Top Five Songs ... 04.02.2019
DFM Masthead Disenfranchised FM Cuckoo's Eleven Top Five Songs Armchair Producer Music MD Tin Cans Scratch Take Life and Times Input


It's been a running gag for some time that I would eventually write a Top Five Songs on Covers. It's kind of like my friend Todd's infamous tweet about the Cubs. Well, it's put up or shut up time, folks. Joining me is a longtime friend, Bryan Rakowski. You may have been one of a dozen people who read our very long debate on the Most Important Artists of the Aughts. It started with a back-and-forth email chain and ended up being a five-part, 26,000+ word article. It nearly killed us. Then, over St. Patrick's Day, I pitched the idea that we give Top Five Songs a go. And by St. Patrick's Day, I mean St. Patrick's Day, 2011. Yep, we picked these songs eight years ago, and by God, we're sticking with them.

Nothing quite matches a live cover in the right moment. It's a stocking-stuffer with the potential to be the favorite gift. Sadly, nothing can quite ruin one's affection for a song than an ill-conceived cover. Gaslight Anthem, I'm looking in your direction.

Bryan and took a fairly practical approach on both scope and grading: first, it had to be released on an LP, an EP, or a single. No b-sides, no bootlegs, no nostalgia from our teenage years when everything sounded amazing. In terms of assessing what made a great cover, we kept the parameters fairly broad: was the cover strong successful, commercially and/or critically, to the point where the cover was generally regarded as the default? We both agreed that Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" was the clearest example. Because of that, we agreed that we'd both exclude from our lists. The extra wrinkle that I added was that we'd again exclude Beatles and Stones. Bryan's not the biggest fan of either, so this is really a handicap for me and will make more sense later.

Brought to you a day after April Fools' Day, because we didn't want you to think we were joking about finally posting this. Just kidding ... I procrastinated again.

Top Five Songs

Matt's Picks

Bryan's Picks

NUMBER FIVE: Ike & Tina Turner - "Proud Mary" [1971]

Originally recorded by: Credence Clearwater Revival [1969]

NUMBER FIVE: Gnarls Barkley - "Gone Daddy Gone" [2006]

Originally recorded by: Violent Femmes [1982]

"But I never saw the good side of the city
until I hitched a ride on the riverboat queen."

"I can tell by the way that you treat your man
I can love you, baby, it's a cryin'."

Jon Fogerty wrote a perfect song: a beautiful jangle lick with a smooth tempo. It's no surprise that he penned this just after being discharged from the National Guard. You can hear the pressure slide off his shoulders as the boat ambles along, and the use of a fade out is perfect for how he arranged the song. I forget how good this song really is, but that's the point of my argument.

I want to cringe when I hear Tina speak of doing things rough while Ike provides the lead-in to the song. But as soon as the harmonies start, you hear Tina's command of the vocals and you realize that this is a very good cover. But when the brass kicks in, you realize this wasn't the open water; this was the no-wake zone, and the song is only just getting started. Who can possibly remember Fogerty's crooning after witnessing this?

Here's a fun fact: this is actually a cover within a cover: the Femmes give a nod to Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" Awesome. Note: while it was his song, I don't think Willie Dixon recorded the song first, but my research on the internets was inconclusive. But acknowledging the complexity of this selection via recognition of the original-original owner should suffice.

Moving on, the Violent Femmes were a favorite of the DJ selected to play at all of DeLaSalle Collegiate High School dances. To that end, they'll always hold a fond place in my heart as one of a few "musical markers" in my brain of the high school years and the rapid awakening to the female of the species. The Violent Femmes were sneaky successful ... with this album going platinum and selling millions over the course of their 20 year career. And dude ... it's got a xylophone solo!

But then came Gnarls' version and video. I happened to be working in Moscow, Russia at the time St. Elsewhere was released. Due to workload and lack of a social network during the first 2 months I was there, I probably listened to that album 350 times over 3 months. Every time this song came on, it produced just enough nostalgia to cure the daily homesickness, but had just enough of an edge and originality to make me appreciate that I didn't need to be in the States to have a good time. And, as the ultimate compliment, The Violent Femmes covered Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" during one of their concerts in 2009. If that's not full circle enough for you to cement this as one of the top 5, I'm not sure what is!

