Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Any list of best/favorite covers of all-time (in American music) have a few stone cold locks. I don’t care whether you’re black, white, green, Protestant, extraterrestrial or whatever, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash (NIbackwardsN) is going to show up. I’m not going to be the one asshole that tries to be a hipster and overlooks Jeff Buckley or Whitney Houston’s indelible pipes (covering Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” naturally). So let’s get those out of the way. Some all-time great covers are as follows:
“Hurt” by Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails)
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston (Dolly Parton)
“Hallelujiah” by Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen)
“All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (Bob Dylan)
“With a Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Crocker (The Beatles)
You know ‘em, you love ‘em. In addition to the aforementioned American classics, I’d like to submit for your consideration 10 cover songs that I love. No particular order, of course.
Walk This Way by Run DMC (Aerosmith)
This one is a bit of a softball. Of course this is a great cover. The indelible guitar lick scratched up. The emergence of rap into the national consciousness. In terms of 20th century pop music, this may be the most important cover of them all.
Twist and Shout by The Beatles (Isley Brothers)
The prototypical go-go 60s hit tune gets covered by the prototypical 60s hit band. While it can’t be said that The Beatles really improved on the original with their cover like the others on this list, Lennon’s atypically raw vocals are a perfect fit for this group in its early mop-top days. Not unlike herpes, it’s pure infectious fun.
Love Hurts by Sinead O’Connor (Nazareth)
When most people think of Sinead and covers, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is the tune that comes up in conversation. Yeah, it’s heartbreaking and heartfelt. But for my money, nothing compares to (you know I had to) a broken heart. Sinead takes Nazareth’s pained paen and elevates it an emotional wail that hits just the right spot. I dare you not to shed a tear.
Handle With Care by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins (Traveling Wilburys)
The addition of a little pace and the layered voices of Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard and M. Ward and the Watson Twins, helps Jenny Lewis add real depth to this Traveling Wilburys hit. You’d think it would be tough to top the combined forces of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan. This does.
Tainted Love by Marilyn Manson (Soft Cell/Gloria Jones)
Soft Cell’s cover of the original song is definitely a classic. Pure 80s love in that one and definitely deserving a spot on any cover list. But who could have imagined the hard edge take by Manson would work so well? Well, it does.
Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth by Neko Case (Sparks)
You add Neko Case’s voice to anything and the song will soar in elegance. Simple as that.
Fever by Peggy Lee (Little Willie John)
Bet you didn’t know this was a cover, did you? Both versions are excellent in their own right. But man, Peggy Lee adds that fire to really get your blood boiling. If you haven’t heard it yet, listen and you’ll hear why it became Lee’s signature song over the equally great “Is That All There Is?”
Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm (Michael Jackson)
How do you improve on the King of Pop? You really don’t. But even coming close with your own infectious sing-along chorus and driving guitar-laden beat is a little miracle in its own right. Diaper-wearing chimps and surgery-mask-sporting dancing preteens help.
Jolene by Miley Cyrus (Dolly Parton)
Yes, that Miley Cyrus. Dolly herself may appear in the video for Mindy Smith’s cover, but Miley Cyrus knocks the cover off this cover in one of her surprisingly stellar Backyard Sessions videos. This girl actually has the pipes in the way she thinks she has ass. Use your talent, girl. Please.
Ready for the Floor by Lissy Trullie (Hot Chip)
I don’t like dance music. So when a singer makes me like a reformed dance song, I sit up and take notice. The electronic cheese is gone, but the straight fire remains in my final fave cover.