A playlist for the week

One of the things I’d like to be able to do on this blog is occasionally post playlists of music that I like, based around some interesting theme or commonality. Unfortunately, because I switched to a WordPress blog from my original Blogger blog, I can no longer embed the Grooveshark player widget that would let you hear the songs on the playlist from within the post itself. I’m looking to see if there is a good alternative (if you’ve got one, please share it!) but in the meanwhile, I’m just going to link to a Grooveshark page with the songs saved in a playlist. Sorry folks; it’s the best I can do for now.
So here’s the inaugural playlist: The theme is “Covers that are better than the original.” Note, by the way, that I’ve intentionally omitted a bunch of songs which are “technically” covers, but whose original version is obscure or tremendously overshadowed. These are interesting in their own right, and may be the subject of a future playlist (admit it: you had no idea Quiet Riot didn’t write “Come On Feel the Noise.”) But that’s not what concerns me here: I’m interested in bands who boldly dared to record new versions of songs that were already popular– and somehow managed to raise the bar.

Alright, enough chat. Give it a listen. A warning, one or two swear words appear. Also, a long, rambling, stream-of-consciousness style commentary on the songs and why I picked them is available below the fold. And also a bonus track!

The Songs

1) PinBall Wizard– Elton John (original by The Who)

I love this song. Both versions. But just listen to Sir. Elton John belt out the words “sure play’s a mean pinball” and tell me he doesn’t bring a new kind of over-the-top glitz to the story, the kind that really makes you believe there’s a deaf, dumb and blind kid with crazy flipper fingers. And if that doesn’t do it for you, listen to the fantastic tremolo piano that takes the place of Pete Townshend’s fluttery alt-strumming. To me at least, it has the marvelous effect of invoking the glittery ping of a real pinball hall.

2)Mad World– Gary Jules (original by Tears for Fears)

Track down the original if you don’t think this deserves inclusion. Its a good song. But its a completely different song. Jules and collaborator Michael Andrews discovered that it deserved a slower tempo, and a more pronounced keyboard line that wanders about the treble clef like a lost soul in an empty, mad world.

3) Higher Ground– RHCP (original by Stevie Wonder)

I love the original– but that’s because its a great piece of funk but its pretty “poppy” by funk standards. It fits the Chili Peppers even better, because they’re a great pop group, but they can be pretty funky by pop standards.

4) The Man Who Sold the World– Nirvana (original by David Bowie)

There’s not much to say about this one. Everyone knows it as one of the most famous covers of all time. What’s interesting to me is why it worked so well; a lot of covers work well because they suit the style of the cover band better than they fit the original group. But this sure doesn’t sound like the kind of stuff Nirvana used to become popular. I would guess that’s why it caught so much attention.

5) Smells Like Teen Spirit–Tori Amos (original by Nirvana)

Turnabout’s fair play, I guess. Which makes me think, couldn’t you construct a cool, Kevin-Bacon like game where you linked bands together by seeing who had covered each other’s songs? Probably not enough overlap. But at least I linked David Bowie and Tori Amos.

6) Where the Streets Have No Name– Pet Shot Boys (original by U2)

When I picked this for the playlist, I remembered reading something about it from a commenter at Andrew Sullivan’s blog that accurately described its brilliance. I’ll just let him do the talking:

I first heard the Pet Shop Boys in high school and dismissed it as yet more soulless, computerized Brit-Pop. Then one night in a club I heard their version of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I thought, “Listen to this crap. They take this well-made, passionate song and drain it of all feeling. Oh wait. That’s brilliant. They’re geniuses.

I agree.

7) I Will Survive–CAKE (original by Gloria Gaynor)

A lot of my friends hate this song. But a lot of my friends don’t like CAKE either. I think they’re all as crazy as, well, as people who don’t like regular cake. Something about the slow, deliberate, methodic pace of John McCrea’s delivery reinforces the lyrical theme of determination, while changing the overall message to one that carries a bit more spite.

8) Working Class Hero–Green Day (original by John Lennon)

Maybe some people will find this one of the more controversial songs in the playlist. Who are a bunch of punks called Green Day to mess with the genius of John Lennon? But for my money its one of the songs that most obviously belongs on the list. Lennon wrote often about his hunt for a bigger, darker, crunchier guitar sound for use in his more righteously aggressive songs, and that’s just what the spikey-haired trio builds up to over the course of the song. It’s everything Lennon could ever have asked for, and fittingly, the song ends with a sample of his original vocals.

9) Power to the People–the Black Eyed Peas(original by John Lennon)

I really didn’t make this playlist to hate on John Lennon. And if you wanted to argue that the Peas are too commercialized to be able to credibly sing this labor anthem, you’d probably have a case. But from a purely musical point of view, I think once again the cover version takes the original (literally– that choral backing is sampled from the ’71 record) and layers it with all the trappings Lennon’s version only hinted at, most notable the persistent “stomp-clap” beat in the background. Plus, call me a sucker, but doesn’t having a clear variety of ethnicities and genders represented in the vocal track add something?

