10. Crooked Fingers – The River
Let’s take a road trip from New Jersey to North Carolina. When you hear the banjo, you’re getting close. Eric Bachmann channels more Tom Waits than his own band Archers of Loaf here, and that’s just fine to tell this story of survival and salvation. – Sean Balkwill
9. The Gresham Flyers – Magic
Other tribute albums boast bigger names, but to my ears the best Springsteen tribute ever is 2009’s cumbersomely-titled Play Some Pool, Skip Some School, Act Real Cool: A Global Pop Tribute To Bruce Springsteen. You’ve probably heard of none of the contributing artists – and this, on a 45-track set (counting the equally essential Play More Pool bonus EP). At one point, a dozen different covers vied for the slot on the list, so let me shout out some honorable mentions: Town Bike’s punk “Radio Nowhere,” Travis Elborough spooky spoken-word “My Hometown,” and The Vatican Cellars’ cello-folk harmonized “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” But in the end, The Gresham Flyers’ stunning post-punk reimagining of a newer song I’ve never heard anyone else cover couldn’t be beat. Sharp and jagged, it boasts echoes of New Order and Interpol. The sound works, and leaves me hungry more for more postpunk Bruce. – Ray Padgett
8. Everything But the Girl – Tougher Than the Rest
Everything But the Girl’s Acoustic album from 1992 was half covers and half remakes of their own songs, giving a quiet jazz-pop glamour to everything it touched. By stripping away the synth sheen from “Tougher Than the Rest,” they give a musical background that matches the lyrics in a bid for immortality. – Patrick Robbins
7. Lucinda Williams – Factory
If Springsteen is the commentator in this song, Lucinda is this song. Imagining her hauling her butt out of bed, hungover and bleary, and making her weary way to work at some godawful hour seems strangely no great stretch. Her voice is as wracked and ruined as only she can summon. The angular echoes of the guitar, by Bill Frisell no less, provide a counterpoint. For an individual who has featured on so many tribute albums, Lucinda actually featured this on of her own records, 2016’s Ghosts of Highway 20. Live, she has a record of featuring occasional Springsteen songs in her encores, notably “The Rising.” Springsteen may not, to my knowledge anyway, have played any of her tunes, but he did join her on stage, memorably, in London, on a night off from his Seeger Sessions tour. – Seuras Og
6. Mary J. Blige ft. Kendrick Lamar – American Skin (41 Shots)
Mary J. Blige memorable sang “American Skin” right to Hillary Clinton when the two sat down together before the 2016 election. Though first performed in 2001, the song proved sadly prescient to the modern era of regular police shootings. Despite their recent summit, Blige wisely eschewed a Notorious H.R.C. guest verse on the recorded version, turning to the most potent political rapper of our era: Kendrick Lamar. Strangely, after leaking online in 2016, the song never saw a proper release – you won’t find it via any official channels. They should reconsider. Unfortunately, the powerful performance remains every bit as as relevant three years later. – Ray Padgett
5. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires – Born in the U.S.A.
