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Top 11 Rock Covers from Women
Rock Cellar contributor Emily Herring makes her debut with her picks for the Top 11 Rock Covers from Women.
11. Ella Fitzgerald — “Can’t Buy Me Love” (The Beatles)
In March of 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, the Fab Four released yet another chart-topping hit, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” A few months later, the song was in the charts again when the First Lady of Song herself, Ella Fitzgerald, gave the tune her own spin.
In her big band version, Fitzgerald takes a pop gem and turns it into jazz gold. She had already been a Beatles fan for a while, having traveled to London to record some tracks for her new album Hello, Dolly! At the time, “Can’t Buy Me Love” was dominating the airwaves and Fitzgerald could not resist recording her own version. Sir George Martin himself oversaw the arrangement of the track and Paul McCartney later proudly admitted that he had felt “honored” that one of the greats should choose to cover his attempt at a bluesy tune.
10. PJ Harvey and Björk — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones
In 1994, the 14th Brit Awards featured memorable performances, including Elton John and RuPaul lip-syncing and twirling to a disco version of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” as well as a Beatles medley from boy band Take That, in full mop top.
But the real showstopper of the night was delivered by two women, PJ Harvey and Björk. Both performers have since achieved legend status, but that night, they were new on the scene. Their cover of the Rolling Stones’ first ever US number 1, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, completely reimagines the song. Until Harvey growls the first lyrics, the tune is completely unrecognizable, and, in a bold move, Keith Richards’ iconic riff is altogether scrapped.
We are left with a powerful stripped-down version of a classic song that slowly builds before exploding into a glorious grungy choral, showcasing the distinctive genius of two of the most important voices in alternative music.
9. Miley Cyrus — “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin
Miley Cyrus first became known as Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, normal schoolgirl by day, world-famous pop star by night, who cleverly conceals her secret identity with … a blonde wig. Nothing about this debut seemed, at the time, to portend a career in rock music for Cyrus. If anything, with Billy Ray Cyrus as a father and Dolly Parton as a godmother, she was predisposed for country.
However, in the ten years since the show ended, Cyrus has reinvented herself multiple times, straying further and further away from her pop princess image. In recent years she has openly declared her love for classic rock, performing covers of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” (with the band themselves!) But her impeccable version of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” will convince anyone with ears that she should switch to full-time rock and roll.
8. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” by The Ramones
The Ramones wrote “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” in 1977 as an anthem for teenage rebellion. The main protagonist was based on a comic book heroine ‘Sheena, Queen of the Jungle,’ a kind of female counterpart to Tarzan. In the song, she finds herself transposed into a different kind of jungle, late 1970s New York City.
According to Joey Ramone, pretty soon, all the coolest women on the punk scene were calling themselves Sheena. Fast-forward to the first decade of the 21st century, when a new Sheena emerged in the form of Karen O, the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the most electrifying band New York City had seen in a while (yes, New York City really does have it all).
On stage, Karen O perfectly embodies the free, almost feral, spirit of a jungle queen released into the big city. So, it was only natural that, when the charity War Child invited the Ramones to select one of their own tracks and nominate an artist from the younger generation to perform it, the fathers of punk picked Karen O and her bandmates. The result is satisfying as hell.
7. The Kills — “Cosmic Dancer” by T. Rex
English/American rock duo The Kills is one of the most underrated bands of the past two decades. Armed with nothing but two voices, a guitar, and a drum machine, Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince have produced some of the angstiest and sexiest blues rock sounds of the century to date.
But it is their ballads that really shine the brightest. When singer Mosshart allows herself to be vulnerable, her voice can be absolutely devastating. For this reason, when in 2020, at the height (we hope) of the pandemic, The Kills released a cover of T-Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer,” fans braced themselves for an emotional ride … and they were not disappointed.
Mosshart’s voice reverberating against the solid beat of a drum machine and some simple piano chords captures the weird melancholy of both the original song and our current times.
6. Patti Smith — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of those songs that came to define a musical era. As Kurt Cobain screamed about albinos and his libido, a whole generation was finding its voice. But the song’s success was a curse for Cobain, who despised most expressions of conformity and therefore struggled for the rest of his short life with his new status as a mainstream celebrity.
As with most successful art forms, Nirvana’s grunge aesthetic and ideals have since been imitated, ground up and packaged into various soulless formats (recently one of Cobain’s anti-corporate slogans could be seen adorning a designer t-shirt worth hundreds of dollars).
But grunge was never really dead, and all it took to revive it was the grandmother of punk. In her cover, Patti Smith loses the scratchy riff and sawdust inducing drums, slows down the tempo and adds a banjo or two. But most importantly, she really makes Cobain’s words shine.
