20. Van Halen – You Really Got Me (The Kinks cover)
There’s a story I love from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concerts in 2009. Ray Davies joined Metallica for “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” The band figured they know the songs cold – the chords aren’t exactly difficult. During their first rehearsal, though, Davies scolded them. “You’re playing the notes fine, but these songs have to swing,” he said (or something to that effect, the quote might have been in Rolling Stone before everything was online). That’s a roundabout way of expressing what makes Van Halen’s Kinks cover so iconic: It may be hard rock, but it still swings.
19. Bryan Ferry – What Goes On (Velvet Underground cover)
I first discovered Ferry’s 1978 album The Bride Stripped Bare after interviewing David Byrne for my book. He talked about how, in a total coincidence, both the Talking Heads and Ferry released new-wavy covers of “Take Me to the River” within months of each other. Byrne and co’s take on that song dwarfs Ferry’s (we’ll get there), but the latter’s covers-heavy album includes another gem, this unexpectedly groovy Velvet Underground cover.
18. Isaac Hayes – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight (James Taylor cover)
James Taylor’s original “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” clocks in at a tight 2:34. Isaac Hayes’ cover? Almost seven minutes long. If you know anything about Hayes beyond “Shaft,” you know what you’re in for with a ballad that length: the smoothest of soul, Barry White-style crooning with just a little more grit. It certainly lives up to expectations.
17. The Dickies – The Sound of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel cover)
And now, for the polar opposite of the Isaac Hayes marathon: The Dickies sprinting through “Sound of Silence” in a minute and a half. They flub lyrics left and right, jump around between verses, and add some of their own lines to boot. Punk irreverence at a punk speed. Nothing more 1978 than that.
16. Johnny Cash – No Expectations (Rolling Stones cover)
I’m surprised Johnny Cash didn’t cover more Stones songs. The two artists occupied similar lanes in their respective genres, as mainstream as anyone, yet a little more raw and ragged than their peers. One regrets that their musical paths didn’t cross more, but Cash made their one bit of overlap count. Fair warning: anyone expecting a template of the later Rick Rubin sessions will be disappointed. Spare, this production is not. Instead, it’s a rollicking bluegrass-pop take on a Beggars Banquet standout.
15. The Jam – David Watts (The Kinks cover)
David Watts was a real person, a concert promoter in Rutland during the Kinks’ early days. Ray Davies told the backstory to Q in 2016: “My brother, Dave, was in a flamboyant mood and I could see David Watts had a crush on him. So I tried to do a deal and persuade Dave to marry David Watts cos he was connected with Rutland brewery. See, that’s how stupid my brain was. I thought if I can get Dave fixed up with this Watts guy I’ll be set up for life and get all the ale I want.” This very specific memory inspired not just one great recording, but a second one a decade later, but a band who had zero connection to the wild backstory. The Jam just loved the music, and turned the Something Else by the Kinks deep cut into a bona fide hit.
14. Suicide – 96 Tears (? & the Mysterians cover)
My first introduction to Suicide was through Bruce Springsteen’s show-closing “Dream Baby Dream” covers in 2005 (played solo on pump organ, no less). They are mesmerizing. They are also an incredibly misleading introduction to Suicide’s music. “96 Tears” is a much better approximation of what the noisy avant-garde duo was all about, loud and jarring and aggressive. But, in its own way, equally mesmerizing.
13. Magazine – Goldfinger (Shirley Bassey cover)
When Skyfall came out, I ranked this the second best cover of a James Bond song ever (no one did it better than Radiohead). The post-punk Buzzcocks offshoot Magazine released this as the b-side of their very second single, “Touch and Go.” The band manages to hang on to the Shirley Bassey grandeur while adding a heavy dose of punk-rock energy.
12. The Boys Next Door – These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ (Nancy Sinatra cover)
Our selections on this (and every) list are based solely on the music. That said…man, do I love this video. A baby Nick Cave barely out of his teens – this was the first piece of music he ever released – surrounded by broken hearts (very on-the-nose set design) like some some darkest-timeline version of the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s certainly an odd song choice, and one hopes he didn’t regret venturing so far afield: when he and new band the Bad Seeds released their covers album Kicking Against the Pricks eight years later, the song selections – Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen – were much less surprising.
11. Back In Time – El Condor Pasa (If I Could) (Simon and Garfunkel cover)
We already heard a punk-rock take on Simon and Garfunkel, so why not bring the disco side of 1978 in? And here’s the craziest part: this group included two disco S&G covers on their first album! They really thought that was the ticket to fame and fortune, apparently. It wasn’t, sad to say, but boy are those covers fun. Their “Sound of Silence” is good, but “El Condor Pasa” tops it. Totally insane, in the best possible way.