Mar 312023

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

Tom Waits covers

“Downtown Train.” “Ol ’55.” “Jersey Girl.” These are just three of the Tom Waits songs better known for their covers (respectively: Rod, Eagles, Bruce) than for Waits’ own performances.

It probably doesn’t need saying that Tom’s recordings are, in the best way possible, idiosyncratic. So it makes sense that, like Dylan, like Cohen, his songs often become more popular when more “traditional” voices sing them. Many of the best covers, though, keep some of that strangeness. No, they don’t do “the Tom Waits voice” – most people wouldn’t be able to talk for a week after attempting that. But they don’t sand off the strangeness.

Tom’s debut album Closing Time came out 50 years ago this month; he’s doing a reissue to celebrate. It, and its successor The Heart of Saturday Night, are in some ways his least representative albums, though. The songwriting is already strong on these, but it comes in – if you can believe it – a fairly conventional package. His voice hasn’t revealed its true character (to pick one among many memorable descriptions: “a voice like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”), and he hadn’t discovered that hitting a dumpster with a two-by-four makes great percussion.

Some of those very early songs get covered in our list below. But his later, weirder, songs abound, too. Tom’s wife Kathleen Brennan, his musical co-conspirator for decades now, said her husband has two types of songs: “Grim Reapers” and “Grand Weepers”. On his Orphans box set, Tom divided them up another way: Brawlers, Ballers, and Bastards. You’ll find some of all flavors below. (And, if you want more new writing on Tom Waits music, subscribe to a newsletter called Every Tom Waits Song that – full disclosure – I also run).

– Ray Padgett

PS. Find Spotify and Apple Music playlists of this list, and all our other monthly Best Covers Ever lists, at Patreon.


Feb 242021

Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.

a cappella cover

Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).

Today’s question, suggested by staffer Hope Silverman: What’s the most bizarre cover you’ve ever heard?
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Apr 042008

For the first time in this blog’s short history, I missed a week. Then another. Now a third Monday has passed and readers are rightly wondering where I’ve disappeared to. Well I’m back, and will try to keep on top of my game from now on! However, as penance for having shirked my responsibility, I’ve made that’s the theme for this week: failure, and by association, depression. As you might expect, the song themes are generally a little more serious than missing a few blog posts, but don’t worry, we’ll get more positive with next week’s full album.

Bonnie Raitt & Jackson Browne – Poor, Poor Pitiful Me (Warren Zevon)
Not hugely different from the original, but with more of a country-blues swagger than Zevon’s straight-forward rock.

Gov’t Mule – The Shape I’m In (The Band)
Providing a highlight of the Band covers comp Endless Highway, the Mule doubles the length of the original here in funk strut. A jazzy trumpet solos throughout, behind which is organ worth of Garth Hudson himself. And Warren Haynes is a beast on guitar, though that should come as no surprise.

Rex Hobart – It’s Not Easy Being Green (Sesame Street)
Slide guitar backs Mr. Hobart singing a song as lonesome as anything Hank Williams ever penned. Who knew Kermit could be so profound?

Jeremy Smoking Jacket – No One Knows I’m Gone (Tom Waits)
One of the strangest covers I’ve ever heard, the first few listens might creep you out, as the backing is just, well, coughing. But it grows on you, a truly unnerving track to lay behind the soaring weeping vocals. Most Tom covers make the strange songs a little more accessible; this one took it even farther down the road of weird.

Arctic Monkeys – You Know I’m No Good (Amy Winehouse)
It’s amazing how quickly some high-profile Winehouse covers showed up, with everyone from Hot Hot Heat to Pablo Nutini jumping on the bandwagon. The Monkeys find a common ground between their sound and hers, giving it a rock backing but keeping the jazzy and arrhythmic melody.

Assemblage 23 – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)
One of those songs that there are really too many covers to even wade through, but when you find one that doesn’t even have the main guitar riff in it, you know it’s something different. African choir voices and drums give a soul vibe to it, though apparently this is all actually done by some synthpop DJ.

The White Stripes – Mr. Cellophane (Chicago)
When the Stripes hit Chicago in ’03, they busted out this location-appropriate cover, with some a capella rap by Jack for the verses until the keyboard comes in for the chorus.

Paul Westerberg – Nowhere Man (The Beatles)
Plucked guitar and a nasally voice gives it a more imperfect reading than the original, yearning and pointed.

Swingin’ Utters – Eddie’s Teddy (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
You’ve gotta know the Rocky Horror plot to understand why this one’s about failure, specifically the failure of his uncle to save him from gruesome demise. This comes off of the Rocky Horror Punk Rock Show comp, which sounds about as you’d expect.

Grateful Dead – Mama Tried (Merle Haggard)
A somewhat autobiographical tail of a son gone wrong, it’s a country classic about jail and why you gotta listen to your parents.

Carla Bozulich – On the Nickel (Tom Waits)
Until I typed this I didn’t realize I had two Tom Waits songs, but for a theme of sadness and failure, I suppose that’s justified. The violins, prominent enough in the original, are pushed even more to the fore here, with some steel guitar adding even more swoop and swirl. If you’re in LA, “on the nickel” is being down and out, not where you want to be.

We Are Scientists – Sie Hat Was Vermisst (Bela B.)
I tried to avoid standard heartbreak failure in this post, since that’s, well, a somewhat common topic theme for songs. This is anything but a common song. One of my favorite new bands takes on an obscure song by the side project of a member of German punks Die Ärzte. It’s haunting, about a broken man who’s not going to be cheering up anytime soon.