10. David Bowie – America
“America” is a song about small lives in vast places. Simon’s lyrics offer only brief impressions of his subjects, lost in transition and disarray. There’s Kathy, heading east on a Greyhound from Saginaw; and Simon’s sad-sack narrator, empty, aching and directionless. Yet the song’s characters manage to crack on and head toward New York City, continuing to “look for America” with each rest stop and successive chorus.
David Bowie evokes all of this – a tapestry of journeys; the gleaming significance of tiny moments; the resiliency of moving on and starting over — in his profound live version of “America.” Bowie performed the piece as the opening number for The Concert for New York City, the legendary 2001 event that took place in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. The concert featured a cavalcade of classic rock acts and spirited memorial tributes; all made impressive work of raising spirits high. But no part of the show compared to Bowie’s shocking cover.
Beneath the glow of a single spotlight, Bowie appears, cross-legged and alone, in the dead center of the stage. A distant calliope bounces around the cavernous Garden. Its reels emerge from a strange little Omnichord on the floor at Bowie’s feet, plunked out by just his single index finger. For about three minutes, he wheezes quietly through the song’s quotidian lines. Then Bowie becomes mighty: throwing his head back and smiling triumphantly, arriving to the glorious vista of the New Jersey Turnpike. Omniscient and almost floating in the darkness, he seizes on the song’s huge and final mantra: “All come / to look for America / All come / to look for America.” The crowd’s response in the arena is massive — some kind of collective catharsis — making Bowie’s small, solemn physical presence all the more powerful. – Ben Easton
9. Lauren O’Connell – Graceland
Where Paul Simon’s “Graceland” percolates musically, the lyrics are far more haunted. Simon’s previous two albums were relative flops, and his marriage had imploded; he was lost in more ways than one, and needed to find Graceland. Lauren O’Connell finds her music in those lyrics. She sounds lost as well, like she’s in a tunnel, cut off from the world, but there’s a beautiful soft light at the very end of that tunnel. She’s moving toward that light, steady, implacable, giving us all reason to believe she will be received there. – Patrick Robbins
8. Marsha Hunt – Keep the Customer Satisfied
Vocalist Marsha Hunt’s 1970 cover of “Keep the Customer Satisfied” is a kaleidoscopic whirl. Initially released on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water, “Keep the Customer Satisfied” semi-jokingly details the demands of music stardom: “Everywhere I go, I get slandered / libeled / I hear words I never heard in the Bible / I’m so tired…,” the pair scream. The song is massively fun, but also exhausting — the sound of two pop stars amped up past eleven and running on fumes. As a singer in the spotlight herself, and as the purported subject of The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” Hunt was no stranger to the crushing weight of volatile public expectations. On her cover of “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” released the same year as the original, she seems to find a personal resonance in Simon’s heated ranting, channeling both full-tilt frustration and glee into three minutes of combustible soul. – Ben Easton
7. Johnny Cash ft. Fiona Apple – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Johnny Cash, by this stage of his career, was simultaneously frail and indestructible, like an old testament prophet awaiting a stoning. He could sing the phonebook, his quavering bass rumbling gravitas into any old nonsense, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” being a case in point. It just sounds so real and so believable, a terrific bravura performance. This is a triumph, a true example of where the homespun beauty of the sow’s ear is way better than the silk purse of the original. – Seuras Og
6. Ray Charles – Still Crazy After All These Years
“I love ‘Still Crazy,'” Ray Charles said, in an interview he gave while promoting his 1993 album My World. “Personally, I think it’s the best song on the album. By that I mean in the way it fits my style.” Indeed, Ray arranged “Still Crazy After All These Years” so that it sounded like one of his early ’60s ballads, not forgetting to give the song a whole lot of soul in the process. He may not have stolen the song from Simon, but in his hands it’s like a pet dog racing away from its owner to romp and play with another master. – Patrick Robbins
5. The Czars – For Emily
Before he became an electro-pop eccentric squirreled away in Iceland, John Grant fronted cult alt-rock band The Czars. Though his genre has changed dramatically, his operatic voice hasn’t, perfect for emotionally crooning one of Simon and Garfunkel’s most beautiful melodies. It comes off the band’s must-have 2006 covers album Sorry I Made You Cry, which also generated a version of “Angel Eyes” that ranked high on our Best ABBA Covers Ever list. Anyone who can stun with both ABBA and Simon and Garfunkel covers is worth listening to. – Ray Padgett
4. Peaches & Herb – The Sound of Silence
D.C. duo Peaches & Herb offer a high-stakes soul/disco cover on “The Sound of Silence,” released in 1971. Their take is vivid and explosive, like a rose in full bloom. Though an electric Dylanesque rhythm section was infamously superimposed atop Simon & Garfunkel’s studio cut in 1964, the original recording at least still holds some sense of smallness at its core— a pensive ballad, written for one dark and lonely mind. Peaches & Herb opt to air Simon’s dialogue much more publicly, shoving the song’s moody internalizations toward the center of the dance floor. The pair clash with Simon’s demons on-mic, transforming the vocals into a raw and tempestuous call-and-response. Their arrangement features a frenzied tambourine through-line, clanging drums and thick waves of disco strings. Though it doesn’t have the glossy perfection of later hits like “Reunited” and “Shake Your Groove Thing,” Peaches & Herb’s version of “The Sound of Silence” is still sumptuous and thrilling. An existential showdown, set beneath the mirrorball glow. – Ben Easton
3. Allen Toussaint – American Tune
For a long time I felt nobody could improve on the Willie Nelson version of “American Tune,” but this is the one that overtook it. Again, the presence of a mature voice gives a gravitas that Simon’s then-pure vocal lacked. But Toussaint also slips in an almost unrealized bounce of syncopation. You’d expect this elder statesman of N’Awlins piano music would have plied his usual instrument, but, although it is there, eventually, much of the song is buoyed along by a simple guitar. When the piano does enter, it is characteristically both modest and majestic, with the odd flourish of sassy sidenotes and signatures. Tragically, Toussaint died in late 2015, barely a month after this recording was made, and a month ahead of co-headlining a show with Paul Simon for the 30th anniversary of New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, an organization Toussaint had founded. Simon instead played it alone, in tribute to Toussaint. – Seuras Og
2. The Bangles – Hazy Shade of Winter
The Bangles’ cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” holds the double distinction of being one of the best Simon and Garfunkel covers and one of the all-female four-piece band’s biggest hits. Even today, it remains one of the band’s top tracks on Spotify. Released in 1987 on the soundtrack to the film Less Than Zero, the track features the group’s powerful vocals blended with a punk-rock style backbeat and hard-rocking guitar riffs. The Salvation Army Band never sounded so cool. – Curtis Zimmermann
1. The Wailin’ Jennys – Loves Me Like a Rock
Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta, and Heather Masse combine forces and voices as the Wailin’ Jennys, and what they do to “Loves Me Like a Rock” takes it to a whole different strata. Where Simon had a band and the Dixie Hummingbirds in the background to enrich and uplift, the Jennys have naught but claps and voices. Sounding for all the world like the Sirens in O Brother Where Art Thou?, they make their own joyful noise unto the Lord. Not only will you love this song, you’ll want to get down on your knees and hug this song. – Patrick Robbins
Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Bob Dylan, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, and more.
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”