‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Today is Madonna’s birthday, when the Material Girl herself turns – well, one isn’t supposed to talk of such things, so let’s just say it’s a nice round number. Round enough for us to devote this month’s Best Covers countdown to her many hits and, in a few cases, underexposed deep cuts.
A very few cases, to be honest. More than anyone we’ve done these lists about before, Madonna remains best known as a singles artist (even Beyoncé now gets thought of as an album artist). As a result, it’s the singles a cover artist tends to focus on – f’rinstance, the song “Like a Prayer” has been covered more than every other track on the album Like a Prayer combined. The repeated dipping into the same dozen or so songs sets the bar pretty high. You can’t just tweak a tune here and adjust it there. To stand out amidst the million other “La Isla Bonita” covers, an artist needs to attempt something radical.
Many have taken up the challenge. Not one cover on our list would you confuse with Madonna’s version for a second. These artists translate her dance-pop smashes into garage-punk, gypsy-jazz, reggae-soul, and a few genres that no amount of hyphenates will do justice (just wait ’til you reach that Sonic Youth side project).
So get into the groove below. And, if you have any favorite covers we missed, express yourself in the comments!
25. Marc Almond – Like a Prayer
It’s Sgt. Pepper disco horns with the slick and smooth Marc Almond. The former Soft Cell front man and solo vocalist contributed this energetic six-minute romp to a special 1992 covers compilation released by British music magazine NME titled Ruby Trax: The NME’s Roaring Forty. In addition to being custom-built for club play, the song also slips in a short homage to the Mission: Impossible theme song. – Frank Minishak
24. Woodhands – Papa Don’t Preach
The first of a couple songs off Paper Bag Records’ off-the-wall True Blue tribute album, Woodhands’ bonkers “Papa Don’t Preach” soundtracks the relatively serious subject matter with some sort of psychedelic-screamo-MIDI-dance hybrid. “Shit is so fucked up right now!” singer Dan Werb hollers at one point. That succinctly describes the narrator’s personal life – and also this cover. – Ray Padgett
23. Richard Cheese – Like a Virgin
Heresy, including the cheese-meister in a serious covers blog like this, dissing both Madonna and the integrity of the whole piece equally am I? Well, no, but this is my problem with Ms. Ciccone: she does her songs so darn well herself that they cover, largely, badly. Many Madonna covers get let down either by shaky singing or poor arrangements – charges seldom leveled against Madonna, at least once she hit her prime. (I am ignoring those now saying squeaky.) At least Richard Cheese accepts the entire kitsch of his approach, searching for nothing more than a cheap laugh. But it is – go on, admit it – quite clever. And it makes me smile. – Seuras Og
22. The Dynamics – Music
French reggae band The Dynamics just missed last month’s “Best Rolling Stones Covers” list with “Miss You,” and that same album includes a funky take on a rarely-covered Madonna hit. Stretching this rather flimsy song to 7:20 seems like pushing your luck – is “Music” on anyone’s list of top-tier Madonna jams? – but the rhythm is so strong, the Dynamics could happily keep it going twice as long still. They add rap breaks (in French accents) and sound effects, but all else pails to the soul-disco groove you could follow endlessly. – Jane Callaway
21. John Wesley Harding – Like a Prayer
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” remains one of her highest-praised songs. She wasn’t out to write fluffy dance-pop this time around; instead, she sang about devotion, and whether it was to God or Man didn’t matter when the choir sang. John Wesley Harding’s cover showed that the song didn’t need to sound big to be great; one man and an acoustic could deliver the message just as effectively. “Of course I wasn’t blind to the humor of the situation,” Harding says in the liner notes of his covers compilation Greatest Other People’s Hits, but he wasn’t there to make a joke out of a song he loved. “I genuinely thought I could play a really beautiful version of it,” he says. Sure enough, he was right. – Patrick Robbins
20. David Yzhaki – Vogue
For reasons I can’t figure, “Vogue” gets covered far less often than other Madonna hits. The best of the small bunch is Israeli singer David Yzhaki’s live take – though equal credit is due his huge band, featuring backing singers and a wildly soloing sax player. They turn the dance song about dancing into an upbeat lounge-jazz number, which works better than you’d think. Yzhaki earns bonus points for skipping through the doubletime “Greta Garbo, and Monroe” breakdown with style. – Ray Padgett
19. Jonathan Wilson – La Isla Bonita
In the hands of Jonathan Wilson, the song is taken into some next level universe on a planetary cloud. Very much recognizable once the verse kicks, the beautiful island is psychedelic in all the best of ways. There is even a yellow submarine sitting on the dock waiting to be set free. – Walt Falconer
18. Cassandra Beck – Material Girl
Cassandra Beck’s jazzy cover of “Material Girl” took the early MTV classic and turned it into a song fit for an evening at the cabaret. She included it on her 2014 EP, entitled The Sexy EP, which also contained jazz-style renditions of Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and Van Halen’s “Jump.” While snapping her fingers along with the piano, Beck sang the song as if it was written in the ‘50s instead of the ‘80s. By so doing, she gave it a certain timeless quality that was often lacking in the music of the synth-pop decade. – Curtis Zimmermann
17. Uncle Monsterface – Like a Prayer
In case the name “Uncle Monsterface” didn’t make one thing clear, this sock-puppet video certainly will: this band does not demand to be take seriously. In 2009, they brought their wacky sense of humor to five nutty covers of bands like the Aquabats and Oingo Boingo on the free EP Jokey Jingles! Ultimate Dance Party Mix: Volume 3! (there was no volume one or two). Their amateur-as-hell Madonna cover is the best of the bunch, sounding like a bunch of high schools goofing around on Garageband and having the time of their lives. – Ray Padgett
16. Ryan Adams – Like a Virgin
