The art of a great cover is extremely difficult to perfect. To gather the expression of another musician and make it your own is the kind of skill only legends like Bob Dylan and John Lennon take on without fear, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some hugely successful attempts along the way.
To cover one song may be difficult, but to release an entire album of covers is near-on impossible to do without feeling at best contrite and at worst like Butlins’ holiday park performer. Below, we’re bringing you the ten greatest covers albums of all time as we see them and challenge anyone to drop your favourites in the comments.
It’s easy to pick up a guitar and utter those words “anyway, here’s ‘Wonderwall‘”, but to do it with conviction and make the song your own is incredibly difficult to pull off. Many have tried and many have failed but here we have the finest covers albums of all time.
We have also put them all together in a handy playlist for you at the bottom of the page so that you can be serenaded by the best songs from some of the best artists.
20 best covers albums of all time:
20. Anywhere I Lay My Head – Scarlett Johansson
Apparently, Scarlett Johansson’s talent knows no bounds. What was originally thought of as a mere novelty record from the Hollywood star has since been revered as a sincere and sumptuous first foray into the recording studio. A covers album dedicated to the great Tom Waits is always bound to be pleasing but this one goes off the charts.
Accompanied by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, ScarJo does a fine job of reinterpretation of the phenomenal jazz crooner and takes his usual gravel tone into a brand new space. Simply put: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
19. The Velvet Underground & Nico – Beck
A collection of covers is one difficult thing to handle but taking on a whole album, especially an album of such importance to music, is almost impossible to do with any grace. Enter Beck.
Mr Hansen is a dab hand at turning others’ songs into something he can be proud of and this reworking of the iconic album is near-perfect. It’s a seriously difficult thing to achieve—perfect sardonic, laconic subversion. But Beck pulls it off without too much difficulty. Check ‘Sunday Morning’ out for all the proof you need.
18. The Covers Record – Cat Power
There isn’t much that Chan Marshall – AKA Cat Power – can’t do with her impervious vocal. Taking on a ream of covers was just another string to her already impressive bow. Featuring covers of Smog and The Rolling Stones, this is the kind of album that makes weekends better and weekdays disappear.
Naturally raw, and without disdain for her own vulnerability, Cat Power proves that covering another’s song can be just as powerful as writing one’s own. She’s a true great and this LP proves it.
17. Pussy Cats – The Walkmen
If you only know of The Walkmen because of their rip-roaring indie anthem ‘The Rat’ then you’ll be in the majority. The art-punk outfit are a troublesome bunch who have never seemed to settle down, refusing to play into their destined indie space, the band delivered a unique cover record too.
Taking on Harry Nilsson’s smoother than butter vocal was always going to be difficult but with the hair-raising beauty of Pussy Cats, the singer let his gravel come through. It makes the album feel like a natural part of The Walkmen’s catalogue which, in itself, is pretty unique.
16. Kick – Courtney Barnett
Perhaps it is a little obvious to suggest that Courtney Barnett was hugely influenced by INXS. The Aussie band are such a rich piece of the country’s musical heritage that it isn’t outlandish to think that every band from down under were inspired by Michael Hutchence and Co. However, Barnett went one step further.
In 2014, she re-produced a faithful cover version of their seminal album Kick and it saw the singer-songwriter become a fangirl worth paying attention to. Noted for her gifted lyricism, the covers record allows the audience to be reminded of her powerful performance too. Produced as a live show, the video is worth watching.
15. Odetta Sings Dylan – Odetta
The first Bob Dylan tribute in our list but not the last Odetta Sings Dylan is perhaps one of the purest reshapings of Bob Dylan one will ever hear. Avoiding a plethora of the freewheelin’ troubadour’s big hitters, Odetta’s silky vocal adds an authenticity to the songs that are otherwise lost in Dylan’s gargle.
