Cover songs can be extremely powerful. Everyone loves when an artist performs a familiar record because it forms a bond of camaraderie between the audience and the act on the stage. Many times, it also serves as an icebreaker or an introduction to the commercial market.
While there are countless artists who perform familiar music the way it was written (as if they were competing in a karaoke contest), there is a rare few who will boldly take that piece of music, put a modern twist on it and breathe new life into it. In some cases, they might make the listener forget who the original composer even was.
Five rock artists, in particular, have achieved this feat and can proudly be one of Red Bull’s top five cover artists. In order to be considered, let’s go over the rules:
- The cover song must have been released as a single
- The cover song must have been from early in their career
- The cover song must have been a launch pad to future success
With the rules laid out, here are the top five cover songs that served as a stepping-stone for a band’s future success.
5. “Smooth Criminal”
Performed by Michael Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones in 1988, “Smooth Criminal” performed fairly well on the charts. In comparison to the other smash hits on his “Bad” album (including the title track, “Man In The Mirror” and “The Way You Make Me Feel), however, it was practically lost in the shuffle.
But in 2001, Alien Ant Farm reminded fans about just how memorable this song should be. The California quartet gave “Smooth Criminal” the modern rock treatment and used it as the leadoff single to their debut album “ANThology.”
Not only was it more explosive, but also it was more fast-paced and even catchier than ever. While it performed well on the Modern Rock Charts (when that Billboard Chart still existed, that is) and continues to earn placement in movies like “American Pie 2,” the group’s playful MJ-flavored video made them known to the MTV generation.
What Alien Ant Farm did wonderfully is keep the “Smooth Criminal” riff and subtle Michael Jackson influential screams, and gave it an energetic makeover. Well executed.
4. “Higher Ground”
Legendary soulful pop artist Stevie Wonder has created numerous mega hits throughout the course of his career. Though he is best known for chart toppers like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Superstition” and “Part-Time Lover,” his song “Higher Ground” might have flown under the radar. Although the funk-flavored track hit #4 on the U.S. Pop Singles Chart, the song didn’t make Stevie Wonder’s career. Not by a longshot.
For the Red Hot Chili Peppers, however, their 1989 version of “Higher Ground” was the beginning of their future mainstream success. The Californians kept the bass lines funky (as bassist Flea is known to do), but what the four-piece marvelously did was bring out that big arena rock vibe.
Despite having three previous albums out, “Higher Ground” was the Chili Peppers first big hit. It earned them placements on several charts and helped fuel their fourth studio effort “Mother’s Milk” to platinum status.
It isn’t easy to follow Stevie Wonder, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers filled those large footsteps.
3. “Blue Monday”
In 1983, New Order released “Blue Monday” -- a drum machine loving track that became one of their biggest hits to date. The excruciatingly seven and a half minute long record became a new wave sensation at clubs all throughout Europe, and is often to be thought of as the first British crossover dance-pop record.
Then, fifteen years later, Orgy arguably made it better. The industrial rock quintet kept the trademark drumbeat and melodies, but gave it more of an aggressive, lively and dark synth edge. Also Jay Gordon’s voice is more distinct, commanding and cuts nicely into the music. “Blue Monday” would evidently propel the group’s debut album “Candyass” to platinum status.
Orgy did something New Order didn’t do on “Blue Monday,” they added emotion.
2. “The Boys Of Summer”
Don Henley, a multi-time solo Grammy-Award winning and one of the original founding members of The Eagles, achieved high acclaim for his original song “The Boys Of Summer” in 1984. The pop rock track reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the video won a plenty of MTV moon men including Best Video Of The Year for 1985.
Almost twenty years later, in 2003, The Ataris introduced the record to a whole new generation. On their fourth studio album, and Columbia Records debut, “So Long, Astoria,” the Indiana collective added a stronger rock flare to Henley’s original softer melodies, incorporated some cutting-edge punk flavor to replace the worn 80’s vibe, and provided more power and angst within the vocals.
Of notable importance, The Ataris also updated one of the lines. One of the lyrics Henley sang in 1984 was, “Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” paying homage to the Grateful Dead. The Ataris would replace “Deadhead” with “Black Flag,” in tribute to the influential punk band and as a way to bring “The Boys Of Summer” to a new generation.
1. “I Will Survive”
in 1978, Gloria Gaynor’s empowering disco smash “I Will Survive” tore up the charts and later, would go down as one of the biggest records in American music history. Not only did it win the Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording in 1980 (the only year the award was ever given out), but also it was certified double platinum and became a number one hit. While Gaynor had previous success before then, “I Will Survive” was the song that she has become known for.
Eighteen years later, it would also be the song that launched Cake’s career. From their 1996 album “Fashion Nugget,” the Sacramento troupe put an alternative blue-inspired rock twist on the empowering anthem and incorporated a calming rock ‘n roll element. While their version wasn’t as nearly as colossal as Gaynor’s, the respectable showing elevated them to another level.
While Gaynor’s version of “I Will Survive” is a lively and motivating smash, Cake’s came across as a soothing confessional.
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