The song, while the product of an artist with a unique vision, has the capability to become something else once it is put out for everyone to hear. Once a song is out in the open, it could very well undergo a transformation unlike the original artist ever anticipated.
5. Nickel Creek - “I Should've Known Better" (This Side, 2002)
Nickel Creek's 2002 release This Side had a few excellent covers, as well as some fantastic new arrangements of traditional folk hymns. In the former category, there was a cover of "Spit on a Stranger" by legendary indie rock group Pavement; in the latter, a memorable rendition of the traditional English folk track "House Carpenter". The best of these various covers is an interpretation of Americana songstress Carrie Newcomer's "I Should've Known Better", a cut that stands as one of the now-defunct bluegrass band's most angry tracks. With an almost head-banging arrangement, fiddle player Sara Watkins delivers lines like "All alone in my kitchen / All alone in my head / Some things you can't take back / Once they've been said" with incredible power. Nickel Creek's career may have been cut far too short (the band has been on indefinite hiatus since the release of its third studio record Why Should the Fire Die?), but it's gems like this one that still keep people coming back.
4. Johnny Cash - "Hurt" (American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002)
The prospect of Johnny Cash covering a Nine Inch Nails song may have seemed like an absurdity prior to the release of American IV, but given how absolutely dead-on this performance is, it's as if this song was written just for him. Upon hearing this cover, NIN's Trent Reznor went so far as to the say that the song wasn't even his anymore. That may be an extreme concession for an artist to make, but Cash's well-documented troubled past makes the lyrics of "Hurt" ring far more deeply than the original, which is still an excellent track in its own right. The song is in equal measures beautiful, painful, and heart-rending, sometimes all at once. It's a track that, despite the pain it brings to mind, is impossible to turn away from. The music video adds even more to this effect; the clip's nostalgic, lamentful retrospective speaks more volumes about Cash's life than full-length films like Walk the Line did. "Hurt" has been upheld as Cash's "epitaph", a fitting title for a track as masterful as this. Cash remains one of America's most important songwriters, and "Hurt" is an incontestable testament to that fact.
3. Obadiah Parker - "“Hey Ya!" (Obadiah Parker Live, 2007)
OutKast's "Hey Ya!", one of the most popular tracks of the last decade, is well-known for how infectiously buoyant it is from the get-go; it's catchy and incredibly easy to sing along with. While those traits are part of what makes the song great, they can at times mask the brilliant lyrics that also add to that greatness. For that reason, Obadiah Parker's acoustic guitar and piano-backed cover is a brilliant interpretation. The lyrics are put much more at the forefront, and in doing so the song becomes a gorgeous meditation on love unlike the jubilant original. The key change Parker does in "Hey Ya!" also adds to the tune's emotive quality; this cover has a highly reflective and ponderous spirit that really bring out the best in the song's lyrics. Best of all, the "Shake it like a Polaroid" bridge morphs incredibly in its acoustic setting. Though in the context of this more somber take that phrase could elicit multiple meanings, it doesn't sound out of place, which it could have easily done given its usage in Outkast's original. Whether bouncy or ruminative, "Hey Ya!" retains its brilliance. All that remains to do is shake it like a Polaroid.
2. Feist and Ben Gibbard - “Train Song" (Dark Was the Night: A Red Hot Compilation, 2009)
While not a bad track, Vashiti Bunyan's "Train Song" is not a stand-out by any means. It's amazing then, how spellbinding it becomes in this version, a haunting duet between Feist and Ben Gibbard. Leslie Feist has one of the most powerful female voices in music today, and here she's enchanting as she harmonizes with Gibbard, who also knocks it out of the park. The meaning of the song's lyrics is highly interpretive: where are the lovers in the song headed? Are they lovers at all? How long is "many hundred miles"? There are multiple meanings that could be read into the words, but in any case the song never loses its allure. Dark Was the Night, a charity release that avoided superficiality in lieu of fantastic songwriting, had many fine covers, but "Train Song" towers above them all.
1. Steven Wilson - “The Day Before You Came" (Cover Version II, 2004)
Like "Train Song", the choice of "The Day Before You Came" as a song to cover is an odd one, given the far better options present in the entirety of ABBA's discography. In the scheme of all of the singles ABBA released, this tune is a minor one. Despite those options, however, "The Day Before You Came" becomes something of a masterpiece in Steven Wilson's interpretation. With just his voice, an acoustic guitar, and a Mellotron (what prog cover doesn't have a Mellotron?), Wilson transforms ABBA's synthpop into a stirring reflection on the intrusion of love into a mundane life. Wilson's fascination with creating choir-like effects with his own voice (he cites the Beach Boys as an influence for that effect) is especially powerful here; it creates the feeling of someone breaking free from his ordinarily isolation, as all of the voices in his head are becoming focused on the object of adoration. "Oh yes I'm sure my life was well within its usual frame / The day before you came", Wilson sings, pondering on the implications of love. His life may have been in a "usual" frame, but this song is anything but. It's extraordinary.