You know that feeling when you’re at a show, seeing your favorite band and they’re killing it, and you’re singing along to all their songs and then, out of the blue, they break into some other band’s song? You’re like, "Holy hell, I can’t f$%@*^# handle how awesome the universe has just become!" That’s the part of the show, despite how awesome everything else was, you’ll be talking about with your friends the next day. "Can you believe 21 Pilots played Barry flippin’ Manilow?!"
Before we go any further, let’s be clear on one thing: I am not a music critic. Every single one of the musical opinions I posit in this column should be taken with a heaping spoonful of salt. I like what I like, and so do you, and I bet our thoughts on this stuff diverge at certain points. That’s cool. That’s the basis of music critique in the first place, the notion that "I like what I like" (coupled with the notion "and I want to talk about it"). So maybe that does make me a music critic. Maybe it makes you a music critic, too. So be it.
Also worth keeping in mind is that I have limited space here. While I suppose I could go on and on about the merits or demerits of artists and their songs and their covers, I can’t. Not for more than 800—1,000 words, anyway.
Caveats first. I’m not including any songs written by Bob Dylan. Let’s all shake hands and agree that Bob Dylan is the best songwriter ever. But that voice tho—an acquired taste at best. His songs are so good, but listening to him sing them is like drinking an 18-year-old single malt out of a sippy cup. Cover versions please! I’m also not including tongue-in-cheek covers. No Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. I’m talking about sincere efforts by artists who, in covering other people's songs, completely reinvent them. They’ve discovered some wild aspects to the songs that weren’t obvious to the original songwriters. Oh, and finally, I’m not including Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt." It’s amazing. We get it. Watch the video.
Without further ado, here are the five best cover songs ever, in order of worst-ness to best-ness.
UB-40’s "Red, Red Wine," written by Neil Diamond
I remember when I first found out Neil Diamond wrote "Red, Red Wine." … Wah-HUT?! I was musically gob-smacked. Even though, somehow, Neil Diamond is still around, I’m sure glad UB-40 expended the energy they did stripping out the schmaltz and cranking up the chill. Pass the dutchie.
Willie Nelson’s "The Scientist," written by Coldplay
It’s too bad this one is best-known from the extended Chipotle commercial a few years ago. Coldplay’s original is pretty good, if not a pretty standard-sounding rock 'n' roll slow song. But in Willie’s version, it’s as if he died, came back as a ghost and then recorded it. It’s a beautifully haunted, soul-shattering version.
Marilyn Manson’s "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," written by the Eurythmics
Of all the artists on my list, the dopiest is probably Marilyn Manson. Though he outdid himself again and again with the shock rock stuff until it got sort of boring (Gasp! Shocking!), there’s no doubt that Marilyn Manson completely flipped this tune on its head. It came out when he was at his hungriest and evilest, and this cover brims with delicious, horror-soaked rock 'n' roll.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s "Blowin’ in the Wind," written by Bob Dylan
Yeah. I know I said no Bob Dylan. But look. Once when I was an undergrad, Bob Dylan came to my school. He played the basketball arena. Phil Lesh opened. All the twirling hippies and creative writing professors were there. It was a BIG DEAL. When Dylan got to "Blowin’ in the Wind," nobody knew what the hell he was singing. One of the most familiar American melodies—not to mention Dylan’s own damn melody—sounded like a Gregorian chant crammed through 50 layers of reverb. And the lyrics. What was that, Bob? How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a what? An inflatable dragon tied to a dog’s tail? Nobody gets it, Bob. Nobody. Thank the Lord for Saints Peter, Paul and Mary on this one.
Janis Joplin’s "Me and Bobby McGee," written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster
Nobody remembers Fred Foster helped write this number. Most people only think of Kristofferson, and poor Kristofferson. Picture him walking into a Joplin performance of "Me and Bobby McGee." He goes, "Hey, that’s my song!" Everybody near him goes, "No. No, it’s not." And he goes, "Yes, it is." And they go, "NO. IT’S NOT." And he goes, "… Yeah, you’re right. Sorry about that."
All right, so that’s it. The five best cover versions that are better than the originals. Credit where credit is due to the original songwriters. They’re all fantastic songs. But I’m sorry, Neil, Chris/Coldplay, Annie/Eurythmics, Bob, Kris and Fred. They belong to other artists now.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.