NUMBER FOUR: Cream - "Crossroads" [1968]

Originally recorded by: Robert Johnson [1937]

NUMBER FOUR: Cake - "I Will Survive" [1996]

Originally recorded by: Gloria Gaynor [1978]

"Asked the Lord above for mercy, 'Take me, if you please'."

"I should've changed that f***ing lock."

It's absolutely criminal that Robert Johnson isn't more widely recognized as a blues pioneer and creator of so much of the work music fans idolize. Without Johnson, there is no Traveling Roadside Blues. The original inductee of the "27 Club," he met his untimely death and later grew into legend as the man who sold his soul to the Devil to achieve musical greatness. Listening to this track is essential to appreciating music's roots, but when God gives it a go, you know it's going to be on another level.

Clapton's accelerated tempo gives the song an urgency not unlike Proud Mary. Whereas Johnson's version seems to dwell on his fate post-mortem, Cream's rendition is like a soundtrack to a Steve McQueen car chase, dodging cross-traffic and narrowly escaping death.

Cake covering a disco tune is just plain bizarre. I dig it. Talk about a cover song that stops you in your tracks. An alt/indie/rock band covering a disco queen?! While I'm not exactly sure how to classify Cake, Gloria Gaynor's biggest hit during her reign as a disco diva was certified double platinum by the RIAA. Although Cake's success with this song didn't surpass Ms. Gaynor's, the pure surprise of the selection 18 years after its initial release that had high school and college kids singing disco lyrics at the top of their lungs is pure gold to me. But the best part? (You mean there's more?) It is said that Gloria hates this cover version of "her" song because they swapped out some of her lyrics for curse words! Hey lady ... you're the one that chose to sing disco. Get over it.

NUMBER THREE: Van Halen - "You Really Got Me" [1978]

Originally recorded by: The Kinks [1964]

NUMBER THREE: Lenny Kravitz - "American Woman" [1998]

Originally recorded by: The Guess Who [1970]

"You got me so I can't sleep at night."

"Colored lights can hypnotize
Sparkle someone else's eyes."

Imagine: it's August, 1964, and you're hearing The Kinks play this for the first time. The radio waves are dripping with wholesome bubble gum music. In this context, you can easily argue that the Davies brothers were the the original bad boys of English rock and roll. It wouldn't be long before The Glimmer Twins would steal the black hat, but in that moment, it was raw, edgy, and more than a bit uncomfortable for Mom and Dad.

Fast forward fourteen years: the kids who listened to the edgy Kinks are now parents. They hear the Van Halen version and worry for the safety of their children. The kids hear the Kinks version and wonder why their parents listened to pop music. Dave Davies has gone on record about how he loathes the version, calling it overindulgent and too precise of technique. Thanks, Dave, but that's kind of the point: the greatest guitarist since Hendrix complements the visceral urges of DLR. It makes you want to tousle Ray Davies hair and think, "Aww, that song's cute."

Classic rock song originally done by a Canadian rock band. While it did reach #9 on the Billboard Pop Charts, it just never seemed right that a Canadian band was singing their hearts out in regards to a dangerous American woman. Enter rock icon Lenny Kravitz a mere twenty-eight years later. The song perfectly fit his style, both musical and personal. And to say he nailed it is an understatement. Lenny took home 2000's Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the Grammy's, his second of four consecutive, unprecedented wins in the category. The best part of this cover? The video. Between Heather Graham, the bevy of other beautiful American babes, the stars and stripes imagery everywhere, and Lenny being all that is Lenny ... I argue that it is THIS version that becomes the classic and the one that we look back on with fondness twenty years from now.

NUMBER TWO: Run-D.M.C. - "Walk This Way" [1986]

Originally recorded by: Aerosmith [1975]

NUMBER TWO: Gary Jules - "Mad World" [2001]

Originally recorded by: Tears for Fears [1982]

"It wasn't me she was foolin'
'Cause she knew what she was doin'.."

