Some tunes are so good they deserve to be done again... here's what the Q staffers believe to be the best reworkings in pop history. If you disagree - let us know!
The Beatles, “Twist and Shout” (The Top Notes)
Indelibly associated with the Beatles, the original version of this uptempo dance number was first recorded by an R&B duo centered around singers Derek Martin and Howard Guyton. Released on the Atlantic label in 1961 and produced by Phil Spector, the song was not a hit. The Isley Brothers did better with their hyper-ventilated take in 1962, and the Beatles took that as inspiration for their 1963 recording. Legend has it (although duly verified by all attending) that after a full 12-hour session to record their debut album, a flu-ridden John Lennon -- shirtless, with throat lozenges and a bottle of milk -- tore into two takes of his larynx-shredding vocal. Take number one has been with us ever since.— Amy Hughes
Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
Well yes, it’s an obvious choice, but we couldn’t exactly make this list without mentioning it. Covered by every earnest open mic wannabe the world over, the definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s dark and beautiful musical poem nevertheless belongs to Buckley. Originally only appearing as an album track on 1994’s Grace, it wasn’t released as a single in its own right until 2007, ten years after Buckley’s tragic death. The stripped-down production, ringing guitar and passionate vocal still send shivers down the spine, even after the 300,000th listen. —Dominic Utton
The Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Bob Dylan)
We could probably do a whole list on Dylan covers alone, but The Byrds’ version of Bob’s rambling, shambling ode to marijuana/the muse/the dawn/Jesus (delete as necessary) came not only to define the band, but also usher in a whole genre of jingle-jangle electric folk rock. Released just a month after Dylan’s album version in April 1965, the Byrds plugged in their Rickenbackers, cut out three-quarters of the verses, amped up the psychedelic undertones and in a stroke all-but created the Laurel Canyon sound. —D.U.
The Carpenters, “Superstar” (Delaney & Bonnie)
The definitive version of “Superstar” has long been credited to the devastating one-take reading from Karen Carpenter in 1971. Written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett (and first known as “Groupie”), the song was first recorded by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (including Eric Clapton) in 1969. But it was Bette Midler’s 1971 performance on The Tonight Show that set the wheels in motion for the brother and sister duo. Due to the suggestive nature of the subject matter, Richard changed the wording “to sleep with you again” to “to be with you again.” Grounded by Karen’s emotional intensity, the song reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist. — A.H.
Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails)
One of the great swan-songs of the last few decades, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series—stripped-down albums all produced by Rick Rubin during the final stretch of Cash’s life—allowed the Man in Black to take stock of his legacy and his own mortality through a wide range of cover songs. In addition to traditionals and country chestnuts (as well as a few original compositions), the series saw Cash tackle tracks from some unlikely sources, including Soundgarden, Depeche Mode and Beck. But it was his heartrending, cracked-voice rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” released shortly before his death, that gave Cash one last unexpected signature song. As songwriter Trent Reznor later said on the docuseries Song Exploder: “To hear [my song] get juxtaposed on top of this huge life, at a time in his life when it took on additional significance, felt very meaningful.” —Andrew Barker
The Clash, “I Fought the Law” (The Bobby Fuller Four)
Written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets (and it shows), The Bobby Fuller Four scored a top 10 hit with their jaunty, jangly version in 1965… but it would be 13 years later, when the Clash brought their piratical swagger to the tune that it would achieve classic status. All the Buddy Holly-esque jangle and plaintive country-boy vocals are out – replaced by a Strummer and Jones twin-guitar attack and a stomping rhythm section that suggests that whatever the law thinks about it, the fight might not be over just yet. —D.U.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (Brinsley Schwarz)
If ever there was a case of a song being so popular as a cover that most people don’t remember who recorded it originally, it’s this one. Granted, one of the reasons for that situation is that Elvis and Nick Lowe – who penned the tune – have been buddies for years, recording and playing together on a regular basis, so many people think of it as a Nick Lowe song, which it is. But it was initially recorded and released by Nick’s ‘70s band, Brinsley Schwarz, who released it as a single, only for it to flop. "When the Brinsleys split up, that should've been the end of it,” Lowe told Stereogum in 2021. “That’s what happens to bands' songs when they split up, the songs go in the dustbin of history. The song was never a hit, it never caused much of a stir at all when we did it originally.” That all changed with Costello’s version, of course, but Lowe got further attention as the song’s composer when Curtis Stigers recorded it for the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, earning Lowe a nice chunk of change in the process. —Will Harris
Devo, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Rolling Stones)
There have been times in rock history where the idea of a band doing a cover song would be considered an active attempt at securing mainstream chart success, but it’s hard to accuse Devo of doing that with their Stones cover, since it takes almost everything recognizable out of the music of the original version, allowing the band and producer Brian Eno to thoroughly Devo-fy it. In fact, it was so different that Warner Brothers actually felt like they had to get Mick Jagger’s approval before they released it as a single. As the moment was described in a 2017 New Yorker piece. “For thirty seconds or so, the men sat in silence, listening to the weird robo-funk coming from the boom box. Then something changed. 'He suddenly stood up and started dancing around on this Afghan rug in front of the fireplace,' [Gerald] Casale said, of Jagger, 'the sort of rooster-man dance he used to do, and saying'—he impersonated Jagger’s accent—‘I like it, I like it.’” —W.H.
