10. Smashing Pumpkins – Jackie Blue (Ozark Mountain Daredevils cover)
In 1991, before Siamese Dream or Melon Collie, Smashing Pumpkins were still obscure enough to appear on compilations with names like 20 Explosive Dynamic Super Smash Hit Explosions. The concept of that K-Tel compilation was a bunch of modern bands covering famous ’70s hit. Despite the silly name, it actually has a ton of great covers (which our Patreon supporters will get as part of the aforementioned bonus tracks). But Smashing Pumpkins are the one band on that comp there that went supernova for a reason, and you can hear it on their sneeringly shoegazey take on Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
9. Indigo Girls – American Tune (Paul Simon cover)
1991 was a killer year for Paul Simon covers apparently (see also #15). The best of the bunch is the Indigo Girls’ entirely a cappella version of “American Tune.” When you’ve got voices that combine like Amy Ray’s and Emily Saliers’, who needs instruments? The fact they pulled this off live is even more impressive. [Note: After finalizing this list, I discovered they first released a version of this cover on a CD single in 1989. Still worth listening to no matter the year, and the version above is indeed from 1991.]
8. Pixies – Head On (The Jesus & Mary Chain cover)
Pixies were a few years ahead of Nirvana (#21) or Smashing Pumpkins (#10) in their careers, already having gotten big in the college-rock world with Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. So they were being asked to do covers left and right in 1991. Four separate covers competed for this list, and all deserved entries. Once you’re done with their roaring “Head On,” check out their takes on The Yardbirds’ “Evil-Hearted You,” Leonard Cohen’s “I Can’t Forget,” and, of all things, the theme from the TV show NARC.
7. Primal Scream – Slip Inside This House (13th Floor Elevators cover)
Speaking of the Jesus & Mary Chain, Bobby Gillespie was that band’s drummer before leaving to start Primal Scream. Their breakout third album Screamadelica departed from their indie rock beginnings, bringing in the 1991 house music craze that’s popped up on this list again and again. It makes “Slip Inside This House,” the album’s one cover (catch the “House” pun?), sound nothing like its Texas psych-rock origins. Every time I listen to the cover I have to look up who did the original again, that’s how far they’ve veered from Roky Erickson, though I suppose it is still psychedelic in its ’90s dance-music way.
6. Sinead O’Connor – Sacrifice (Elton John cover)
1991’s aforementioned Two Rooms was one of the early big tribute albums, wherein the great and the good celebrate their peers. The fact that several songs from that album still stand up today, and appear in this list, bears credit to the choices then made. Sinead could sing the proverbial phone book, but I can think of few other songs that demonstrate so well her range and her technique, the timid, breathy whisper to the heart-curdling banshee, often within the same sentence. The build here is so moderated here as to creep right up on you, the change in timbre a sudden surprise that should release tears in any pulse-owning being. The multi-tracking then guarantees it. (Seuras Og, via our Best Elton John Covers Ever list)
5. British Electric Foundation ft. Terence Trent D’Arby – It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding (Bob Dylan cover)
British Electric Foundation (often known simply as B.E.F.) wasn’t exactly a band, per se. Human League members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh formed it in the ’80 as sort of an amorphous artistic unit, soon spinning off the actual band Heaven 17. B.E.F. did release a few sporadic albums under its own name, though, largely serving as a production house backing other singers. The second of them, Music of Quality and Distinction Volume Two, featured everyone from Chaka Khan (“Someday We’ll All Be Free”) to Mavis Staples (“A Song for You”) to Tina Fucking Turner (“A Change Is Gonna Come”). Best, though, is Terence Trent D’Arby’s soul rave-up version of Bob Dylan’s ’60s folk lament.
4. LL Cool J – Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? (Three Little Pigs cover)
1991 was a big year for LL Cool J, with the song and album “Mama Said Knock You Out” giving him one of the biggest hits of his career. So what did he do but turn around and cover a Disney song? He chose a song from the 1933 Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs, one easy enough to make seem like a (relatively) tough rap song. It sounds like a novelty, but honestly it works great as an early-’90s rap song. It sounds like the Space Jam soundtrack years before its time.
3. Hole – Clouds [Both Sides Now]
Hole ended their debut album Pretty on the Inside (released a week before Nevermind, if you’re keeping track) with a cover of “Both Sides Now.” That would not have been evident without a look at the credits, or a close, lacerating listen to the song’s lyrics. Retitled “Clouds,” the song loses its thoughtful contemplation to a grate of noise, as Courtney Love shrieks out the words, delivering what Rolling Stone called a “spectacular goring.” Any first-time listener has to come away from this reworking thinking, “I really don’t know ‘Clouds’ at all.” (Patrick Robbins, via The Best Joni Mitchell Covers Ever)
2. R.E.M. – First We Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen cover)
The best cover on I’m Your Fan, says they guy who wrote the book about it (ahem…again). At a time when Leonard Cohen was decidedly uncool, R.E.M. were the perfect just-breaking college rock act to bring his music to a younger generation. They didn’t even have to reinvent Leonard that dramatically to do it. Just pick the perfect song, swap the dated ’80s production for a timely jangle-rock sound, and get Michael Stipe’s less acquired-taste vocals on it. R.E.M. deliver the definitive version of “First We Take Manhattan,” and I suspect Cohen himself might have agreed.
1. Pet Shop Boys – Where the Streets Have No Name (U2 cover)
Wikipedia dryly states, “The Pet Shop Boys version differed significantly from the original version in its musical arrangement.” Um, yeah. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe keep the grandeur of the U2 original, but change just about everything else, turning it into a dancefloor classic. Their greatest breakthrough, though, was working in bits of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” When that drops in, the song takes off into the stratosphere. Tennant has said that when Bono heard it, he said, presumably in jest, “What have we done to deserve this?”
Our Patreon suppoerters will be getting downloads and playlists of over 100 bonus tracks – sign up here! And check out previous retrospectives on the best covers of 1996, 1987, 1978, 1969, and 2000!
Great article – Thank you very much