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 a whole 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 10 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’ve even 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.
10 best covers albums of all time:
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. 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.
8. 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.
7. 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.
6. 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.
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-90s, 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 form 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 arrive don 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.