Duran Duran, “Perfect Day" (Lou Reed)
We would be remiss if we didn’t start off this entry by recalling a certain list back in 2006 when Q cited Duran Duran’s 1995 covers album Thank You as no less than the worst album of all time, and while time may not heal all wounds, it at least makes it easier to include this Lou Reed cover as one of the best. Why? Well, for one thing, Lou himself literally called it “the best cover ever completed of one of my own songs,” and for another thing... Well, hell, we don’t really need another thing after that, do we? —W.H.
Aretha Franklin, “Respect" (Otis Redding)
When Aretha Franklin covered a song, it tended to stay covered. Just ask jazz legend Sarah Vaughan, who begrudgingly stopped performing one of her signature tunes, “Skylark,” after hearing the then-21-year-old Franklin’s rendition. But never did the Queen of Soul consume a song whole quite as dramatically as she did with “Respect.” A moderate hit for Otis Redding in 1965, Franklin’s 1967 version took the original’s straightforward battle-of-the-sexes framework and elevated it into a genuine rallying cry—for Civil Rights, for women’s rights, for literally anyone who had ever felt disrespected. Though Redding remains the sole credited songwriter, it’s worth noting that so many of the song’s most recognizable elements (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “sock it to me,” “TCB”) were Franklin’s own embellishments. —A.B.
Fugees, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (Roberta Flack)
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: the Fugees’ 1996 album The Score is one of the greatest records of the 1990s, and its success was equally due to all three of the distinct personalities that made up the group. But you didn’t have to be a scheming A&R exec to see that one of those three members had quite a bit more potential than the other two. Tender, tough, spiritual, confrontational, and just as capable of being Nina Simone as she was of defecating on your microphone, Lauryn Hill was truly a unicorn in the era’s musical landscape, and her first solo showcase—an ingenious hip-hop era update of the song that had given Roberta Flack her biggest hit in the ‘70s—presaged far bigger things in her future. It’s fitting that “Killing Me Softly” was the final track recorded for the final Fugees album; the next time she found herself in the studio, Hill would be flying solo. —A.B.
Happy Mondays, “Step On” (John Kongos)
Originally titled “He’s Gonna Step on You Again”, John Kongos’ 1971 single was very much of its time – all groovy bongos, African drums, a whacked out guitar lick and a vocal that evoked images of barefooted longhairs dancing around a magic bus… Nineteen years later, in the hands of Shaun Ryder’s louche Mancunian troublemakers, it captures a very different zeitgeist: with an Italo house piano, sharpened guitar riff, lolloping rhythm section, and Shaun’s lazily-menacing delivery – complete with trademark added nonsense/poetry lyrics – Step On became an anthem for the Madchester indie rock/dance crossover, and the Happy Mondays’ biggest selling single. Twisting my melon, man. —D.U.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “All Along the Watchtower" (Bob Dylan)
Anyone can cover a Bob Dylan song...in fact, just about everyone has. But covering a Dylan song so well that Bob himself defers to your interpretation from that point forward? That’s an accomplishment that only Jimi Hendrix can claim, with his cover of the not-yet-year-old “Watchtower” becoming essentially the canonical version of the song. More than just a great performance, it’s also proof positive that Hendrix was just as skilled and forward-thinking as an arranger and a producer as he was as a guitarist, taking the sepia-toned minimalism of Dylan’s original and blowing it out, Wizard of Oz-style, into full widescreen color. —A.B.
Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” (David Bowie)
Is it any wonder that by searching the internet for this song title, this is the version that pops up first? Granted, the original was grounded in the year 1970 with it’s buzzy, circular guitar loop from Mick Ronson and upper-register vocals from Bowie. However, Bowie's dissatisfaction with the album’s production kept the song on the low tier and it wasn’t released as a single. While British singer Lulu took her Bowie-Ronson assisted version to No. 3 on the UK charts, it wasn’t until 1993 however, that the song — as performed 'unplugged’ by Nirvana — gained wider audience exposure. Led by Kurt Cobain’s fuzz-box equipped acoustic guitar, his grainy delivery and stirring accompaniment from cellist Lori Goldston, in hindsight now sends chills down the spine. —A.H.
Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Prince)
There’s something slightly unsettling about listening to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 2023, just a few months after her death. It was the song that delivered her the sort of fame her talent deserved, and that fame proceeded to wreak tragic consequences on her for the rest of her life. But it’s impossible to listen to it and see any way that a woman of such overpowering gifts could have ever stayed in the margins forever. One of the countless loosies that Prince distributed to associates during his imperial era as a songwriter, in O’Connor’s hands “Nothing” becomes something much bigger: both a show-offy torch song and a gut-wrenching primal scream.
Pet Shop Boys, “Always On My Mind” (Elvis Presley)
On paper it was never going to work. The impassive, electronic, apparently dispassionate and wholly British pop outfit covering The King’s heartfelt cry for forgiveness to a lost love? Don’t be absurd. In Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s hands, however, Elvis’s crooned ballad becomes a swirling disco banger – all stabbed keyboards, propulsive sequencers and irresistible rhythms, but underpinned by beautiful rising strings and a vocal delivery from Tennant that cuts to the heart of the fragility and tenderness of the lyrics. Outstanding. —D.U.
Roxy Music, “Jealous Guy" (John Lennon)
Although it was originally recorded by Lennon for his second studio album, Imagine, and remains one of his most covered songs, “Jealous Guy” was never released as a single during its songwriter’s lifetime. Indeed, it was his murder in December 1980 that spurred Roxy Music to add the song to their live set, which quickly led the band to enter the studio and record a version for official release. The end result proved to be Roxy Music’s only #1 hit, landing atop the UK charts for two weeks in March 1981, and even though the band’s popularity in the US had never come close to matching their success across the pond, “Jealous Guy” even managed to crack the Billboard Hot 100, although it stalled at #80 before beginning its descent. —W.H.
Run-DMC, “Walk This Way" (Aerosmith)
While we’ve generally tried to avoid including covers where the original artists played a part in the new interpretation of the song, there was no way – nor was there any desire – to squabble over the inclusion of this groundbreaking track. The idea to cover the song came courtesy of producer Rick Rubin, which stands to reason when you realize that neither Joseph “Run” Simmons nor Darryl “DMC” McDaniels knew the first thing about Aerosmith. “We had a few reservations about [doing] it,” Joe Perry told The Washington Post in 2016. “Maybe our fans might not like it. But our love for music and trying new things far surpassed that.” Even after recording their version with Steven Tyler and Perry, Run-DMC still didn’t have any interest in releasing it as a single, but when it broke through on the charts, it literally broke down the walls between rock and rap. As Chuck D told the Post in 2016, “Run-DMC made it possible for all the majors to see that rap music and hip-hop was album-oriented music and rap artists were rock stars, really.” —W.H.
Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Dear Prudence" (The Beatles)
On the surface and out of context, this tender memory by John Lennon to Mia Farrow’s sister, penned during the Beatles retreat in Rishikesh, India appears ill-suited to the punk/psychedelic/goth leanings of Siouxsie. However, this 1983 interpretation could not have come at a better time. The Cure’s Robert Smith had stepped in for the departing John McGeoch, but having expressed zero interest in The White Album, he nonetheless contributed some masterful guitar work. The ethereal spookiness from the Banshees, coupled with Siouxsie’s flange-induced hazy vocals ended up giving the band, to date, their highest charting UK single. — A.H.
