Covers albums are a tricky business. Just ask Flaming Lips, whose decision to recreate the Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’ in full was met with many an arched eyebrow. Here are 20 great LPs made up entirely of covers, starting with Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Renegades’ (2000), which rewired songs by Dylan, Springsteen and more into bombastic funk-rock explosions.
Dirty Projectors – ‘Rise Above’ (2007) Dave Longstreth hadn’t heard Black Flag’s riotous ‘Damaged’ album in 15 years when he tried to cover it from start to finish, reworking its pulverising hardcore tracks into scratchy art-rock ditties entirely from memory. The results are incredible, scaling back the group’s noise to heap focus on the powerful messages at the heart of their songs.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – ‘Kicking Against The Pricks’ (1986) Most acts approach covers with awed respect for the original. Not Cave, who claims some of the songs reworked on his third LP “weren’t done particularly well in the first place.” From its Twin Peaksy sleeve to the songs within, the entire album creeped with sinister undertones as Cave took on Lou Reed, Roy Orbison and more.
David Pajo – ‘Scream With Me’ (2009) The Slint man’s relatively unknown vinyl-only Misfits covers album dialed down the New Jersey heroes’ three-chord horror-punk anarchy into lo-fi acoustic jams worthy of both acts’ considerable legacies. No Slinty guitar histrionics or meandering structural changes: just loose, homely interpretations that breathed new life into songs like ‘Angelfuck’.
Scarlett Johansson – ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ (2008) Written off as a Hollywood vanity project, the ‘Lost In Translation’ star’s Tom Waits tribute has held up incredibly well, huskily reimagining the bluesy American’s canon with help from Dave Sitek. ‘Falling Down’ in particular is lush and fantastical, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole to awake in a land of dark mystery.
Cat Power – ‘The Covers Record’ (2000) From its spell-binding opening Stones cover (‘Satisfaction’) to its dreamy later take on Smog’s ‘Red Apples’, this record is Chan Marshall at her most alluring – not just covering the songs here, but seeming to inhabit them. Stripped back and raw, it confirmed the singer as a modern American great.
Sun Kil Moon – ‘Tiny Cities’ (2005) Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek is no stranger to covers, having reworked everything from AC/DC to Francis Scott Key’s ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ across his colourful career. This collection of Modest Mouse reworks, however, stands out for its adventuous dismantling of Isaac Brock’s songs, smothering their indie jangles in delicious darkness.
Weezer – ‘Christmas With Weezer’ (2008) Deck the halls with weirdo college rock, it’s a Rivers Cuomo festive album! Slightly creepy, the ‘Buddy Holly’ man’s fuzzy, quietly sinister reworkings of Christmas classics like ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ is every bit as hilarious as you’d imagine.
John Lennon – ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (1975) The former Beatle’s sixth solo studio album was, like its title, rather straight forward, paying simple homage to some of his ’50s and ’60s heroes. Recorded in New York in late ’74, his take on ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King in particular became a Lennon solo favourite among fans.
Paul McCartney – ‘Chobba B CCCP’ (1988). Originally, Macca’s seventh studio album was released exclusively in the Soviet Union (the clue’s in the artwork, guys), with the title the Russian translation of the Beatles track ‘Back In The USSR’. Here, though, McCartney looked to old masters such as Eddie Cochran and Sam Cooke for inspiration.
David Bowie – ‘Pin Ups’ (1973). Sadly, Bowie’s take on The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ never made the final cut, but there are other gems on this covers-only classic: in particular, his versions of The Kinks’ Where Have All The Good Times Gone’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ are things of wonder.
Beck – Record Club (2009). Just one covers album wouldn’t be enough for Mr Hansen: since 2009, he’s been teaming up with the likes of Nigel Godrich and Devendra Banhart to record full versions of album’s including ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’ and ‘The Velvet Underground And Nico’. He also posted video footage from each session online, too.
The Walkmen – ‘Pussy Cats’ (2006). File this one away under brilliantly and bafflingly obscure: the New York band recorded a faithful, song-for-song cover of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 LP ‘Pussy Cats’ initially as a joke, before deciding to release it. It only took roughly 10 days to record.
Courtney Barnett – ‘Kick’ (2014). What is is about INXS, eh? Beck chose their 1987 album ‘Kick’ for his Records Club, and so did Australian slacker-pop hero Courtney Barnett, too, covering the record in its entirety earlier this year.
Trojan Box Set – Beatles Tribute (2005). Arguably the most interesting, innovative and funnest of the piles of tributes recorded to the Fab Four, reggae legends such as Desmond Dekker and Marcia Griffiths banded together to cover The Beatles for a mega-compilation CD.
Various Artists – ‘Two Rooms: Celebrating The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’ (1991). The great and the good of pop music gathered in 1991 to pay tribute to Elton John, including Sting and The Who, but among all the covers here there’s one that stands out: Kate Bush’s amazing take on ‘Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)’.
Johnny Cash – ‘American Recordings’ (1994). Yes, Clash’s later projects with Rick Rubin have some of his most famous covers – including the career-epitaph ‘Hurt’ and ‘Personal Jesus’ – but this, with its sombre take on songs by Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, was the start of his reinvention into a mythological elder statesman.
Tori Amos – ‘Strange Little Girls’ (2001). As much a concept album as it is a covers record, Amos put her own stamp on songs originally written by men but reworked them to be performed from a woman’s point of view, including ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ by Boomtown Rats and Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy The Silence’.
The Byrds – ‘The Byrds Play Dylan’ (1979). The Byrds covered Bob Dylan with such frequency during their career – most notably with their version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – that it’s only right they should all have been collated into one big compilation. Culled from songs recorded at different points during their career, it features ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” and ‘Lay Lady Lay’.
Patti Smith – ’12’ (2007). Only Patti could cover Hendrix (‘Are You Experienced’), Tears For Fears (‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’) and the Stones (‘Gimme Shelter’) and make it all sound like it belongs together: a collection of disparate songs filtered through her inimitable talent for interpretation.