Like the bad, negligent music critic that I am, I recently picked up a copy of "Chimes of Freedom," the four-CD set of Bob Dylan covers that is a fundraiser for Amnesty International.
I haven't had a chance to digest most of it just yet, but it seems like it's very good. What do we expect? Dylan's a great songwriter.
And God love him, but he's not much of a singer. Sometimes it's a wonder what can happen to his great songwriting when someone else takes over the singing duties.
Besides listening to the 73(!) tunes in the collection, it also got me thinking about some of my favorite cover songs. Now, what follows isn't my top five. It couldn't be. The Hendrix version of "All Along the Watchtower" isn't in it, and "No Depression" isn't even my favorite Uncle Tupelo cover.
Besides, there aren't actually five songs in the list.
Additionally, it can't be a top five because I couldn't make up my mind and actually put six on the list. Oh well. Enjoy.
"With a Little Help from My Friends" -- Joe Cocker
An oldie but a goodie. The studio version is also great, but you have to go with the Woodstock version to get the full effect of Cocker at his full power. What a glorious scream.
"Ophelia" -- The Gibson Brothers
I refuse to speak ill of The Band, but something about this song surpasses the original for me. I discovered this song almost by mistake and have been smitten ever since. The country charm of what The Band did so well makes for a wonderful bluegrass song.
"I Fought the Law" -- The Clash
With the delivery of this song, it's hard to remember it was made popular by the Bobby Fuller Four, not a Strummer and Jones original. The Clash was so comfortable in several kinds of music, not simply a punk band.
"No Depression" -- Uncle Tupelo
In about five years of recording, Uncle Tupelo did so much, launching the alt-country movement before the principle duo of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy went off in different directions. They were able to meld genres so well because they were just as comfortable covering the Carter Family as they were playing Iggy and the Stooges.
"Can't Get Next to You" -- Al Green
I was an Al Green fan before I was a Temptations fan, so it shocked me when I found out The Reverend wasn't the first artist to do this classic number. Green carries the song as the lone frontman, where it took five Temptations to do an inferior job. You believe him in everything he says he's able to do, and by the end you pity him in his inability to land the lady he desires. (As if that would ever happen.)
"Hurt" -- Johnny Cash
I can hardly stand to watch this video in a single sitting. Cash takes your breath away, both with his singing rhythmic speech and with the haunting visuals of the video. All the pain and guilt of a man who knew he was nearing the end of his life came through in this gem. It probably stands as my favorite Cash song even though it's really a Trent Reznor song. The master of his craft owns this song and makes you forget all about the original. That is the very definition of a great cover song.