Aug 252022

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10. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs – Girls Talk

Where the original song relies on piano and bass, this “Girls Talk” cover is driven by shimmering guitars and vocals. Susanna Hoffs’ voice has a familiar, straightforward sound to it, and as the song progresses, she’s supported by a nice backing chorus. This version brings the vocals and the lyrics to the front, and the guitars support perfectly with lots of bluesy riffs hidden in the rhythm guitar along with higher arpeggios punctuating. The song has a very cool ‘90s pop feel to it. — Mike Misch

9. Craig Cardiff – God’s Comic

Sometimes it’s enough to hear a song like “God’s Comic” in another singer’s voice, especially someone so apparently lacking in venom as Craig Cardiff. This singer-songwriter has a great knack for translating other people’s songs into stripped-down acoustic guitar-based pieces he can sing on his own. (The best stripped-down acoustic version of this song, naturally, is by Costello himself, but Cardiff’s may be the best cover.) — Tom McDonald

8. Lush – All This Useless Beauty

The barely-there drums get a little more emphasis in this cover while the delicate piano, with its tinkling trills, is replaced by a guitar that never overshadows the vocals. The subtle woodwind sounds of the original don’t make it to this version, but you can still hear the occasional music box-style elements in the background. The delivery of the lyrics walks the line between straightforward storytelling and a hint of a jeer in the search for a purpose for all of that beauty. — Sara Stoudt

7. Kristin Vigard – God Give Me Strength

Kristen Vigard’s cover of “God Give Me Strength” is a pop cultural oddity. The song itself was written by Elvis Costello and tunesmith Burt Bacharach, their first in what turned out to be a lengthy collaboration. Vigard is a singer/actress who starred as Annie in the musical’s pre-Broadway run in the 1970s. She recorded the track for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, but doesn’t appear onscreen. Instead, the song is lip-synced by Illeana Douglas, who stars in the main role as a singer/songwriter with a career that closely mirrors that of Carole King. Vigard delivers a performance that channels Tapestry-era King with near perfection, so much so that Douglas struggles to keep up with her visualization. Vigard’s cover somehow didn’t even make it onto the soundtrack. It deserves to be more than a mere footnote. — Curtis Zimmermann

6. The Henry Girls – Watching the Detectives

Some songs are poems, some are stories, but “Watching The Detectives” is a film noir, a full-length movie in 3:46. This song does not feature Clover, as did the rest of My Aim Is True, but rather Andrew Bodnar and Steve Goulding of The Rumour and Steve Nieve, who became the keyboard player for the Attractions, so it sounds more like the music on Costello’s next album. The Henry Girls, a trio of multi-instrumentalist Irish sisters whose last name is McLaughlin (but whose grandpa was named Henry), turn it into almost a cabaret number. — Jordan Becker

5. Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding

Probably responsible for more royalties than any other Elvis Costello song save “Alison,” “Shipbuilding” was not even originally a Costello release. It came out first in this guise, making, nominally, Costello’s own later version the cover. However, to use the loophole that Costello had recorded a first draft to attract Robert Wyatt, here it still is. A magnificently political polemic on the Falklands war, it underlines, with no irony lost, the predicament of those dependent on the manufacture of all that can be involved in such activity. Wyatt, himself no stranger to a left-leaning pacifist ideology, was custom-made for the delivery, his plaintively human tones taking it into the UK top 40–not at the time of initial release, but nearly a year later, to commemorate the first anniversary of the skirmish. The arrangement is perfect, the bound of the double bass complementing the piano and lightly tapped drums. A mention must go to Clive Langer, then Costello’s producer, who, as Costello rejected his own first draft of the melody, tinkered with it a little, thus gathering himself a co-write. — Seuras Og

4. Rockpile – Girls Talk

Rockpile, featuring Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, romp through this song like they wrote it, much like Costello owned Lowe’s “Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Before Costello himself got around to doing his own recording of “Girls Talk,” the song debuted on a Dave Edmunds solo album (it was really a Rockpile record, but, well, lawyers). The Rockpile version has more sweetness and ease to it, and for many listeners their version is the definitive one. — Tom McDonald

3. Roy Orbison – The Comedians

A guy is trapped at the top of the Ferris wheel, watching the Ferris wheel operator walk away with his girl. It’s a story one can imagine that guy telling in the bar for years afterward, getting bigger and bigger laughs with it. But in Roy Orbison’s hands, it’s not a funny story at all. On the night of the famous Black and White Concert, with Elvis Costello himself on stage and out of the spotlight, Orbison turns “The Comedians” into the dark twin of “Running Scared,” losing the girl and winding up alone, with nothing but his incredible voice.— Patrick Robbins

2. Chet Baker – Almost Blue

Achingly beautiful fragility seeps out from the very start of Chet Baker’s “Almost Blue.” Baker’s trumpet is a flickering candle of loneliness, the melody guttering against the bleak backdrop of piano and brushed drums, bass but a low rumble. The piano then adds a nod of self-delusional ennui, before the ghostly vocals of the now-ailing singer float in. For Baker to record this song was no small thing to Costello; it was Baker’s cover of “The Thrill Is Gone” that inspired “Almost Blue,” after all. As the son of a trumpeter and singer himself, he will have been in no doubt as to the class of this giant, even at his most down on his luck. And to then play with him (his is the trumpet on Costello’s own version of “Shipbuilding”) must have been quite a personal coup. Deemed one of the songs that defined the moment Costello was becoming as much a songwriter rather than merely the singer of angry songs, his own version, on Imperial Bedroom, is OK, as is that of his (later) wife, Diana Krall, but if ever one song were needed to explain Costello’s writing talents, it would be this song and this version. — Seuras Og

1. Fiona Apple – I Want You

In 2006, VH1 Classic televised a tribute concert in honor of Elvis Costello. On the show, Fiona Apple delivered a gut-wrenching performance of Costello’s ballad about obsession, “I Want You.” As you’ll notice from the video, Costello plays guitar on the track. But it’s such a stunning performance from Apple we’re willing to overlook this minor technicality and call it a darn fine cover. “I Want You” is such a bitter, almost nasty song, that when Costello sings the lyrics, it’s downright uncomfortable. But when hearing Apple reimagine the track from a woman’s perspective, we just want to keep listening. — Curtis Zimmermann

Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including the White Stripes, Stevie Wonder, the Cars, and more.

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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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