The Slits, “I Heard it Through The Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye)
That the fiercest and most innovative band to emerge from the explosion of light and noise around the Sex Pistols in 1976 should then choose to cover a Marvin Gaye song seems at first a ridiculous idea… but after about 20 seconds of listening instead makes perfect sense. Angular percussion and Viv Albertine’s scratchy guitar put a healthy dollop of funk into the punk, and a rumbling dub bassline gives the song a dimension undreamed of in its silky smooth original incarnation. Throw in Ari Up’s hyperactive delivery – and defiantly British accent – and you’ve got what you might describe as a classic of a classic. —D.U.
Patti Smith, “Gloria” (Them)
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” That opening line, among the first sounds we hear on the first track of Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, was clearly not written by Van Morrison. In fact, it isn’t until several verses into the song that we do get a recognizable line from Them’s 1964 chestnut (already an oft-covered workhorse by 1975), as Smith leads her band from piano ballad to lazy blues swing and finally into a cacophonous double-time explosion, seamlessly blending her own ambiguously sexual, casually blasphemous poetry with Morrison’s famous refrain. Kicking off her album with a familiar rock and roll touchstone only to immediately steer it in the most unfamiliar directions, “Gloria” serves as a perfect statement of purpose, priming the listener for exactly what the rest of the album—and indeed the rest of Smith’s career—has in store for them. —A.B.
Soft Cell, “Tainted Love” (Gloria Jones)
Gloria Jones’ greatest moment was a flop when originally released (as a B-side!) in 1965, and even after becoming a staple of Northern Soul all-nighters a decade later, still failed to trouble the charts after a rerelease in 1976. Five years after that, spiky electro-minimalists Soft Cell stripped out all the warm bass and brass and Jones’ up-tempo sassiness and reinterpreted the song as a slowed down, bare-boned, late night tale of lust and longing that worked both as an homage to Northern Soul while also sounding fiercely modern. It’s almost a shock now to hear the original without that trademark KCHANG! CHANG! synth stab. —D.U.
U2, “Satellite of Love” (Lou Reed)
Composed while Reed was still united with The Velvet Underground, his version is from 1972’s second solo album Transformer. Bathed in the Bowie-produced era of cross-genres, half straightforward, half golden swooning, Reed always said it was a love song. U2 took the song to the B-side of their “One” single in 1992. The subsequent ZooTV tour was in support of Achtung Baby, but amidst all the strobe lights and pulsatingly large screens, Bono and The Edge strolled out to the end of the stage ramp and performed a near angelic performance. To bless this event, Reed was shown on a backscreen projection, contributing vocals in tandem, presupposing his likeness was somehow transmitted from space by a... satellite. —A.H.
Sid Vicious, “My Way” (Frank Sinatra)
One to divide opinions, Sid’s take on Ol’ Blue Eyes’ swansong is – whichever way you look at it – nevertheless a startlingly original reimagining. The drunkenly swooning strings and exaggeratedly cartoonish vocals of the opening suggest the whole thing’s just going to be a silly parody… before the real business begins. Blistering guitars and Sid’s sneered, snarling delivery give what is essentially a ridiculously pompous lyric all of the arrogant swagger and bluster it deserves. It’s messy and terrible and brilliant – and, for this critic at least, the definitive take on the song. —D.U.
The White Stripes, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” (Dusty Springfield)
Although Dusty Springfield’s 1964 version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David heartbreaker is in itself about as perfect as swoonsome pop music can possibly get, Jack and Meg White were never ones to be intimidated (see their later cover of “Jolene”, equally deserving of a place on this list) – and in 2003 duly set about the apparently-untouchable standard with a vengeance. Jack’s chopped, barely controlled guitar and half-pleading, half-screaming delivery are underpinned by Meg’s typically tight rhythms… and when they cut into the “Like a summer rose” section the explosion of sound and emotion is nothing short of astonishing. —D.U.
