Franz List: Oldies But Newies

Last week saw the release of Rave On Buddy Holly, a lovingly slapped together collection of artists interpreting the work of one of rock history’s most enduring phenoms. Which got me thinking about where these covers rank alongside other great versions of classic tunes. Here’s my list of the top 10 oldies covers of all time (we’ll classify “oldies” as stuff originally released in the ’50s and ’60s). One Rave On track moved me so much, it threatened to be #1.

10. Elliott Smith – “Because” (1999)

Of all the crimes that American Beauty has committed (portraying women as nagging psychos, portraying homosexuals as murderous psychos, etc.), slapping this heartbreaking performance from Elliott Smith over the end credits is one of the worst. (If you aren’t sure if Sam Mendes takes himself too seriously, here’s your proof.) “Because” might be the most “spiritual” song in the Beatles catalog, one that asks huge questions in the humblest ways. But Smith, a patron saint of loneliness in pop music at the time, delivered these lines with less wonder and more existentialist dread. While the mid-song instrumentation is loyally aped, it doesn’t provide much of a catharsis. Because at the core of it all is Smith, building four-part harmonies all by himself, singing gorgeously into the void.

9. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” (1980)

There’s usually nothing more throwaway than a punked-out version of a slow-burning oldie. But there’s nothing usual about The Attractions, whose caffeinated take on Sam & Dave’s 1967 torch song is one of their most aggressively catchy recordings. Factor in Costello delivering those man-scorned lyrics in his beautifully bitter tenor, and you’ve got a cover that’s the opposite of disposable.

8. She & Him – “I Should Have Known Better” (2008)

You could argue that a Beatles cover is actually the coward’s way out – if you nail it, then you’re a genius who can reinterpret The Beatles. If you flub it, it’s a Beatles song, what did you expect? On their debut album, She & Him might’ve played it safe with this dreamy hula cover of my sixth-favorite Fab Four cut. But boy did they nail it. It’s a recording that’s perfect for the seaside, but thanks to a slower tempo and some shoegaze vocals, it never crosses over to the twee-side.

7. The Black Crowes – “Hard to Handle” (1990)

When the Black Crowes released this fiery sendup of an Otis Redding gem as the third single off its debut album, the mix of ’60s soul and Southern bar band boogie inspired me to make Shake Your Money Maker the first compact disc I ever bought. Considering that my earlier purchases included Natalie Cole’s “Pink Cadillac” cassette single, this cover will always sound like a profoundly new experience to me.

6. Nina Simone – “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (1971)

One of the finest interpreters of popular music takes a typically hazy Bob Dylan song – a guy goes to Juarez at Easter time, gets tired of making oblique literary references down there, and decides to go back to New York City – removes the jocular sneer, and replaces it with a gentle, sympathetic tone. Over light percussion and delicate jazz guitar, Simone digs deep, turning some of Dylan’s more sarcastic lines into deeply tragic moments (e.g. “My best friend the doctor won’t even say what it is I got.”).

5. David Bowie – “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1973)

On this Aladdin Sane highlight, Bowie manages to make one of the Rolling Stones’ perennial come-ons sound even more coked-out, combining frantically mashed piano chords and blast-off synths with a lightning tempo. The hypercharged arrangement makes the narrator sound less confident, more desperate, and leagues sexier.

4. Cat Power – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (2000)

Much like Simone did to Dylan, Cat Power does to the Stones, turning their iconic ode to unquenchable desire into a stripped, vulnerable folk song, exposing the constant pursuit of happiness for what it really is – a symptom of sadness and isolation.

3. Gram Parsons – “Love Hurts” (1973)

Before Nazareth screeched all over this tender Boudleaux Bryant original, people didn’t think of it as a regrettable one-night stand they had in the ’70s. The Everly Brothers captured its ache accordingly on its first recorded version. Roy Orbison crooned it over swelling strings and cooing backup singers, in the way only he could. And Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris did it best, accompanied by a light acoustic arrangement that allowed their ragged, magnetic vocal chemistry to carry the day.

2. Patti Smith – “Words of Love” (2011)

Rave On Buddy Holly includes plenty of mimicry and experimentation, and as usual, the latter approach is more rewarding. But the finest moment of the compilation falls squarely between those two categories – Patti Smith’s delicate take on “Words of Love.” The artist had Holly’s greatest melody to work with, yet opted to deliver it simply and directly, over a dreamy, meditative soundscape. It’s a work of stunning beauty, and a clever one at that, fading out to the reassuring whirr of crickets in the evening.

1. Klaus Nomi – “Lightning Strikes” (1981)

It’s easier to appreciate something truly unique when it’s placed in the context of something we’re already comfortable with. Such is Klaus Nomi’s cover of this 1965 Lou Christie smash. The original’s melodramatic delivery was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and its narrator was a straight-up sexual deviant. But Nomi transforms it all into a refreshing blast of avant garde pop, shifting between heavily accented song-speak and delirious bursts of falsetto over a chilly new wave beat. From note one of this cover, there’s no doubt who the original artist is.

[Oh, and for the record, the worst song in this category is James Taylor’s version of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” which manages to suck all of the joy out of the Marvin Gaye original, leaving behind a polished corpse of naptime folk. If Taylor can’t sound lovestruck with such generous source material, he must think a gift of drugstore perfume is guaranteed to get him laid.]

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