Before we start off, I must remind everyone here that this is all opinion. I may have strong opinions on music, but they're still opinions. I assume that there are a lot of you who don't share my taste in music. If you disagree, I would love to hear it, but please be respectful. Remember: You have the right to think that I'm off my rocker (I probably am), but bear in mind that I have the same right.
5. Summertime- Booker T. and the MGs (originally by George Gershwin)
It seems odd that, when picking the definitive version of one of the most frequently played jazz standards, I should pick a soul band. After all, luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Michael Brecker, and Charlie Parker have made brilliant recordings of this song. Needless to say, the completion here is tough. But despite Satchmo’s unmatched influence, despite Brecker’s awe-inspiring phrasing, and despite Parker’s unbelievably fast fingers (though this is one of his few slower pieces), the best version is probably the simplest.
It’s all in the feeling here- Booker T. Jones slows down the piece to almost half of its original tempo, letting each musician to really savor each note. As weird and crazy as this sounds, this cover actually feels like late summer; it feels sticky and too humid. The song’s about lazy summer days, and this instrumental rendition conveys that feel better than any lyrics ever could. No other version has accomplished this feat, and that makes Booker T.’s cover stick out among a vast sea of covers. He gave a jazz standard more soul than most R&B artists have ever been able to accomplish with their own material.
4. Hurt- Johnny Cash (originally by Nine Inch Nails)
Yeah, I know it’s overplayed. I know that everybody puts this song on their list of best covers. I know that you’re all tired of people saying that this is a good cover, but damn it, this is a hell of a cover. There’s no denying that.
See, Trent Reznor is one of those musicians whom I respect, but don’t really like all that much. He’s a pretty good composer and he uses harmonic and melodic ideas that most people in the fields of rock and pop shy away from, and I can appreciate that. But his music always seems so cold and detached and while I suppose is the point of his respective subgenre, it winds up harming the material in the long run. “Hurt” is a perfect example of that. While Reznor removes himself from any emotion, Cash makes things a little too personal, creating a much more powerful, multidimensional rendition of the material. Reznor’s original is freaky and disturbing, much as it ought to be, but Cash makes something that affects the listener on a much deeper level. And as overplayed as it is, the experience never diminishes, as Cash was an addict for many, many years. This is why he succeeds and every high school bass looking for the one song he can play to impress women with fails.
Plus, “Ring of Fire” is way more overplayed.
3. TIE: Georgia On My Mind- Ray Charles (originally by Hoagie Carmichael)/Try a Little Tenderness- Otis Redding (originally by the Ray Noble Orchestra)
These are together for two reasons: they both are in very similar veins, and I simply can’t choose between the two. If I only included one, I wouldn’t be able to put the other on here, and that’s not really fair.
What we have here are two 30’s jazz standards that were turned into soul classics so well that the notion that they’re both covers has been almost completely forgotten. I was very surprised to find that these weren’t the originals, considering that nobody will ever give a rat’s ass about any versions that aren’t by Ray Charles or Otis Redding respectively, and with good reason; just as the world with only ever associate “Giant Steps” with John Coltrane for one of the greatest solos ever improvised, Charles and Redding took throwaway novelty songs and made them mean something. They put significantly more feeling into the songs than the lyrics really justified, but that’s soul for you. Nobody has ever been able to top these guys, and nobody ever will.
2. With a Little Help from My Friends- Joe Cocker (originally by The Beatles)
One of my cousins called this the worst cover he’s ever heard. My cousin is insane.
Look, don’t think that means that I’m condoning Beatles covers. For the most part, only the Beatles can play the Beatles, because every time I hear a cover of one of their songs I think, “you know, Icould just be listening to the Beatles”. Sometimes goals are just too lofty to achieve.
Unless you’re Joe Cocker. He’s waded into these dangerous waters over and over again and kicks ass every single time. In fact, several of these covers have become classics in their own right, such as “Something”, “Come Together”, and this.
Let me put it like this: Think about the last time you heard a cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Was the cover based on the original or was it a big, soulful, brassy, ballad in ¾ time? It was the big, brassy one, wasn’t it? Almost every other version of this song is based almost verbatim on Cocker’s arrangement. And why not? Let’s face it; “With a Little Help from My Friends” was never the Beatles’ best song. They’ve written deeper stuff, as well as more interesting stuff. This song was a pop diddy; it was never the centerpiece of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s a very, very good song, but it suffered from blending in with the typical “60’s rock sound”. What made the Beatles great was their ability to break rules, not follow them. Cocker completely changed the piece, turning a harmless pop song into a loud, pleading soul-rock classic. The Beatles made a memorable song, but Cocker made it unforgettable.
1. ‘Round Midnight- Miles Davis (originally by Thelonious Monk)
Originally, “With a Little Help from My Friends” was going to be number one. Then I remembered something: my favorite song is a cover of a piece by composer, pianist, and possessor of the world’s most badass name Thelonious Monk.
This was the first song I ever heard on vinyl, and I still have yet to hear anything nearly as beautiful. There have been many, many covers of this song by some of the greatest jazz musicians ever: Monk, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock, Maynard Ferguson, the list goes on. Hell, even Amy Winehouse recorded a pretty good version. Yet, no one has ever been able to top Miles Davis. The closest is a gorgeous version by Stan Getz, but even he couldn’t do what Davis’ quintet could do; not even with a full orchestra backing him. There’s just something about the way Miles plays the melody, something about the harmony and solo played by an up-and-coming John Coltrane on the tenor sax. It can’t just be Miles’ heavy use of the Harmon mute. Davis just had a way of playing that, try as many have, no other trumpeter has been able to duplicate. His phrasing is exquisite, Coltrane sticks through at all the right times, and the rhythm section is masterful. I may never be able to fully explain why this rendition makes me feel the way I do, but I can say what it is- pure bliss.