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Cover Songs Better than “Africa”

Unless you have just arrived on this planet from Mars, you’ve probably heard the Weezer remake of Africa.  If not, you are so lucky, and I apologize for this in advance.

Weezer – Africa (starring Weird Al Yankovic)

No.  I don’t like it.  

Honestly, though, I am not a huge fan of cover songs to start with.  I mean, if the universe has been blessed with a great song, why mess with success?  We pay these people a positively gross amount of money to be creative and I expect some original ideas out of ‘em.  Get strummin’, Musical Cats and Kittens.

But that having been said, there are some decent remakes out there and over time I’ve tried to figure out why it is I like some remakes and not others and why I believe Weezer’s “Africa” is NOT even remotely the “best cover ever” as I’ve heard some people say over the past few weeks.

Not. Even. Remotely.

Kristin’s Rules of Cover Songs:

1)It can’t just be the exact same song sung worse by some douche.

This is what I despise about the Weezer version of Africa.  It’s the same fricking song! Only it’s sung with less emotion than the original and the instrumental part is lame.

2)It needs to be a different song in some way.

This is really just a rewording of #1, isn’t it?  My point is, just doing the exact same thing again and putting it out there is pointless.  Do something different. Speed it up. Slow it down. Make it acoustic, or electric, or country, or dubstep.  Deconstruct it. Reconstruct it. Make it do the Hokey Pokey and turn itself around.  A fresh take on a song can make the listener experience it in a totally new way.  It’s fun to have an entirely new emotional reaction to a song you’ve heard way too many times, to be transported to a different world by the exact same set of lyrics and general tune.

3)If you can’t make it different, at least make it BETTER.

Now that I see my rules all laid out here I’m realizing that my first three rules are really just the same rule stated in 3 slightly different ways.  Kind of fitting for an article on remakes. Anyhoo, I will also accept a very similar version of a song if the person singing/playing it knocks it out of the ballpark, particularly if the original performance wasn’t quite up to snuff.

4)All the rules go out the window if the song being remade is a song that isn’t famous but deserves to be.  If a cover takes a great song from oblivion to fame, all is forgiven. Even if it is the same exact song done over again, if it’s the B side of a 40 year old single from a band that no one ever listened to, remake away. You have my blessing.

There are plenty of obviously awesome cover songs that everyone has likely already heard like Johhny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”:

Johnny Cash – Hurt (Official Video) HD

And Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ take on Tears for Fears’ “Mad World”:

Mad World – Gary Jules & Michael Andrews (Official music video) w/ lyrics

And since both those songs are super depressing, here’s Cake singing “I Will Survive”, made famous by Gloria Gaynor:

Cake – I Will Survive

They’re great songs for sure, but I know of several off-the-beaten-path covers I vastly prefer to Weezer’s take on “Africa” that I will now submit for your approval.  Not the same song just done over again, but different, better, or both.  

Social Distortion – “Ring of Fire” (June Carter/Johhny Cash).  Not as good as the either of the originals – both June Carter and Johnny Cash recorded this song with a lot of emotion, fitting since it was about their love affair – but it’s different.

Social Distortion- Ring of Fire

 

Willie Nelson – “The Scientist” (Coldplay) – I like the original song a lot but I’ve always felt it was a little too saccharine somehow. Adding Willie’s grizzled voice to the mix adds some rawness.  Plus it makes me imagine this old scientist constructing a time machine to go back to his youth and warn himself about an impending romantic disaster.  This is a great example of a cover song telling me an entirely different story than the original.

WILLIE NELSON THE SCIENTIST LYRICS

 

Amy Winehouse – “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”  (The Shirelles) Saying this is better feels sacrilegious since the original is so good, but I feel way more of an emotional connection to this version.

Amy Winehouse – Will you still love me tomorrow (with lyrics)

 

Alanis Morissette – “My Humps” (Black Eyed Peas)  Don’t be scared to give this one a whirl, even if you hate the original. This is sheer fun (I’m not sure the word “fun” has ever been used to describe anything sung by Alanis Morissette) and vocally awesome too.

Alanis Morissette "My Humps" video

 

Ben Folds and Rufus Wainright – “Careless Whisper” (George Michael)  This one actually breaks my rules, because it isn’t very different and it definitely isn’t better, but it’s got some magic in it I just can’t explain.

Let’s add a Rule 5 – Inexplicable magic.

Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright – Careless Whisper (Live)

 

Disturbed – “The Sound of Silence” (Simon and Garfunkel) There are so many remakes of Simon and Garfunkel songs I seriously considered writing a piece about JUST Simon and Garfunkel cover songs.  But most of them weren’t different and/or better. You’ve probably heard this one already since it’s gotten radio play, but I had to include it since it was what gave me the idea to write this article in the first place.

Disturbed – The Sound Of Silence [Official Music Video]

 

First Aid Kit – “America”  Another Simon and Garfunkel cover.  I consider this the best song on this list and I demand you drop what you’re doing and listen to it immediately.  It’s perfection. The original gives me goosebumps, this version gives me goosebumps on top of my already existing goosebumps.

First Aid Kit – America (Cover)

 

Lindsay Stirling and Pentatonix – “Radioactive”  (Imagine Dragons) Between them, violinist Lindsay Stirling and a capella group Pentatonix have a kajillion remakes on Youtube but this song is like two great tastes that taste great together.

Radioactive – Lindsey Stirling and Pentatonix (Imagine Dragons Cover)

 

Sia – Diamonds (Rihanna)  This is a performance of a song that Sia actually wrote in the first place so I’m not sure if this is even a cover exactly but it’s still really good.  While I love Rihanna, I kinda felt she was phoning it in on the vocals in this song and Sia doesn’t seem to be capable of phoning anything in ever.

Sia – Diamonds (Audio)

 

Ryan Adams – “Shake It Off” (Taylor Swift) For reasons that I will never understand, Ryan Adams remade an entire Taylor Swift album and somehow transformed my least favorite song from my least favorite artist into something I actually kind of like.  This is like the quintessential example of what I believe a cover song should do.

Ryan Adams – Shake It Off (from '1989') (Audio)

 

twenty one pilots – “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” (Elvis Presley)  Last but not least, my favorite band singing a beautiful and beloved song with sweet simplicity.  I had to get the Taylor Swift out of my ears somehow.

twenty one pilots: Can't Help Falling In Love (Cover)

   


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Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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132 thoughts on “Cover Songs Better than “Africa”

  1. Whoa whoa whoa. If we’re going with a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” it’s gotta be the Yes rendition.

    Other great candidates are the Who’s “Eyesight to the Blind” and Faith Hill’s “Piece of My Heart.”

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    • I sadly must admit the Yes version is not my cup of prog.

      And I don’t really love the others as well as the originals either – but they’re definitely valid remakes. (I will be seeing Faith Hill’s lacy blouse and blazer combo in my nightmares for some time)

      All of them are WAY better than “Africa”.

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  2. I have never been a Madonna fan, but here she is covering her brother-in-laws Stop, retitleing it as Don’t Tell Me. As he said, “I played it as a rhumba, she played it as a hit.

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  3. Liz Phair’s cover of Turning Japanese is very good.

    What I think we can all agree on is that random street musicians trying to do 100 percent imitations of Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah need to be muted.

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  4. Kristen thanks this is a great column. Can’t write much now but just shared this with my husband and we can’t really define it it but there is a difference between a rendition of a song and a successful cover of a song.

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  5. My lest favorite cover: Romeo and Juliet (Dire Straits) by the Indigo Girls. One of the greatest things abut the original is the progression of emotions: anger, sadness, resignation, and finally hope. Gone completely in favor of making it “rawer”.

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  6. One of my factories artists
    Richard Thompson has an album of covers called A Thousand Years of Pop Music. He goes all the way back to the Middle Ages but also covers more contemporary music like Oops I Did It Again and 1985. It’s a skilled riot.

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  7. Cover songs are kind of funny as a general thing – it’s a category we only recently even thought of. Go see a symphony or a jazz band, how many of the pieces they pay were composed by one of the performers? Zero is a pretty safe bet…

    Anyway, there are some great ones in this post – Cash’s cover of Hurt is the one I immediately thought of on reading the title. Morrissette’s cover of My Humps is awesome. Footnote to that – Fergie loved it and sent Alanis a cake in the shape of a bum to thank her.

    I like both Michael Buble’s and the Ramones’ covers of the Spiderman theme song. It helps that I watched that cartoon a lot growing up.

    I don’t know if you’d call Loreena McKennit’s Mask and Mirror am album of “covers” exactly, but it’s full of great adaptations of much older songs and poems.

