Caetano Veloso, "Billie Jean" (Nonesuch; 1986).
Gil, "Can't Find My Way Home" (Philips; 1971).
Jackson 5, "Feelin' Alright/Walk On" (Motown; 1971).
LaBelle, "Moonshadow" (Warner Bros.; 1972).
Wilson Pickett, "Hey Jude" (Atlantic; 1968).
Ramsey Lewis, "Cry, Baby, Cry" (Cadet Concept/Verve; 1968).
Mark Ronson ft. Alex Greenwald of Phantom Planet, "Just" (MySpace; 2005).
Esther Phillips, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" (Kudu; 1972).
Baby Huey & the Baby Sitters, "Hard Times" (Curtom; 1971).
Nina Simone, "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" (RCA; 1974).
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, "Le Freak" (LongMan; 2003).
Prince, "What Is Hip (Live at the Fillmore)" (MP3; 2004).
D'Angelo, "She's Always in My Hair" (Capitol; 1997).
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, "What Have You Done for Me Lately" (Daptone; 2002).
The Roots, "Boom" (Geffen; 2004).
Clipse & the Re-Up Gang, "Daytona 500 Freestyle" (Clinton Sparks mixtape; 2005).
Louis Armstrong, "The Creator Has a Master Plan" (Flying Dutchman; 1970).
It was Naomichi Yasuda, New York's illest sushi chef, who taught me the key to a great cover song. Someone at the other end of the bar had just ordered sashimi, and Chef Yasuda gently shook his head, leaning over to confide: "I do not like serving it this way. It is only the contrast of the rice that lets you truly taste the fish." A great cover makes you believe, within the contrast it creates, that you are truly hearing the song for the first time.
Some take big songs and make them small, like Caetano Veloso's delicate rendering of "Billie Jean." Gilberto Gil's simple, seething "Can't Find My Way Home" gives the Steve Winwood lyric deeper resonance even if you don't know that Gil recorded it during his exile in London. Meanwhile Patti and her crew show the power of a small song made big, turning a Cat Stevens trifle into a nine-minute gospel-funk opus.
The Beatles catalog has been an endless reservoir of untapped soul potential, spawning enough funky remakes to fill every CD-R in Best Buy. I've always thought Radiohead were a prime candidate for similar treatment, and word has it BBE Records is planning a compilation with this in mind. A few tracks are circulating online, and the best so far (believe it or not) comes from hip-hop's "DJ to the stars" Mark Ronson, who imagines what would happen if Thom Yorke traded Jonny Greenwood for Fred Wesley. This is the "new songs made old" approach, also known as the Dap-King Method.
Hip-hop specializes in old sounds made new, but rappers covering other rappers pretty much never works, except for Black Thought and his uncanny channeling of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. More worthwhile is the mixtape tradition of testing an emcee's flow against the hottest beats of his peers, best exemplified this year by the Clipse's multisyllable scorching of Wu-Tang's "Daytona 500" (which Bob James himself cited as his favorite usage of "Nautilus").
Then there are the covers I cannot categorize because their very existence baffles me. Louis Armstrong in a studio with Richard Davis and Bernard Purdie, trading vocals with Leon Thomas on "The Creator Has a Master Plan," just doesn't seem plausible. Yet here it is. The kicker? They all sound great together, as if the song was made with them in mind. Chef Yasuda would be proud.
Jay Smooth hosts The Underground Railroad on WBAI-FM (99.5) in New York. He blogs at Hiphopmusic.com.