Nirvana’s version came across as a satirical take on Gen X’s generalized feelings of apathy and nihilism. In Smith’s version there is something about the way the lyrics are drawn out that makes the listener consider them more seriously than Cobain had probably ever intended. Here, the song that Cobain came to despise becomes poignant grunge poetry.
5. Lorde — “Life on Mars” by David Bowie
Toward the end of his life, David Bowie told his pianist Mike Garson that he believed young pop star Lorde was the “future of music.” After Bowie’s untimely death in 2016, Lorde felt the weight of this prophecy when she was tasked with performing a tribute to one of the greatest artists who ever lived at the Brit Awards, at the age of nineteen.
Following teary speeches from Annie Lennox and Gary Oldman, the young woman took to the stage and delivered a chill-inducing version of “Life on Mars” that would have done her hero proud. She, and Bowie, received a standing ovation that night.
On meeting her hero a few years earlier, Lorde wrote these moving words: “I’ve never met a hero of mine and liked it. It just sucks, the pressure is too huge, you can’t enjoy it. David was different. I’ll never forget the caressing of our hands as we spoke, or the light in his eyes. That night something changed in me – I felt a calmness grow, a sureness. I think in those brief moments, he heralded me into my next new life, an old rock and roll alien angel in a perfect grey suit… I realized I was proud of my spiky strangeness because he had been proud of his.”
4. The Cardigans — “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” by Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath claimed to have come up with the main riff of their 1973 album’s eponymous song, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” after following a ghost around a haunted castle in Gloucestershire where they had been rehearsing. It doesn’t get more metal than that.
In fact, it doesn’t get much more metal than Black Sabbath in general, which is why it is so surprising that The Cardigans decided to cover them several times. The Swedish band rose to prominence in the 1990s with a saccharine pop repertoire that acted as a kind antidote to the nihilistic grunge sensibilities of the time.
The sheer contrast between the cover and its source material is what makes this version of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” so memorable. There is something eminently pleasurable, and even subversive, about the way lead singer Nina Persson softly coos Sabbath’s sinister and ominous lyrics over a cheerful pop beat.
3. Peaches — “Search and Destroy” by Iggy and The Stooges
In one of several of their musical collaborations (the 2003 track “Kick It”), Canadian singer and performance artist Peaches snarls at punk legend Iggy Pop “I want to be your cat!” (to which he simply responds “Screw that!”). In many ways, Peaches and Pop — which, incidentally, would be a great title for a buddy cop movie — are kindred spirits.
Their voices carry the same raw energy, they appear to get a similar childlike glee out of dancing semi-naked to angry punk beats, and they share the same career goal: to subvert pretty much everything. In her own time, Peaches has become a major figure of feminist electro punk and has managed to stir up at least as much controversy as Iggy did in his day.
Her cover of The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” (which is the second song on this list featured on the War Child: Heroes album, after Ramones-by-the-Yeah-Yeah-Yeahs mentioned earlier) brings an iconic 1970s punk track into the 21st century.
2. Lianne La Havas — “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” by Radiohead
Some Rock Cellar readers might be offended to see Radiohead featured in a list about covers of classic rock songs. The British band perhaps seem too current to qualify as classic and, besides, it is difficult to pin them down into one specific music genre.
But for millennials like London-born singer Lianne La Havas, Radiohead’s music has always been woven into the world’s cultural fabric, much like Beatles’ music was for earlier generations. There exist hundreds of Radiohead covers, and most of them are of “Creep.”
This is perhaps because, on top of being the band’s most commercially successful song, it is not as dauntingly sophisticated as the rest of the group’s music. Radiohead are known for genre-bending, rhythmically perplexing sounds which would intimidate even seasoned musicians, but La Havas was always up to the task.
On her 2020 self-titled album, she offers a heartfelt, groovy cover of a fan favorite “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” from Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows. In her rendition, La Havas plays with the complexity of the song’s original structure while entirely making it her own.
- Nina Simone — “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles
This cover not only deserves its place on this list, but it should probably also figure on a list of best cover songs of all time. It takes a true genius like Nina Simone to take an already magnificent song (one of George Harrison’s finest moments) and elevate it even further.
In 1969, at the beginning of the Beatles’ final spring, Harrison spent an afternoon hiding at Eric Clapton’s house to avoid his soon to be ex-bandmates. In his autobiography, he remembers walking around a beautiful sunlit garden feeling grateful: “it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it.”
It was there that he started composing what would become one of his most beloved songs. In Simone’s version, released two years later, you can almost feel the warmth emanating from her piano. Placed against the backdrop of her civil rights activism and political music, the message of hope at the core of the song shines even brighter.
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