    Matt Mulholland’s cover of Rebecca Black’s Friday is pure gold. Say what you will of the song, it inspired some fun covers. https://youtu.be/hxleH60hDJY

    And if for no reason other than the amazing video, Andy Rehfeldt’s black metal cover of The Good Ship Lollipop https://youtu.be/q5RJVQEQaIU

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    • Glad you brought this point up. Cover songs only make sense as a concept when we strictly correlate song, song writer, and performer together. Before rock, the idea that a particular song belonged to a particular artist and everybody else was copying it would be ludicrous. Music was popular because everybody sung it. According to musical history Elijah Wald, if you went into a record song before rock, the shop workers would assume any good recording of a song would do.

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  8. I am a huge fan of cover songs. I agree with your fourth point that if you’re going to do a note-for-note recreation of a song, you should choose a fairly obscure one.

    I think that Gnarles Barkley’s cover of Gone Daddy Gone is juuuust on this side of obscure, but it’s a great example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. Why not listen to the original instead?

    Well, if the answer is “nobody has heard of the original”, that’s a pretty good answer. (“Nobody but theater dorks has heard of the original” is a somewhat less good answer.)

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  9. I recently ran across piano versions of Sweet Child O’ Mine. I can’t say that any one of them blew me away beyond the first few bars, but that intro is remarkably beautiful on piano.

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  10. Postmodern Jukebox is a has reinterpreted into a different genre like a thousand pop songs on YouTube, and most of them are great.

    I also like the S&G cover. Probably most of you have seen it, but Bernie Sanders had an ad out with that song (the original), that for me was one of the two best ads during the 2016 cycle.

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  11. I actually saw Weezer perform this live back in July at a concert in Cincinnati. It feels a bit like this one got away from them and Rivers kind of wishes he didn’t have to keep playing it, but the crowd did enjoy it in a cheesy way.

    As for covers in general, I’m a firm advocate that every concert is better for having at least one of them. I saw Jason Isbell shortly after Tom Petty died and they closed with ‘American Girl’. When that opening guitar riff started it brought the house down. I’m talking goosebumps and people in tears while they were singing at the tops of their lungs. Love those moments.

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    • See I wonder if part of the reason I dislike the song as much as I do, is because I really do like Weezer (at least Weezer of a couple decades ago, LOL) and I wish some of their actual songs were getting as much love and play as “Africa” is.

      Live covers I don’t mind and in fact enjoy – the spontaneity of it all. There are a lot of fun live covers I really like even when they’re not perfect or better than the original.

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  12. One other I really like is John Mellencamp’s rendition of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” The latter is good, but Mellencamp’s is just better.

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  13. Several people have raised the point of classical music. Symphonies perform versions of the same pieces and that’s expected. This whole deal with a song “belonging” to anyone is definitely a 20th century+ concept.

    But this got me thinking – an oboe is an oboe is an oboe but with modern music, the voice is the instrument. Tom Waits and Kelly Clarkson are just not playing the same instrument. It seems to me like a cover song can be like taking a piece written for a violin and performing it with a piccolo and then changing the tempo markings and essentially turning it into a new song. Classical musicians don’t do that (at least that I’m aware) and in fact their goal is to play the music as written. So it’s no wonder the London Symphony can play the same piece as the Chicago Symphony and it really doesn’t matter what recording people buy.

    But add in the vocal instrument and people do start wanting to hear the different versions. People might want to hear the same piece sung by Maria Callas and Marion Anderson and it will still be the same song, but definitely worth hearing both versions. Modern music takes this even further, with the potential to change pretty much everything about a song. I think the ability to change voices and tempos and instrumentation really does make modern covers an entirely different animal than classical music.

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  14. This is a performance of a song that Sia actually wrote in the first place so I’m not sure if this is even a cover exactly but it’s still really good.

    There’s gotta to be a name for the entire genre of songs that were written by someone, made popular by someone else, and people then discover the original songwriter. Carole King was pretty famous for this. Dan Navarro a bit less so, (and partly because his brother Dave is a lot more famous).

    One of the best concert experiences I ever had was when Navarro opened for another band (Eddie from Ohio) and at the conclusion, Eddie from Ohio brought Navarro and his bandmate* back on the stage and they all did a rendition of We Belong that burrowed into my soul.

    *I can’t remember who, Lowen had long since passed away

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    • Agh, that’s mean! You know what they say, never ask a question you don’t want the answer to.

      Seriously, I do like Weezer and would love to hear an actual new Weezer song that was a) getting this kind of attention and b) was worthy of getting this kind of attention

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