Ryan Adams’ live acoustic cover of this Madonna classic routinely pops up on lists of his best cover songs, and it’s easy to see why. He sings it slowly, almost as if it was a spoken word piece, with just an acoustic guitar. As he enunciates each word, one can almost imagine the confused audience members asking themselves, “Is this what I think it is?” until he hits the chorus. And score one for inclusivity: Adams didn’t genderbend the lyrics, leaving all the boys to swoon too. – Curtis Zimmermann
15. E (of Eels) – Angel
Weirdly, the internet offers little evidence that this cover even exists. Mark Oliver Everett, sometimes known as “e,” main man in the band eels, recorded this in the early 1990s for a never-released covers EP. It eventually surfaced on a fan-traded cassette called Ultra Rare Trax. Three years later, it showed up on a Scandinavian covers promo called Chartbusters: 20-I-Toppar (where I found it). And – that’s it. It’s admittedly not easy to Google someone who goes by “e,” but as far as I can tell, it never made it online. Until now. It’s a beautiful acoustic ballad with steel guitar, layered harmonies, and moving singing. He should really release it properly. – Ray Padgett
14. The Chapin Sisters – Borderline
Simple and stripped back, the Sisters apply a taste and channeling of the Emmylou, Linda and Dolly recordings. No messing around, just a mellow fiddle, the banjo and their harmonies. To say any more would be over-embellishment. Just absorb it. – Seuras Og
13. Me First And The Gimme Gimmes – Crazy for You
Best known for their punk covers, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes gave “Crazy for You” a decidedly different spin on their 2014 album Are We No Men? We Are Diva. The group played the song in an acoustic Buffett-esque style, blending in bits of yacht rock saxophone. One could almost picture Rupert Holmes or members of Toto sipping piña coladas in the background. Throughout, the band included some long pauses, as if someone was going to call out “1-2-3-4” and throttle the tempo into full punk-rock overload. But no, they kept the laid-back groove and the cover is all the better for it. – Curtis Zimmermann
12. Detholz! – Like a Virgin
Detholz! would sit just before Devo in the record-store bins, and the company fits. The Chicago quintet carry some of their Akron forefathers’ (Mr.) DNA, from the herky-jerky rhythm section to the sudden synth blasts. Devo radically reinvented every song they covered, and Detholz!’s “Like a Virgin” comes close to that level of deconstruction. – Ray Padgett
11. Switchblade Symphony – Lucky Star
Dark wave duo Switchblade Symphony slow down the pace to an electro-crawl groove on their contribution to 2000’s Virgin Voices 2: Tribute to Madonna. The arrangement is enhanced by singer Tina Root’s “anti-Madonna” stage persona, evident in the accompanying video. The now defunct San Francisco-based goth rockers also evoke some early Prince in this winner. – Frank Minishak
10. Ciccone Youth [Sonic Youth] – Into the Groove(y)
A quick side project from the members of Sonic Youth, the song is featured on 1989 novelty The Whitey Album. The deliberate low-fi production value provides room for Thurston Moore’s vocals to float around Madonna samples in an intoxicating way. Given the slow dirge mood at play, you would think the song would not captivate. It really does. – Walt Falconer
9. Glass Cake – Like a Prayer
If you could use one word to describe Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”, “stripped down” would not be the best choice. First of all, that would be two words. More importantly, the Madonna classic has so many different things happening at once, and all of them turned to 11. Glass Cake, on the other hand, is as minimalist as they come. One keyboard, one maraca, and two vocal tracks reveal that, underneath all the instrumentation of the original, there are some pretty powerful lyrics and strong songwriting. This gem might find its way onto your playlists if you’re a fan of the original, but not always in the mood for such a lavish production. – Mike Misch
8. Big-Box Store – Die Another Day
In an online poll connected to the “James Bonding” podcast, fans rank Die Another Day the worst Bond film of all time. And the worst Bond theme song? That’s right: “Die Another Day.” I heartily disagree with both assessments, but we need only focus on the second here. “Die Another Day” is a lively and fun theme at heart, only somewhat marred by aggressive industrial-pop production and Madonna’s husky “Sigmund Freud” whispers. So remove those things – as Big-Box Store did on a recent Bond-songs tribute album – and the actual song shines through. – Ray Padgett
7. Jon Auer – Beautiful Stranger
When you think of the Austin Powers soundtrack hit “Beautiful Stranger”, do you immediately hear Madonna’s infectious singalong “Da-da-da da-da-da-da da da-da”? Yeah, baby, yeah! Jon Auer covers this romantic pop song using a cello and an acoustic guitar, taking out the ’60s-pastiche keyboard. You had me at cello, though. The Posie delivers reserved vocals which makes for a mellower sound. However even with Auer’s somber sound, I still quietly sing: “Da-da-da da-da-da-da da da-da”… – John Lenhardt
6. The Valiant Thieves – Material Girl
The Alberta jazz quartet the Valiant Thieves only released a single album, tackling eight 1980s hits like “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” and “Take On Me.” An oft-attempted gimmick, but rarely this ably. They perfectly tread the line of creating cross-genre covers of quality rather than mere novelty. Led by Ann Vriend’s beautiful singing, “Material Girl” finds some heart and soul in a silly song. It’s been a decade now, but I’m still hoping for a sequel. – Jane Callaway
5. Caught a Ghost – Like a Virgin
I recently got married, and one of the best parts in planning out the ceremony was deciding on the music, a task I was very happy to take on. I listened to a lot of covers in the winnowing-down process. As I listened to Caught a Ghost, an artist I discovered a couple years ago for Cover Me, I realized that the verses of “Like a Virgin,” as he sang them, resonated with my relationship with my blushing bride. The trouble was, then the chorus would kick in, and I knew everyone would start thinking about sex, which wasn’t my point. So I eliminated the song from ceremony-soundtrack consideration (though I had no trouble with putting it on the reception playlist).
