Monday, June 23, 2008

The best cover songs of all time

Because a worst-of list ought, fairly, to be accompanied by a best-of list, here it is. This British magazine picked Jimi Hendrix's version of All Along The Watchtower, and rightly so. It truly is the ultimate cover song, the reason songs ARE covered, the definitive cover of all time. And that really is the definition for the truly great covers. When those covers actually exceed the greatness of the original. And here are ten that do:

#10. Toots and the Maytals Take Me Home, Country Roads. Sure, the first time it was kind of a sissy countryish tune. John Denver was not exactly AC/DC. But he could certainly write a great tune, and Toots Hibbert could certainly sing a good one. And the joy with which this Jamaican vocal group infuses Denver's tune is palpable. Which makes it far more powerful than the original.

#9. Eric Clapton Layla. OK, I'm doing it again. This is just Clapton covering Clapton. But his second, Unplugged, acoustic version of Layla became a hit on the same level with the first recording, with Derek and the Dominoes. Gone is Duane Allman's brilliant guitar riff, but it's replaced with a whole new song. One that's every bit as good as the original.

#8. Peter Tosh Here Comes The Sun. Tosh's reggae version of the Beatles' classic is note-perfect. But the song takes on a whole new meaning when Tosh sings it - he actually manages to convey a sense of menace when he sings, I think through no intention of his own. He was just a menacing guy. And this was about as light as he ever got. Also - honorable mention to his version of "Once Bitten, Twice Shy".

#7. Elvis Presley Blue Suede Shoes. Although there is no fault to be found with Carl Perkins' version of the tune, Elvis just had that much more presence and power when he sang. And to this day, most people will remember The King's Blue Suede Shoes more than they will Perkins.

#6. Jimi Hendrix Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. What was really a throw-away song for the Beatles' takes on new life with Hendrix and his incredible guitar. (Also notable is Hendrix's version of Like A Rolling Stone, but since Dylan's version IS the greatest song of all time, the cover can't be that great. And Hey Joe is a traditional tune. But I think the case can easily be made that Hendrix is the greatest cover artist of all time.)

#5. Creedence Clearwater Revival I Heard It Through The Grapevine. The swampy, powerful sound of CCR is perfectly heard on their easy-to-digest two minute singles. But on this epic track, they are at their very finest. Marvin Gaye's version is dynamite as well, and it's pretty tough to figure out whose is better, but I just love Creedence, and I'm giving them the edge.

#4. Big Brother and the Holding Company Piece of My Heart. Maybe Janis Joplin's definitive vocal performance, this is one of the great rock songs of all time. And I don't know anyone who remembers Erma Franklin's version a year earlier.

#3. Bunny Wailer Redemption Song. Honorable mention too, to Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros version from 2003. But Bunny Wailer, on the tribute to Bob Marley, puts even more emotion into the song than Marley ever did, and his voice is one of the most exquisite in reggae music. A must-listen.

#2. Metallica Turn The Page. I still think Metallica's best album is their Garage Days album, because it's their most ragged and the one where they seem to be enjoying themselves the most. And their tribute to Bob Seger is one of the best songs they've ever done. Powerful, harsh, and still somehow heartfelt, Metallica was amazingly able to capture the spirit of the Seger song. A terrific cover.

#1. Jimi Hendrix All Along The Watchtower. It's true. You can't beat it. If Bob Dylan had just written songs for Hendrix all his life, he would still have been one of the most revered names in music. Then again, he would have had to find something else to do after 1970. Thank God though that Dylan did what he did and that Hendrix did what he did and one of the greatest songs of all time became the greatest cover of all time by the greatest guitarist, and the greatest cover artist, of all time. So much so that Dylan himself took to playing the Hendrix version when he played Watchtower in concert.

And quibbles, any suggestions, lemme know. This list isn't set in stone, after all.


  1. I'm not saying it should be on the list, but if you get a chance to listen to it, Metallica also has an accoustic cover of Tuesday's Gone by Skynyrd... Normally I'm no fan of Metallica, but they do an awesome job on this one

  2. These are all great covers,,& my all time fav,has to be Jimmy's,
    "all along the watch tower",
    A couple of worth mentionables,that may not rate as high as these are,,,Wiskey in the Jarr(o).(Thin Lizzy)(metallica)
    & Who do you love(Bo Didley)(G.T)

  3. I think Annie Lennox's covers of Neil Young's Don't Let It Bring You Down, and especially Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale are two of the best covers I've ever heard.

  4. Those two Metallica songs - Whiskey in the Jar (I didn't include that one because it's traditional) and Tuesday's Gone (I didn't include that one because it's almost identical to the original) are both fantastic. And, they're both on the same album as Turn The Page, which is still my favourite Metallica record. And although I enjot Thorogood's Who Do You Love, I think Bo Diddley's is still far better. Same goes for John Lee Hooker's One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer. And you know, I didn't think of A Whiter Shade of Pale, but that's a great call too.

  5. Here are 3 cover songs that I think are amazing and a little bit about why.

    Jumpin Jack Flash covered by Johnny Winter also surpasses that done by The Rolling Stones (but just about anyone can play their songs better) But Johnny Winter gave the song a harder edge and a more bluesy feel than The Stone's failed attempt.

    Death Letter by The White Stripes boldly takes on Son House' Masterpiece Death Letter Blues, wile Son House is better it was fantastic to her a plugged in version of that song. (Also Their cover of One More Cup of Coffee is worth checking out)

    Death Is Not The End as done by Nick Cave and guests. It is a throwaway Dylan song to many, but Nick Cave does a version of this song with guest vocals and it sounds a lot more music and orchestral feeling than Dylan's stripped down Vocal and Guitar. I prefer this version only because im a Nick Cave Fan

  6. Oh, I almost forgot about my alltime favourite cover... David Gogo's version of Personal Jesus. It's one of those songs that makes you want to...well...listen to it and you'll figure it out.

  7. Hey - nice job on the White Stripes and Nick Cave - good calls both. I'm not so sure about the Johnny Winter though. A good cover, but better than the original? Well, I'm a Stones fan...I'm also a Dylan fanatic, but I think his songs lend themselves to being covered. In fact, you could easily do a top-ten Dylan covers list as well. The Byrds doing Mr. Tambourine Man...Clapton's Knockin' on Heaven's Door...

  8. Hey Eric,what do ya think of CREAMS
    (e.c)Crossroads,(Johnson),& Born under a Bad Sign,,don't Quote me,,is it Booker T ?

  9. Hi Y'all,i heard this one Sun Morn on Steve's show,& i think it qualifies,,,
    I'm a Man,,Original,Spencer Davis,
    The Cover by The Chicago Trasit Auth.

  10. I also love Johnny Cash's rendition of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt". Although I wholly agree that "All Along the Watchtower" is the greatest cover song of all time. Hands down.

  11. I like Gary Moore's Wishing Well, Hendrix's solo in All Along the Watchtower, FM's bad attempt at Heard it Through the Grapevine and probably lots more I can't remember. And please, never let me suffer Lemmy's attempt at one of my favourite Maiden songs "The Trooper".

    The college band I was in used to do a killer cover of "Hang the Pope" by Nuclear Assault. Of course, that didn't garnish anywhere near as much support as our cover of the Pistols' "Anarchy" or our own song "She's Got VD". Such is life.