“Understand Your Man” – Johnny Cash

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On the eve of Valentine’s Day, this is the Man in Black’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” OK, not exactly, but both songs share the same melody and tackle the same subject matter. While Dylan sounds like he’s trying to be diplomatic despite his bitterness, Cash is having none of it. Dylan says “Fare thee well” … Cash says “F–k off!” If you’re a fan of the Dylan classic, “Understand Your Man” almost seems like some kind of redneck parody, even though it isn’t. I think it stands up well on its own and one of the best “I’m out of here” songs ever recorded.

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“One” – U2 / Johnny Cash

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I’m not a huge fan of U2, but “One” from 1992′s “Achtung Baby” is one for the ages. An almost perfect song / performance and easily one of my top 20 favorite songs of all-time. The song was ostensibly written about the band’s struggles during a particularly down period, but it’s far more universal than that. It’s so expertly written, it speaks for any number of troubled relationships where all sides have reached a point where breaking up is the only option given all the past hurt that has been aired … yet … there’s also a chance of redemption … though it’s difficult to see through all the past drama. An incredibly complex song that still continues to blow me away.

As great as U2′s version is, Johnny Cash’s cover tops it. It may even be better than his legendary cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” Breathtaking, emotional, brilliant stuff.

“The Mercy Seat” – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds / Johnny Cash

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The title track from Cave’s amazing 1988 album “The Mercy Seat.”  The term “mercy seat” does have religious connotations, for which I’ll consult Wikipedia for a more literate translation than I could ever muster:

According to the Bible, the cover or mercy seat (Hebrew: כפורת, Kapporet ; “atonement piece”) was an object which rested upon the Ark of the Covenant, and was connected with the rituals of the Day of Atonement; the term also appears in later Jewish sources, and twice in the New Testament, from where it has significance in Christian Theology.

The English phrase mercy seat is not a literal translation of the Hebrew term kapporeth, which appears in its place in the Masoretic text, nor of the Greek term hilasterion, which takes the same place in the Septuagint but instead is the translation by William Tyndale influenced by the German term Gnadenstuhl, from the same narrative position in the Luther Bible; Gnadenstuhl literally means seat of grace, in the sense of location of grace.

Despite this meaning, the song is sung from the perspective of an inmate on death row who is facing imminent execution in what I imagine is an electric chair.  Cave’s version is unremitting in its intensity.  However, Cash’s quieter, but still fierce cover from 2000 is damn good.  Both versions will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

“Bird on a Wire” (Live at Montreux 1994) – Johnny Cash

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Cash’s beautiful cover of one of Leonard Cohen’s best and most famous songs. I like this even better than Cohen’s original, mainly because that voice of Cash’s sounds like he really lived these lyrics. This is a live version that’s not too different than the studio version he recorded with Rick Rubin in 1994 for “American Recordings.”

“Ball and Chain” – Social Distortion

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Arguably, Social Distortion’s best-known and most beloved song. I remember hearing it on a Walkman when I was walking to work one morning during the summer of 1990 and knew this song was an immediate classic. Mike Ness’s love for Johnny Cash is obvious here.

However, when I returned to college in the fall, I was chagrined to see how popular this song was for the wrong reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to see Social Distortion (one of the standout bands of the 1980s California hardcore punk scene) getting some hard-fought mainstream success and love from the masses. However, this harrowing song about addiction somehow got adopted as a drinking song for preppie frat boy idiots. Probably the same dolts that thought Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was a patriotic song (except Bruce would have had to have known that simply having an anthemic song called “Born in the USA” with an album cover that has the American flag in the background during the height of Reganism would have picked up a lot of buyers who weren’t really listening to the lyrics … but I digress). Anyway, despite the bad taste of seeing jock dickheads, who would have beat the snot out of Mike Ness if they saw him on the street, singing his very personal song, this song is still a classic and still has power.

“Hurt” – Johnny Cash

I can’t add anything to what’s already been said about this cover or this video, directed by Mark Romanek. It’s the very definition of the old saying “It’s the singer, not the song.” To say this is the greatest music video ever made is damning with faint praise. It’s actually one of the best films ever made, of any length. And if you watch this with a dry eye, you have no soul.

“Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)?” – Johnny Cash

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This song was composed by David Allan Coe, but made famous by a teenage country singer named Tanya Tucker back in the early 1970s. At the time, it was considered salacious to have a teenager sing this due to certain lyrics, but sadly, the controversy diminishes the real beauty of this song. Coe was in and out of prison for most of his early life and if you listen to the lyrics, they are written from the perspective of a man who has seen and done of lot of things that would scare most people away. The person singing the song wants to make sure that whoever is going to share their life with him understand what it will entail, and to make sure that they’re strong enough. Through Cash’s world-weary voice, the song is heartbreaking.

“The Beast in Me” – Nick Lowe

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A haunting and gorgeous original by Nick Lowe. Lowe’s ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash’s cover is probably the most famous version of this song, but there’s something I find a lot more compelling about this one. Was used to great effect on an episode of “The Sopranos.”

“Oh Mary” – Neil Diamond

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Here’s one that may come as a shock to most of you.  A simple, beautiful, soulful ballad by one of the most popular … and underrated … singer / songwriters of all time.   Neil Diamond is a great singer / songwriter undone many times over the years by his bad taste in arrangements and Vegas-y style.  If you want to hear the most comically awful cover of all time, check out Diamond’s Vegas-y cover of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” … a song that should not only never be sung by a man, let alone in studly Sinatra-style fashion, but when you change the devastating last line of the song into something more “positive,” you’ve completely destroyed it.

Yes, I do enjoy Diamond’s bad taste stuff on one level (as do millions of others, ironically and non-ironically, who are devout fans).  But Diamond’s album “12 Songs,” that he recorded with legendary producer Rick Rubin in 2005, makes me hate the fact that he ever put a sequined shirt.  The arrangements are subtle and dignified.This is a beautiful, heartfelt, moving album of songs that highlights Diamond’s amazing voice,   Just as he did with Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks, and many others too numerous to mention, Rubin has a knack for distilling what’s great about a performer, cutting out the bulls–t, and allowing people to be their best.  Rubin’s collaboration with Diamond is an out-and-out masterpiece.