They say that nothing beats the original. But in the case of these cover albums, it’s refreshing to hear ubiquitous songs turned upside down and given a good shake-up. And the shaking up is often by future icons in waiting. In no particular order, then, these are some of the most stunning records to pay tribute to musical greats.
Rage Against the Machine, ‘Renegades’ (2000)
Covers albums are a tricky business. Just ask Flaming Lips, whose decision to recreate The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s ‘Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in full was met with many an arched eyebrow. Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Renegades’, meanwhile, 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 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 Peaks-y sleeve to the songs within, the entire album creeped with sinister undertones.
David Pajo, ‘Scream With Me’ (2009)
The Slint man’s relatively unknown vinyl-only Misfits covers album dialled down the New Jersey heroes’ three-chord horror-punk anarchy into lo-fi acoustic jams worthy of both acts’ considerable legacies. No Slint-y guitar histrionics or meandering structural changes: just loose, homely interpretations that breathed new life into songs such as ‘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 TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek. ‘Falling Down’, in particular, is lush and fantastical, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.
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.
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 darkly hilarious.
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)
Macca’s seventh studio album was originally released exclusively in the Soviet Union (the clue’s in the artwork, guys), 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.
Various Artists, ‘If I were a Carpenter’ (1994)
The Carpenters recorded their fair share of musical greatness: the late Karen Carpenter directly influenced Madonna, Sheryl Crow and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, among others. This album sees ’90s rock bands congregate for a fuzzed-up tribute record, Sonic Youth’s mournful take on ‘Superstar’ didn’t impress Richard Carpenter – “I’m just going to say I don’t care for it,” he told NPR – but it’s still a stand-out moment from a nostalgic look back on the group’s work . The Cranberries’ take on ‘(They Long to Be) Close to You’ and Shonen Knife’s version of ‘Top of the World’ are two other highlights.
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 albums including ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’ and ‘The Velvet Underground And Nico’. He 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’. It was initially a joke – and took only 10 days to make – before the band decided to release it.
Various Artists, ‘We Were So Turned On: A Tribute to David Bowie’ (2010)
Featuring contributions from Warpaint, Exit Music Chairlift, Vivian Girls, and A Place To Bury Strangers, ‘We Were So Turned On’ is a mismatch of a record, skipping frantically between genres with every turn. It seems like an appropriate approach to honouring Bowie’s vast influence.
Courtney Barnett, ‘Kick’ (2014)
What is is about INXS, eh? Beck included their 1987 album ‘Kick’ in his adforementioned Records Club, and so did Australian slacker-pop hero Courtney Barnett, covering the record in its entirety in 2014.
Trojan Box Set, ‘Beatles Tribute’ (2005)
Arguably the most interesting, innovative and fun of the piles of tributes recorded to the Fab Four, this mega-compilation CD saw reggae legends such as Desmond Dekker and Marcia Griffiths band together to cover The Beatles.
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, Cash’s later projects with Rick Rubin include some of his most famous covers – including the career epitaphs ‘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, this one sees Amos put her own stamp on songs originally written by men, reworked 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.
Cher, ‘Dancing Queen’ (2018)
Trendier-than-thou interpretations of ABBA be gone. Belting it out to the picked guitars of ‘Chiquitita’ and cranking ‘Waterloo’ up several notches into fist-pumping G-A-Y mega-medley territory, Cher’s glitzy performances of the Swedish pop heroes’ greatest bangers do exactly what they say on the tin.
Various Artists, ‘The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young’ (1989)
This tribute to the musical output of Neil Young boasts The Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Nick Cave and Dinosaur Jr. Hot damn!
Various Artists, ‘Day of the Dead’ (2016)
Curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, this tribute to The Grateful Dead features Jenny Lewis, Matthew Houck from Phosphorescent, Moses Sumney, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, The National’s Matt Berninger, Justin Vernon (aka. Bon Iver) and Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It’s frankly quicker to list the indie stars who don’t appear, to be fair.