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From David Bowie to Jimi Hendrix: A playlist of the 50 greatest covers of all time

What exactly makes a great cover? It is a difficult question and the diverse smorgasbord of answers available don’t make a succinct rationale any clearer to come by. 

Sometimes an artist completely reinvents a track – ala José González’s version of The Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’ – unearthing something beautiful in the reimagining. Other times an artist will stick pretty true to form, but do such a good job at polishing the final product that they leave the impression that the track was rightful there’s all along – ala The Beatles take on ‘Twist and Shout’. Some old standards, meanwhile, have been reimagined so many times that the original is untraceable amid the melee of multicoloured interpretations. 

All that being said, regardless of the means the end arrived at is often fascinating and emotive in equal measure. Within any given cover is an inherent celebration of the simple joys of music. When Johnny Clash clutches at Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’, he does it with an appreciative hat tip for the pain contained therein, embraces it and transfigures it into his own take with bountiful compassion. 

Jimi Hendrix made this point perfectly clear when discussing his masterful cover of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding biblical classic ‘All Along the Watchtower’, stating: “All those people who don’t like Bob Dylan’s songs should read his lyrics. They are filled with the joys and sadness of life.”

“I am as Dylan, none of us can sing normally. Sometimes, I play Dylan’s songs and they are so much like me that it seems to me that I wrote them. I have the feeling that ‘Watchtower’ is a song I could have come up with, but I’m sure I would never have finished it,” the guitarist continued.

The result is a masterpiece that Bob Dylan even preferred to his own and amended the structure of his initial track for later live performances to be more like Hendrix’s, explaining: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” adding: “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”

Thus, in the words of Chris Morris, “There’s proof if proof be need be”, that covers are great, but here at Far Out we like to give ourselves torturous playlist rules that make selecting only 50 of them a slightly hotter circle of hell. 

This epic collection comes with a caveat: No artist can feature twice as either the ‘coverer’ or the ‘coveree’ so to speak. For example, David Bowie’s version of ‘China Girl’ can’t feature because he is already in there performing ‘Sorrow’, likewise Nina Simone’s take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ misses out because Jeff Buckley is already taking on the songsmith’s classic ‘Hallelujah’.

Similarly, certain tracks such as The Mama’s & The Papa’s ‘California Dreaming’ doesn’t feature because even though it was initially performed Barry McGuire, it was written by John and Michelle Phillips who would go on to reclaim it for their group The Mama’s & The Papa’s, thus we enter choppy chicken-egg territory (and José Feliciano and Bobby Womack’s version are nice but they aren’t the definitive and besides Womack is already…).

In short, if your favourite cover doesn’t feature it’s not my fault – it either isn’t on Spotify, lost out on a technicality or else some other nebulous factor such as my superior taste dismissed it to the ash heap of a potential part II.

Please enjoy all the same. (PS. As a tribute to the late Franco Battiato his iconic cover of ‘Ruby Tuesday’ comes in as a late substitute).

50 of the greatest covers of all time:

  1. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ – Jimi Hendrix
  2. ‘At Last’ – Etta James
  3. ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ – Led Zeppelin
  4. ‘Baby, I Love You’ – Ramones
  5. ‘Dancing in the Dark’ – The Temper Trap
  6. ‘Everybody’s Talkin” – Harry Nilsson
  7. ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ – Bobby Womack
  8. ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ – Urge Overkill
  9. ‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’ – Patti Smith
  10. ‘Hallelujah’ – Jeff Buckley
  11. ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ – Blondie
  12. ‘Heart of Glass’ – Miley Cyrus
  13. ‘Heartbeats’ – José González
  14. ‘Hounds of Love’ – The Futureheads
  15. ‘House of the Rising Sun’ – The Animals
  16. ‘Hurt’ – Johnny Cash
  17. ‘I Fought the Law’ – The Clash
  18. ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ – Marvin Gaye
  19. ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
  20. ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ – David Byrne
  21. ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ – Amason
  22. ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ – Nina Simone
  23. ‘Katie Cruel’ – Karen Dalton
  24. ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’ – Fugees
  25. ‘Lola’ – The Raincoats
  26. ‘Lost in Music’ – The Fall
  27. ‘Louie Louie’ – The Kingsmen
  28. ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ – Janis Joplin
  29. ‘More Than This’ – Angel Olsen
  30. ‘Pennies from Heaven’ – Louis Prima
  31. ‘Proud Mary’ – Ike & Tina Turner
  32. ‘Redemption Song’ – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
  33. ‘Respect’ – Aretha Franklin
  34. ‘Ruby Tuesday’ – Franco Battiato 
  35. ‘Someday’ – Julia Jacklin
  36. ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  37. ‘Sorrow’ – David Bowie
  38. ‘Take Another Little Piece of My Heart’ – Dusty Springfield
  39. ‘Take Me To The River’ – Talking Heads
  40. ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ – Astrud Gilberto
  41. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ – Richie Havens
  42. ‘The Wonder of You’ – Villagers
  43. ‘These Days’ – Nico
  44. ‘True Love Will Find You in The End’ – Wilco
  45. ‘Twist and Shout’ – The Beatles
  46. ‘Vincent’ – James Blake
  47. ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ – Thin Lizzy
  48. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ – Joe Cocker
  49. ‘Wonderwall’ – Ryan Adams
  50. ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ – Vanilla Fudge