Is it just me or does every song sound better when it’s been done in ska style? I love the ska. Don’t care much for reggae, but I love the ska. It’s so peppy in a not-bubblegum way and those horns just kill me. One of my favorite songs of all time is “What I Like Best About You” by the Special AKA. Do you know what the singer likes best about the guy he’s addressing? His girlfriend! Gotta love that; gotta love the ska.
There are an amazing number of terrific ska cover versions of the songs you know and love or hate. And here’s the thing about ska: even songs you hate sound good when done in this style. For instance, that atrocious song “Barbie Girl” by Aqua? MXPX does a ska version that actually turns it into something you would proud to play at maximum volume while stopped at a streetlight. But it’s even better when a song you already like is redone in ska.
“Come on Eileen” Save Ferris.
This may be the best ska cover of all time. I mean the original is a classic, right, but can anybody really penetrate the Irish accent on the original to interpret the lyrics correctly? Save Ferris not only speeds “Come on Eileen” up and adds some incredible horns, but for the first time you will actually understand every single word in this terrific song.
“I Think I Love You” Less than Jake.
You know, the original Partridge Family version of this isn’t bad. It’s got a really nifty harpsichord solo in it-I think it’s a harpsichord, anyway-and David Cassidy’s somewhat off-center vocalizing lifts it out of its bubble-gum pop milieu. Even so, the original can’t compare to the punk ska version issued by Less Than Jake. If you think a Partridge Family song is incapable of being cool, then you obviously haven’t listed to Less than Jake cover “I Think I Love You.”
“Boys Don’t Cry” Reel Big Fish.
Yes, the original version by the then-obscure goth band The Cure is a minor masterpiece in its own right and even spurred the title for an Oscar-winning movie, but take the low-key guitar based sound of The Cure and add some popping horns and what you’ve got there is a major masterpiece. Reel Big Fish is one of the lords of ska and you can’t go wrong with them whether they are doing a cover version or one of their own.
“Smalltown Boy” Lax Alex Con Trax.
Hard to improve on the original by the Bronski Beat. This is a sad little song about growing up gay in a small town, but ska could probably even make the soundtrack to Schindler’s List uplifting. This version makes excellent use of the horns that are so vital to a great ska song, while still keeping the driving, pumping rhythm of the original intact. This is as good an example of how ska can even improve an already perfect song.
“Bonanza Ska” Bad Manners.
Not so much a cover version as a melody of great western themes. Again, the original Bonanza television theme was pretty darn great to begin with, but when Bad Manners turns it into a ska tribute to it and some of the other great western themes of American pop culture history, it reaches the level of pure sublimity. You will never look at Hoss or Little Joe in quite the same way. Or the Lone Ranger for that matter. This is not only one of my favorite ska cover versions, but one of my favorite ska songs of all time. If you’re feeling low, give yourself an injection of “Bonanza Ska” and you will find yourself hepped up instantly.
“Over the Rainbow” Unknown.
This cover version of the beloved Judy Garland classic from The Wizard of Oz is driving, pumping, angry-sounding punk ska at its best. Most people who try to cover this song attempt to turn it into a showcase for their singing range and by virtue of they turn it into some kind of inspirational song. “Over the Rainbow” isn’t an inspiration song; it’s a plaintive, melancholy lament. Listen to the way Judy Garland sings it in the movie; the woman possessed one of the best incredible voices in movie history, but you don’t see her belting it out. It’s a quiet, introspective song. This cover version is not quiet, nor is it introspective. But it’s also not a vocal showcase, nor is it inspirational. By virtue of those qualities, this is the best cover version of “Over the Rainbow” yet recorded. I just wish I could track down the artist with certainty: It’s been credited to Reel Big Fish, but I can find it on their official discography so I remain skeptical. If you have any factual evidence of who sings the ska version of “Over the Rainbow” please be kind enough to leave the information in the comment section.