Remember your first time — the heightened anticipation, that initial awkwardness of finding yourself uncertain of how to feel, the initial acceptance that this was truly something special and finding your groove, the joyful climax and the immediate desire to go again? We, of course, are talking about experiencing the most unexpected of cover songs. What were you thinking?
A unique cover can do so many things for a band. It can offer you insight into unexpected influences, it can showcase the group’s artistry and if you’re lucky, it can change your perception of that band. True admission, this list was inspired by a discussion with a fellow staffer about the band Switchfoot, a group who in the early 2000s scored Hot AC and modern rock hits with the melodic and uplifting “Dare You to Move” and “Meant to Live.” But upon catching them at an alt-rock festival a few years later, they totally blew the doors off the place with a cover of the Beastie Boys’ in-your-face anthem “Sabotage,” hinting at a heavier sound they would further explore in the years to come. Mind blown, perception changed.
Switchfoot, “Sabotage” (Beastie Boys Cover)
Though that was a live experience, we’re turning our focus here to recorded covers that flipped the script for many upon their release. Think back to your first time hearing these covers and what it was like to enjoy the novelty and awesomeness of taking in these songs for the first time.
Who would’ve thought that at the height of the nu-metal explosion of the early 2000s that a Michael Jackson song would be one of the most requested and biggest rock radio hits? At the time, Alien Ant Farm were still a relatively unknown act, while Jackson was still the undisputed “King of Pop” who dominated the ‘80s. But at the same time, he had seen his star dim a bit during the ‘90s. While his songs were canon, he was no longer the hot artist of the day.
Then came Alien Ant Farm, who wisely kept the percussive elements from one of Jackson’s heavier songs and added their own rock flare to the track. What initially felt a bit like a novelty cover started to resonate with listeners, and Alien Ant Farm themselves helped make the transition cool with a Jackson-referencing video. Today, you have a hard time imagining “Smooth Criminal” without thinking of Alien Ant Farm, a nod to how great this cover turned out, but at the time this felt like a super bold step for a fledgling band.
Disco and rock were once divergent opposites when cool points were doled out, but in 1996 the two worlds collided on a cover that nobody saw coming. Cake were emerging as one of the hot new bands on the alt-rock scene when they dropped a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s disco-era classic, “I Will Survive.”
Cake themselves were weird enough during the ‘90s, developing a sound that didn’t necessarily mirror any of their peers. So perhaps any cover would have sounded pretty wild. But singer John McCrea’s near spoken word vocal on a song mostly identifiable as a female empowerment anthem helped flip the script. Add in a more rock centric arrangement and even some backing horns and now you’ve got a song that feels uniquely Cake’s own. Not surprisingly, it’s become one of the most popular songs of their career.
If ever there was a song you’d think would be untouchable, it might be Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” The coda to The Downward Spiral album was a nadir, raw and vulnerable heaped in self-loathing isolation and the perfect end to Trent Reznor’s gut wrenching masterpiece of a record. But then came Johnny Cash.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming as Cash had found some late career success with producer Rick Rubin covering modern rock favorites. If ever there were an artist to take on Reznor’s heartbreaking song, Cash could be it. The country music icon had certainly lived a life that faced more than a few demons, and at an advanced age, his weathered voice added even more emotional heft to the song, if that was even possible. While Reznor initially felt the cover of his most personal track felt invasive, he warmed to Cash’s cover even adding, “I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, and it really then, wasn’t my song anymore.”
Leave Britney alone? Children of Bodom certainly didn’t, and we should all be grateful. At her early 2000s peak, Spears was one of the more polarizing figures in pop music and sadly much of her career has played out in the tabloids as much as it has on the radio. But there’s no denying the quality of writing on some of Britney’s biggest hits (you can also check out Travis’ stellar alt-rock cover of “Baby One More Time”).
In 2009, Children of Bodom decided to do a covers album titled Skeletons in the Closet, which compiled most of their covers to date along with some newly recorded cuts. While the set was pretty much dominated by rock and metal covers, sticking out like sore thumb was their take on Britney’s 2000 pop hit. It was a shocking choice for many metalheads, but Children of Bodom’s cover proved to be not only a testament to their musicianship, but also a nod to the original’s great songwriting.
Devo are one of those acts that certainly had a sound all their own, and while they’ve scored hits with other covers, their take on one of the most popular songs ever remains the one that stands out. The group pulled in producer Brian Eno as they delivered a super spastic, almost robotic sounding take on the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
It’s hard to take a song so identifiable with one iconic rock band and make it your own, but Devo certainly did. While others have tried to cover “Satisfaction” over the years, Devo’s take is the one that most stunned and enthralled listeners and it even received Mick Jagger’s stamp of approval.
