi-tracks on YouTube, theirs are done with quality equipment and are very interesting to watch as well as listen to. They also regularly use an accordian and a kid’s xylophone in their music.
You should check out their other stuff, too, actually. Their cover of I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing, for instance, is also excellent.
I know I said at the beginning that I’d be listing these in no particular order, but I lied a bit. I wanted you to read the other entries before seeing this one, in case you’d be inclined to scoff and stop reading at the first sign of Lady Gaga. In case you haven’t heard the song, here it is:
Let me state right now that I dislike this song. The melody is catchy, but I’m less than fond of the lyrics and less than less than fond of the video.
However, if you can watch this a capella cover without enjoying it even a little, then I have no desire to associate with you.
These guys sing it well and perform it with gusto. It’s brilliant, and watching it made me realize that my dislike for Lady Gaga’s Poker Face is really a dislike of the pop arrangement. I’ve seen several great covers since encountering this one which only reinforce that notion… not the least of which is this solo singer with piano cover by Lady Gaga herself.
I could still wish for less exploitative lyrics, but the song itself is better than that ghastly pop arrangement indicates. Other covers of Lady Gaga’s music make it look like the same is true of all her music. Hell, I could probably do a whole post on Lady Gaga covers. Instead, I’ll just end this with a multi-track a capella medley of Lady Gaga music.