May 242021

Go back to the beginning

10. Youssou N’Dour – Chimes of Freedom

What was that I said about African artists way back at #22? If there were ever any doubt, Youssou N’Dour captures this song and steals it forever away from the more stolid tropes of the northern hemisphere. Sung partly in French and partly in his native Wolof, this Senegalese ambassador of song drops in little English, outside the repeated last line of every verse. His aspiration was that the song should represent the struggle for survival faced by many every day in Africa. With his voice mixed high in the mix over a swirl of synthesized keyboard, it is as the talking drums kick in that it really kicks off, accordion dipping in and out with a big grin of pleasure mandatory. N’Dour actually put himself subsequently where his songs were preaching, becoming a minister in the Senegalese government in 2012. Still active musically, he is a true representative for his country and his culture. His championing of the musical tradition forms part of that, his appropriation of Dylan strengthening and validating that for everywhere else. – Seuras Og

9. Dirty Projectors – As I Went Out One Morning

Bitte Orca, the 2009 album by The Dirty Projectors (led by David Longstreth) is a bona fide, genre-defying 21st century classic. Soulful and folky, unpredictable and accessible, it remains an endlessly compelling listen. The band’s cover of “As I Went Out One Morning” was featured as the closing track on the expanded edition of the album and is right in line with its wondrous and crazy flavor. The band forsake the sinewy groove of the original, pick up the pace, and imbue the song with real tension and urgency, thanks to some in-your-face insistent string flourishes and strident backing vocals courtesy of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. It’s anxious, off-kilter and hypnotically good. – Hope Silverman

8. Angelique Kidjo – Lay Lady Lay

Maybe it’s this song’s descending chord progression, or Dylan’s curiously low croon, but covers of “Lay, Lady, Lay” tend to be sleepy. (It’s about a big brass bed, yes, but sleep is probably not the activity Dylan was suggesting.) By contrast, Anjelique Kidjo’s rendition is almost startling in the assertive way it opens, and it goes on to cut against the grain of the original with its exuberance. She brings a worldliness to the song, where Dylan’s version is simply world-weary (effectively so). African percussion, Caribbean guitar figures, and foreign language phrases bring the song to life: it’s a polyglot and polyrhythmic performance.

Then there’s the energized delivery of the lyrics, with modest melodic departures from the source. Kidjo’s arrangement involves a fair bit of production work: her multi-tracked vocals are layered on in some sections, while in others she becomes her own chorus. A soft chant appears as a rhythmic element part way through, and then is gone. At another point she sings a cappella. The arrangement is never static, something is always happening. It’s a song that’s busy being born, not busy dying. – Tom McDonald

7. Jason & the Scorchers – Absolutely Sweet Marie

I was utterly unaware of this song until I heard this popular cover by Jason & The Scorchers in 1983, which probably tells you more about my relationship with Dylan, which went from early knowledge of only his most famous songs to a more recent deeper appreciation, than the quality of the song. Although “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” a song about lost (or at least missing) love, was overshadowed by a number of other songs on Blonde on Blonde, it is filled with so many great lyrics, images and metaphors, including probably the most famous line from the song: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”

That outlaw spirit informs Jason & The Scorchers’ rollicking, twangy proto-alt-country rip though the song, which rearranges and truncates it a bit, adding to its intensity. And there’s something about how singer Jason Ringenberg adds a drawled “darlin’” after the “live outside the law” line that is utterly charming. – Jordan Becker

6. Mercury Rev – Gotta Serve Somebody (Live in Denmark ’06)

One of the most obscure covers on this list, Mercury Rev’s turbulent squall through “Gotta Serve Somebody” never got a proper recording. The only version on YouTube comes from, according to the description, a garden party. And though Mercury Rev crush the performance there too, “garden party” is about the least appropriate setting for this torrent of noise and distortion. This audio-only live version from a proper Denmark concert does their version more justice. Shame they never brought it to a wider audience. – Jane Callaway