Game changer! While it was no surprise that Disturbed included a cover on their 2015 Immortalized album, the song selection probably caught more than a few fans off guard. Disturbed had previously scored a hit with their take on Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” and had confidently covered Tears for Fears’ “Shout,” but those songs could be rocked up to fit with their overall vibe. Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” was a ballad, something that didn’t really play within the band’s overall scheme up to that point.
Fans not only embraced the cover, it became one of their biggest hits. The band’s take not only showed their musicianship, it allowed one of rock’s strongest voices in David Draiman to showcase his vocal range. After a performance on Conan, Paul Simon sent a note of praise to the band. After the success of “The Sound of Silence,” Disturbed expanded their musical approach to include more of a blend of heavy and melodic songs on their follow-up album, Evolution.
Dynamite Hack, “Boyz in the Hood”
Originally by Eazy-E
This one will forever bring a smile to most listeners. In 2000, post-grunge rockers Dynamite Hack took a gangsta rap classic about life in the hood and gave it a sunny, acoustic rock makeover. The dichotomy of Eazy-E’s hardcore lyrics against the backdrop of frat-boy melodic whiteness certainly made for an interesting contrast.
The “oh no they didn’t” novelty was soon washed away with heavy alt-rock radio airplay and the realization that the arrangement, which included a Beatles-esque nod as well, was quite genius. Certainly one of the oddest covers for sure, but it’s an earworm that has stood the test of time.
By the early ‘90s, Faith No More were making a name for themselves with such heavy standouts as “Epic,” “We Care a Lot” and “Falling to Pieces.” So it came as a bit of a surprise when on their 1992 album, Angel Dust, they took on the soulful ‘70s Commodores hit “Easy.”
This curveball came about as a conscious choice during their live sets, deciding to replace their cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and tweak the audience a bit with the decidedly different “Easy.” The Faith No More version, though a bit more rocked up, maintains the soulful base, and famously includes Mike Patton’s over-enunciation of a Lionel Richie‘s “ooh.” That said, Richie didn’t seem to mind, stating that he was flattered by the band’s cover and that he “loved it.”
Originally by Ginuwine
After an influential run in the ‘90s, Far split up with band members branching off to other projects in the early part of the 2000s. What ended up being totally surprising was not just the band’s 2009 reunion, but how they decided to launch that reunion. They covered R&B star Ginuwine’s strip-club favorite, “Pony,” giving it a rock makeover.
Suddenly, the once underground ‘90s favorites found themselves getting rock radio airplay after putting their rocked up stamp on the Ginuwine track, bringing it to a whole new audience.
One of the more bizarre covers you’ll hear on this list, the Flying Lizards made their mark on the music industry with their take on “Money (That’s What I Want).” Though initially recorded by Barrett Strong, the most popular version of the song came from The Beatles.
In 1979, The Flying Lizards brought their version of “Money” to the BBC’s Top of the Pops, which helped propel the polarizing cover up the charts. Relying heavily on a percussive based arrangement and letting the spoken word vocal lead the way, this cover left listeners with a “love it or hate it” response (or “hate that I love it.”) That said, the song peaked at No. 5 in the U.K. and also had some U.S. success as well, so it made its fair share of “money.”
Foo Fighters have never been afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves, often dedicating portions of their live shows to saluting some of their favorite acts. But seeing them cover Rush, Queen, the Rolling Stones or some of the great classic rock bands never felt like too much of a stretch. Then, in 2021, they pushed the envelope — and Dave Grohl’s voice — further than we ever expected it would go. They covered the Bee Gees, not just once, but for a full on Record Store Day EP that would take on the Gibb brothers and their sibling Andy Gibb’s biggest hits.
Surprisingly, the Grohl growl was able to transition to falsetto, with the band’s take on “You Should Be Dancing” showing that their range knew no bounds. The Foos leaned into the kitsch of the moment, dubbing themselves the D.G,’s, dressing the part with ‘70s threads and humorously titling their EP, Hail Satin! Even for a band with a wide range of taste, this cover certainly took everyone by surprise.
Given what we would come to know of them, perhaps HIM’s cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” shouldn’t have been a surprise. The original, recording in a haunting manner by crooner Chris Isaak, portrayed a wanton longing that exuded such sex appeal that the song appeared untouchable.
Then, in 1997, along came Finnish goth rock band HIM to put their fresh take on the track. The band that would come to be known for their “love metal,” set dark hearts ablaze with their cover of “Wicked Game,” a version that managed to portray the longing, albeit with chunky guitars and a more rock-centric arrangement. It turned out to be a fitting centerpiece, and for some an introduction, to HIM on their Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666 debut album.
