I’ve always been a fan of cover songs. It’s interesting to hear a track that you’re familiar with from one band or artist performed by another, even if the differences are minimal. But to my mind, straightforward covers aren’t terribly interesting. It might be nifty to hear an artist you like play someone else’s song (particularly in concert, and even more so when it’s out of the blue), but in many instances I find myself feeling like I might as well just listen to the original. It’s usually better, after all.
This is not always the case, however. Some covers transform their source material to create something that is truly distinctive. It might not be better than the original (although in rare cases it is), but it is meaningfully different. These are the type of cover songs this list will focus on: those that truly justify their existence by taking the work of another and doing something new with it.
It’s not an exhaustive list, of course. These are merely my 10 favorites, in no particular order. (Here is a playlist if that’s something you might be interested in.)
Jimmy Scott, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
This list of cover songs isn’t ranked, but I am nonetheless starting with the best one. “Nothing Compares 2 U” was originally a Prince song, though the most famous version may be Sinead O’Connor’s. It is a great song in general (I’d encourage you to check out Chris Cornell’s cover as well), but truly nothing compares to the rendition recorded by Little Jimmy Scott.
You may know Jimmy Scott from his appearance in Episode 29 of Twin Peaks, where he sings “Sycamore Trees,” but if you haven’t ever taken the time to listen to his other work I can’t recommend enough that you do. His unique voice is at least in part due to the fact that he had Kallmann syndrome but that doesn’t account for his impressive style as a jazz singer.
Scott took syncopation to its limit, tending to hit the beat so late that he almost missed it. No matter how many times you’ve heard him perform a song, you almost cannot sing along; you’ll get there too soon. And this extreme syncopation creates a tension that, along with his contralto voice, makes his music distinctive and haunting.
His rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” makes the song even more poignant than other versions. I don’t know if I recommend listening to it after a painful breakup or not. I suppose it depends if you want to cry.
Ministry, “Lay Lady Lay”
Ministry’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” appears on their 1994 album Filth Pig and was released as a single. It is quite different from Dylan’s version, which has a mellow, if not lazy, quality to it. This is not to say it’s bad; just that it kind of makes me want to relax in a hammock.
Ministry’s rendition, however, features driving distorted bass from its first note, and in lieu of Dylan’s drawn out crooning, we get Al Jourgensen hitting the lines in a way that is sharp and forceful. Of course, the vocals are also distorted.
“Lay Lady Lay” has been covered by so many artists over the years that it has practically become a standard, but Ministry’s version stands out from the pack. They took a laid-back tune and turned it into an exemplar of industrial metal. And yet, this still feels like “Lay Lady Lay”—Ministry just took the song and did their own thing with it, which is the mark of a good cover.