But its resonance will always stay with me, thanks to Jesse Nolan’s soulful vocal and arrangement. Now I can truly appreciate the message Madonna wrote to Quentin Tarantino after seeing Reservoir Dogs‘s opening discourse about the song: “It’s not about dick. It’s about love.” – Patrick Robbins
4. The Meat Purveyors – The Madonna Trilogy
Kudos to whoever wrote the Meat Purveyors’ unusually good band bio, calling them “the skunk tossed into the tent of stoic bluegrass revivalism” and “more Brothers Ramone than Brothers Osborne.” This Austin quartet put the “alt” in alt-country, pushing genre boundaries on their own songs and cover selections. For a great 2002 Bloodshot Records comp, the Purveyors tackled not one Madonna song – plenty bold as is – but three: “Like a Virgin,” “Lucky Star,” and “Burning Up.” They blended them into a seven-minute tour-de-force they dubbed “The Madonna Trilogy.” Individually, any one of these three covers would be impressive. Put together, they sound like a rock opera. The Meat Purveyors, doing their part to keep Austin weird. – Ray Padgett
3. Tommy Emmanuel feat. Amanda Shires – Borderline
Despite being a fan of great guitarists, somehow I was completely unaware of veteran Australian finger-picking master Tommy Emmanuel until I saw him perform a mind- blowing solo set a couple of years ago at the Clearwater Festival. Earlier this year, he released Accomplice One, featuring collaborations with artists including Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell, Mark Knopfler, David Grisman, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jerry Douglas. His cover of “Borderline” features singer, songwriter, fiddler, and sometime guitarist Amanda Shires, and reimagines the dance pop confection as an emotional ballad in waltz time. Emmanuel steps back and allows Shires’ voice, with its country quaver, and her violin, to take center stage, while he provides delicate acoustic and electric guitar backup and harmony vocals (and, in fact, also plays the bass and drums). The cover offers a depth that the glossy original lacked. – Jordan Becker
2. Bill Frisell – Live To Tell
An instrumental? Sure, as Frisell picks the single most beautiful piece of musical phrasing from Madonna’s entire canon: the descending triplet of are-they-even-chords as the chorus starts to unfold. A more glorious combination I have yet to hear, evocative and defining the song in an instant. Frisell plays little around the vocal line; it is the bass to which you should be listening during these verses. As his output reveals, Frisell is shameless lover of pop music, hearing below the surface while enjoying the tune. – Seuras Og
1. PS I Love You – Where’s the Party
First off: Yes, he does mean to sound like. J. Mascis is a fan, so who are you to say Paul Saulnier’s voice-cracking-on-every-note style hurts your ears? Once you get used to it – and you will – you might find that frantic yelping works wonderfully against the massive guitar squall and motoring post-punk drums. The band tackled the challenge of a deep cut for that same True Blue tribute album, turning a song only Madonna superfans know into one of the most revelatory reinventions we’ve heard. “I want to lose control,” goes the chorus. In Saulnier’s unhinged delivery, it sounds like he already has. Play it loud. – Ray Padgett
Check out the Best Covers Ever of Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Pink Floyd, and more here.
No best cover, ever?
I’m totally dissapointed…
Treacherous Jaywalkers – La Isla Bonita (1989)
Borderline by The Flaming Lips
Drop Nineteens “Angel” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHHqcNqllo&frags=pl%2Cwn
And same song, by Long Fin Killie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOQI-0n08FA&frags=pl%2Cwn
Joanne O”Dowd – Borderline
Joanne O”Dowd – Miles Away
Groove Armada – Crazy for you