Extolled by Ronald Reagan and others as a patriotic anthem, the song is, in fact, a harsh criticism of the mistreatment of American veterans returning from Vietnam, and a lament about the state of working-class Americans. Springsteen’s early acoustic versions highlighted this true meaning of the song, but the full band version, with its oh-so-80s gated snare drum, sounded triumphant, and clearly confused those who didn’t really pay attention. For the Dead Man’s Town tribute album, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires perform a cover that clearly demonstrates that they understood Springsteen’s message. As Isbell told Rolling Stone about one of his favorite songs, “I love that the song paints a picture of struggle in the face of the American dream, and the irony in the chorus is delivered with such force that it nearly transcends irony altogether.” Featuring a new melody, and Isbell singing and playing acoustic guitar, this version is haunting, especially because of Shires’ violin. – Jordan Becker
4. Alabama Shakes – Adam Raised a Cain
Alabama Shakes’s cover was the leadoff track on the MusicCares tribute to The Boss in 2013. The heavy reverb to the guitars is a nice addition to their version, which hews closely to the original. Brittany Howard’s iconic growl adds another layer of angst and turmoil to a song that already featured those traits in Springsteen’s evolving songcraft. – Barton Price
3. The Band – Atlantic City
Nebraska is not a radio-friendly album, but it’s a fan favorite, packed with stripped-down stories of folks getting by the best they can. “Atlantic City” is the most covered track off the album and probably the most recognizable for casual fans. The Band stand out from the crowd here by turning in an accordion-driven version that sounds like it was performed in a barn. Levon Helm’s familiar voice is strong here. At first, one wonders if the upbeat music doesn’t quite fit the desperation of the lyrics. But maybe, in contrast to the resignation in Springsteen’s original, in this version there’s a chance that Atlantic City really will be the answer. – Mike Misch
2. Sarah McLeod – Dancing in the Dark
Folky ballad versions of “Dancing in the Dark” are a dime a dozen these days. Don’t get me wrong; the formula works, and many are quite good (see #39 for a perfect example). But this one tweaks the formula. McLeod begins with a quiet string quartet take – beautiful, though not unexpected. But wait, what’s that kick drum kicking in for verse two? That lone kick presages a gradual transition to full-on electronica. By the end, the cover sounds nothing like it did at the beginning, the strings long gone and the energy increased tenfold. The combination shouldn’t work, but McLeod pulls it off, making it the most surprising and exciting cover of one of Bruce most oft-covered songs. – Ray Padgett
1. Tortoise & Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Thunder Road
For anyone not very familiar with the lyrics to the Springsteen version, it’s very difficult to pick this out as a cover. The squeaky vocal delivery by Bonnie “Prince” Billy doesn’t follow the original cadence, and the spacey guitars and synths sound like a completely new song. But on repeat listens, there are parts, like the opening instrumental, that seem to be a variation on the opening harmonica in the original. There are elements buried here that pay tribute even though it sounds like a complete reimagining. – Mike Misch
Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, and Pink Floyd.
What about Dave Edmunds’ “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)”? It’s a great cover and in my opinion, a far better version than Bruce’s own.
We excluded covers that were released before Bruce’s own recordings. That took out Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” several versions of “Fire,” and a bunch of others – including Dave Edmunds. Bruce gave away a lot of great songs!
Fair enough. Thanks for the explanation. I hereby rescind my vociferous objection. :)
Bruce Hamilton, A great song! I loved it from Edmunds before I knew about Bruce. Both versions are terrific!
What about the Rage cover of “Ghost of Tom Joad”? Should have gone in the middle of this list somewhere.
This list is a joke. Where’s Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s ‘Blinded by the Night?
*blinded by the light?
Normally I love your articles this one, missed the mark completely! So many horrible covers and you missed so many amazing ones! Thumbs down. Especially on his birthday.
Reason to Believe by The Beat Farmers! A great cover off my favorite album of all time (Tales of the New West). Also agree with the Dave Edmunds suggestion mentioned earlier. These 2 omissions alone tank this list.
Basia Bulat – Glory Days
Downbound Train covered by The Smithereens ……Great band ……New Jersey covering New Jersey. Rocks harder than original.
No The Clarks “The River” invalidates this list completely.
John Wesley Harding doing Jackson Cage should be number 1. That it is not on the list is at all is unforgivable.
Roger Meadows Taylor – Racing in the Street
Glad to see the love for the Band’s version of Atlantic City. My Number 1 but 3 is close enough. Nice article. Plenty of stuff I hadn’t heard before.
