On the Cover: Top 25 Best Cover Songs of the Last 20 Years

Cover songs: we all love it when the neighborhood band plays one, but it’s hard to find them actually done well. But it occasionally happens. Here are my 25 favorite cover songs of the last 20-ish years. Just the last 20 or so years because I really didn’t listen to music before the early 90s so I don’t have much personal context before then. Of course Aretha’s Respect, Jimi’s Watchtower, Waits’ Waltzing Matilda, Raitt’s Angel from Montgomery, Cave’s Avalanche and Sprinsteen’s Jersey Girl would make my overall covers list. (Yes sorry I’m so rockist but it’s how I am.) But here’s my modern version of excellent covers. Grunge and beyond.

First, the honorable mentions for the grunge classicists: Pearl Jam- Keep on Rockin the Free World (sorry it can’t top Young’s original), Nirvana-The Man Who Sold the World, PJ- Last Kiss, Primus- Have a Cigar (Pink Floyd cover), Red Hot Chili Peppers -Higher Ground (Stevie Wonder cover), Rage Against the Machine- Kick out the Jams (MC5 cover), Smashing Pumpkins Landslide (Fleetwood Mac cover). Those are all good covers, but in some ways fall short of the originals. Still definitely listenable and good, all of them.

But now, the contenders, versions that improved on, or at least did justice to the original in a creative way. That is, I believe every song here to be at least as good as the original. In some cases, you have to listen to both to really appreciate the cover. Ordered, from good at #25 to amazing in the top 10:

#25 Fugees – No Woman No Cry (Bob Marley & the Wailers cover). Lauren Hill in her prime is the bright spot for the Fugees, but in this song the other jokers get the sound right, and seem to have enough legitimacy in their roots to be genuine. Well done.

#24 Eminem- Stan/Sing for the Moment (Dido and Aerosmith samples/ choruses). Effectively used, somewhat bizarrely. But both are modern classics and give a new context to their originals.

#23 The Verve- Bittersweet Symphony- (The Last Time by the Rolling Stones). Perhaps overplayed, definitely copyright infringement, but who cares, it’s still sweet.

#22 Rage Against the Machine- The Ghost of Tom Joad (Bruce Springsteen cover). Tom Joad is not forlorn and forgotten in this version, but rather rioting in the street. Radically remaking the attitude of the original, this is an effective use, the true spirit of a cover.  Unlike the entire rest of the album.

#21 K.M.C. KRU- The Devil Came Up to Michigan (The Devil Went Down to Georgia by Charlie Daniels Band). Charlie Daniels wrote an amazing song that cannot be duplicated. But here’s a spinoff that’s well worth the listen, if only to hear Kraftwerk defeat the Devil.

#20 Alien Ant Farm- Smooth Criminal (Michael Jackson cover). Wacky. And nice.

#19 The White Stripes- Jolene (Dolly Parton cover). I love the original. It’s really hard to say if this version is actually better, though the emotion is indeed more intense. Completely raw, and probably truer to the meaning than her polished version. Somehow Jack White does it again, writing a new song, without even changing the lyrics. I should probably give some credit to Meg too. The duo has a weird cohesion.

#18 Jerry Garcia & David Grisman-Shady Grove (traditional/ Bill Monroe). Real musicians doing what they do best. Playing real music really well.

#17 10,000 Maniacs – Because the Night (Patti Smith cover). No, there is no way Natalie Merchant should be mentioned in the same tier as Patti Smith. Except in this performance.

#16 King’s X- Manic Depression (Hendrix cover). It’s hard to not ruin Hendrix, but Doug Pinnick & co actually do this does this song justice. Doug’s soulful vocals and Ty’s shredding actually even work better than Jimi’s original here.  One of the few bright spots of Woodswock ’94. Make sure you listen to the Woodstock version, not the album “live” version.

#15 Gary Jules -Mad World (Tears for Fears cover). Changes the music and tone and makes this essentially a new song. And a less schizophrenic one.

#14 Public Enemy- He Got Game (Buffalo Springfield’s Stop Children What’s the Sound).  Amazing song, lyrics, samples and sound all told. And that’s even if it weren’t for Steven Stills coming in for the classic chorus.

#13 Cordelia’s Dad- Granite Mills (traditional). Real fans of the band will say their other, punk material is better. I say remaking a great traditional song and not failing is worth more praise.

#12 Dropkick Murphys-Amazing Grace (John Newton hymn). OK, if you don’t like the Dropkick Murphys this will probably sound terrible to you. But it’s creative and I love it. If you do too, check out their version of Fortunate Son (CCR cover).

#11 16 Horsepower- Outlaw Song (traditional/Muzsikás cover). An old Hungarian tune translated then played hauntingly by this incredible group. If you want to see how they cover something you know, try their version of Bad Moon Rising. It’s a winner too, probably also deserving a place on this top 25.

#10 Galactic Cowboys-Not of this World (Petra cover). I never liked anything these guys ever did, except this one masterpiece. Petra is legendary but this song does them justice.

#9 Frodus- Explosions (Devo cover). Fairfax Spazzcore trio gives this song the energy it always needed. Awesome version.

