This week we’ve posted tributes to three of this year’s six Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees: The Cars, Dire Straits, and Nina Simone. And lord knows we’ve posted plenty of covers of the other three over the years: Bon Jovi, The Moody Blues, and “Early Influence” inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But to celebrate them all in one place in advance of this weekend’s induction ceremony, we thought we’d round up a few of the best covers we didn’t include in all those other features.
Important note that has been written a million other places but that we would be remiss not to acknowledge: The first-time-eligible Radiohead should be on this list. Also the first-time-eligible Kate Bush. Not to mention the eight million other acts perpetually shut out. And, no knock on Simone and Tharpe who could not be more deserving, but would it kill them to also induct some living women or minorities?
Sorry, I digress. We’re here to celebrate the six artists who are getting inducted, with three covers of each. Again, they are: Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, Nina Simone, and “Early Influence” Sister Rosetta Tharpe. All arguably deserving in their own right, through various combinations of critical acclaim, artistic influence, and massive commercial success. So let’s get to it.
Eläkeläiset – Elän Humpalla
According to Wikipedia, Eläkeläiset are a humppa band who can also play jenkka music. Got it? A few trips down the Wiki-rabbit hole reveal that both genres are traditional Finnish dances. Humppa is somewhat similar to the polka, and jenkka more like a slower waltz. In other worse, about as far from 1980s hair metal as you can get. But Eläkeläiset’s radical reinvention of “Livin’ on a Prayer” works.
The Lost Fingers – You Give Love a Bad Name
“Gypsy-jazz” trio The Lost Fingers announced themselves in 2008 with novelty covers album Lost in the 80s. And here’s the surprising thing: It was a massive hit. In their native Canada, it was that year’s second best-selling domestic album after Nickelback. Artistic ingenuity and financial success don’t often go hand-in-hand in the world of cover songs, but it sure is nice when they do. (Bonus track: It’s not a full cover, but Miracles of Modern Science singing Bon Jovi as Bon Iver is great).
Paul Anka – It’s My Life
Paul Anka lounge-jazzifying “It’s My Life” is hilarious on its face. But there’s a deeper thread here. You know that line in the chorus, “Like Frankie said, ‘I did it my way'”? Paul Anka wrote “My Way.” A wonderful nod to a song going full circle.
Britta Phillips – Drive
2016 covers album Luck or Magic was Britta Phillips’ debut solo release, but she was hardly new to the cover song. As bassist for dream-pop pioneers Luna, she’s been involved in any number of iconic covers with them (including last year’s A Sentimental Education covers album). Her expertise shows on this dreamy, gorgeous take on the Cars’ most-covered song.
The Debutante Hour – Just What I Needed
The Punch Brothers’ AV Club bluegrass version of this song is the crowd favorite, but I want to spotlight this lesser-known take. Cabaret trio The Debutante Hour first crossed our radar with 2011 covers EP Follow Me, on which they tackled TLC’s “No Scrubs,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and this Cars classic. From power-pop to power-polka.
Nirvana – My Best Friend’s Girl
“My Best Friend’s Girl” was apparently one of the first songs a 14-year old Kurt Cobain learned to play on his guitar. And the song remained with him until the end of his life. This video is the opening song of what would be the band’s final concert. Cobain took his own life a month later.
Bhi Bhiman – Walk of Life
The whistling sells it before Bhiman’s voice seals the deal. It’s a rich and mellifluous instrument, what Robert Christgau said “suggests a more modest Nina Simone” (speaking of Rock Hall honorees). It’s put to excellent use on this Dire Straits cover, turning one of the band’s biggest rock hits into a folk ditty that channels Woody Guthrie by way of Andrew Bird. Hopefully it made Bhi a little money too; it was featured in an Apple Watch commercial (starring Alice Cooper!).
The Diamond Family Archive – Romeo and Juliet
The Diamond Family Archive aka Laurence Collyer also does a killer version of “Walk of Life,” but in the interest of mixing it up, we’ll go with his equally stunning “Romeo and Juliet.” Like most of his covers, it is whisper-quiet, so delicate and fragile it seems a stiff breeze might shatter it into a million pieces.
Jack Ladder – So Far Away
Jack Ladder sounds a lot like Nick Cave. He probably wouldn’t like that I said that; he spends an awful lot of time in interviews complaining about the comparison. But it’s true. And it’s a compliment! His deep, resonant baritone can sell the hell out of any heartbreaking ballad, whether his own (which are excellent) or a well-chosen cover like this.
The Moody Blues
The Dickies – Nights in White Satin
“Nights in White Satin” was a big hit for the Moody Blues, peaking at #19 on the UK charts. Twelve years later, the song was a big hit again. The Dickies’ snotty punk version, against all odds, was the band’s biggest chart success, going Top 40 in the UK (barely, at #39, but to quote Akon: “still counts!”)
The Diamond Family Archive – Go Now
Laurence Collyer was nice enough to record this for our birthday last year. It’s a cover of a cover, as the song was originally recorded by Bessie Banks a few years before the Moody Blues got to it.
Nada Surf – Question
This song sounds so much like a Nada Surf song I had to go look up what the original sounds like again. Answer: Not like this! The band strips away all the prog theatrics, turning “Question” into a tight little indie-rocker.
Catherine A.D. – Wild Is the Wind
Since we just posted a whole bunch of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” covers, we’ll skip that more obvious choice and start with Catherine A.D.’s gorgeously orchestral version of “Wild Is the Wind.”
My Brightest Diamond – Feeling Good
There are a million great covers of “Feeling Good.” Muse’s is the best known, and deserving of all the accolades it gets. But don’t overlook My Brightest Diamond’s cover on 2009 indie-rock compilation Dark Night of the Soul, who brought in a horn section to blast behind Shara Nova’s inimitable voice.
John Legend and the Roots – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free
Legend and the Roots have only made one album together to date, but 2010’s covers set Wake Up! was such a knockout I keep hoping they’ll return for another. A twelve-minute version of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” was the unquestioned centerpiece, a tour de force after which some respite was needed. It feels somehow dismissive to call any version of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” a breath of fresh air, but it served that function here, jaunty and passionate and hopeful.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins – Down By the Riverside
Given that her career mostly ended before the dawn of rock and roll, 1940s gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is being inducted this weekend as an “Early Influence.” Want proof she deserves the title? How about the first wave of rock stars – Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins – coming together in the “Million Dollar Quartet” sessions to cover one of the songs she made famous?
Michelle Shocked – Strange Things Happening Every Day
When Michelle Shocked appears in the news today, it’s rarely good. First news story when you Google her name: “Michelle Shocked Addresses Anti-Gay Controversy”. But you don’t have to go back any farther than the 2003 Tharpe tribute album Shout Sister Shout to remember why people care in the first place. Her groovy, slinky “Strange Things Happening Every Day” is a delight.
Rhiannon Giddens – Up Above My Head
Rhiannon Giddens is a genius. Don’t take my word for it; she won a MacArthur “Genius” award just last year. It came after the former Carolina Chocolate Drop’s derservedly-lauded 2017 album Freedom Highway. Other than the title track (one of the year’s best covers), most songs on the album were her own compositions. Not so her equally great solo debut, 2015’s covers set Tomorrow Is My Turn. One highlight among many is her joyful gospel blast through “Up Above My Head.” Tharpe may be a rock and roll influence, but this cover brings her back to those church roots.