So I have a Springs Covers playlist and I believe the only overlap between this one and mine is The Band’s take on Atlantic City, though I scrolled through quickly so perhaps there are others.. Here is my list:
Devils and Dusts – Doc Bones and the Rattlesnakes
Johnny 99 – Mark Erelli and Jeffery Foucault
NYC Serenade – Pete Yorn
Atlantic City – The Band
Born in the USA – Richard Shindell
If I Should Fall Behind – Rose Cousins and Mark Erelli
Darkness on the Edge of Town – The Winter Blankets
Rosalita – The Rigbees
Thunder Road – Hayward Williams
The River – The Clarks
Reason to Belive – Aimee Mann and Sean Penn
State Trooper – Tony Lucca
I’m on Fire – Harry Manx and Kevin Breit
Tougher than the Rest – Shawn Colvin
Born to Run – Something for Kate
The Ghost of Tom Joad – Martyn Joseph
Further on Up the Road – Johnny Cash
I take that back, Shawn Colvin is on both lists.
Lucy Kaplansky’s Thunder Road
Dave Alvin, Seeds
Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s version of Born to Run is surprisingly good. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g5lMRzPLZw
Billy Bragg is from East London (Barking), not South London
That was a horrid version, not as bad as their cover of ‘spirit in the night’ though.
this was meant to reply to tommiec’s comment. In my opinion, Patty Griffin’s version of “Stolen Car” should have been included in this list even though she didn’t stray from the original at all.
Wow. Such a miss.
“Because the Night”, by 10,000 Maniacs was super
“Fire”, by The Pointer Sisters was sublime
The eponymous offering “Blinded By the Light”, by Manfred Mann – most people don’t even know it’s a cover
“Pink Cadillac”, by Natalie Cole…yeah, it was a bit electro silly, but so is the song – stellar vocals though
So. Many. More. Better. Than. This. List.
We excluded songs Springsteen co-wrote, which ruled out “Because the Night,” and covers that were released before Bruce’s own recordings, which ruled out “Fire.” We stand by our Manfred Mann pick at #46, and our ranking Graham Parker’s “Pink Cadillac” higher than Natalie Cole’s.
I’m sorry you couldn’t enjoy a single minute of these three and a half hours of Bruce Springsteen covers. I’m going to guess you haven’t heard more than half of them before; maybe once you hear them as many times as the ones you listed, you’ll understand why we thought so well of them.
On the plus side, you have so many more better ones you can enjoy. In the end, that means we’re both enjoying the work of others performing these great songs, and that enjoyment can only make the world a better place.
Aussie band Ponyface did all of Nebraska. Worth a listen.
These things are fun because you discover artists you maybe weren’t exposed to before. This biggest ‘miss’ for my money is Townes Van Zandt’s great cover of ‘Racing in the Streets.’
I love Townes, but Emmylou Harris’ cover of Racing in the Street is amazing and she sings all the lyrics.
This is superb. Maybe not an official cover but still so good. Check it out.
Tom Morello and Jim James – The Ghost of Tom Joad And Jeff Healey – Adam Raised a Cain. Just like many things the good is forgotten and the lame live forever
Probably sacrilege to even mention it, but I really liked Big Daddy covering ‘Dancing In The Dark’.
We appreciate the mention…Bob Wayne of the Rhino band “Big Daddy.”
Hey, Bob – you guys are great fun. Bought a bunch of your tracks and listen regularly.
How could you not include “Highway Patrolman” by Dar Williams?
It is one of the best cover songs ever. It takes that song to the next level.
Greg Kihn (Khin?)’s “Thunder Road” is outstanding and overlooked here.
I’m genuinely stunned at how many people post comments disagreeing in such rude ways. Like there are right and wrong answers in music appreciation! But then I remember — the internet lets people show how they really are, and many are rude and terrible.
At any rate, I don’t agree with every choice, but I appreciate them all. I think it’s fun to hear new things, even though I only like some of them. Lots of cool versions and reinterpretations of old favorites here. Thank you so much!
I have a suggestion for a cover not included for anyone looking to go beyond what is here. Sharon Van Etten did a gorgeous voice-and-piano rendition of “Drive All Night” for for The A.V. Club’s “Pioneering” series. At times it seems maybe her voice isn’t up to it (to be fair, it’s a single take performed live), but by the end there’s real passion in her cry. She really gets into it. I love her. It’s a really wonderful cover!