Some songs just get under your skin. These songs are beautiful in that they produce emotion in the listener that wasn’t there before. This is a list of the top five most beautiful cover songs, with hopefully more to come. Coincidentally, almost every song on this list deals with heartbreak of some kind (Please note that I have just as much respect and admiration for the original versions of these songs as I do the cover versions).
Number Five: “After the Gold Rush” by Thom Yorke. “After the Gold Rush” is a Neil Young song, off of his 1970 album of the same name. Thom Yorke covered this song at the Live at Bridge School Benefit, in Mountain View, California, in October 2002 (The Bridge School Benefit is a non-profit, annual charity run by Neil Young and his wife.) Thom begins by saying, “This piano is Neil Young’s piano, and this piano is…making me do this.”
Both Young and Yorke share this exquisite vocal quality unique to them and few others, which makes me think that no other artist could have done this song justice as eloquently as Yorke did. The main difference between the two versions is that Young’s version is more enunciated, while Yorke’s words seem to flow together, almost as if he is pleading to some higher power. Other than that, this is one of those covers that you’re happy stayed true to the original, as it’s such a classic and timeless song.
Number Four: “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Nina Simone. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is a song originally written by Sandy Denny in 1967 and was re-recorded when Denny joined the folk/rock band, Fairport Convention, in 1968. In the same year, Judy Collins covered the song. Nina Simone covered this track on Black Gold; her 1970 live album. Nina starts off by saying, “Let’s see what we can do with this lovely, lovely thing that goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflict…Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say ‘What is this thing called time?’…You get your coffee by the clock. You have to get on a plane at a certain time…And it goes on and on and on. And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive?”
Compared to Denny’s version, Nina’s version is more hushed and tranquil, with sparse guitar and piano. I first heard this cover in a wonderful movie called The Dancer Upstairs (2002,) in a scene where this man watches his ballerina daughter dance to this song. It fit the scene perfectly, as we all have to watch our children grow up; of course, that’s just one of the side effects of time. This cover is unique and Nina hits home the idea of just how precious life is because of the short time we have.
Number Three: “Wild Horses” by The Sundays. “Wild Horses” is a song by The Rolling Stones, off of their 1971 album, Sticky Fingers. Dream/pop group The Sundays covered the song on their 1992 album, Blind, as well as featuring the song as a b-side to their 1992 single, “Goodbye.” Since its release, this cover version was featured in movies like Fear (1996) and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1999.)
I remember when my high school English teacher gave me my favorite assignment ever: to burn a mix CD centered on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “Wild Horses” was the first song that came to mind, and I knew I had to include the cover version. While the original is a masterpiece itself, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, The Sundays’ version is more ethereal, with Harriet Wheeler’s vocals sounding angelic and mystical. When she sings perhaps the best lyric in the song, “let’s do some living after we die,” she extends the note more than Jagger does in the original, making this cover unique.
Number Two: “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley. “Hallelujah” is originally a Leonard Cohen song, off of his 1985 album, Various Positions. Jeff Buckley covered the song on his 1994 album, Grace. Cohen’s original studio version features back-up singers during the chorus, while Cohen’s version sounds mostly like spoken-word poetry; Buckley’s version is exactly the opposite, with the exception that it’s just as beautifully poetic. Buckley’s version features only his vocals and his fender telecaster.
Said the late Buckley to a magazine, “Whoever listens carefully to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth. The hallelujah is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It’s an ode to life and love.” Indeed, this song has been covered and interpreted differently by many musicians, but overall the song seems to be about something holy and something broken; the lyrics compare a sexual relationship to a spiritual experience, and not many songs have been able to successfully tackle that combination (with the exception of Hozier’s recent hit, “Take Me to Church.”) Overall, Buckley’s version is more serious than Cohen’s, and personally I feel Buckley’s version provides more clarity and insight into the lyrics than the original.
Number One: “Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil. “Song to the Siren” is originally a Tim Buckley song, off of his 1970 album, Starsailor. This Mortal Coil covered the song on their 1984 album, It’ll End In Tears. While Tim Buckley’s version is a folk/rock masterpiece, it’s the vocals of Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser in the cover version which really gives you the chills. Besides the extended notes, this cover is different in that it makes you feel like you’re caught in a hypnotic dream; like This Mortal Coil was tapping into the original muse Tim Buckley tapped into. Coincidentally, the song itself seems to be about a fleeting muse (the ‘siren’,) who calls to the sailor to come to her but then rejects him. This song overall is both poetic and tragic, and the cover version was later used in films like Lost Highway (1997) and The Lovely Bones (2009.)