Aug 252022

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50. Suede – Shipbuilding

The graceful, at times triumphant, piano behind Suede’s “Shipbuilding” contrasts the dark content that highlights the destruction of building and using of warships. That content makes the song a poignant choice for a 1995 charity cover album meant to raise money for countries affected by war. The original’s trumpet solo has a traditional sound, reminiscent of the instrument’s use in soldier-related environments, from a rousing wake up call to a memorial “Taps.” Suede takes a different approach to this solo with a more in-your-face energy that has some electronic reverberation, like if a trumpet had a bit of a whammy bar. Overall, this cover is still delivered with the original’s feeling, and the overall lamenting mood remains. — Sara Stoudt

49. Kevin Russell – Indoor Fireworks

Kevin Russell can turn heads with his covers. Back when he was in The Gourds, he led the band in an alt-country take on “Gin ’n’ Juice” which went so viral as to overshadow most of that band’s fantastic originals. Now working as Shinyribs, Russell is still a creative force to reckon with. His country crooner version of “Indoor Fireworks” is very faintly warped, as is almost everything he touches. — Tom McDonald

48. Calexico – Shabby Doll

The first half of Calexico’s “Shabby Doll” cover is pleasant enough folk-rock. But, when you watch the band play it onstage, you know a twist is coming: the Arizona band’s distinctive Tex-Mex horn section stands still, waiting. Their eventual entrance on the chorus is what makes this cover distinctive. The live video is more fun to watch, but the studio version, released on the band’s 2013 Maybe on Monday EP alongside covers of The Replacements and The Wall, sounds better.— Ray Padgett

47. Rachel Sweet – Stranger in the House

Rachel Sweet’s twangy, expressive voice really emphasizes the sadness of these lyrics. There’s a lot of ornamentation here – slide guitar similar to the original, but also strings, organ, mandolin, a sax solo. But the real reason Sweet’s cover stands alone from Costello’s version is the vocals. The punch of her delivery of the words “there’s a stranger in the house,” backed by her own harmonizing voice, is the climax of the song. The rest of the music is satisfactory window-dressing, there to help fill out the song because I guess it would be weird if the whole song was just Sweet singing the title over and over. Then again, it sounds so great maybe it could work! — Mike Misch

46. Angel Ruiz & Q-Arts Ensemble – Jacksons, Monk & Rowe

“Jacksons, Monk and Rowe” is the most melodic song on The Juliet Letters, EC’s collaborative concept album with the Brodsky Quartet. It was inspired by a nickname-childhood anecdote of Brodsky members-siblings Jaqueline and Michael Thomas. It is very tuneful and lyrically obscure. Angel Ruiz and the Q-Arts Ensemble performed the track as part of a 2014 stage production of the album in Madrid. Ruiz, stage veteran/expert scenery-chewer, and the Q-Arts string crew nearly steal the song away with a performance that is equal parts charming, skilled, and magnificently camp. — Hope Silverman

45. Lou Dalgleish – Indoor Fireworks

Lou Dalgleish’s cover of “Indoor Fireworks” starts soft like the original, just an acoustic guitar and an earnest voice. Dalgleish covers a wide range for her melody throughout, reaching deep in one moment and then ascending to lighter tones the next. The volume and emphasis ebb and flow, and these build up/fade out pairings mimic the progression of a firework show. There are energetic bursts followed with subtler sizzles afterwards. The song doesn’t end with a grand finale, but rather fades out, like the lingering smoke after the big show that just might get in your eyes. — Sara Stoudt

44. Michael Udelson Trio – Watching the Detectives

Recently we looked at The Michael Udelson Trio in our Under the Radar series, and shared their take on Costello’s first big hit single. What we didn’t mention is that Udelson and company covered “Watching the Detectives” not once but twice on the same album. Their first take hits the spot. It rocks and swings and growls but stays in an easygoing hotel lounge mode. Their other take on this song is their experimental “Dub” version. True, the original has reggae feels, but on hearing this so-called Dub version, I wanted to say “don’t get cute.” Because what I really like about this trio is their clean concise way with a song, their refusal to assert themselves too much. — Tom McDonald

43. Ron Sexsmith – Everyday I Write the Book

Upon its release in 1983, “Everyday I Write the Book” seemed an unusually poppy and ebullient Elvis Costello and the Attractions single, following on from the angry “Pills and Soup” and made with the full might of Madness production duo Langer and Winstanley. It also did well in the charts, with its punchy bassline, female backing singers, and mimicry of a busy typewriter in its percussion and staccato keyboard sound, particularly as Costello’s first single to enter the US Billboard Hot 100 (at #38). Yet pretty soon people were sniffily (and annoyingly) dismissing it as sounding “too ’80s,” and Costello himself turned his back on it, claiming that he merely tossed it off in 10 minutes.

Thanks must go out, therefore, to Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who revitalized “Everyday” live and in session as Costello’s support act in 1997, thereby turning the great man back onto the song and ensuring he returned it to his own live set. All it took on Sexsmith’s part was a finger-picking arrangement on acoustic guitar, an accordion accompaniment, a velvety voice, and a heartfelt delivery that signified he meant every line and didn’t just equate the track with whimsicality and clever wordplay. Meantime, he brought clarity to the lyrics that the original (sorry, Elvis) simply didn’t have. “All your compliments and your cutting remarks are captured here in my quotation marks.” Really?! — Adam Mason

42. Blur – Oliver’s Army

Released on the 1979 album Armed Forces, “Oliver’s Army” was a massive U.K. hit. Inspired by a visit to Belfast, it tells the story of the British occupation of Northern Ireland with a synthesizer and a new wave beat. “It wasn’t supposed to read like a coherent political argument,” Costello wrote in his memoir. “It was pop music.” Blur covered it for a 1993 compilation album promoting peace in Northern Ireland entitled Peace Together. Blur gave the song a ‘90s alt-rock makeover. — Curtis Zimmermann

41. Swan Arcade – Brilliant Mistake

The words “Costello a-cappella” have a nice enough ring, but is the idea worth doing? British folk revivalists Swan Arcade decided to try. In the ’70s they applied their old-fangled polyphonic chops not just to traditional English material, but to the songs of their contemporaries (the Kinks, the Beatles). In 1986 they came back for more, looking to a younger generation of songwriters, blokes like Sting and Costello in particular. In addition to “Brilliant Mistake,” Swan Arcade covered Costello’s “Shipbuilding.” It was a fine idea at the time. And it still is. The results are very…English. Refreshing and well-crafted takes on old favorites. — Tom McDonald


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  5 Responses to “The 50 Best Elvis Costello Covers Ever”

Comments (5)
  1. JHFC Billy Joel was not on that list. Never ever. He was pop for older people. That’s ridiculous.

  2. You forgot the Like covering “You Belong to Me”

  3. Also For Real “covering” “Unwanted Number”

  4. A very worthy #1 – it really had to be the top choice. A stunning and powerful cover. The whole list has made for an excellent listen today. Big thanks to all contributors. And that Angel Ruiz and the Q-Arts Ensemble is a real find!

  5. A lot of repetition in the songs covered, and yet you missed out one of the best covers in my opinion ever, Mathilde Santing’s version of “Hand in Hand.”

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