...And 25 More You Should Listen To
Ryan Adams, “Wonderwall” (Oasis)
Yes, he may be canceled in certain corners of the internet (and for some very good reasons), but the one-time Whiskeytown singer did such a tremendous job on his cover of this Oasis song that no less an authority than the song’s writer, Noel Gallagher, said in a 2008 Spin interview, “I think Ryan Adams is the only person who ever got that song right.” — Will Harris
Afghan Whigs, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” (Barry White)
This track features on the soundtrack to the Ted Demme film Beautiful Girls, with Afghan Whigs performing the song in a bar scene, but the whole thing came about as a result of the friendship between Demme and Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli. “[Ted] loved Barry White and basically issued a challenge to me to do a Barry White song,” Dulli told The A.V. Club in 2012. “I remember when we first tried to do it, I think he said, ‘Don’t make it too dark.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, okay…’ And so we tried to play it straight, and it sounded like the theme to The Love Boat. So we ditched that idea. I’m, like, ‘I’ve got to darken this up a bit, pal!’” —W.H.
Tori Amos, “Raining Blood” (Slayer)
Perhaps the defining thrash metal anthem of the 1980s, Slayer’s “Raining Blood” details a none-more-metal scenario in which the forces of Hell rise in rebellion against Heaven. To Tori Amos, however, the song had a much different connotation. “When I first heard ‘Raining Blood,’” she said, “I just had the picture, at the time, of a beautiful vulva, raining blood over this abusive male force.” Her cover radically reimagines the song as a hypnotic piano dirge, stripping it of all its moshpit-sparking fury while losing none of its twisted sense of unease. Slayer reported feeling both flattered and confused when they heard it. —A.B.
Paul Anka, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana)
It’s a take on the definitive grunge song that’s sure to make Kurt Cobain obsessives completely lose their minds, but as far as interpretations go, it’s actually a jazzy, fun take on the alt-rock track that brings it to a generation that otherwise wouldn’t have any clue about Nevermind or any other Nirvana album. We heartly endorse what Far Out Magazine had to say about the song after they listened to it in 2020: “What transpires is a jazz-swing fusion cover of one of rock’s most angsty songs ever written. We’re not sure if it’s sacrilegious if it’s brilliant or a heady combination of the two. What we do know is that if you haven’t heard it already, then you need to. Immediately.” —W.H.
Rick Astley, “Everlong” (Foo Fighters)
One could argue that the road to this seemingly unlikely cover began in 2017, when both Astley and Foo Fighters were on the bill for the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan. Astley was already a Foo fan, and while backstage waiting for the band’s performance, he had a close encounter with the head Fighter. “Dave Grohl came over and said hello, gave me a hug, said hello, and then a half hour later he’s inviting me onto the stage,” Astley told Kyle Meredith. “I never met them, I have no why idea why he’d invite me onstage. I didn’t know what it was all about. And then he just kind of whispered and said, ‘We’re doing (‘Never Gonna Give You Up’), but we’re gonna do it like ‘Teen Spirit,’’ and that was it. And off we went.” Knowing this, surely we can all agree that Astley offering up a Foo Fighters cover was only inevitable. —W.H.
Cornershop, “Norwegian Wood” (The Beatles)
If you’re going to cover the Beatles, you need to at least try to bring something new to the party. In Cornershop’s case, that meant singing the song in Punjabi. As the closing track on their breakthrough 1997 album When I Was Born for the Seventh Time it proved a fittingly inventive ending to an LP that brimmed with ideas and originality, the haunting melodies and otherworldliness of the Lennon-McCartney original amplified by the fact that so many listeners probably couldn’t understand a word Tjinder Singh was actually singing. And, just for the record, Paul McCartney not only approved, but loved it. —D.U.
The Fall, “Lost in Music” (Sister Sledge)
As unlikely covers go, Mark E. Smith’s ragged Mancunian punk pioneers paying tribute to Sister Sledge’s swirling disco classic has to be among the most outlandish. The result however, is startling in its reverence to the original, as well as being every inch a Fall song. Nile Rodgers’ unmistakable guitar line is just about covered intact, and the whole thing barrels along irresistibly, with Smith rather brilliantly changing the lyric from “I quit my nine to five” to “I quit my ten till five.” NOBODY makes M.E.S. work eight hours a day, not even in a song. —D.U.
