I’m not going to call these “the best” (how would I know?), but here are ten songs originally written and recorded by men, later covered by a woman, where I think the cover surpasses the original. Not in any particular order (because I couldn’t make up my mind).
1. Working Class Hero by Marianne Faithfull
Originally written and recorded by: John Lennon
I love John Lennon’s original version, but Marianne Faithfull’s take, from her fantastic album Broken English (1979), featuring her upper-class accent and broken voice, is just darker and angrier and therefore, somehow, more awesome. Certainly better than Green Day’s fine but unexciting version on the Instant Karma John Lennon tribute CD (which is, unfortunately, full of fine but unexciting covers).
The video is a live version. I’m not sure it’s better than the studio version, but it’s good, and certainly more interesting to look at for six minutes than a static picture of the Broken English album cover.
2. Heartless by Dia Frampton
Originally written and recorded by: Kanye West
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d heard Kanye’s version of this until today. Having listened to it now, though, I can confirm that I like Dia’s version much more. To be fair, Kanye’s music isn’t the type I tend to listen to anyway. But when Ms Frampton did this version on The Voice, I thought it was one of the greatest things I’d ever heard. Lots of others did too, as it very nearly propelled her to victory on that show.
It’s a bit hard to find a good version of that Voice performance now. You will have to pop over to YouTube to actually see the below.
3. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door by Avril Lavigne
Originally written and recorded by Bob Dylan
This is a probably a controversial choice, but I’ve never been much of a Dylan fan. I don’t quite get him, and I can’t get past that voice. But no doubt this is a really good song. And say what you will about Avril, that girl has a good set of pipes. She covered this song for the War Child charity, which assists child soldiers. I find her singing on it very touching. She may be a bratty 18-year-old here who doesn’t really understand the issues, but that makes her the same age as the young men (usually men) caught up in war. You may disagree, but for me, this works.
I also find the official video pretty touching.
4. Hallelujah by k.d. lang
Originally written and recorded by Leonard Cohen
And here’s the obvious, uncontroversial choice! She kind of owns this song now, complete with dropping one of the original verses (“Remember when I moved in you…”). Hearing her do this one live last year was as stunning as you’d expect. (And I also like her cover of Talking Head’s “Heaven”.)
Going with the video of her Juno performance here, as they may be when most Canadians realized what a great marriage between song and singer this was…
5. Real Men by Tori Amos
Originally written and recorded by Joe Jackson
Tori did an entire album of covers of songs by men, from which I’ve borrowed for the title of this post: Strange Little Girls. It has a dark version of I Don’t Like Mondays, a terrifying take of Eminem’s ’97 Bonnie and Clyde, an unrecognizable Heart of Gold. But my favorite is Real Men. I like the Joe Jackson original too, but Tori’s version just sounds great, and you can’t help but see a song about men’s gender roles differently when it’s song by a woman. It seems less snide and more thoughtful.
Here’s a very good version Tori did on TV.
6. Enjoy the Silence by Lacuna Coil
Originally recorded by Depeche Mode
Someone I follow tweeted that this was the “best cover ever”. I don’t think that’s so—I believe some on this very list are better—but it is a good cover, of an 80s tune I hadn’t given much thought to in quite a well. It sounds more powerful, more dramatic. And it inspired this post, which was originally going to be just a list of covers in general, until I realized most of the ones I was picking out were of women covering men’s song.
(Know what would be tough list to put together? Great covers men have done of women’s songs…)
Here’s the official Lacuna Coil video for “Enjoy the Silence”.
7. The Man Who Sold the World by Jordis Unga
Originally written and recorded by David Bowie
Bowie’s version is somewhat cerebral; Jordis brings a lot of emotion to this song, which she performed on long-ago reality series Rock Star: INXS. She said it reminded her of a friend who had committed suicide. This performance was the show-stopper on this episode of that series.
8. Sweet Jane by Cowboy Junkies
Originally written and recorded by Lou Reed
Not that Cowboy Junkies are all women (neither are Lacuna Coil), but Margot Timmins’s mellow yet sexy vocals definitely contribute a lot to the popularity of this cover. I had a few year’s gap between hearing this and the very different original, which I’m still not that crazy about. But the Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane” still has that nice groove.
The official video.
9. Crabbuckit by The Good Lovelies
Nothing wrong with KOS’s original, but you got to love the gorgeous three-part harmonies The Good Lovelies bring to this, while still retaining the lively beat. Fun group to see in concert, by the way.
Apparently they never did a video for this, so this one of those static sound types. Barely over 2 minutes long, though.
10. Darling Nikki by Chairlift
Originally written and recorded by Prince
An unlikely song for a woman to sing, which is partly why I love it. They sort of play around and deconstruct the song while keeping it recognizably, absolutely, Prince’s Darling Nikki. From Purplish Rain, once offered free by Spin Magazine, a collection of rather good covers of Prince’s Purple Rain, in its entirety.
Hard to find any online version of this, but you can listen to the MP3 here: Chairlift – “Darling Nikki” (Prince cover)
January 21, 2013 at 10:17 am
Your comment about how hard it might be to put together a list of covers men have done of songs by women got me thinking. I immediately thought of some early Beatles stuff – they covered “Please Mr Postman”, “Baby it’s You”, “Devil in her Heart” (and probably some others that were on special releases, like the “at the BBC’ albums) – which were all originally done by female groups. Phil Collins covered the Supremes “Can’t Hurry Love”. The Communards did “I Feel Love” (Donna Summer). The White Stripes covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. That’s about all I came up with. Won’t even hasard a guess at whether any of those fall into a “best” category!
January 21, 2013 at 10:40 am
True — I hadn’t thought of those, though I am familiar with most of them! Placebo did a decent cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”, of all things. And some dude on “The Voice” did Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”. I thought it was pretty good, but if I recall, America did not agree. Hey, didn’t Marilyn Manson also do “Sweet Dreams”? Not that I’m that big a fan of his…
And Prince covered Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to U” (ha ha)… Actually, that one is kind of hard to classify in the original / cover continuum…
January 21, 2013 at 11:13 am
I had a quick Google and yes MM did cover Sweet Dreams – and also Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”.