There are tons and tons of solid cover songs floating around in the world, but every now and then a cover will give the original material that extra little kick in the ass; or, if you're really lucky, improve upon the original with a fresh perspective. Here are 10 such tunes that I find to be immediately noteworthy.
Anthrax, "Protest and Survive," from Attack of the Killer B's (Island, 1991)
Anthrax are the kings of top-shelf, off the charts, amazing cover songs. I could've selected any number of outstanding classics—"Antisocial", "Sects", "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", "Got the Time"—all of them better than the originals. But I had to go with "Protest and Survive" for two reasons:
1. This recording got me into Discharge. When I was a 14-year-old kid, Anthrax was my favorite band, so first hearing this track I totally flipped. I mean, "The savage mutilation of the human race is set on course!" Shouted over a wall of crushingly chugging guitars and bass? Holy shit! I was on a mission. I went to every record store in the city asking about Discharge, and even tried to get one little hole-in-the-wall to order me something as an import. No dice. It would be several more years before I finally scored a copy of Never Again, only to realize, "Wait a minute, Discharge isn't really that heavy!?" But alas, tracks like "The Price of Silence" and "Born to Die in the Gutter" hooked me in, so it was an important step in my musical education.
2. After Anthrax parted ways with Joey Belladonna, I can recall having had many heated debates with childhood friends as to why Scott Ian hadn't done more vocal work for the band—based solely on the strengths of this cover tune. (A valid question to this day!)
In Flames, "Everything Counts," from Whoracle (Nuclear Blast, 1997)
I'm not much of a Depeche Mode fan. I've got Violator (which varies from utterly brilliant to kinda crappy), but haven't really been able to appreciate much beyond that. In Flames was on fire in the late-'90s, and really takes Depeche Mode to a new level here. Much more aggressive, obviously, with cool surges of droning sustain and a dash of vocal variety to retain the recognizable melody of the chorus (the original's lone standout, really). I love it when bands are able to morph a cover song into something more their own, and In Flames hits it out of the park with this one.
Arsis, "The Things You Said," from United in Regret (Willowtip, 2006)
Another unexpectedly awesome cover of a fairly mediocre Depeche Mode ditty. The original has a solid framework, but it's overly sparse and never really goes anywhere. Arsis, however, introduces a heaving mass of layered guitars (coincidentally utilizing droning sustain in much the same manner as In Flames above) and bitterly snarled vocals that—at least for me—possesses far more emotional impact than Depeche Mode's recording. Excellent.
Prong, "(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)," from Prove You Wrong (Epic, 1991)
Take a competently written but irritatingly performed new wave track, toss the annoying keyboards, throw it in amidst a classic avant-garde thrash album, and you've got yourself a keeper. Prong nails this on every level. Catchy, weird, structurally stripped down but complexly layered... total gold. Always loved this one.
Voodoo Glow Skulls, "Here Comes the Sun," from Who Is, This Is? (Dr. Strange, 1993)
I hate The Beatles. Hate 'em. Always have, and probably always will. Historically significant, groundbreaking, blah, blah... I simply don't care. But convert a three-minute, hippie-dippy, happy pop song into a two-minute blast of fast-paced pop-punk/ska-core; and somehow I'll think it kicks ass. Go figure!?
Sepultura, "The Hunt," from Chaos A.D. (Roadrunner, 1993)
This phenomenal rendition of "The Hunt" had me eager to give New Model Army a listen back in the day, but they've yet to fully click with me 20+ years later. Clearly strong songwriters, their material generally comes across as too thin and somehow lacking for my tastes (granted "The Hunt" stands up fairly well in its initial form). Sepultura sticks fairly close to the original here, amping up the energy and intensity to a point more representative of the song's true power. This is actually my favorite song from Chaos A.D.
Anacrusis, "I Love the World," from Manic Impressions (Metal Blade, 1991)
Like Sepultura, Anacrusis hangs onto the dark atmosphere of New Model Army's recording and doesn't particularly deviate from the original. However, shifting the focus more towards eerie guitar textures and plunky basslines once again adds a little more oomph/force. Anacrusis' rendition also highlights the catchiness of the chorus—another testament to New Model Army's songwriting chops.
Metallica, "Blitzkrieg," from Creeping Death (Music for Nations, 1984)
A perfectly satisfactory NWOBHM tune in its initial form, there's simply no denying Metallica's leaner, meaner take. Tighter, a touch faster, arguably one of James Hetfield's finest vocal performances, etc. I can't take anything away from the original, but Metallica's version fuckin' smokes. Easily my favorite cover song from their entire discography.
Catharsis, "Sick People," from Catharsis (CrimethInc., 1996)
Make no mistake: "Sick People" is a hardcore classic. My favorite Breakdown song, in fact. But Catharsis' interpretation absolutely explodes right out of the gate. The completely over the top and unhinged vocals really seal the deal for me (most notably during the second verse)—and all the random divebombs don't hurt, either! Catharsis also made a few minor lyrical modifications that happen to align more with me on a personal level, so that probably factors in, too. ("Sick People" was also covered in 1996 by the almighty Lash Out, but it's Catharsis that really hits the mark.)
Half Hearted Hero, "A Thousand Miles" (2009)
Take one of the most obnoxious mainstream pop smashes of the early-2000's; filter it through super tight, pristinely recorded pop-punk; and somehow it rules. When performed by Vanessa Carlton I can't even tell you how intolerable I find this song; but transformed into crisp, high-energy pop-punk it's somehow perfect!
It was tough to narrow down my final 10 here. Barely missing the cut for one reason or another:
- Cave In, "Magnified" (Failure cover)
- Dinosaur Jr., "Chunks" (Last Rights cover)
- Farside, "Hardly Getting Over It" (Hüsker Dü cover)
- Young Adults, "Over the Edge" (Wipers cover)
As with any list, I'm sure there are worthy selections that are slipping my mind—not to mention plenty that I'm completely unaware of. Post a comment below and let me know what I'm missing!