Fontaines DC, “Cello Song” (Nick Drake)
As part of 2023’s The Endless Coloured Ways album of Nick Drake covers, this track by Dublin’s punk-poets stands out for both working as a loving tribute to the original, and sounding like a Fontaines track in itself. Capturing the darkness that always lurked behind the light in Drake’s work, in their hands the misty mournfulness gives way to something more urgent and troubling, never more so than in the contrast between Drake’s gentle middle-England singing voice and Grian Chatten’s working class Skerries accent. —D.U.
Peter Gabriel, “The Book of Love” (Magnetic Fields)
Originally recorded in 1999 as part of the Magnetic Fields’ epic three-volume concept album 69 Love Songs, the band performed the album in its entirety in January 2001 at the lyric Hammersmith Theater in London, where they were joined by Gabriel for an encore of the song. Three years later, Gabriel formally released his own version on the soundtrack for the rom-com Shall We Dance?, although it’s fair to say that it secured far more attention five years later as a result of its use in the season eight finale of Scrubs. Gabriel finally released his version on one of his own albums, Scratch My Back, in 2010, along with 11 other covers, including Elbow’s Mirrorball,” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage,” and Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” —W.H.
Hindu Love Gods, “Raspberry Beret” (Prince and the Revolution)
Originally created in 1984 as a fun side project for R.E.M. members Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry alongside Bryan Cook of Oh-OK on vocals and organ, Hindu Love Gods played one gig before adding both Michael Stipe and Warren Zevon to their musical collective and entering the studio to record a single: a cover of the Easybeats’ “Gonna Have a Good Time Tonight” backed with the then-unrecorded R.E.M. song “Narrator.” It wasn’t until 1987, during the recording of Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene album, that Hindu Love Gods recorded an album’s worth of covers, including songs by Robert Johnson, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Terry Anderson, and Prince. The self-titled album wouldn’t actually see release until 1990, by which time the Anderson song, “Battleship Chains,” would find success through the version done by the Georgia Satellites, but Hindu Love Gods got plenty of attention via their ragged but loveable take on “Raspberry Beret.” —W.H.
The Housemartins, “Caravan of Love” (Isley-Jasper-Isley)
This song is often credited to the Isley Brothers, and while that’s technically true, in that there were two Isleys involved, it was actually recorded by Isley-Jasper-Isley, a trio consisting of Ernie Isley, Chris Jasper, and Marvin Isley. It was a massive hit in the US, topping the Billboard R&B Singles Chart, but it didn’t even chart in the UK, which makes it all the more surprising that “the fourth best band in Hull” would not only choose to record the song as an acapella number but take it all the way to the top of the UK Singles chart. (Unsurprisingly, it didn’t chart in the US.) —W.H.
Grace Jones, “Demolition Man” (The Police)
When is a cover not necessarily a cover? That’s the question one has to ask when considering this track for inclusion, but since it was penned by Sting with an eye toward including it on The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta, the fact that Grace Jones recorded it before it eventually ended up on their Ghost in the Machine album... Well, it hardly seems fair to leave it off the list just because of that, y’know? “To me, our version is much more ballsy and it was a one-take job,” said Andy Summers, and you can certainly appreciate his position on the matter. That said, Jones’ electrofunk version is definitely one that’ll stop you in your tracks, and if it’s in conjunction with the live video that was regularly shown during MTV’s early days, it may well knock you completely flat. —W.H.
Seu Jorge, “Life on Mars” (David Bowie)
Don’t cover Bowie, okay? Or if you’re going to cover Bowie, at least cover one of the obscure tracks. Unless, of course, you’re Brazilian actor and composer Seu Jorge… in which case you record a whole album of Bowie’s most well-loved songs as the soundtrack for the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – and end up doing it wonderfully. The stripped back guitars and tender vocals – sung in Portuguese and oozing “Girl From Ipanema” sunshiney Brazilian vibes – are stunning throughout, but it’s Jorge’s version of “Life on Mars” that lingers the longest. Without Bowie’s huge production and lavish orchestration, the raw beauty of the song is revealed. —D.U.