"And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad."

I know there will be some who argue this is a collaboration and not a cover. If you haven't read the book by Geoff Edgers, I highly recommend doing so. He covers the backstory and recording of the Run-D.M.C version in such detail, I won't do it justice with a paragraph summary. But an interesting point about the recording is that it wasn't strictly Run-D.M.C. Who stood to gain: Steven Tyler and Joe Perry guesting led to a re-emergence of Aerosmith. While I detest that version of Aerosmith, it unequivocally breathed life into their career. The tension of the recording session is remarkable in hindsight: both Run and DMC took liberties changing lyrics they felt better reflected themselves (said DMC to Run, "This is hillbilly gibberish, country-bumpkin bulls***"). Changing the lyrics is one thing, but to change the lyrics in front of the two dudes who wrote the song? If that's not claiming ownership of the song, I don't know what is.

I remember when I first heard Gary Jules' version of this song. I was unashamedly a Tears for Fears fan since high school and, in fact, ended up seeing them in concert during their reunion tour circa 2004 at The Vic Theatre in Chicago. It took me a second, but once I zeroed in on exactly which song it was, I was amazed. First of all, what an eclectic song to cover ... a relatively obscure track off of Tears for Fears' first studio album that never even charted in the US. Second, what a unique way to cover the song: stripped down, raw, and haunting. I loved that. Mr. Jules made it his own. It was different enough that it took some thought from the listener to figure it out and I'm sure there were many cases where the common music fan thought it was an original. (If you're reading Disenfranchised FM, I can be confident you are no mere common music fan.) Finally, it was unique enough to be used in a commercial for the ultra-violent video game Gears of War. Not only was the song more successful in its 2nd incarnation a full 19 years later (it reached #1 in the UK and became an international phenomenon), its use in the ad opened up a whole new way to market video games.

NUMBER ONE: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - "All Along the Watchtower" [1968]

Originally recorded by: Bob Dylan [1968]

NUMBER ONE: Johnny Cash - "Hurt" [2003]

Originally recorded by: Nine Inch Nails [1994]

"Two riders were approaching
and the wind began to howl."

"What have I become, my dearest friend?"

If we had extended this to include bootlegs or live performances, something tells me BRak would've included the DMB version of this song. Which is fine, if you're looking for a great track to close out a show at Pine Knob. But let's just say you're hearing DMB close with this ... whose song would you say they are covering: Bob's or Jimi's? Even if your name is Jakob, your answer is Jimi. Which is why this is my top song covered.

You might be wondering: how can this be a cover if Hendrix released his first? That's another reason to admire this track: Dylan recorded his version in November of 1967. Shortly thereafter, a mutual publicist shared the demo with Hendrix, and by January 1968 The Experience was in the studio recording their version.

Hendrix's approach to the track was relentless and exhausting, with Noel Redding eventually leaving the session. "I think I hear it a bit different," he'd say time and time again as he wiped take after take and added more and more overdubs. His obsession resumed in the summer, after he became dissatisfied with the mix and re-recorded. All this, and he still beat Dylan to release. Have I mentioned yet that he also assumed Bass and recorded one of the greatest guitar solos ever? If that doesn't convince you, consider what Mr. Zimmerman had to say about the cover:

"I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this and ever since he died I've been doing it that way... Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way."

Not only is the song an epitaph of sorts (Cash died just 7 months after its release), it lays bare Cash's advanced age and makes no attempt to hide any symbolism between the original version of the song, Cash's version, and Cash's own life. Not surprisingly, this version far outperformed the original, earning honors for country music's "Single of the Year", #1 video of the year, and won a 2004 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video. Even more amazingly, the song was among those discussed for "Best of the Decade" and considered one of the top videos of all time. If that's not enough success for a cover 9 years after its original release, I'm not sure what is. Not to mention, it's the only selection on my list where the covering artist was far better recognized and far more established than the artist he was covering. If you don't get goosebumps watching Cash at the piano or seeing the eerier imagery of his house, then you're just not human. As a total package, it's tough to beat this one.

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