Last year I did a roundup of the Best Cover Songs of 1996. It was a fun project to retroactively compile one of our year-end lists for a year before Cover Me was born. I wanted to do it again this year, but continuing the twentieth-anniversary theme with 1997 seemed a little boring. Turns out 1997 also featured a bunch of Afghan Whigs covers.
So to mix it up, I decided to go a decade further back and look at 1987. Needless to say, the landscape looked very different for covers. For one, far more of that year’s biggest hits were covers than we saw for 1996. The year had #1 cover hits in Heart’s “Alone,” the Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter,” Los Lobos’ “La Bamba,” Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Club Nouveau’s “Lean on Me,” and Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Plus ubiquitous hits that didn’t quite top the charts, but remain staples of the songs-you-didn’t-know-were-covers lists, Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” and George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You.”
A few of those songs make our list, but most do not. This is the best 1987 covers, not the most 1987 covers. If it were the latter, this would win in a landslide:
Oof, there sure was a lot of neon in the ’80s. To help you wipe that from your brain, read (and listen) on for our forty best covers of 1987.
40. Erik Lingdren – I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges cover)
39. Patty Smyth – Downtown Train (Tom Waits cover)
38. k.d. lang and the Reclines – Rose Garden (Lynn Anderson cover)
37. Screaming Broccoli – Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles cover)
36. The Lemonheads – Amazing Grace
35. Ry Cooder – Get Rhythm (Johnny Cash cover)
34. Shy – Devil Woman (Cliff Richard cover)
33. Rosanne Cash – The Way We Mend a Broken Heart (John Hiatt cover)
32. Primal Scream – So Sad About Us (The Who cover)
31. The Replacements – I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (Prince cover)
30. The Fall – There’s a Ghost in My House (R. Dean Taylor cover)
29. Saint Vitus – Thirsty and Miserable (Black Flag cover)
28. INXS – The Loved One (The Loved Ones cover)
27. 10,000 Maniacs – Peace Train (Cat Stevens cover)
26. Deacon Blue – Which Side Are You On? (Florence Reece cover)
25. Whitney Houston – For the Love of You (Isley Brothers cover)
24. Jane’s Addiction – Sympathy for the Devil (Rolling Stones cover)
23. Sandra Bernhard – Little Red Corvette (Prince cover)
22. Skin – Cry Me a River (Julie London cover)
21. Tuxedomoon – I Heard it Through the Grapevine (Smokey Robinson cover)
20. Jennifer Warnes – A Singer Must Die (Leonard Cohen cover)
19. The Window Speaks – Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart (Gene Pitney cover)
18. George Harrison – Got My Mind Set On You (James Ray cover)
17. The Pogues & The Dubliners – The Irish Rover (Traditional cover)
16. Sonic Youth – Hot Wire My Heart (Crime cover)
15. Big Black – The Model (Kraftwerk cover)
14. Nina Simone – Stars (Janis Ian cover)
13. Depeche Mode – Route 66 (Nat King Cole cover)
12. The Bangles – A Hazy Shade of Winter (Simon & Garfunkel cover)
11. Minutemen – Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover)
10. Johnny Cash – Sixteen Tons (Merle Travis cover)
Frankly, it’s surprising that this isn’t one of the best covers of 1957. How did it possibly take Johnny Cash 44 albums to get around to covering this country classic? Maybe it seemed too fresh when Cash began, with Tennessee Ernie Ford taking the coal-mining tune to number one in 1955. Whatever the hold-up, it was worth the wait. And if he’d done it any early, the video wouldn’t have immortalized Cash’s mercifully short-lived mustache
9. The Jesus & Mary Chain – Surfin’ USA (The Beach Boys cover)
J&MC’s distorted thrash through the catch-a-wave classic got a slightly wider release in 1988 with a cleaned-up “Summer Mix,” but its first – and loudest – incarnation, the “April Outtake” version, came out the previous year on the CD single for “Darklands.” It is so raw and squalling that the gospel preaching sample at the end washes over you like a cleansing balm. This song isn’t the sound of surfing; it’s the sound of drowning.