Lazlo Bane, “Take the Long Way Home” (Supertramp)
Although Lazlo Bane has had a certain amount of success with their originals – take, for instance, their song “Superman,” which is known far and wide as the theme for the TV series Scrubs – they’ve gotten considerable mileage out of their ability to interpret other people’s material. It started with a cracking version of Men at Work’s “Overkill,” one which features a truly phenomenal guest appearance by Colin Hay in the final verse, but it was soon followed with a 20-track covers album entitled Guilty Pleasures. As it happens, many of the inclusions aren’t actually guilty pleasures at all, unless you think that Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” qualify. In fact, this Supertramp song is pretty solid in its original incarnation, but Lazlo Bane’s version brings out every ounce of melancholy in the lyrics and really brings home just how depressing a slowly-failing marriage can be. —W.H.
Steven Lindsay, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (Pixies)
As the frontman for the Scottish pop band The Big Dish, Lindsay’s music wouldn’t necessarily lead you to peg him as a Pixies fan, but his take on this track from Doolittle certainly serves to make you aware of the sonic differences between his music and theirs. This is in no way intended as an insult, however: Lindsay takes it in a smoother, more moving direction, but while it’s decidedly different from the original version, it’s wonderful in its own way. —W.H.
David Mead, “Human Nature” (Michael Jackson)
Although his original material has been hyped by everyone from Taylor Swift to the late Adam Schlesinger, Mead also knows his way around a good cover, and his take on this oft-forgotten Thriller single is almost as gorgeous a piece of pop as the original. “‘Human Nature’ will, most likely, never be recognized as Michael Jackson’s finest moment, although it might be one of his best,” Mead wrote in a piece for American Songwriter. “In my experience of recording and subsequently performing the song hundreds of times in concert, I have been amazed at how many people can sing along with most of its lyrics but are hard pressed to remember exactly whom originally recorded it. This is quite an accomplishment for a song made famous by one of the preeminent pop stars of the 20th century. Proof positive, I might add, that a well-written song can occasionally outlast and overshadow even its most gifted interpreters.” —W.H.
Bette Midler, “Boxing” (Ben Folds Five)
Not that Midler hasn’t been known for doing outside-the-box covers on her albums over the years, including everything from Tom Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” to Marshall Crenshaw’s “Favorite Waste of Time,” but it’s hard to imagine that anyone could’ve predicted that she’d take a shot at the closing track from Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut, a waltz written about the relationship between Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. When Midler covered it, she officially became the first person ever to cover one of Folds’ songs, a distinction that Folds himself noted when he performed the song in honor of Midler receiving the Kennedy Center Honor. —W.H.
Oak Ridge Boys, “Seven Nation Army” (White Stripes)
When these country music legends released their debut album in 1958, they weren’t even a country band; they were called The Oak Ridge Quartet, and they performed gospel music. Indeed, it wasn’t until the mid-‘70s that they made the decision to veer in a more secular direction and “go country,” if you will. It was a decision that led to them scoring 30+ top-10 hits between 1977-1990, but even though their singles stopped charting, the Boys kept recording, and they definitely turned some heads with this 2009 release. ”‘Seven Nation Army’ was [producer] Dave Cobb’s first idea out of the shoot,” Joe Bonsall told The Tennessean. “He said he wanted to take the song and where The White Stripes and Jack White do the instrumental parts, he heard the Oak Ridge Boys singing those parts vocally. So we get in the studio and he’s thinking we’re either crazy and going to kill him or he thinks we’re going to say, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ And we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Here recently we’ve been putting it onstage, and we’re tearing places up with it. It’s just so doggone different.” —W.H.
Robert Palmer, “Girl U Want” (Devo)
Although he’s generally best known to mainstream audiences for his singles from the MTV era, including “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible,” Palmer had a longstanding history of selecting unexpected cover songs, starting with the version of “Sailing Shoes” that opened his debut album, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley. Seriously, we’re talking about a guy who wasn’t afraid to include a medley of ZZ Top’s “Planet of Women” and Husker Du’s “New Day Rising” in his live set. That said, this Devo track is still a little startling, both with just how much it shreds from the start and with the fact that Palmer released it as the first single from his 1994 album, Honey. (It never made it past #57 on the UK Singles chart and didn’t chart at all in the States.) —W.H.
