When New Beats Old: Five Criminally-Underrated Cover Songs

By Erin Caine
Elm Staff Writer

Whether a musical artist is considered forgettable or talented comes down to a number of things: innovation, ambition, appeal—in essence, what can only be described as freshness.
It’s not always original material that distinguishes one musical act from the rest. Sometimes the mark of a true artist is in imitation. In other words, there’s a particular skill and art form to cover songs.
Any cover worth its salt isn’t merely a hollow repetition of the original, but a new interpretation imbued with the artist’s own distinct sound and style. Some covers are so popular it’s hard to imagine them sung by anyone else, such as Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” or Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Here’s a list of the songs that might have flown under your radar:
1. “Say a Little Prayer,” Lianna La Havas. When discussing the underappreciated, few artists seem so deserving of that descriptor than London-born singer-songwriter La Havas.
Her own material is emotive and sophisticated, not wholly a single genre but a fusion of several, such as soul, folk, pop, and jazz. Her cover of Dionne Warwick’s 1967 “I Say a Little Prayer” is charming and intimate, rivaling even Aretha Franklin’s popular rendition of the song.
La Havas contrasts her soulful vocals with the gentle, intricate plucking of of her guitar. Other impressive covers of hers include Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” and Little Dragon’s “Twice.”
2. “Disarm,” The Civil Wars. The Nashville-based Americana duo had what many fans would consider an all-too-brief run, their relationship lasting only for six years before their split in 2014. In that time, they produced two albums which garnered multiple Grammys. For their self-titled second album, they released a cover of ‘90s alternative band Smashing Pumpkin’s “Disarm,” proving that the two can really take on any genre and make it their own.
Their version is more tender and melodic than the original, with John Paul White’s and Joy Williams’ vocals combining to create an atmosphere of longing and vulnerability.
3. “The Girl from Ipanema,” Amy Winehouse.  When it comes to this British jazz-inspired singer, the cover most people associate with her is her rendition of “Valerie” by The Zutons.
A cover many might not be aware of, however, is her version of “The Girl from Ipanema,” a Brazilian bossa nova track first recorded by Pery Ribeiro in 1962. Ella Fitzgerald recorded one of the most popular versions of the song in 1965, as did The Supremes.
Winehouse’s take on the tune holds up even to the classics, bolstered by a lively and buoyant rhythm, her one-of-a-kind vocals infusing the track with passion and charisma.
4. “Stairway to Heaven,” Rodrigo y Gabriela. You’ve probably never heard this Led Zeppelin classic quite like this.
Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela are a formidable pair, known for their classical guitar prowess.
Their rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” is without vocals, and it doesn’t need them—their guitars have an unmistakable voice all their own. The track begins with Rodrigo’s crisp, precise, intricate melody, and when Gabriela joins him with her airtight percussive technique the two blend effortlessly.
5. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Amy Lee. The lead singer of the hard rock band Evanescence probably isn’t the first person who comes to your mind when someone says “old country.” Then again, Lee’s powerful pipes are so versatile she can tackle just about any genre with ease.
She took on Hank Williams original and transformed it into a melodic heartwrencher, not as stark and solemn as Johnny Cash’s notable cover, though not as lively as Williams’ version. It strikes up a pleasant balance between passion and placidity, a worthy addition to the song’s covers history.

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