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What makes a great cover?

A song cover has the ability to elevate a song to a whole new level. It also can ruin a song’s best attributes. A good cover transforms a song to match an artist’s style or transforms the artist to match a new song. A cover could show a new side to your favourite artist or could be like hearing your favourite song all over again in a brand-new context. Unfortunately, the landscape of music today is letting the cover fall by the wayside, with interpolating old popular songs becoming more mainstream, supposedly revamping them for a new age. The purpose of these songs is just to trigger the modern brain, fuelled by nostalgia. A classic cover doesn’t rely on nostalgia: it makes a statement, tying artists together in unlikely and engaging ways. Here are a few covers done right, and what makes them work so well. 

Respect – Aretha Franklin (Original: Otis Redding) 

Probably the most obvious example that comes to mind of a cover actively improving on the original. Otis Redding’s original version is laced with misogyny, a belittling demand from a husband to his wife, wanting a “little respect”. Originally written in 1965, legendary singer Aretha Franklin came across the song two years later, and with a few lyrical tweaks, the song transformed into a woman demanding respect from her man, a far more powerful statement, especially at the time. Franklin’s version went on to be more successful, becoming an anthem for the civil rights movement, and recently being named Rolling Stone magazine’s best song of all time. Franklin’s decision to take a disparaging song and turn it into something progressive and engaging is the perfect cover. No notes. Respect. 

Hurt – Johnny Cash (Original: Nine Inch Nails) 

A brilliantly written song which is utterly transformed depending on who is performing it. Nine Inch Nails’ version is matched with swirling and distorted production, depicting a spiralling mental state from drug abuse. A decade later, an ageing Johnny Cash released a cover, completely recontextualising the song. The production is stripped back completely, and Cash’s delivery, so full of sorrow and regret for the life he has lived, ponders his mistakes and the man he became. Both are incredible pieces of work. Did Johnny Cash improve on the original? Don’t make me choose. 

Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley (Original: Leonard Cohen) 

Originally a forgotten masterpiece in Leonard Cohen’s catalogue, this song was rediscovered by the masses thanks to it being one of the most covered songs ever made. Welsh singer John Cale originally covered it in 1991, but it is Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version that is the most famous, the most imitated, and the most incomparable. Cohen’s version has charm, but even his most maniacal fans would admit his voice is not his outstanding characteristic. His songwriting, matched with Buckley’s compelling and effortless tenor, brings the song to its full potential as one of the greatest ever written. 

All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix (Original: Bob Dylan) 

If Bob Dylan covers were a genre, I’d consider it one of my favourites. Dylan is probably the best songwriter to ever live, and it means his lyrics are incredibly versatile, with many talented artists adding their flourish to some of his best records. There are great Bob Dylan covers by Adele, Prince, Johnny Cash, and even Post Malone. The best one in my book comes from Jimi Hendrix, who swaps an acoustic guitar and a harmonica for a swirling cacophony of percussion, electric guitars, and absurd use of a wah-wah pedal. 

Bulls on Parade – Denzel Curry (Original: Rage Against the Machine) 

Covers don’t just bring something new out of a song: sometimes they can do the opposite and bring something new out of the artist covering them. Denzel Curry is a talented rapper but proved how much deeper his talent goes covering Rage Against the Machine’s furious song ‘Bulls on Parade’. What Denzel lacks in experience in the genre, he makes up for with pure fury. In the video of his cover, he sits like a coiled snake as the song begins, before exploding into the microphone, fierce in his delivery.  

Over the Rainbow – Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (Original: Judy Garland) 

A personal contender for one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. Famously recorded in a single take, the song only became widely known after Israel’s death. A cover of the classic song from 1939’s Wizard of Oz, Israel turns a pure, innocent ballad into something more difficult to quantify; I can only call it lightning in a bottle. The circumstances of its popularity, being after Israel had passed, result in a sombre and bittersweet quality. The sense of him being at peace is compelling, to say the least. 


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