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Last weekend, I got into a benign argument with my friend Ed. It was an argument we’d had before and will probably have again because neither of us is going to budge. At least I know I won’t, because I’m right.
The topic: Whose cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is the best?
“The timbre of his voice is that of an angel’s whisper,” Ed texted me when I told him I would be mentioning our debate in this article. There’s no Emoji for the face I made upon reading that sentence.
We’re both musically inclined, so we’ve gone into irritatingly nerdy detail (see quote above) defending our respective viewpoints. The only thing we can agree on, however, is that both covers are better than the original.
I probably just offended a bunch of Leonard Cohen fans. But why? Why do we get so worked up over songs we haven’t written ourselves, especially when someone else has the audacity to sing them? There’s just something about covers that makes people inexplicably territorial.
“Hallelujah” isn’t the only case in which I find a cover preferable to or at least as good as the original recording, so I’ve put together a list of my top picks. (Please note the outright absence of any cover in which the singer is so insistent on showing the flexibility of his or her voice that the melody is no longer recognizable. Pet peeve of mine.)
"Wild Horses" by The SundaysOriginally performed by The Rolling Stones
I genuinely enjoy the original recording of "Wild Horses" -- definitely one of my top-three Stones songs -- but this 1992 recording by The Sundays, probably best known for their song "Summertime," is the perfect balance of taking ethereal liberties and respecting how Mick and Keith wrote it.
"Across The Universe" by Fiona AppleOriginally recorded by The Beatles
I wouldn't dare piss off Stones fans without pissing off an equally sensitive group: Beatles fans. (I include myself in this group. When asked to choose between the two, I always pick The Beatles.) I'm also a big fan of Fiona Apple, so when she recorded "Across The Universe" for the Pleasantville soundtrack, I was instantly sold. It doesn't hurt that the video was magically directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
"She Don't Use Jelly" by Ben Folds FiveOriginally recorded by The Flaming Lips
I honestly can't remember the last time I even listened to the original recording of "She Don't Use Jelly," and I totally forgot that lead singer Wayne Coyne had orange hair back then, much like the girl in the lyrics. I prefer the Ben Folds Five version, though, not just because I love them, but because they turned it into an awesome bossa nova lounge fest of a song.
"Teardrop" by José GonzálezOriginally performed by Massive Attack
This is another cover that sounds totally different than the original, but it just works. I adore the Massive Attack version -- and not just because it's the House theme song -- but I love what José González does with just an acoustic guitar (or two?) and haunting vocals. Also, if there's a video weirder than Massive Attack's singing-fetus one, it's José González's retro-Bible-cartoon-meets-Twilight-Zone-episode one.
"By Your Side" by Beachwood SparksOriginally recorded by Sade
Listen, I respect Sade. I really do. But you know how sometimes you're just weirdly turned off by someone's voice? That's how I feel about her. And Leonard Cohen. And it's not like Beachwood Sparks' lead singer doesn't have a weird voice -- he does -- but I fell for the teenager-y twang of this version as soon as I got a taste of it in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
"Shine" by Dolly PartonOriginally recorded by Collective Soul
I hate this song, but Dolly Parton could cover the Macarena and I would listen.
"Under The Milky Way" by Nicole AtkinsOriginally performed by The Church
Nicole Atkins is a buddy of mine, so I'm a little biased. Then again, I was a huge fan of hers several years prior to bribing her with beauty products to be my friend, and I loved this cover long before I met her. A woman's voice -- and an amazing one at that -- adds a whole new dimension to the song.
Also, I'd be a crappy friend if I didn't tell you to buy her new album.
"Whiter Shade of Pale" by Elliott YaminOriginally performed by Procol Harum (who basically ripped off Bach anyway)
Remember Elliott Yamin? Of course you don't. He came in third or fourth on American Idol the year Taylor "Soul Patrol" Hicks won. But more so -- and I can say this with a straight face -- he has THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VOICE ON EARTH. I bet scientists could prove it. I haven't actually purchased any original music by him because I'm not into it, but if he could just start covering old songs like this, I will give him all my money.
"It's My Life" by No DoubtOriginally performed by Talk Talk
I would argue that this is the best cover to chart in recent-ish years. Gwen Stefani's angry-Betty-Boop voice makes a great song even more enjoyable, and the video is pretty damn chic, too.
"What A Fool Believes" by SelfOriginally performed by The Doobie Brothers
Three words: entirely toy instruments.
OK, release the Kraken. What am I just so wrong about? Which covers would you add to my list?