10. Johnny Cash – Southern Accents (Tom Petty cover)
The big news on Cash’s second American album was him covering Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Beck’s “Rowboat.” But both pale next to his definitive recording of Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” giving the song a gravitas Petty himself never could (though he and the Heartbreakers back Cash up on the track). It came out so well Cash repeated the trick on his next album, covering Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
9. Susanna Hoffs – All I Want (The Lightning Seeds cover)
In 1990 the Lightning Seeds had a minor hit with their psych-pop single “All I Want,” but it took cover-er extraordinaire Susanna Hoffs to bring out the song’s real greatness.
8. Low – I Started a Joke (Bee Gees cover)
The Bee Gees became so massive after Saturday Night Fever that few remember they had a decade-long career before they went disco. “I Started a Joke” is one of their ’60s songs, and in its way it’s as dated as disco, all Donovan and Fairport Convention fairydust (though still a great showcase for Robin Gibb’s falsetto). Low’s cover isn’t disco and it isn’t hippie; it’s a minimalist, moving ballad featuring one of Mimi Parker’s best vocals with the band.
7. Skee-Lo — The Tale of Mr. Morton (Schoolhouse Rock cover)
When curators were putting a Schoolhouse Rock tribute album, Skee-Lo was enjoying his first hit “I Wish” and probably seemed like a star in the making. Turned out “I Wish” was also his last hit, and the California rapper was soon a hip-hop footnote. But perhaps he deserved more, as he stole the tribute album from bigger alt-rock names like Pavement, Ween, and The Lemonheads. He turns one of the album’s more obscure song choices into a ’90s hip-hop gem that should have been his second radio hit.
6. Patti Smith – The Wicked Messenger (Bob Dylan cover)
When Bob Dylan invited Patti Smith to tour with him in 1995, he made her an amazing offer: she could pick any of his songs for them to duet on. She chose “Dark Eyes,” off his underrated 1985 album Empire Burlesque. Perhaps in gratitude, the next year she offered this wonderful cover of a much earlier song on her album Gone Again.
5. Little Richard – I Feel Pretty (West Side Story cover)
Who would have thought Little Richard would record a classic in 1996? Who even knew he was still alive? Well he was, and he did. On an otherwise middling West Side Story tribute album (there is no place for Phil Collins singing “Somewhere”), he gets paired up with the perfect song and gives it every ounce of verve and joyous energy you might hope.
4. Hole – Gold Dust Woman (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Courtney Love has been a tabloid fixture for so long it’s hard to remember the ’90s, when she was more than just Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend – she was a talented star in her own right, fronting Hole. Ric Ocasek of the Cars produced their Fleetwood Mac cover, giving it punch and urgency.
3. The Fugees – Killing Me Softly (Lori Lieberman cover)
The biggest cover of 1996 is also one of the best. I recently interviewed Pras for a book I’m writing about cover songs (due out next fall) and he recalled hearing the Roberta Flack cover of this song on Lauryn Hill’s car radio and telling her, “This is the record you have to do.” They re-recorded a Tribe Called Quest sample for her to sing over, and had one of the most enduring tracks of the year – and the biggest of the band’s career. As Pras put it to me, “‘Killing Me Softly’ was equivalent to our Super Bowl championship, our NBA championship, our Olympic gold medal. We won big.”
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Stagger Lee
Early 20th-century murder ballad “Stagger Lee” has been covered by everyone from Ike and Tina Turner to the Grateful Dead, with varying degrees of menace (Pat Boone sells it about as well as you’d expect). But none compare in terror to Nick Cave’s, who dug up an even darker set of lyrics from the ’60s and added violence in the music to match. The album he released was called, appropriately, Murder Ballads.
1. Cake – I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor cover)
Gloria Gaynor hates this cover of her hit, because the band swore too much. But that’s not all they changed; they made the disco smash near-unrecognizable. It’s one of the most radical reinventions of 1996, and the best.
We’ll have our Best Cover Songs of 2016 list out in December. Until then, browse all our previous lists.