Graphics by Sam Goodman
By Eva Fuller
There’s something magical that lives beneath the surface of cover songs.
Any song, from any genre or any artist, has the potential to be reconstructed into something new and exciting, and can still hold up on its own. Whether it’s an original musician or your uncle’s Steely Dan cover band, there is plenty of merit in taking art into your own hands (but no stealing! that’s bad!). Recently, I've been listening to a lot of covers, but I've noticed that some of the best are tracks that flip the original on its head completely. Here are some cover songs that cross boundaries and genres, but still work well on their own.
"Take Me to the River" – Talking Heads (original by Al Green)
“Take Me to the River” is one of those odd cases in which the cover becomes just as popular, if not more, than the original song. Talking Heads’ new-wavey rendition of the 1974 Al Green classic got enough airplay on classic rock stations to the point where listeners thought it was an original song. There’s quite a lot to enjoy here, from the reworked instrumentation to David Byrne crooning “hug me, squeeze me, love me, tease me” in a very funky voice. It laid the groundwork for future genre-bending covers. Plus, the live version is seriously good.
"Venus as a Boy" – Corinne Bailey Rae (original by Björk)
British singer-songwriter Corrine Bailey Rae is a golden-voiced treasure who can most definitely outsing those pretty birds that like to wake you up in the morning. Her cover of the '90s Björk staple “Venus as a Boy” perfectly captures the original’s bold sensuality, while adding an extra layer of warmth and delicacy. Swapping out tablas for light percussion and incorporating acoustic guitar and a Rhodes, Bailey Rae’s jazzy cover naturally progresses into a beautifully orchestrated unveiling of life and love. She breathes new life into the chorus, delivering a perfect mix of grace and strength every step of the way.
"I Will Survive" – Cake (original by Gloria Gaynor)
Possibly the most drastic cover on this list, Cake took Gloria Gaynor’s 70s’ disco anthem and spun it on its head. From the inclusion of profanity (which Gaynor did not enjoy too much) to its overall alt-rock reconstruction, the 1996 cover became a charting success and a mainstay in Cake’s discography - and it works 100%. It also amplifies the original message of Gaynor's hit that resonated with marginalized groups as a theme of empowerment. John McCrea's empowered delivery makes way for the reclamation of power that's present from the very beginning.
"Head Over Heels" – Japanese Breakfast (original by Tears for Fears)
Michelle Zauner’s cover of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” is ethereal and painstakingly lonely. Heavily stripped down, her isolated yet powerful voice carries the listener on a journey of desperation and unrequited love. Zauner's breathy delivery of "oh, you're just wasting my time / You're just, just, just wasting time," is particularly striking and heart-wrenching to me. This scaled-down ballad is a sincere love letter to the '80s' new wave and agonizing love songs that don’t fail to deliver.