#8 Allison Krauss and Union Station/ Dan Tyminski- Man of Constant Sorrow (traditional). If you are a legitimate country/ traditional artist, you usually do traditional songs at least decently. If it’s a good song, it’s usually a good cover. In this case, Tyminski goes above and beyond…on par perhaps even with Roscoe Holcomb’s version.

#7 Tabasco Donkeys- Friend of the Devil (Grateful Dead cover). I have two Dead stickers on my car but guess what, I still think this version is even much better than theirs. I do not know how they did it, but their obscure record is loaded with some other really great covers too. Find it if you can.

#6  Jack White- Wayfaring Stranger (traditional). If you doubt his musicianship, listen to this song. You’d almost think he was genuinely believing the lyrics. I listen to this song nonstop sometimes. It’s that good.

#5 Massive Attack- Metal Postcard (Siouxsie and the Banshees cover). Turn this one up loud. Sick, killer riff. So killer it was used for the killings in Jackal soundtrack.  Play this only if you wanna be hyped and awake for hours.

#4 Nirvana- Where did you Sleep last night? (In the Pines) (traditional/ Leadbelly cover). The desperate eyes that finally look up and open wide to the audience, then the sigh… and then back into his own world. Heart-rending…don’t watch/ listen too often as all your life energy will drain.

#3 Mogwai- My Father My King (traditional Jewish prayer Our Father Our King). Turn out the light, lie on the couch, and turn up the speakers… but not too much. It starts soft, but be careful, it will ruin those speakers by the end.

#2 Johnny Cash- Hurt (Nine Inch Nails cover) I am in no minority in being moved by this song, and even the video is worthy of it. Even Trent admits that this incredible man now owns this already incredible song.

#1 Mudhoney-The Rose (Bette Midler Cover). Just like the Sub Pop 200 compilation it appears on changed the music industry forever (well, at least for 7 years), Mudhoney revolutionized this song.  Listen, and understand.

It’s more of a recommended listens list, not exactly a “best of” which would be very hard to create and even more obscure. If your fave tunes are not here, who knows, its possible you might want to check out my last post about bad covers? But this list of tunes is worth your time.  YouTube is free– check ’em out!

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About zoomloco

I zoom-zoom loco like the pony express.
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12 Responses to On the Cover: Top 25 Best Cover Songs of the Last 20 Years

  1. Josh Katz says:

    Nice list. A few honorable mentions I’d like to add: “Now I wanna Be Your Dog” covered by Uncle Tupelo (Iggy); “Heartbeats” by The Knife (Jose Gonzalez); “Thirteen” by Elliott Smith (Big Star); “Dead Souls” by NIN (Joy Division); “Hounds of Love” by the Futureheads (Kate Bush); “John Allyn Smith Sails” by Okkervil River (re-interprets Sloop John B by the Beach Boys).

  2. Actually, the entire Johnny Cash album, “The Man Comes Around” is amazing. His cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” gives it a completely different feel of the original–reverential. About the only cover on that album I don’t think is awesome is “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and that’s only because I can’t stand that song. At least I can listen to Cash’s version, probably because you know he was singing about June, and that comes through.

    And some personal favorites are from the Disney “Stay Awake” album. The Replacements doing Cruella DeVille rocks (literally) and Sun Ra’s cover of “Pink Elephants” is simply fabulous. And of course Tom Waits’ cover of “Heigh Ho” changes the song completely, but feels a lot more like going off to the mines than the original.

  3. Lizzie Sweigart says:

    Very interesting list. Many I have heard, but a few new ones to me. I would also add a couple of honorable mentions: “Too Drunk to F***” covered by Nouvelle Vague and “God Only Knows” covered by Petra Haden.

  4. Another fun list. Only about half of them are really covers (sampling Siouxsie counts as covering her?) but I get the idea – reworking songs n creating new ones.

    Pixies “Head On” destroys the Jesus and Mary Chain original, more energy overall.

    Mudhoney song rules but doesn’t fit the 20 year mark; the best part of sub pop 200 aside from the Nirvana song.

    And how does “Hard Times” not make the honorable mention?

    • zoomloco says:

      I was wondering if someone was gonna call me on the sup pop 200 date (nb higher ground was also 1989). I tried to pre-empt that by saying 20-ish and “grunge and after.” anyway mudhoney’s the rose is too good not to win…so gotta bend the rules a bit

  5. AH! Here’s a biggie – Stevie Ray Vaughn’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” on his album “The Sky is Crying”

    Gorgeous, gorgeous cover.

  6. One last and I’m going back to work. Talesin Orchestra’s cover of “Fanfare for the Common Man” although everything on there is gorgeous. (I believe that’s my ring tone for when your mom calls.)

  7. zoomloco says:

    Thanks for all the input, everyone. Here’s another one that should probably make it: The Bit by Mastodon (Melvins cover).

  8. zoomloco says:

    from alex: I’m still waiting for someone to do a paired down version of Blue Monday, similar to the snippet from 24 Hour Party People. Also, one more cup of coffee for the road by the white stripes, heartbeats by jose gonzales, john the revelator by nick cave, hallelujah by jeff buckley (i know i know, totally cliche, but it is a stand alone song and i switch off about which version i like better), I dont’ want to grow up by tom waits. That’s off the top of my head.

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