Of course, released in 1965, there is a fair deal of Dylan songs that didn’t have the chance to be gilded in gold by the singer. However, her rendition of ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ is about as perfect as one can get
14. American Recordings IV – Johnny Cash
By the end of his star-studded career, Johnny Cash was very comfortable in his own skin. Never losing the timbre and tone of his unique vocal, the singer was happy to assume the role of elder statesman of music. It was a role he relished most clearly of all with the production of his seminal LP American Recordings.
The style and evolution of Johnny Cash extended for several albums and one of the best is American Recordings IV including this simply magnetic rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’.
13. If I Were A Carpenter – Various
The time for an air of ‘uncool’ surrounding The Carpenters is well and truly over. The band, once tarnished with the stinking cheese of the 70s, have now become rightly revered for the huge impact on the wider set of music. The tragic figure of Karen Carpenter alone is one that will loom over pop music for decades to come.
A tribute album to the band was always in the offing but Sonic Youth, The Cranberries and Shonen Knife all add something special to this record. It takes it over the edge of your usual fare and makes this a standalone album worthy of picking up whenever you can.
12. Beatles Tribute – Trojan Box Set
Once you know the origins of Trojan records, one of the pioneering reggae and dub labels, then the thought of a Trojan box set picking out the best Beatles covers from their roster is an opportunity too sweet to leave alone. The Beatles Tribute set does not disappoint.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney may be some of the best songwriters the world has ever seen but giving their songs over to the reggae heroes of yesteryear was a sincere success. Transformed in pure smoothness and buttery vibes it is hard to dislike any of these tunes.
11. Through the Looking Glass – Siouxsie Sioux and The Banshees
It’s not often a covers album can be as well-received as 1987’s Through the Looking Glass. Positively packed with notable songs like The Doors’ ‘You’re Lost Little Girl’ and The Modern Lovers’ ‘She Cracked’, it was proof that The Banshees knew what good music was and, more importantly, how to make it.
It may be difficult to think that a band can be incredibly creative with a cover song but the startling thing about this album was how they managed to turn so many different songs into what sounded like an original Banshee creation. Of course, the best cover of the bunch is their version of Iggy Pop’s classic ‘The Passenger’.
10. The Byrds Play Dylan – The Byrds
No prizes for guessing what this album is all about. The Byrds were such prolific coverers of the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that the group eventually decided to put them all together. The band offer up something a little more accessible than Dylan’s bard-like bruising rendition of lyrics.
It means as well as their defining cover of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, we can also hear ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” and ‘Lay Lady Lay’, both equally as brilliant. It’s an album that deserves praise as being what Bob Dylan would have sounded like if constructed by committee.
9. Twelve – Patti Smith
We’ve covered this album extensively here on Far Out and that’s because Smith has an uncanny ability to make any song she takes on completely her own. Whoever the artist is, eventually the song becomes Patti’s to share.
It means songs like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’, The Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ or indeed ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ are all given the Patti punk makeover. Taking on such huge tracks from across the generations means you’re unlikely to please everyone. Naturally, this doesn’t concern Smith as she just sings from the gut and with aplomb.
8. Chobba B CCCP – Paul McCartney
Thirteen years after his friend John Lennon had released his own covers album (more on that later), McCartney released his own. Originally released exclusively in the Soviet Union, the title of the record is a translation of ‘Back in the USSR’.
It sees Macca in fine form as he looks back to the masters of old with covers of his heroes like Eddie Cochran and Sam Cooke to bring together one of the finer works of McCartney’s solo career. It seems fitting that McCartney should pay tribute to these stars having used their influence to ascertain himself the title of the most successful composer of all time.
7. Renegades – Rage Against The Machine
It’s difficult to make a covers album when the songs you are choosing are from the same field of music, but when you’re Rage Against The Machine and nobody is really in your field you have to improvise. It means this covers record is pulled from a wide range of different genres and artistic channels.
