Cover songs have always been an intriguing aspect of music for me. It’s fascinating to see how an artist can take the original and affect upon it in their own particular style. Naturally this works better for some than others. Often the cover sounds far too similar to the original to be of any particular note (Boyce Avenue’s cover of Losing My Religion is particularly guilty of this); or in some cases it’s just an abomination that should be eradicated (See Avril Lavigne’s cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit). But when it works, it really works.
Once again I set myself some rules for this list. First off no obvious covers (sorry, you will not be seeing Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt on this list), I want you all to potentially discover new and different music. Secondly, only one cover per band, as often bands have made whole albums of covers.
So these are my top five cover songs.
5 – Cradle of Filth and Dirty Harry – Temptation – Originally by Heaven 17
What makes this onto the list is primarily the fact that it started out as a joke that gradually, over the course of step-by-step recordings and interactions with Dirty Harry who provides the Carol Kenyon vocals, ended up becoming a gloriously diabolical song that feels far more exacting and like it’s actually discussing the concept of temptation as opposed to the unfortunately very campy and somewhat lacklustre original. Harry’s highly sexual, witch-like vocals bouncing off of Dani Filth’s demonic roars, set against the heavily ramping up instrumentation grants it a significant identity that saves it from simply being the joke it was originally intended as. It is a considerable departure from the original and personally I think it’s a far better song in general because of that.
4 – Reel Big Fish – Take On Me – Originally by A-ha
In a desperate attempt to not have this list filled with rock or metal, I decided to double-down and have a ska band covering synth-pop. But in all seriousness, I really enjoy this cover. It has its own identity, utilising horn sections in place of the backing vocals, maintains and to a certain extent ups, the energy of the original, and is generally just a fun song which, if I’m honest, would make me hard-pressed as to which version I’d prefer listening to. Also important to note is the fact that frontman Aaron Barrett is actually capable of matching Morten Harket’s vocals, which is an absolute must if you’re to attempt such a song.
3 – Northern Kings – Creep – Originally by Radiohead
I’ll be very blunt here, I absolutely fucking hate the original. I despise its mawkish mewling attempt to convey some sort of relatable character to its target audience, which I do not doubt I probably was part of. I actually hate the majority of the covers out there because they sound practically identical. That’s why this cover gets on the list, because it is once again such a dramatic departure from the original that the band makes it their own. The contrasts between downplayed, unnerving vocals and full-on operatic singing, combined with the music-box style melody that pervades most of the song and transitions into huge, bombastic guitars and drums, truly give it the feel of a far more desperate and yearning song.
2 – Cake – I Will Survive – Originally by Gloria Gaynor
Whilst some covers change the style or instrumentation, Cake’s cover goes the whole hog and takes the triumphant, defiant disco track and turns it into a very bitter, biting, resentful rock song. It’s angry enough to not simply call it a “stupid lock” but “fucking lock” (which, interestingly enough, Gloria Gaynor did not particularly care for). It is far more of an outright “Fuck off on the horse you rode in on” sentiment, emphasised by the more downplayed instrumentation. They also affect upon it through portraying a figure who was wrapped up in their own self-worth so much that the singer’s desire would continuously drag them down instead of being able to find a way out and start their life anew; “were you the one to break me with desire?” The singer hasn’t simply been played for a fool through farewells and returns. He’s been treated like a sap because the one he’s singing to has zeroed in on his lust for them, and now he’s had enough and laughing bitterly at their self-involved nature. It is a righteously angry take on the song that’s rather perfect for anyone who’s felt played around.
1 – Bear McCreary – All Along the Watchtower – Originally by Bob Dylan
I thought long and hard about what would ultimately be my number one, and at the end of the day I had to cave to both my love of sci-fi and my love of pieces which build and build. Bear McCreary takes what is already a powerful quest for escape from a dangerous cycle of confusion and oppression and turns it into something quite breath-taking. It does admittedly gain a lot from the context of being specifically written for the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot, as that presents to us a concept in which the characters are locked within this confusing, identity-destroying cycle, but this simply makes it a much more effective piece instead of detracting from it due to de-contextualising. What makes it most effective is the use of non-Western instruments such as the electric sitar, yayli tanbur and duduk, along with more commonly seen instruments like the harmonium and electric violin, which help to provide it with a considerably more unique identity. Everything feels naturally progressive despite how disparate they would logically seem and all works to encapsulate this very threatening theme of self-destruction. Granted it is practically unrecognisable to the original, but this all works to its favour, and is ultimately why it gets the number 1 slot.