It can be tough sometimes to separate the greatness of a song from the greatness of a particular performance of that song. And in the case where a great songwriter is also an amazing performer –Prince, Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix come to mind –the strength of the songwriting can be eclipsed by the definitive nature of the original artist’s rendition. Conversely, Bob Dylan’s strength as a songwriter is in some ways accentuated by his peculiarities as a performer –so many of his best songs are most familiar to us through other people’s versions.
All that is to say, it’s rare to find a song where a strong original performance also paves the way for equally strong covers. So with that in mind, I present one of the few songs that goes in that category for me. I was a fan of Jack White’s blistering, minimalist back-to-the-basics rocker Seven Nation Army when it first came out in 2003. That distinctive bass riff and throbbing beat seem pretty hard to top, don’t they? But I’ve also been a fan of pretty much every one of the quite different cover versions of the song I’ve heard.
Here’s my ranking, in reverse order:
Anderson.Paak – Cover Art Project
Anderson.Paak (my fellow black Asian!) conceived his independent EP Cover Art as a belated answer to the popular covers by mainstream white artists of black R&B songs that were the foundations of what we now call Rock & Roll. His neo-soul rendition makes the song his own.
Haley Reinhart & Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox – Vintage New Orleans Dirge style
Over the past couple of years, the Postmodern Jukebox has gone from gimmicky to profound. Reinhart’s smokey, rendition casts a sexy new light on the lyrics, and the riff couldn’t sound more at home than it does on in the hands of the vintage ensemble.
The White Stripes
The original version was one of the mighty White Stripe’s best-ever numbers, and it boasts a killer video. Maybe it’s sacrilege to leave it at #2, but I have to admit I prefer
Ben L’Oncle Soul
This funky black Frenchman got there out ahead of both Postmodern Jukebox AND Anderson.Paak with his jazzy, soulful, playfully retro reconstruction of Seven Nation Army. I have to admit, it might be a bit racial of me, but this is one of my favorite dynamics –a minimal, structurally sound song by a white songwriter, made lush, soulful and exciting by an electric black performer. Well, who doesn’t love that?