5 Song Covers That Elevate, Possibly Surpass the Original
There’s an old saying that all writers not so secretly wish they were musicians. For a variety of reasons I never pursued developing a talent for music except for a two year stint playing the tenor sax in middle school. The salve for that in my life is a Spotify account that I make use of for hours a day. Another bit of supposed conventional wisdom is that covers of classic songs can never possibly match, far less surpass the original.
Suffice to say, there’s plenty evidence to the contrary for the latter. A close friend of mine recently created an amazing playlist collection of her favorite cover songs, and here are 5 of my favorite covers that match, if not surpass the original:
Elle King – My Neck, My Back (originally by Khia)
Acoustic covers of rap/hip-hop are a very old party trick. One of the marks of a true Angeleno is rolling your eyes when KROQ plays Dynamite Hack’s cover of Boyz in the Hood for the umpteenth time any given day (fun fact: Hack refuses to play the cover when they perform because they recognize it’s been so overplayed). Given that it’s a bit of an easy go to, for someone to really stand out with one it’s gotta be special and King’s performance of Khia’s dirty talking classic is superb.
King owns the dirtiness of the lyrics without any hesitation, and takes it to a different kind of naughty fun with a grungy backroom pub husk to her voice, which is all the more incredible when you hear her warning before she dives in with her sweet voice “if you don’t want to hear a filthy song then get the fuck out please!” This is much more than just a fun “in joke,” King took the song from the club to the pub and I love her for it.
Say Lou Lou – Stayin’ Alive (originally by the Bee Gee’s)
Whereas Elle King’s cover translated the spirit of Khia’s song to a different space and genre, Say Lou Lou does something slightly different that I think is the other route to an amazing cover: they transmute the essence of the original into a different tone and spirit. The Bee Gee’s original song is an upbeat disco classic. The melody especially communicates an assured unflappability of defiance against a society and travails you’re immune to on the dance floor.
I’m not digging hard for that meaning, it’s right there in the lyrics, and Say Lou Lou focused on that essence of trial and tribulation in their cover with a more mournful, ethereal version that taps more deeply into the essence of the isolated utopia we seek in music and art, but pulls the despair of everything else that makes us seek that more thoroughly with their performance.
Scala & Kolacny Brothers – Creep (originally by Radiohead)
I’ll admit to this one coming by way of the movie trailer for The Social Network ten years ago, but I dare you to challenge me on this. Radiohead’s original is something of an anthem for lonely weirdos, to the point where South Park even had Cartman singing the lyrics to it in one episode. Radiohead’s original is very much a song for one- not anyone in particular, but for the sole and lonely.
Shifting the performance of the vocals to a choir rather than Thom Yorke’s lone voice inspires a very different spirit in the song that the piano arrangement serves to complement nicely-and this is what made it perfect for the aforementioned trailer: Yorke’s original performance speaks very much to the lonely person in their room knowing there’s a world/person out there they wish they could be a part of and with. This choir arrangement changes it to something more suited for that trailer which embodies a spirit of loneliness even when in a crowd of people, and the despair that loneliness can pervade even when surrounded by hundreds.
Pickin’ On Series – Comfortably Numb (originally by Pink Floyd)
I’ve mentioned on this list that sometimes the way to a great cover is to shift the meaning and essence of the song, the other way is to enhance and bring it out more. Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is one of my favorite works from the legendary prog-rock group, and interestingly it’s not about illicit drug use, it’s about being prescribed pain medication for a pre-show injury and the near death feeling of detachment it caused. The lyrics are all the beautiful images and sensations such a detachment might conjure.
The Pickin’ On Series does a spectacular job with their string arrangement of creating layers of melody that emulate the echoing range of distance and layers that sensation creates, further enhanced by their multi-track vocals and ensemble singing. The song tiptoes around the ephemeral feeling of onset death that this sensation feels like it might knock on the door of but everything about this cover nestles it very comfortably and beautifully beside Floyd’s original intent for the song and lyrics.
Run and Hide – Wicked Game (originally by Chris Isaak)
I’m an unabashed fan of Chris Isaak’s melancholy ballad. Part of that may be due to overexposure to it: my mom is a huge Chris Isaak fan, so I grew up hearing it incessantly on weekends around the house. Isaak’s Wicked Game is a masterpiece in itself, capturing a feeling we all know and hope never to feel.
Run and Hide does the amazing job in this cover of knowing how universal that feeling is, how accessible it is, but using Sabrina Carpenter’s voice for both its allure and unique energy the spirit of the song becomes something we all know and actually might hope to experience. It’s beautiful in that sense to me because yes, it’s absolutely still about the fear and agony of heartbreak we know is coming, but there’s a hint of celebration to the beauty of it as a part of life. Of all the songs on this list, if you have someone you care for romantically and have plans with tonight? Put this on before you go out and share a dance in your living room to it.