Weezer hasn’t been relevant for at least a decade, but they found an unlikely second (third? fourth?) life with the smash success of their cover of Toto’s “Africa,” which was the band’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2005. Not surprisingly, Rivers Cuomo has decided to capitalize, recently releasing a whole album of pop and rock covers, taking on everybody from Michael Jackson to Black Sabbath to Tears for Fears.
Cover songs are funny things. On the one hand, their appeal is obvious: Here’s a song you like, in a slightly different version. On the other, the challenge of paying homage to (or maybe even topping) the original can inspire some acts to be too faithful, while others go too far afield. Hitting the sweet spot is tough.
Perhaps my favorite cover comes from MTV Unplugged in New York, Nirvana’s phenomenal live album, which actually features several covers, including songs by David Bowie and Meat Puppets. But they’re all blown away by Kurt Cobain’s treatment of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
The song has a complicated history — for instance, no one knows for sure who wrote it — but Cobain became interested in the track after hearing blues musician Lead Belly’s version. The man born Huddie William Ledbetter, who died in 1949 at the age of 61, had a mournful, haunting voice. His take on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which is also sometimes called “In the Pines,” sounds like it was recorded 500 years ago — it’s that ancient, ominous and mysterious. And Ledbetter’s simple strumming only adds to the skeletal song’s power.
In late 1993, Nirvana recorded their episode of Unplugged, which Cobain was determined not to just turn into a stripped-down greatest-hits performance. Instead, he focused on deep cuts and personal favorites. And he ended with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Cobain’s take is haunting in its own way, but the commitment in his voice and the scary/intense channeling of the song’s primal anguish made it the definitive version. For a lot of us who still miss Cobain, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” remains his heartbreaking farewell to his listeners. The band never made another studio album. A few months after this performance, Cobain took his own life.
Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the best cover songs. Consider it our playlist specially curated for you.
Alien Ant Farm, “Smooth Criminal”
Okay, so lol. With this cover, not only are we getting a bunch of white dudes with Valley-Boy flavor paying homage to one of the most famous black musicians in history (and also my dad’s all-time favorite recording artist), we get sick pop-metal licks and a completely danceable party song. It also has a very specific early 2000s flare in that we have bikers and dudes with raised trucks searching for some kind of flavor, and landing on one of the most versatile, universally loved jams ever.
I love it, though, for two distinctly personal reasons: 1) My dad loves Mike J. (yes, I know he’s problematic — Mike J., not my dad); and my 12-year-old self was just starting to discover “rock” as a genre when this cover first hit. I’m admittedly sentimental, but I’d still dance to this shit if I heard it playing at a bar or a party, with NO SHAME. — Erin Taj, Astrologer / Art Director
Tina Turner, “Proud Mary”
I wanna hear the artist snatch the song. Make it more than a cover, make it their song. That’s what separates a truly legendary cover. It should be theft that’s so epic they get to keep the song. Perfect example: Johnny Cash. Dude’s a legend, he didn’t need to, but there was def that time he mugged Trent Reznor and walked off with “Hurt.” The Man in Black gotta keep that one. In fact, after he heard Johnny Cash’s version, Reznor said, “It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend.” That’s what I want; I want to hear someone on their way to steal your girl. So, if the question is: What’s the best cover song… ever? No doubt, it’s “Proud Mary” by Tina Turner.
John Fogerty wrote the song. His band Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded it in 1968, and released it in 1969. The bayou stompin’ rock band has this big hit with it, reaches number two on the chart. But then in 1971, along comes Ike & Tina Turner, she grabs hold of that song, and shows the world how it could and should be played. “Proud Mary” will forever be her song. Tina Turner fully stole John Fogerty’s girl. And she proved, once and for all: It’s not the song, it’s the singer.
To start off the track, the former gospel singer purrs, as she cautions listeners, “We never, ever, do nothing… nice… and easy. We always do it… nice… and rough.” First half of the song is nice, just like Tina promised. And the second half is rough, just as she warned. Rough like good sex. The song shakes souls. You cannot listen to “Proud Mary” and not have both a spiritual and a sexual experience. The song will make an atheist exclaim, “Oh my god!” It’s sacred and profane, and it’s all Tina Turner. — Zaron Burnett III, Contributing Writer
Nina Simone, “I Shall Be Released”
Anytime you do a “best cover song ever” list, you’re undoubtedly going to run into the usual suspects: Aretha’s “Respect,” Jimi’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” to name a few. And for good reason: They’re classics. By and large, my colleagues have avoided that trap — gotta give a special shout-out to Taj for choosing Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal” — but for my money, there’s no better cover than Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released.”
First, it’s Nina fucking Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” and one of the most expressive, engaging voices of the 20th century. Second, it’s an incredible, Gospel-tinged version of one of Bob Dylan’s best tunes, and a song I’ve loved since the first time I heard it in Richard Manuel’s famous falsetto on The Band’s Music From Big Pink. But as much as I loved Manuel’s version, Simone’s more delicate take on the song, with its soulful intro on the piano, electric organ and harmonizing backup, does it for me even more. — Jeff Gross, Social Media Editor
Limp Bizkit, “Faith”
I didn’t start listening to music properly until the mid-2000s. And like most kids who lived in the English suburbs, my first introduction to it was through nu-metal bands — in particular, Limp Bizkit.
The band might be best known for songs like “Rollin’” and “Nookie,” but one of the more forgotten gems was their cover of George Michael’s “Faith.” A feature on their 1997 album Three Dollar Bill, Y’all, Limp Bizkit’s cover seemed unconventional at the time. This was when fusing rap and metal was still an audacious, radical act. Early reviews of “Faith” accused the band of ruining the 1980s classic. Michael himself especially hated it. “What we’ve heard from George Michael’s people is that he hates it and hates us for doing it,” Wes Borland, Limp Bizkit’s guitarist, told MTV News in 1998.
What makes “Faith” stick out for me is how it captures a very particular moment in time — a time of grand optimism when the Iraq War wasn’t even considered a possibility; a time when a nu-metal band wearing masks, face paint, red caps and skater jeans could perform atop the World Trade Center without any sort of political statement other than wanting to whip their dicks out on the highest rooftop possible; a time when not only could rock and hip hop coexist and mesh, but could also open up a wave of new musical possibilities.
“Faith” wasn’t just a familiar song with some aggressive shouting and guitar hooks slammed into it. It was a message about music not having to be compartmentalized. By extension then, it challenged the notion of what “kind” of person could happily enjoy George Michael — or Limp Bizkit. It could have only been created in its time, but for me, it will resonate regardless of what year it is. — Hussein Kesvani, U.K. Editor