20. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band – Kodachrome
It’s a rare occasion to find Conor Oberst having a laugh on stage, or doing much that resembles goofing around. Yet we’ve got something close to both here on Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band’s lively cover of “Kodachrome,” from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Why Oberst and the band sound like they’re having this unusual amount of fun could be explained by the cover’s source: a tour documentary called One Of My Kind (and, specifically, its accompanying album of outtakes). The film follows Conor and the Mystic Valley Band’s roundabout adventures together on the road in Mexico in the late ‘00s. The rollicking arrangement feels like it could have been drawn directly from a single, adrenaline-fueled live take, particularly when the band get to the iconic double-time outro. Though there isn’t much to differentiate it from Simon’s original, musically speaking, Oberst is able to find some in-roads to “Kodachrome” by simply letting loose. – Ben Easton
19. Matt The Electrician – American Tune
Matt Sever, the eponymous “Electrician,” doesn’t do anything crazy with this cover of Simon’s “American Tune”. The opening is quite similar, just a guitar and a voice, but about halfway through the song, a chorus of voices supporting Sever replace the strings and drums of the original. The production is crisp and Sever’s voice just a bit more gravely, pushing the song from “folk” just over the line into “indie folk.” It’s not the most inventive cover, but the end product stands on its own, thanks to the quality and simplicity. – Mike Misch
18. Gipsy Vagabonds – Boxeador
Bavarian group Gipsy Vagabonds translate the lyrics “The Boxer” into Spanish (eschewing the more obvious song choice “El Condor Pasa”). They translate the music just as thoroughly, bringing in touches of flamenco and klezmer with a disco kick. – Ray Padgett
17. Justin Townes Earle – Graceland
Subtractive change is sometimes the best change. Justin Townes Earle reduced the layered richness of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” down to a simple-sounding acoustic guitar arrangement. Earle’s picking is smooth and grooving, and his singing is graceful in its understated way. The only hitch is when he slips into a chuckle at the end of a line – either he was tickled by the lyric, or just relieved to land the verse despite its tricky tumble of words (it’s the verse about the human trampoline). I doubt that I’m the only listener who thinks the lyrics come through better in this version than in the original, where they compete with the amazing bass line, the backing vocalists, and other splendors. We lost Earle just over a year ago, but we have this gem, and many hours of original music, to remember him by. – Tom McDonald
16. The Lemonheads – Mrs. Robinson
Hey, remember the ‘90s? Take this one out for a spin if you’ve forgotten. It’s got all the usual elements: the chugging guitars, cranked-up drums, bits of distorted feedback, and a loud, noisy outro. The Lemonheads’ cover of “Mrs. Robinson” is a classic for a reason. For some young alt-rock fans in the ‘90s, this song may have been their introduction to Simon and Garfunkel. Considering that, aside from turning up the tempo and the rock ‘n’ roll, it’s very similar to the original, it’s a decent way to discover the group. The bassline in the Lemonheads version drives the song along with the galloping drums. It’s over in a blur, which makes it great for repeat listens. – Mike Misch
15. Aretha Franklin – Bridge over Troubled Water
Paul Simon has been quoted as saying that “maybe it’s the best cover of any of my songs that anyone ever did.” But not surprisingly, he was more partial to the original, stating, “Aretha’s version is tremendous, the best I ever heard except Artie’s.” The original was influenced by the Swan Silvertones’ recording of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and the arrangement was a cross between gospel and the Wall of Sound. But when Aretha Franklin did the song, its roots were exposed to the world. Sure, the studio version is good, but if you want your mind blown, check out any of the versions Aretha did during her three-night stand at the Fillmore West in 1971. I’m slightly partial to the opening night, but the other two are also pretty amazing. – Jordan Becker
14. James Blake – The Sound of Silence
No one will dare disturb the haunting, engulfing sound of James Blake’s rendition of “Sound of Silence.” While Blake is a master at melancholic echoes, this cover was especially heartfelt, as it was dedicated it to a friend of his who’d passed away. With his signature voice looping, Blake fills the silence with heartbreak. – Maryam Motamedi
