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