1. Joe Cocker completely redoes “With a Little Help from My Friends”
At number 11, you may be familiar with this version of the song if you were a fan of The Wonder Years growing up. Cocker’s arrangement is combined with the original arrangement when the song shows up in the movie Across the Universe. And of course, it’s Cocker’s quirky, bluesy-rock voice that makes this completely overhauled cover work so well.
2. Jerry Lee Lewis, backed by Little Richard, blasts “I Saw Her Standing There”
The song lends itself well to the piano roll antics of Lewis and Richard, who steal this song from McCartney and Lennon with Lewis’ infectious zest, and Richard’s sense of fun and of course his trademark, falsetto, “Woo!” Also what’s ridiculous is this is from 2006. McCartney’s not the only one who can still go in this new millennium.
3. Stevie Wonder grooves up “We Can Work It Out”
For years, I didn’t even realize this was a Beatles track. I just didn’t equate them as the same song. All the Wonder elements are there: a funky synthesizer, a harmonica solo, his effortless high tenor and riffs… It’s a groovy good time.
4. John Williams performs a guitar cover of “Here Comes the Sun”
Probably my favorite Beatles song, this cover by concert guitarist John Williams, backed by a full orchestra, is an intriguing alternative to the original. A lot of Beatles songs don’t translate well to fully instrumental versions, but this one is both recognizable and refreshing.
5. Elton John helps us trip out with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
Elton John’s recreation is relatively faithful to the original (with the trademark John coda tacked to the end) but of course, he captures the psychedelic and surreal whimsy of the track in a way that only John can with a cleaner arrangement, a better featured piano, and his younger, rock tenor on vocals.
6. Billy Joel sings “A Hard Day’s Night”
It’s up in the air if I prefer John or Joel (I think John’s a better piano player, Joel’s a better singer) but Joel brings a completely different take to another Lennon track. (And it speaks to Lennon’s talent that two different artists have to take on two of his tracks that are so truly different). Joel’s working class sensibility and grittier vocals bring a lot of life to this track.
7. Aretha Franklin sasses up “Eleanor Rigby”
I’d like to believe someone told Aretha that she couldn’t just change the pronouns in the song so that it’s a first person song instead of a third person. But then I believe Aretha pitch-slapped that guy (bitch-slapped, but with a voice) and then did exactly that. It brings new meaning to the song, instead of melancholy and loneliness, Eleanor’s suddenly a sassy broad who ain’t got time for that.
8. Michael Jackson leaves his mark on “Come Together”
For my money, there’s no overtaking the King of Pop. It makes me sad that he never attempted more Beatles covers, considering he owned the whole anthology at one point, but the one that he did record was outstanding. He turns the bass riff of the song into a trademark MJ dance hook and soars on the poetically deranged lyrics.
9. Jim Carrey completely surprised on “I Am the Walrus”
Who knew Ace Ventura was a great singer too. The song is already quirky and weird and Carrey capitalizes on it, doing multiple voices and taking his time with phrasing and modulation. He’s completely in his element and if you ever hear the entire album (George Martin’s In My Life) Carrey is certainly the highlight track.
10. Wilson Pickett makes “Hey Jude” a religious experience
Pickett may be the least recognized name on this list, but his voice may be one of the most unforgettable. It’s like a gospel singer taking us to church, adding in all kinds of vocal acrobatics to an already amazing track, Pickett goes balls to the wall and the result is outstanding.
11. Marvin Gaye outclasses everyone on “Yesterday”
Take what is easily Lennon-McCartney’s most played, most popular song ever, and give it to the greatest male vocalist of all time. What more needs to be said?
12. Johnny Cash breaks hearts on “In My Life”
A much younger Beatle, lifetimes away from fully understanding the weight of the lyrics he wrote (and tragically, never living to see that age), penned this song at the height of the band’s popularity. Cash, who also gives us a ridiculously good cover version of Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt for the same reason, is an aged legend, racked by personal tragedy and loss. Only his broken, saddened voice could do justice to this poetic lyric of nostalgia, reminiscence, contentment, and regret.