13. Erin Bode – How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns
Gorgeous, languorous ballad “How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns” originally appeared on the soundtrack for Simon’s 1980 semi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony (which also featured the greatest Lou Reed cameo in history). The song was also tucked away onto the b-side of the album’s percolating hit single “Late In The Evening,” which is how I first became acquainted with it. Full disclosure; this is my favorite Simon song ever. While there aren’t many covers of “Heart,” the bar has already been set impossibly high by singer Erin Bode. She imbues the song with unspeakable warmth, reshaping it into a rustic and dusty countrified waltz of exceptional beauty. – Hope Silverman
12. Honey Whiskey Trio – Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover
The Honey Whiskey Trio are taking us higher, much higher in this one. Their version starts out a little mysteriously with some simple “ooh”s that are almost ghostly (ghosts of partners past, perhaps?). Then the trio’s only accompaniment kicks in, some lap-patting and foot-stomping percussion – think a mix between the childhood game Miss Mary Mack and Pitch Perfect’s “Cups”. In the chorus, the trio take on very different pitches; the highest line is faint but strong, and the deeper lines provide a solid foundation and contrast to show just how high they can really go. By the time you get to Gus, watch out, we are in a “don’t try this at home” high-note situation. The song ends like it began, fading out the percussion (and the drama) and ending with a final “ooh.” – Sara Stoudt
11. Patti Smith – The Boy in the Bubble
For a poet who has written so many great songs, Patti Smith clearly loves interpreting others’ works, with cover songs featuring consistently in her live shows and recordings from her earliest days as a performer. In the liner notes for her 2007 cover album Twelve, Smith wrote that over the years she made “countless lists for a possible cover album,” before deciding on the songs for Twelve (and the two bonus tracks). She further wrote that she was introduced to “The Boy in the Bubble” when her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith brought home a copy of Graceland. He and son Jackson enjoyed “You Can Call Me Al,” while Patti only paid attention to “The Boy in the Bubble” because of “its strong, enviable lyrics.” Smith recalled that she was sitting in a café thinking how to approach the song when she was approached by Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, who she did not know. Upon determining that Robinson was a musician, she asked his advice, and he suggested using a dulcimer, which Robinson ended up playing on the track. To my ears, the dulcimer and other strings give Smith’s version a more West African sound that Simon’s South African-influenced original. – Jordan Becker
The list finishes on Page 6.
I think you meant “50 Ways to Be Your Cover.”
I think you won the internet today.
A GREAT comment!
No Disturbed?!? Paul Simeon thaught their cover was good enough to post on his webpage. He didn’t do that for any other cover. Just destroyed the integrity of your whole list.
Agreed! I went right to page 6, assuming it would be top 3, at least. But not to be on the list at all is disturbing.
One additional fact about the great Bowie version: he was pretty ill that night, with a high fever. Makes this rendition even more stunning
The disrespect for Harpers Bizarre is unforgivable
I enjoyed listening to this list. Thank you!
Surprised by the lack of Willie Nelson and the Bangles, but it’s a good list.
It gets even better when you see what’s at #2.
It’s a fair cop.
I saw Kurt Elling do American Tune at a concert in Vancouver BC that brought a tear or 2 to my eyes. It’s on an album he made.
Can’t wait to read and listen to this – !! Saving it for this weekend when I can dig in.
Great list. I can think of songs I’d add – Rumer’s “Long Long Day” would be top of my list of omissions, but like others have said I’d definitely put Yes’s “America” and Willie’s “Graceland” in (I like his version better than Paul’s), but I was introduced to a bunch of great covers here I didn’t know. Thanks so much!
Barnstar – Boy in the Bubble (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=q0_1721YBjs)
Ben Sollee – The Obvious Child
Barrett Smith and Shannon Whitworth – Duncan
Marc Cohn – The Only Living Boy in NY
Allira Wilson, Harry Mitchell, Ben Vanderwal & Karl Florisson – Kathy’s Song
Jonatha Brooke, “Bleecker Street”; Allison Brown, “Homeward Bound”