Hugo, “99 Problems”
Originally by Jay-Z
For years producer Rick Rubin had been known for bringing hard rocking beats to some of rap’s biggest songs, and Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” definitely fit that bill. In fact, the song off 2004’s The Black Album turned out to be one of Jay-Z’s biggest hits, instantly identifiable to anyone who heard it.
So imagine the surprise when London-based, blues-influenced musician Hugo arrived on the scene in 2011, completely reworking Jay-Z’s signature song and turning into a foot-stomping bluegrass romp that commanded the airwaves. While music fans marveled at this overhaul, one person who wasn’t that all surprised was likely Jay-Z. Turns out Hugo was signed to Jay’s Roc Nation label, which helped bring this fresh take to listeners in the first place.
My what a difference a decade makes. In 1987, it was hard to avoid the acoustic-guitar driven earworm “Faith” by former Wham! vocalist George Michael. Flash forward a decade and music listeners got another dose of “Faith,” albeit one that was a little more off-key and in-your-face. This time it was the up-and-coming Limp Bizkit doing the honors.
At the point of its arrival, Limp Bizkit had yet to become the dominant force they would be over the next couple of years and even nu-metal had yet to take over the airwaves, though the “Faith” cover would play a key role in paving the path. Yes, Limp Bizkit kept the same strummy guitar, but then layered Fred Durst’s warbling and gutturals over the top of it giving listeners the aggro anthem they never knew they needed.
Machine Head, “Message in a Bottle”
Originally by The Police
While we are now well aware of Machine Head’s wide-ranging musical tastes thanks to their pandemic livestream cover sessions, that wasn’t always the case. And in 1999, it probably took a few listeners by surprise when the band’s third album included a watery cover of The Police’s classic, “Message in a Bottle.”
Singer Robb Flynn pulls back his vocal aggression, first showcasing a more vulnerable side that eventually turns more menacing in the build up to the chorus. It’s a more rocked up version for sure.
Punk rock supergroup Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are known for their punked up cover songs with pretty much nothing off limits. Their 2003 album Take a Break found the collective taking on primarily R&B favorites, with things reaching peak absurdity when they turned Boyz II Men’s chart-topping ballad “End of the Road” into a punked out rager.
While the band keeps the sentiment mostly the same, the true fun comes with the ad-libbed spoken word lament reflecting on drunken beach day that explains exactly why she’s the one he can’t let go. While the song is definitely meant to inject some humor into this early ‘90s sobfest, there’s no denying the Me First version has its pit-stirring chops in order.
Ministry, “Lay Lady Lay”
Originally by Bob Dylan
In the world of unexpected covers, this one would have to rank right up there. Bob Dylan initially recorded “Lay, Lady, Lay” as a deep-voiced seduction, supposedly written for his wife, back in 1969. But gone are the warm intonations of Dylan’s voice at the time, instead replaced by a more aggressive and chugging guitar-led version when Ministry got hold of it for their Filth Pig album.
Despite the drastic shift in tone, it still works, and quite well. Once you get past the odd cover choice novelty, the Ministry version actually stands up over time.
Talking Heads, “Take Me to the River”
Originally by Al Green
Talking Heads were one of the more experimental acts to come from New York’s punk and funk scene of the ‘70s, so maybe their cover of the Al Green R&B classic shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise as it was.
The song, appearing on the band’s 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food, actually played a big role in propelling the band’s career. It also allowed them to continue to branch out by displaying more of their soulful dynamics, while adding just enough of their own touches to appease their fans. It’s a wonderful blend that remains just faithful enough to the original to appeal to a broader audience.
In 2022, Mark Tremonti, the guitarist for Alter Bridge and Creed and leader of his self-titled outfit, pulled off one of the more impressive musical transitions we’ve seen, embodying the vocal of the legendary crooner Frank Sinatra on not just one song but a full album …. and with many of Sinatra’s own players.
Turns out there was a very good reason for this transition as Tremonti was anxious to start his own “Take a Chance for Charity” initiative inviting performers to do something entertaining outside of their comfort zone in order to bring attention and funds to a specific charity. In Tremonti’s case, it was the National Down Syndrome Society in honor of his daughter. Simply put, Tremonti just wowed, emulating the vocal intonations that Sinatra made famous, taking us back in time with a velvet touch.
Here’s a perfect example of why playing against type works so well for covers. Seals & Crofts scored a chart-topping hit in 1972 at the height of country-influenced light rock. “Summer Breeze” conjures up visions of summer brightness and lightness. It’s exactly the type of track you’d never expect goth metal mavens Type O Negative to land anywhere near, yet they did on 1993’s Bloody Kisses standout.
Peter Steele and crew strip away all the airy nature of this AM Gold classic, replacing it with doomy dreariness, and yet it still shimmers like the hit song it should. This couldn’t have been a more unexpected cover, but damn if it didn’t work all the same.