10) Umbrella– Marié Digby (original by Rhianna)

Um, lets put it this way. Any version of this song that’s listenable belongs on this list. But this… this is kind of nice!

11) Wonderwall–Ryan Adams (original by Oasis)

Like the previous song, this one departs dramatically from the style of the original, only this one goes further by actually departing in a way that even changes the mood and meaning of the song. I love Oasis, and I love the original Wonderwall, but in the end, its a pretty flat song, a simple string of lyrical complements. When Ryan adams sings “Maybe/you’re gonna be the one that saves me” there’s genuine doubt in his voice; its almost a question. And for me at least, the song suddenly resonates more deeply.

12) 2000 Miles–Coldplay (original by The Pretenders)

When I was younger I used to confuse “2000 Miles” by the pretenders with “I Will Walk 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. Now, there is only “2000 Miles” by Coldplay, the band that should have written it to begin with. Someone told me once that this song was supposed to be about how far away Santa Claus is from London when it’s not Christmas, but I think after one listen to the Coldplay version you’ll agree that its about a loved one moved far away, and the memories of warm Christmases spent together in the past.

Incidentally, coming as it did right inbetween “A Rush of Blood to the Head” and “X&Y” i this may well have been the last song ever recorded by “Old Coldplay,” known around these parts as “Better Coldplay.” Unfortunately, after this, Chris Martin married Gwenyth Paltrow, and lost his ability to be persuasively convey any emotion besides general optimism, with maybe one exception.

13) The Hardest Part–Better Coldplay (originally by New Coldplay)

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re confused a little bit right now. How could “Better Coldplay,” which is old Coldplay, cover New Coldplay? I’m not sure either. But this is the exception I referenced above. The lyrics and chord structure of this song scream longing, to me conveying the nuanced-yet-overpowering emotion of watching a former lover at her wedding, or maybe perhaps walking your daughter down the aisle to join her husband-to-be. But the jangly piano, made to feel upbeat by the cymbal-laced drum beat and silly guitar riffs, killed the mood and just didn’t match. I like to think that late one night after a fight with Gwenyth, Chris Martin got up from the couch, went to the piano, and rediscovered the sound this song deserved.

14) Hallelujah–Jeff Buckley (original by Leonard Cohen)

Be honest, which singer really sounds like he’s praying?

15) Smooth Criminal–Alien Ant Farm (original by Michael Jackson)

Welcome back, people who I just scared silly with that sharp transition. I hope it didn’t scare you too badly. Admit it, it was kind of the right thing to do.

Won’t admit it ? Okay. Wall anyway, this song is hard-hitting and raucous in both versions, and there are things I really like about the original. But really, can the tall, slender, effeminate Michael Jackson bring enough fright and fear to the lyrics to make this song work? Can you take the original seriously with that 80’s “snare-in-a-garage” sound in the background? When MJ sings “Annie are you okay” he just sounds like a bit of a creep. When Dryden Mitchell growls it, you can hear in his voice that he knows the answer is “no.” Ultimately, the Jackson version sounds like the “E! True Hollywood Stories” sensationalized re-enactment of how a crime might have occurred. The AAF version is like being there yourself in the immediate aftermath.

16) Hurt–Johnny Cash (Original by Nine Inch Nails)

This is for my money the most obvious inclusion on this list. Its the song that will always spring to my mind first if anyone ever mentions a cover that’s better than the original. Its so good and so perfect that it took me forever to truly believe Cash didn’t write it. Find a flaw, I dare you. As with “Smooth Criminal,” the cover simply brings the listener more directly in contact with the heart and soul of the lyrics. Trent Reznor’s seething whispers sound like the nearly random complaints of a bitter madman. Cash’s rendering sounds like the world-weary words your grandfather might suddenly pour out, finding a moment of clarity in the bed of a nursing home, or seated in the chair on his front porch.

17) Somewhere Over The Rainbow–Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (original by Judy Garland)

Alright, I wanted to end with “Hurt,” being, as it is, the epitome of the concept showcased in this playlist. But, sitting here in the dark and hacking away at my little keyboard, I confess I need some cheering up after the last song, and I thought you might too. Not much better to cure a case of the blues than a little ukulele, wouldn’t you say?

Notable omissions:

You may be wondering why I didn’t include my beloved Obediah Parker version of “Hey Ya.” The answer is simply that, after much consideration, I determined that the Outkast versions really was the superior recording, the song “as nature intended,” and that if I didn’t know the original, the cover would not mean so much to me. Something similar prevented me from putting Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on the list. I personally prefer the sound of it, but its just not as true to the spirit of the song as the Sergeant Pepper recording, complete with Lennon’s hauntingly thin vocals and George Martin’s masterful doctoring of a guitar sound into a hallucenatory harp. And yes, for the record, Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is much better than the Hendrix edition.

Bonus Track:

This song, however, only failed to make the cut because I couldn’t find a reliable version on GrooveShark. So I offer it to you now, in the spirit of track 10 from above.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to A playlist for the week

  1. Pingback: All I Want For Christmas is Old Coldplay Back « WLOG blog

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