Where were you when you first heard Johnny Cash sing? I wager a lot of music fans will remember the exact moment. For me, like many, it was during the Rubin years and specifically his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’. I remember it appearing on the screen during my usual Saturday morning five-hour music TV binge. The way he rolled the words around in his mouth, each one bleeding with potent emotion, pinned me to the back of the chair, breath held. “Who is this gnarly old guy?”, I thought, before starting a very fulfilling journey of Cash discovery. The cover was one of a series Cash recorded with Rubin during his 00s renaissance including versions of songs by Nick Lowe, Elvis, Sting, Tom Petty, Simon & Garfunkel. ‘Hurt’, though stands above them all, as one of the most hauntingly beautiful covers of all time. On the 10th anniversary of Cash’s death this week, here are 13 more of the best.
Elliott Smith – ‘Jealous Guy’
Lennon’s track from his 1971 album ‘Imagine’ has been covered by loads of artists, but it’s Smith’s stripped-down, acoustic version that stands above the rest. Warning: the climbing vocals of“I didn’t mean to hurt you/I’m sorry that I made you cry” might have you weeping at your desk.
Jeff Buckley – ‘Hallelujah’
This is one of the biggies, along with Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, Adele’s ‘To Make You Feel My Love’, that I just couldn’t ignore. Though it was murdered by The X Factor recently, Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen is that rare thing: a cover better than its original. With a falsetto that’ll give you goosebumps on the palms of your hands, “it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” is a wail you’ll never forget. Cohen deserves hefty praise, too. Apparently he spent years getting it right, writing 80 verses before making a decision.
Ryan Adams – ‘Wonderwall’
Adams’ cover of Oasis’ massive hit ‘Wonderwall’ loses all the Britpop swagger to craft something completely new. “I never got my head round this song until I went to [see] Ryan Adams play and he did an amazing cover of it,” said Noel Gallagher at the time.
Nirvana – ‘In The Pines’
‘In The Pines’ has been around since the 19th century, reversioned and covered by a wide spectrum of artists from Lead Belly to Joan Baez and Dee Dee Ramone to Kid Cudi. It was Nirvana’s turn to shake off the dust in 1994 with their interpretation for MTV Unplugged. Kurt Cobain’s screaming last verse is especially moving.
Bat For Lashes – ‘I’m On Fire’
Another oft-covered song, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’, is taken apart by Bat For Lashes and turned into a long, yearning howl.
Elbow – ‘Teardrop’
Dangerous move, this. Attempting to cover a song that’s already perfect, complete with Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser’s glassy vocals. So what do Elbow do? Add a new line of melody to stand alongside the famous riff, some cello and Guy Garvey in sorrowful-soft voice, divesting the Massive Attack version of its sci-fi chill.
Radiohead – ‘Nobody Does It Better’
“This is the sexiest song ever written,” claimed Thom Yorke in 1995 before covering ‘Nobody Does It Better’, the James Bond song made famous by Carly Simon. Radiohead’s roughed-up emo version turns it from a sweeping cruise-ship rendition to something way less sanitised, and way more interesting.
Galaxie 500 – ‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling’
Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s track from ‘Wedding Album’ was given a beautiful rework in 1990 by Massachusetts alt-rock trio Galaxie 500.
James Blake – ‘A Limit To Your Love’
The song that made Blake famous may have been a cover, but it introduced Blake’s brazen use of space and bass. “There’s a limit to your love / Like a waterfall in slow motion / Like a map with no ocean / There’s a limit to your love” he sighs before breaking out XXL, extra-strength wobble-board dub.
Cat Power – ‘Blue’
Chan Marshall made a couple of albums out of cover songs, ‘The Covers Record’ and ‘Jukebox’. There are many to choose from but the one that hits the spot is her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’. She turns it into a morning-after whisper sung on some foggy Miami seafront as as the buzz of “acid, booze and ass” wears off.
Bob Dylan, ‘The Moonshiner’
“I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler, I’m a long way from home/And if you don’t like me, well, leave me alone/
I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry/And the moonshine don’t kill me, I’ll live til I die” goes the old folk song. Sung by many, Bob Dylan tells the story on his Bootleg Series with a rare magic.
Sonic Youth, ‘Superstar’
Sonic Youth covered The Carpenters song of romantic loss, loneliness and passive aggression on tribute album ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ in 1994. It also featured in the film ‘Juno’. You should watch the video too.
Glen Campbell, ‘Wichita Lineman’
I’m not sure whether this one counts but it has to be mentioned. Written by Jimmy Webb, it was Glen Campbell’s version of ‘Wichita Lineman’ in 1968 that brought it mainstream success. Stuart Maconie called it the “greatest song ever composed” and it’s hard to argue with that.