5. The Brothers And Sisters – All Along the Watchtower

Gospel choir The Brothers and Sisters didn’t belong to any church. Rather, the group collected 27 unknown Los Angeles session musicians for a stunning tribute album aptly titled Dylan’s Gospel. Every track is divine, but their “All Along the Watchtower” stands above. Rare is the “Watchtower” that owes little to Hendrix, but this version doesn’t even include a guitar that I can hear. There is a killer church band, but with 27 singers, you know the vocals stand above. It starts as a near-solo performance by a singer whose name I can’t track down, but like a distant tidal wave, the 26 other singers slowly come nearer and nearer. By the last verse, they crash over her, taking the lead vocals for their own as the formerly-lead singer fades into the background. It’s a bravura performance all around that will bring chills no matter how many times you’ve herd this song covered. Several Brothers and Sisters went on to greater fame, including Merry Clayton, who sang “Gimme Shelter” with the Rolling Stones later that same year. – Ray Padgett

4. Siouxsie and the Banshees – This Wheel’s on Fire

When they recorded “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Siouxsie and the Banshees didn’t know it was a Dylan song. They thought they were covering Julie Driscoll. Which makes sense, because the idea of Siouxsie Sioux singing these Dylan lyrics feels absurd on its face. There’s something old-timey about them, and there’s nothing old-timey about the Banshees. But, as with basically everything she ever did, Siouxsie Sioux totally sells this extremely-’80s version of this song. If you don’t listen to the words, you could mistake it for a Banshees original. That’s why it’s so high up on our list; the Banshees somehow found one of their own songs hidden within a Bob-and-The-Band composition. – Riley Haas

3. The Roots – Masters of War

Before the Roots became fixtures of late night television, they were hip-hop’s answer to the jam band world, known for their intense live performances. The band performed a live version of “Masters of War” at a 2007 Dylan tribute show that quickly became a part of its repertoire. The song plays like an explosive soundtrack to the apocalypse, reworking the ‘60s protest song for America’s never-ending 21st century conflicts.

Guitarist/vocalist “Captain” Kirk Douglas opens singing the lyrics to the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner” (something Leon Russell first did with the track in the ‘70s). The song shifts into a brooding slow jam while Questlove plays a marching-band style drum beat. At one point “Taps” is played on a tuba. In another section, Quest and Kirk shift into full Black Sabbath mode, transforming the song into a type of proto-metal. This is followed by an even harder drum solo. Towards the end they slowly fade out, perhaps exhausted by the never-ending cycle of war and death itself. There are many performances available on YouTube, but check out this fan-shot video from Coachella 2007 as it captures the interplay between the band and their rapturous audience. – Curtis Zimmermann

2. The White Stripes – Isis / Love Sick / One More Cup of Coffee / Outlaw Blues

Back in the days when Jack called Meg his “big sister,” the White Stripes covered everyone from Son House to Dolly Parton to Iggy Pop on their peerless records and tours. Dylan was always the regular source of material, and he would go on to become “an incredible mentor,” “father,” and “friend” for Jack. The singing Stripe clearly learned from the best, but also proved that he instinctively knew his way around a Bob tune, as an old soul, with the blues in his heart, and seemingly first-hand experience of the wounds that love can inflict. He shared Dylan’s affinity for narrative songs and ballads, too, and he had a gift for putting a fresh mark and a raw finish on a timeless story, as well as a screeching guitar solo.

The White Stripes’ rendition of “One More Cup of Coffee,” on the duo’s attention-grabbing debut album of 1999, is the greatest example of what can happen when a Dylan song of genius proportions meets with a shit-hot garage-rock act. We find one of Jack’s most haunted vocals here, piling pathos into the tale of a man thwarted in his love for a gypsy girl whose loyalty is to “the stars above.” His moody guitar lines merge with a church organ to create a desolate atmosphere, while Meg’s attentive drumming underscores the drama brilliantly. For Jack, you see, sings of profound loss, and he’s utterly compelling as the guy who must walk away from she whose “heart is like an ocean.” He’s chilling, too, when he puts all the dread imaginable into that final, apocalyptic chorus: “One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go / To the valley beloooow.”

