Aug 252022

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20. Everything But The Girl – Alison

Seminal pop duo Everything but the Girl strip everything way back for their crystalline acoustic cover of “Alison,” released as a centerpiece of their aptly-titled 1992 compilation Acoustic. Their version is sophisticated, spare and sweet — mostly just a single picked guitar and Tracey Thorn on vocals, and Ben Watt’s voice wafting in with harmonies for a few targeted, earnest peaks. Costello’s original feels a bit self-consciously angsty, even mopey — shuffling his feet, staring nervously at the pavement as he makes his declarations. But Everything But The Girl make a point to turn their gaze upward by comparison; unencumbered by juvenile passion, their “Alison” is a declaration of love that’s airier, purer, freer. — Ben Easton

19. Nick Lowe – Indoor Fireworks

The relationship between Nick Lowe and Elvis dates to the late 1970s, when Lowe produced Costello’s first single, his first five (brilliant) albums, and a handful of his albums thereafter. They’ve covered each other’s songs and have toured together (they are doing so as I write this). Costello’s “Indoor Fireworks” is one of these songs, although technically, Lowe’s version, on his 1985 The Rose of England album, was released a few months before Costello’s from 1986’s King of America. The song is about the disintegration of a relationship so combustible that it created, you know, indoor fireworks. Both versions are probably best described as country rock ballads–Costello was working with T-Bone Burnett and a cadres of Americana musicians, and Lowe’s band was billed as “His Cowboy Outfit”–and both versions are generally sparely arranged, but they are different. Costello’s is smoother and his vocals croon, while Lowe, who in more recent years croons with the best of them, plays the vocals a little more direct. And in Lowe’s version, the drumming is unsettling, which is either a bad production choice, or an excellent commentary on the nature of the relationship at issue. — Jordan Becker

18. The Unwieldies – Veronica

Paul McCartney got the idea of writing with someone, and in Elvis Costello he found a musician who could supply acid wit and clever concepts, much like a previous writing partner of McCartney’s a quarter century before. The collaboration bore great fruit, and each artist got a hit out of it–McCartney had a winner with “My Brave Face,” while Costello had “Veronica,” a top-20 song in the US. Veronica was Costello’s grandmother’s confirmation name, and her battle with Alzheimer’s inspired the story of the woman who once was young and beautiful. Perhaps she would have waltzed to The Unwieldies’ cover. Danielle Bell sings with a sweet lilt, giving the song a lissome warmth. Elvis would approve. Paul, too. — Patrick Robbins

17. Tim Timebomb – America Without Tears

Is this good? I’m not sure. Is it interesting? Definitely. When you are dealing with Tim Armstrong’s singing, probably most well-known from his work with Rancid and Transplants, it is sometimes hard to take, but ultimately, has a surprising charm. Starting in 2012, Armstrong, as “Tim Timebomb” began releasing a song a day displaying his broad musical tastes. In addition to the expected Rancid tunes and punk covers, the Tim Timebomb project released covers of songs by Irving Berlin, the Faces, the Drifters, Bob Dylan, Louis Jordan, Merle Travis, Hank Williams (Sr. and Jr.), Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, and many others. The fifth release, from November 2, 2012, was “America Without Tears.” The song is reportedly based on a true immigrant experience told from the perspective of two G.I. brides still uncomfortable in America. The original featured musicians who had backed Elvis Presley, including James Burton, and Armstrong intentionally captured a similar feel on his cover. The singing, though–that’s uniquely Tim Armstrong. — Jordan Becker

16. Catbite – Sneaky Feelings

Catbite, a four-piece independent outfit from Philadelphia, lead with signature ska instrumentation on their version of “Sneaky Feelings”: humming party organ, a slow-strutting bass line, spirited guitar chunking. But as far as melody and songwriting go, it’s Costello himself that the group look to as their other self-proclaimed chief influence. Catbite’s cover, released on their 2019 self-titled full-length album, offers a compelling example of how the two styles blend, maintaining the original’s lackadaisical shuffle tempo while emphasizing some new and jumpier elements on the arrangement front. A loose tenor sax solo and some gang vocals on the hook give the track a big sugar-rush boost. Costello has never been one to stick to a particular sound, and Catbite follow suit here, making their pair of declared punky influences feel more alike than disparate. — Ben Easton

15. Outlaws – Miracle Man

Outlaws crank up the southern rock sound that’s hovering just below the surface in the Costello original of “Miracle Man.” Overall this is not a radical departure, but the production highlights the crisp guitars and especially the solo in the middle of the song. When the guitars drop out and leave the echoing kick drum, there’s a bit of an arena rock feeling; you can hear how this version would have played really well for a bunch of Skynyrd fans. This is a fun southern-fried cover that’s held up over 40 years. — Mike Misch

14. Hem – The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes

Hem is a band usually placed in the “forgotten artists” category these days, but for a time in the noughties their star burnt very bright. They hailed from Brooklyn, they blended Americana with strings and lullaby-esque vocals, they had a highly acclaimed album in Rabbit Songs, and they covered Costello’s “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” in 2002. They included this classy reinterpretation on their June Carter-referencing I’m Talking With My Mouth EP in 2002, and they also contributed it to the 2003 tribute album Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello.

The makeover was a revelation in the way the band applied their distinctively languid and lovely sound to an early Costello track that was full of nerdy punk energy, Byrdsy guitar inflections, and call-and-response vitality, despite its theme of romantic disappointment. They slowed it down, brought in mandolins and pedal steels, and basically spotlighted the brilliant melody and the sense of personal tragedy in the song. It doesn’t seem quite so funny now that the narrator’s loved one told him to “Drop dead” and then left with another guy. Not so funny at all. — Adam Mason

13. Johnny Cash – The Big Light

In 1986, Elvis Costello tapped T-Bone Burnett to help produce “The Big Light,” a country song about regret the morning after a night on the town. The quick-tempo track seemed almost tailor-made for Johnny Cash, who recorded a cover for his 1987 album Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town. It’s an ideal showcase for Cash as a vocalist, and it highlights Costello’s abilities as a country songwriter. — Curtis Zimmermann

12. Sugarcult – No Action

This cover will unite from-the-beginning Elvis Costello fans with pop-punk lovers. Sugarcult’s cover leans into the punk elements of the original starting with the “Blitzkrieg Bop” opening and continuing throughout with fast-paced energy. New background vocal echoes now emphasize that lack of action. The overall brevity and abrupt wind down of the song remain key features, a flurry of energy paired with the all-of-a-sudden collapse of energy after a rant. — Sara Stoudt

11. Linda Ronstadt – Alison

When Linda Ronstadt’s album Living In The USA came out in late 1978, her inclusion of an Elvis Costello cover caused much consternation among the cool kids. At the time, Ronstadt was a queen of mellow rock, while Elvis was a king of the New Wave. No matter that “Alison” was a pretty mellow ballad already. Ronstadt actually does a fine job with the song, because, you know, her voice. Maybe the song’s production sounds a little cheesy, but it does not deserve the vitriol (see, for example, Allmusic for their reviews). At the time, Costello, who was (by his own admission) being kind of an ass, disparaged her cover (and the three (!) additional Costello covers she did on her next album) as “a total waste of vinyl,” among other things, but admitted to enjoying the royalties (which he later donated to the ANC after Ronstadt played Sun City). But a more mature Costello admitted in 1989 that “I was so snotty about Linda Ronstadt’s covers. [What] an ungracious thing to say. I was just being punky and horrible.” — Jordan Becker


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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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