Knockin' on Heaven's Door: Ten Ridiculously Perfect Cover Songs

Sep 4, 2003

The Bottom Line Cover songs can be good and they can be bad. These are all very, very good.

One day, while waiting patiently for my food at Mr. Pita I was gifted something very special by Ms. Sheryl Crow. See, before that point I’d begun to lose interest in her music. It had begun to grow stale as the 1990’s progressed. But it wasn’t until I heard her massacre the classic Guns n’ Roses opus Sweet Child O’ Mine that I was absolutely sure that her career was all but over.

That song represents so much in the world of music. A cover can mean one three things to an artist. First, covers can lead to major mainstream exposure (Alien Ant Farm’s cover of Smooth Criminal comes to mind here). Second, a cover is a relatively easy way to get new material to the masses. The song is probably already known and love and with the help of the singer/band’s name it can push the track to mainstream acceptance…and may also sink or salvage a career (the Sheryl Crow example). Third, a cover track may be the work of a confident, talented, and maybe even humble individual or band wishing to pay homage to a song that otherwise may not get exposure or to a favorite artist (the Aerosmith cover of Come Together is a good example).

But one thing about cover songs is that they are either pretty darned good or incredibly, career-endingly horrible. Needlessly butchering a previously loved song is a quick way for a young or even well-seasoned artist to get their cojones bitten off at the root by rabid fans. I am personally a massive fan of all well-done covers. I greatly appreciate a singer or band’s ability to take a previously recorded and often popular material and “make it their own” (in the words of that big ol’ teddy bear Randy Jackson). I am fascinated by all great cover songs—many of which are too often forgotten or ignored or discarded as the work of a two-bit hack. I really, really do love a good cover song.

As such, I’m pleased to participate in a write-off on the topic from member kokladj and to run down my modest list of favorite cover songs. They run the gamut from rock to pop and from new to old. Really, my choices aren’t particularly groundbreaking—just well worth the effort required to track them down. So, in no particular order of importance, I present my top ten list of favorite covers. I don’t suspect ANY of my selections will come as a shock. But just don’t expect any crap. I can’t stomach it…

Hurt – Johnny Cash
nine inch nails
Proving how much a change in instruments and a change of pace can make a song go from something angry, disenchanted, and full of alienation into something truly pained and full of loss. As interpreted by Johnny Cash, Hurt is a clear, concise song about growing old and truly hurting as a result. One of the best songs and videos of 2003, I’m grateful to Cash for added an amazing slant and intricate facets to an already incredible song.

Break on Through – Stone Temple Pilots
The Doors
The modern kings of the rock cover, STP kicks the crap out of this classic from The Doors. I threw around a few choices from the band, discarding The Beatles [Revolution], Led Zeppelin [Dancing Days] and Def Leppard [Pour Some Sugar on Me] in favor of this obscenely perfect song. Scott Weiland possesses the ability to morph into the front man with ease without losing his harsh, smoky edge. And when that harsh edge interprets this classic I’m hard pressed to find so much as a flaw. STP is brilliant on this swaggering, hazy hit. Without question, this song is a standout of The Doors tribute album Stoned Immaculate and it goes to show that great bands can properly re-record an already flawless track.

Lake of Fire – Nirvana
Meat Puppets
Again, I struggled with picking one song from my favorite Nirvana disc. There is just so much that is so special about Unplugged in New York. But it is this Meat Puppets cover that initially drew me to the album and that has kept me coming back for more for all these years. The acoustic, thick, and evocative track touches my very being and strokes my every nerve. It puts me on edge while soothing me all at the same time. Lake of Fire is ironically and in actuality on of my top three or so songs from Nirvana. And it’s pretty damn good as originally performed by Meat Puppets also.

Helter Skelter – U2
The Beatles
Recorded live for Rattle & Hum (a highly underrated album), the introduction to Helter Skelter sets the tone for the song that follows. Bono calmly announces that this is the song that Charles Manson stole from The Beatles and that “we’re stealing it back.” From there, the song appropriately slips and slides. It is a chaotic although highly refined piece steeped in myth thanks to the Manson connections. But somehow in the context of this album it is the perfect compliment. The Beatles perfect compliment the style of U2.

97' Bonnie & Clyde – Tori Amos
One of the many highpoints of Amos’ totally-covers album Strange Little Girls, 㥩 Bonnie & Clyde is a surprisingly disturbing offering. The first time I heard the song was when I popped the newly purchased disc into my car stereo. The world around me slowed to a near stop as I was drawn into Amos’ characterization of a crazed, murderous man who rids his life of his wife. The story itself is freaky. S/he is speaking primarily about the murder and to his child—who is too young to understand the concept of death much less murder. To hear Amos speaking in an affected southern drawl sends shivers up my spine and through my gullet. It is quite simply horrific—and brilliant.

Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
Leonard Cohen
There’s so much about Buckley’s only studio release that smacks of innate talent. This song, while not his own, presents his folky rock voice in the perfect light. The song represents one of the most truthful emotional outpourings I’ve heard in recent years. Rich yet sparse, melodic yet difficult Hallelujah is a truly memorable experience. The original was also wonderful, but somehow Buckley manages to add a certain painful and charming facet to the already complex record.

Sweet Jane – Cowboy Junkies
Velvet Underground
I remember the first time I heard this cover—it was as a part of the soundtrack to the ultra-violent parody Natural Born Killers. And as such, I was immediately drawn to the track and the soothing, slightly off-kilter melody. In the context of the film, it was a quirky reprisal from the otherwise heavy handed offerings. It worked nicely. And as a song, it is all that more impressive. Cowboy Junkies managed to put the cherry on the top of the already chocolate-coated Velvet Underground record.

Landslide – Smashing Pumpkins
Fleetwood Mac
I wanted to include one of my two favorite Fleetwood Mac covers on this list. The other is Gold Dust Woman as recorded by Hole. But with that said, I chose this one because of how perfectly the song fit with the Smashing Pumpkins sound and with Billy Corgan’s voice. He sounds breezy and listless in this classic. And had I not known better, I wouldn’t have suspected it to be a cover. It fits that nicely into the puzzle.

It’s Oh So Quiet (Blow a Fuse) – Bjork
Betty Hutton
Originally recorded as a big band/traditional pop number in the 1940’s by Michigan native Betty Hutton. Funny thing is that most people didn’t realize this fact when the Icelandic Bjork re-recorded the song for her excelled 1995 release Post. Even funnier is the fact that Bjork did little to add to the overall appeal to the song. The kitschy quality of the newer recording is absolutely reflective of the original. And the fact that Bjork so neatly and tidily pays homage to the singer is a draw, not to mention the overall quality of the song.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – Guns n’ Roses
Bob Dylan
As covers go, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is the holy grail. Many, many, many bands and artists have paid respectful homage to Bob Dylan in recording and performing this song. Guns n’ Roses does however present the best version. Axl Rose’s voice works perfectly in the feel of the song and ranges from low to high and from a growl to a screech. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is truly one of the best covers of all time—and most certainly one of the best of the 1990’s.

So there you have it. Take it or leave it. Love it or hate it. But respect it for what it is…a list of a few of my favorite covers. There are certainly some that have been omitted for one reason or another but these are the ones that came most immediately to mind. And therefore, they are the ones that most belong here. Cover songs really do rock when properly done.

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