Jack and Meg also bring their unique live energy to bear on Dylan’s late-period masterwork “Love Sick,” given official release on their 2002 “Fell in Love With a Girl” CD single. They nail it, in large part due to Jack’s wonderfully crazed and untamed performance (check out his wild mop of hair in the video), he being well cast as the broken narrator of this sorrowful Time out of Mind tune. He plays organ like somebody out of a horror movie, as he sings the bleak lines, “I’m walkin’ through streets that are dead / Walkin’ with you in my head.” Then, as he switches to guitar, he belts out the line “And the clouds are weeping!” as Meg’s drums crash into life. His cathartic guitar solo is also extraordinary, and all the ingredients of a top-drawer Dylan cover are present and correct.

The Stripes worked similar magic on “Isis,” the Desire ballad that Dylan wrote with Jacques Levy, and “Outlaw Blues,” from Bringing it all Back Home, both having been performed at shows from 2001 to 2004. They additionally adopted “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Blind Willie McTell,” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” all distinguished by primal dynamics, sudden a cappella sections, and unhinged vocals. To top it all, they gained the approval of the legendary songwriter himself, who invited Jack to play several of these songs with him in March 2004, when he sold out the State Theater in Detroit. Bob and Jack became friends, and even hinted at a collaboration. While we wait, a White Stripes compilation of Dylan covers would work just fine. Make it happen, Jack! – Adam Mason

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – All Along the Watchtower

Let’s trot out that cliché: so much has already been written about Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” – including right here – it’s hard to know what’s left to say. It’s Hendrix’s biggest US hit. It’s been in a ton of movies. We hope that people reading our full list will discover many covers they hadn’t heard before. This most assuredly will not be one of them.

Hendrix’s version of the song is far more famous than Dylan’s original. Sure, that’s not the only Dylan song where that’s happened, but it’s arguably the most famous example. Adding to its success, Dylan liked it so much that he started playing his live version closer to Hendrix’s than his own. There are only a few covers that change how the original songwriter performs the song. Much like Jeff Buckley with “Hallelujah,” Hendrix’s version is now the definitive version.

And there’s a reason: Hendrix’s version utterly transforms Dylan’s original, as thoroughly as Aretha Franklin did with “Respect.” Listen to the iconic pounding opening chords with that vibraslap that have no equivalent in the original. To Hendrix’s famous lead guitar part which replaces Dylan’s harmonica. To Jimi’s forceful phrasing of Dylan’s words. To his infamous guitar solo – elaborate even for Hendrix – in which he uses three different techniques.

It may not be a huge surprise, but it’s number one for a reason. It’s a Jimi Hendrix song now. Dylan’s original sounds like a quaint artifact in comparison. – Riley Haas

Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Madonna, and ABBA.

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  13 Responses to “The 100 Best Bob Dylan Covers Ever”

Comments (13)
  1. Hope Silverman really really nails #98 for me (its my #1)…taking the complicated time, place and point of view of Tangled up in Blue and having the 2 of them sing it to each other is unreal.

  2. Great list. Some very well known, some really obscure and lots in between. Only one cover missing – Rod Stewart with Mama You Been On My Mind.

  3. What? No Joe Cocker I Shall be Released? An astonishing omission!

  4. Looks like a great list. I would have to add the Byrds version of Chimes of Freedom. (I once asked Roger McGuinn via email if they ever recorded it with all the verses, he said no. But for a partial take on the song, it’s just stunning in my book).

  5. Also a tip, there is a nice version of you ain’t going nowhere on the Nitty Gritty Dirt band’s Will the circle be unbroken Vol II with McGuinn doing the vocal and telling a story…

  6. Vote for 53. Heart of mine

  7. Not a single track from Dylanesque recorded by Bryan Ferry, that’s not ok. I Also miss Guns N’ Roses, knockin ‘On Heavens door and Nazareth, The Ballad of Hollies Brown.

  8. Michael Hedges “Watchtower”?

  9. Dylan Fans: You’ve GOT to check out Sinead Lohan’s stellar version of To Ramona!!!!

  10. Great list, one of my favs not on this list is Helio Sequence’s Mr Tamborine Man, it’s a fairly straight cover, but the guitar has a great depth and space to it that gives it a surreal quality that’s really nice.

  11. What a fantastic list! When Cover Me Songs gets its Sirius/XM station, I hope that Dylan covers will be its initial weekend — make that week, no wait, make that month — programming. I would like to recommend a wonderful jazz version of Mr. Tambourine Man by the great, dearly departed singer Abbey Lincoln. I never get tired of it:

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