40. William Shatner – Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
Sometimes when I listen to this song, I think it might be the best cover of 1978. Other times, I think it’s the worst. We’ve defended one of the most widely-mocked covers in history at length before, so I’ll spare you the theorizing here. Instead, I’ll just slide it in at #40. Call it the honorable-mention slot. Best or worst, it’s certainly the year’s most memorable cover.
39. Grace Jones – Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma / Johnny Mercer cover)
Grace Jones’ take on “Autumn Leaves” never conforms to your expectations. On paper, you think it might be aggressive and idiosyncratic, like her soon-to-come takes on Iggy Pop and Tom Petty. But she starts off crooning like Édith Piaf – and in French, no less! Stick with it, because this seven-minute tracks has more surprises to come.
38. Genya Ravan – Back in My Arms Again (The Supremes cover)
Genya Ravan came so close to stardom so many times. Atlantic Records macher Ahmet Ertegun signed her 1960s band Goldie and The Gingerbreads after seeing them open for the Rolling Stones. They released the song “Goin’ Back” before Dusty Springfield, but producer Andrew Loog Oldham withdrew it from the market due to lyric disagreements, paving the way for Dusty’s version to go top-ten three months later. When her band dissolved, Ravan’s luck continued as Clive Davis scooped her up for a solo deal. Oh, and along the way she produced the Dead Boys’ debut. Yet she never had a huge hit. This great Runaways-esque Supremes cover was yet another unfortunately failed attempt.
37. The Black Baron – House of the Rising Sun (Traditional cover)
A disco cover of an unlikely song? Expect to see that a lot on this list. The Black Baron’s “House of the Rising Sun” sets the template for the microgenre: a song everyone knows that’s done in a style no one expected. The music is of course wildly inappropriate to the song’s subject matter – but isn’t wildly inappropriate what disco was all about? It works for me, but your mileage may vary. I imagine that sentence will apply to many of the disco covers.
36. Buzzcocks – I Can’t Control Myself (The Troggs cover)
Disco is one of the two of-the-moment trends prominent on this list. The other, of course, is punk rock. It’s a funny pair, those, one as peppy as pop gets, the other as hard-edged. But, judging from the number of covers in each genre, both shared a sense of history. In a 1976 session (first bootlegged in 1978), the Buzzcocks dive into the Troggs, a band that was punk before punk-rock existed.
35. Judas Priest – Better By You, Better than Me (Spooky Tooth cover)
Few Judas Priest listeners in 1978 probably realized this was a cover; the Spooky Tooth original, despite having been released as a single, went nowhere. Priest’s cover is best remembered today as the subject of a truly ridiculous trial in 1990, when prosecutors alleged that a subliminal message in the song saying “Do it” convinced two kids to kill themselves. As Bill Hicks said in a sometimes-funny comedy routine (harder to enjoy the bits mocking the dead fans): “What performer wants his audience dead?”
34. Nicolette Larson – Lotta Love (Neil Young cover)
Nicolette Larson had sung backup on Neil Young’s 1977 album American Stars ‘n Bars. When she found a “Lotta Love” demo tape on the floor of his car, Young reportedly said, “You want it? It’s yours.” Purists might have been appalled by Young approving, even tacitly, a disco-lite pop version of his song. But say this for it: the hook gets stuck in your head in a way his own performances rarely do.
33. The Cramps – Domino (Roy Orbison cover)
The Cramps’ debut release, a year before the iconic Songs the Lord Taught Us, was the 1979 EP Gravest Hits. Not only were none of the songs included hits; they didn’t even have enough tracks for a full-length record yet. The five tracks were all singles released the previous year, including covers of “Surfin’ Bird” and “Lonesome Town.” But best of all was the b-side to “Human Fly,” a warped and reverb-ed take on a Roy Orbison deep cut. Even this early in their career, it neatly sums up everything the band was about.
32. Elvis Costello – I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself (Burt Bacharach & Hal David cover)
Let’s put this in its proper context: In 1978, Elvis Costello covering Burt Bacharach was still surprising. This was 20 years before the pair were releasing actual albums together. Though it was a sign of thing to come; only three years later, Costello released his great country-covers album Almost Blue. Even in 1978, one year after his debut, he showed he wouldn’t be put in a new-wave box.
31. Etta James – Only Women Bleed (Alice Cooper cover)
When she covered Alice Cooper last month, NYC punk Shilpa Ray wrote, “When I paid closer attention to the lyrics, I realized if sung by a woman this song could be a feminist anthem. Who knew Alice Cooper wrote feminist anthems?” I’ll tell you who knew: Etta James. She saw past the trashy song title – Cooper had to know that one was going to confuse people, coming from him – to the domestic-violence survivors’ anthem beneath.