Rage use their expertly skilled hands to create some interesting reimaginings of songs from Burce Springsteen and Bob Dylan to name a few and turn them into funk-rock bombs ready to explode at every moment. It’s a perfect rebellion, to not only use the songs of the past to make waves in the present but to do it with such disregard for the original material was truly something special.
6. To Love Somebody – Nina Simone
Any album featuring Nina Simone is destined to be a great one. She could sing a recipe for making fairy cakes and would still be a contender for a Grammy at the end of the year. However, give her the songwriting prowess of George Harrison, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees and you have one of the best.
Taking on some of the most important songs of the century, Nina Simone makes every track her own and reminds us all just why she’s considered one of the greatest to ever stand behind the mic.
This album isn’t just great, it is a sure-fire way to get rid of the dark clouds above you. A beauty.
5. American Recordings – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash may have had a storied career by the time he started working with Rick Rubin in the mid-1990s, but he perhaps did his best work with the producer. One such pinnacle of his career was the brilliant American Recordings.
It sees Cash take on the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson and so many more. It may not feature some of his most notable covers but it ranks well because it speaks so highly of an ageing artist once again finding his voice. It’s one of those moments where artistic integrity meets a legendary showman and combine to form something utterly magnificent.
4. Kicking Against The Pricks – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
As you might imagine when Nick Cave and his travelling troubadours The Bad Seeds approached their 1986 covers album they did it rather differently. Most covers are filled with a certain degree of respect—not here. But, seriously, what else did you expect from a covers album titled: Kicking Against The Pricks?
The album is a sinister sneering sign of Cave’s disgust not only for the world around him, as usual, but also for some of the songs on this reworked LP which according to him, “Weren’t done particularly well in the first place”. It’s a blood-curdling joy and one that deserves multiple listens through gigantic speakers wherever possible.
3. Rock ‘n’ Roll – John Lennon
Perhaps a little jaded from songwriting or perhaps more likely a little cut loose from his usual songwriting routine, Lennon found himself some classic rock songs to cover on his sixth solo studio album.
Brought together with the help of infamous producer Phil Spector, Lennon may have found a lot of personal troubles during the recording of the album but what emerged from it was a rock-solid record filled with solid rock. Having often described himself as a “rocker” at heart, Lennon’s command of these songs shouldn’t be surprising.
The singer has never been one to shy away from ousting his influences and on this LP he’s given the opportunity to go hell for leather. He doesn’t disappoint. See Lennon’s Ben E. King cover of ‘Stand By Me‘ for perhaps the definitive version of the song.
2. Pin Ups – David Bowie
If you ever find yourself discussing covers or tribute albums then the likelihood is that this is the one album friends will point to as the best cover album. It is full to the brim with some charming classic that pays homage to the past with Bowie’s unwavering eye on the future.
Including covers of The McCoys, The Yardbirds it’s a reminder of Bowie’s own path to the glittering success of Ziggy Stardust and works as a further reminder of the Starman’s innate talent. See The Kinks’ ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ for the album’s most perfect moments.
Often forgotten as a piece of Bowie iconography and much maligned when it arrived on the shelves, the album has grown since the singer’s departure and now it feels like one of his most honest works. After all, when you sing like a fan you really give yourself to every moment.
1. These Foolish Things – Bryan Ferry
When in 1973, Bryan Ferry decided to break away from Roxy Music to record a solo album it seemed like a natural progression for the enigmatic frontman. Little did they know it would land Ferry in direct competition with David Bowie, who released PinUps in the same month as These Foolish Things.
Going up against David Bowie would usually spell trouble but somehow Ferry manages to do what all of the other albums come very close to doing. He makes every song on their sound like his own. Whether it’s the passion with which he sings The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ or the swagger he adds to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, Ferry makes every song his own.
It’s almost as if Ferry has cracked open a half-decent bottle of Brandy and is gently serenading you with some of his favourite tunes. There are not many places to be that are better than that.