8. Richie Havens – License to Kill (Bob Dylan cover)
Since the 1960s, Richie Havens has been one of the greatest interpreters of the Bob Dylan songbook. Just a few years ago, he showed up artists half his age on the I’m Not There movie soundtrack with his version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” But my favorite Dylan cover of his is this solo acoustic version of “License to Kill” that turns what I’d thought of as a throwaway Dylan song into a classic. It also showcases the insane guitar tuning Haven used to accommodate his huge hands.
7. The Smiths – Work Is a Four-Letter Word (Cilla Black cover)
The song that broke up the Smiths. Johnny Marr hated it so much he quit the band. “That was the last straw, really,” he said in 1992. “I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs.” Sorry Johnny – we’re on Morrissey’s side.
6. R.E.M. – Strange (Wire cover)
A major part of the R.E.M. narrative is them pioneering the so-called “college rock” boom in the 1980s that exploded a few years later into grunge. As the standard bearers there, Nirvana were famous for championing their lesser-known heroes from the Vaselines to the Meat Puppets. Well, R.E.M. pioneered that too, slipping a Wire cover onto their 1987 classic album Document.
5. Terence Trent d’Arby – What a Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong cover)
The formerly massive star Terence Trent D’Arby is one for the where-are-they-now files, except Wikipedia tells me he hasn’t gone anywhere except under the radar. Since changing his name to Sananda Maitreya in 2001, he’s released a huge volume of music, including the triple album Prometheus & Pandora earlier this month, which The Guardian – one of the few places to note the album’s existence – calls “a matrix of conspiracy theory and quasi-mythology.” Huh. Let’s remember a simpler time with this b-side to his five-times-platinum debut Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby.
4. Marianne Faithfull – Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (Moulin Rouge cover)
In 1987, former ’60s star and ingenue Marianne Faithfull was still riding the wave of her 1979 comeback album Broken English. Her ’87 album Strange Weather is every bit as good – as it should be, with Tom Waits and Dr. John writing songs for her. She even re-records her classic Stones cover “As Tears Go By” in a much slower jazz take. That’s certainly the most news-worthy cover, but nothing beats her cabaret take on “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” for me.
3. Heart – Alone (i-Ten cover)
I told you a few of those big #1 hits did make the list, and none more deservedly than Heart’s smash “Alone.” Note for note, it’s not all that different from writers Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly’s 1983 original under the name “i-Ten.” But Ann Wilson’s massive vocal makes it a different beast entirely. It remains Heart’s biggest hit, and the second biggest hit of 1987, period. In a nice touch, Kelly provides some backup harmonies.
2. Siouxsie and the Banshees – This Wheel’s on Fire (Bob Dylan cover)
Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Through the Looking Glass is the best covers album of 1987 with a bullet. Of particular note are their versions of Kraftwerk’s “House of Mirrors” and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” But no song was wilder, or more out of their wheelhouse, than a song Bob Dylan wrote with the Band in Woodstock. Siouxsie Sioux threw out everything one might associate with the pastoral, proto-Americana tune, transforming it into a massive goth-rock anthem.
1. Pet Shop Boys – Always On My Mind (Brenda Lee cover)
This is not only the greatest cover of 1987; there are days you could convince me this might be the greatest cover ever. And, as I describe in my book about covers, the Pet Shop Boys didn’t particularly want to record this song. The duo got stuck doing a televised Elvis tribute alongside Meat Loaf and Boy George, and they picked the first song they heard so they wouldn’t have to listen to any more. The fact they openly hated Elvis – and were apparently unaware of versions by Willie Nelson or anyone else – allowed them a certain irreverence. By the time they were through with it, “Always On My Mind” was no longer a Willie or Elvis song. It was a Pet Shop Boys song through and through.