It’s no surprise to any of us that sometimes a cover is better than the original, but for me there are a few covers that more emotionally important to me than the original I loved in the first place. It’s usually because they blend my past with my present. My strong emotional connections with the originals have made them some of my favorite songs, and when a new band that I enjoy covers one of those favorite songs and adds all the new meaning and context of my life now onto how I felt when I first heard the original, the results are incredible. As such, most of these songs make me cry. I was hard to put this list together in public, which is what I did.
Nirvana, The Man Who Sold The World: I have no idea how I got ahold of this song, but I was obviously a huge Nirvana fan from age 13 to now (and always). I think I downloaded it off of Limewire (haha) not really knowing what it was. It took me a few years to figure out it was a David Bowie tune, mostly because Kurt Cobain owned it so well you’d never guess he didn’t write it. This is not only better than Bowie’s original, but it was one of the first times I listened to a song and paid attention to the lyrics intently and had them affect me. I can’t say it meant to me what it might have meant to you, but the meaning I got out of it was powerful.
If You Leave, Nada Surf: If you were a fan of the OC, you were a fan of this cover. Nada Surf’s cover of OMD blended my love for 80s John Hughes culture and the daydreams of my own life. It’s what I think of when I think about how I would’ve liked my high school days to have gone. I always wanted my life to be a John Hughes film. I think in some ways it was, but nothing can ever end that well.
The White Stripes, Jolene: I’m going to take a stand here and say that this cover is NOT as good as Dolly’s original version. But The White Stripes were very influential to me in my youth, and this led me to Dolly who has been very influential to me in my adulthood. As a kid, Dolly Parton was seen as outdated and someone my friends’ moms listened to. But this cover gave me permission to listen to Dolly Parton, and I’ve been a fan of hers since.
On that note…
Miley Cyrus, Jolene: Drop the mic. Hands down my favorite cover of “Jolene”. It makes me sad Miley wanted to pursue a more pop/hip-hop direction with her music (I love Bangerz, just to be clear). I would have loved to see her do a traditional country or bluegrass album. We could use more of this sound in the country scene. These days it’s pretty much just pop music.
Ryan Adams, “Wonderwall”: I have a few Ryan Adam’s albums, but I don’t think I own anything quite as heart wrenching as his 2004 Love Is Hell. It makes you feel like your soul is bleeding, which is an extreme thing to say, but as a young teen that was exactly what I wanted. It’s beautiful, particularly “The Shadowlands”, “Political Scientist”, and this raw cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”. I never really got into Oasis, but I obviously have heard and enjoyed “Wonderwall”. At 16 I was just beginning to see the world through the eyes of an adult, and it was overwhelming. You’re pining for the loss of innocence you’re experiencing while trying to get a handle on moving forward and understanding things like love, pain, fear, and true joy.
The etherial crooning of Ryan Adams let me know I wasn’t alone, although I certainly felt like I was. With the confusion and uncertainty facing us as teens, all we wanted was someone or something to cling to. In his cover of the iconic song, Adams sounds like he’s on the verge of breaking down, his voice cracking and shaking. I’m sure you can see why, when you’re confused and hurt and excited at 16, this particular version of this particular song would have a lasting impact.
The Civil Wars, Disarm: This cover of Disarm by one of my favorite groups of all time is nearly unrecognizable. I’d call it more of a re-imagining, and it is so god damn good. This is one of those moments where my past collided with my present, much like the next two covers on this list. Like with film remakes, covers of songs that were important to you as a kid hold more meaning when you hear them redone as an adult. The Smashing Pumpkins was a band I loved as a young teen, and now as an adult I’m pretty much obsessed with The Civil Wars. As a kid, this song didn’t hold any great importance to me other than it was pretty and angst-ridden, but today it carries a completely different meaning about growing up and becoming who I am, whether I like who I am or not. It’s like Joy Williams and John Paul White are singing Disarm to me at 15 in a way that would let me know what my life would be like in 10 years.
Anberlin, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: This cover captures the essence of me in college completely. Driving around in the middle of the night, exhausted yet excited both physically and emotionally. I was displaced and trying to find myself. It was a time of change and ferocious emotions (many of which I wish I could take back). It was all or nothing, and “There Is A Light” perfectly reflects that. Anberlin was one of my anthem bands in college, and I will always be a fierce fan of theirs. I also love The Smiths, but I kept the two sort of separate.
When Anberlin released their 2007 Lost Songs, an album full of covers, b-sides, and acoustic/demo versions of their previously released work, I found that it was packed full of ’80s covers. My two worlds smashed together, and I instantly gravitated toward their version of “There Is A Light”. How do you improve The Smiths? I never thought it could be possible, but this haunting rendition did it. The amount of emotion vocalist Stephen Christian puts into this cover is palpable, which just makes me connect with it even more.
Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), I Can’t Make You Love Me: Bonnie Raitt has such an important place in my heart. We used to listen to her albums in the summer when I was a young kid, so as soon as I hear her I’m transported back to days spent remodeling our old house, helping my Dad with his garden, running errands with my Mom, or spending time at my Grandma’s lake house.
When I first heard Justin Vernon’s emotional rendition of one of my favorite songs of all time, I cried. In fact, when relistening to it to write this I had to stop about a minute in to compose myself, which wasn’t easy. For me, Vernon’s heartbreaking take on the song represents how my life has changed in the past 20 years. It’s like an homage to my growth as a human and all the painful experiences that had an effect on that growth. It’s a sad reflection on what was and how it can never be again. I love it.