People on Vacation, “Cruel Summer” (Bananarama)
An offshoot of the bands Smile Smile and Bowling for Soup, this semi-supergroup kicked off their career with 2011’s The Carry On EP before releasing their debut album, The Summer and the Fall the following year. It wasn't until 2014, however, that they contributed this crunchy power pop take on Bananarama’s 1983 single to the ‘80s cover compilation, Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion. It’s worth mentioning that there are a number of top-notch interpretations on this set, including Chris Collingwood’s “Life in a Northern Town” and Mike Viola’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” but People on Vacation perform a miraculous transformation on this track, turning it into an instant classic in its own right. —W.H.
The SAS Band featuring Tony Hadley, “Hey Jealousy” (Gin Blossoms)
The name “Spike Edney” may not mean anything to most casual music fans, but he’s been steadfastly performing with various bands since the ‘60s, including a particularly notable stint as part of Queen’s live band in the ‘80s. In 1994, he formed The SAS Band, with the initial standing for “Spike’s All Stars,” and he began bringing in a plethora of guest musicians to perform with the group, sometimes doing their own material, sometimes performing cover songs. In this instance, it was the latter, and while you might not think that the lead singer of Spandau Ballet would be suited for this Gin Blossoms track, we regret to inform you that you would be wrong, because as it turns out, it’s an absolutely perfect pairing. —W.H.
Scala and Kolacny Brothers, “Barbie Girl” (Aqua)
If you’re a fan of cover songs and you’re not already familiar with this Belgian womens' choir conducted by Stijn Kolacny, then it’s time to get busy in absorbing pretty much their entire back catalog, because you’ll listen to this and think, “Geez, if they can make a song by Aqua sound this affecting, then how breathtaking must their covers of legitimately emotional songs be?” And while it’s unexpected, it’s true: in Aqua’s hands, this was a bubblegum pop song, but in the hands of Scala and Kolacny Brothers, it’s practically transformed into a gothic horror song at various points. —W.H
William Shatner, “Common People” (Pulp)
When Jarvis Cocker wrote his furious tirade against class tourism, he could surely never have guessed at what was to come a decade later. Reimagined by Ben Folds in 2004, Folds’ idea of having William Shatner guest on vocals is surely one of those so-ridiculous-it’s-genius moments – and Captain Kirk brings his A Game, with a spoken word delivery that stays just (barely) on the right side of parody throughout. Throw in a sudden and inexplicable bit of Joe Jackson cutting loose halfway through and a children’s choir at the end and you’ve got, against all the odds, a song that’s every bit as exhilarating as the original. “I was very flattered by that,” Jarvis Cocker later said. “I was a massive Star Trek fan as a kid and so you know, Captain Kirk is singing my song! Amazing.” —D.U.
Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, “Super Freak” (Rick James)
If ever there was an example of rhythm and bluegrass, it’s this highly unexpected musical collision which finds an iconic country singer/guitarist teaming with a noted piano-playing rocker to cover one of the funkiest tunes of the ‘80s. “A friend of Bruce’s used to always find some really heavy pop song and then sing it bluegrass, just as a joke,” Skaggs told The Virginian-Pilot in 2011. “When we got the idea to do the bluegrass record and he said, We’ve got to do ‘Super Freak,’ I thought he was teasing. I really did. But he said, ‘No, man, I’m serious,’ so we worked on it a little bit, and … it was crazy, but the crowds love it when we’re on the road. Especially his crowd. My crowd wouldn’t know Rick James so much, but Bruce’s crowd sure does.” —W.H.
Sturgill Simpson, “In Bloom” (Nirvana)
As the last remaining form of guitar-based music that can still reliably top the Billboard charts, modern country has often taken notes from classic rock, and we could easily fill this list with credible covers of ‘70s FM radio staples from a stable of Nashville pros. But there's something particularly magical about this pairing of mainstream country discontent Simpson and the similarly intransigent Kurt Cobain. With his rich Kentucky baritone proving a perfect match for Cobain’s lacerating lyrics, Simpson’s arrangement unearths both a gentleness and a grandeur in the song that Nirvana never plumbed—from the pedal steel washes and music box arpeggios in the earlygoing to the Memphis-style horns on the climax, everything about this cover works so much better than it should. —A.B.