A few years ago we wrote about how “Bette Davis Eyes” was not originally a Kim Carnes song but actually a Jackie DeShannon song. But DeShannon’s original sounds nothing like Carnes’ cover. And it’s Carnes’ cover that was the hit and also the iconic version. Covers of the song inevitably reference Carnes, rather than DeShannon, probably because most people don’t know about DeShannon’s original upbeat R&B version.
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
If you were to look at the charts, the Beach Boys basically stopped having giant hits after 1966’s “Good Vibrations” (with the obvious exception of 1988’s “Kokomo”). They’re a singles band whose singles mostly dried up six years into their sixty-year career. They had a brief run of good-time hits about girls, cars, and surfing, then faded. They’re the band preserved forever in that cornball publicity photo up top.
But that’s not the story these covers tell.
The big hits are here, sure. “Surfer Girl” and “Fun Fun Fun” and “I Get Around” etc. But so are many now-iconic tunes that weren’t hits. “God Only Knows,” the Beach Boys’ most covered song, peaked at #39. By their standards, that’s a straight-up flop. Many other covered songs didn’t even make it that high. But “God Only Knows” has of course belatedly been recognized as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. As has the album it came off of, Pet Sounds, itself a relative commercial failure.
Pet Sounds, of course, has long since been recognized as a classic. So some artists dig even deeper. “Lonely Sea” is an album cut off their 1963 album Surfin’ U.S.A. “Trader” comes off the 1973 album Holland. Three separate songs here originally came off Surf’s Up, now the go-to pick for artists who want to show they know more than Pet Sounds. Even a song not released until the ‘90s, “Still I Dream of It,” gets a killer cover.
You can trace the story of the Beach Boys’ reputation through these covers. A group once perceived as a lightweight singles act have been fully embraced as musical geniuses, all the way from the hits of the ’60s through the then-overlooked gems of the ‘70s and beyond. Some of these songs below you probably won’t know. Others you will know every single word of…but you’ve never heard them sung like this.
To come up with our year-end list, we listened to thousands of covers.
That’s not an exaggeration, or loosely throwing around “thousands” for effect. My iTunes tells me I personally listened to and rated 1,120 new covers in 2021. And I’m just one of a dozen people here. Many of those thousands of covers were very good! But “very good” isn’t good enough for our annual year-end Best Cover Songs list. So when we say these 50 are the cream of the crop, we mean it.
They, as usual, have little in common with each other. A few tie into current events: Artists we lost, social justice concerns, live music’s fitful return. Most don’t. But does a doom metal cover of Donna Summer really need a reason to exist? How about African blues Bob Dylan, New Orleans bounce Lady Gaga, or organ ballad Fleetwood Mac? Nah. We’re just glad they’re here.
So dive into our countdown below – and, if you want us to send you a couple hundred Honorable Mentions culled from those thousands, join the Cover Me Patreon.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Yesterday we learned that Kim Carnes was not the first to sing about Bette Davis’s eyes. Jackie DeShannon kicked off the admiration six years earlier. Despite this, Carnes’s version is the one we typically think of with its distinctive synth opener and its punctuating claps throughout.
These five covers keep the Bette Davis fan club going and bring their own approach to the Carnes version. Some combine similar elements; others go a completely different route. All are good, so let’s “turn the music on you” and listen to (more) covers of “Bette Davis Eyes.”
That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Bette Davis, like many of her powerhouse characters, was breaking glass ceilings all over the place throughout her acting career. She was the first woman to win the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and be the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also no stranger to scandal. Her first husband made much less than her in a week (he didn’t love that), and she sued Warner Brothers for putting her in sub-par movies. She’s been quite the inspiration, and throughout the years many close-ups feature those distinctive eyes that have been immortalized in song.
Kim Carnes won Record and Song of the Year at the Grammys for “Bette Davis Eyes.” It held the peak Billboard Hot 100 spot for nine weeks and ended up being the best-selling single of 1981. The song has been featured in many movies and television shows (anyone hear it first in Austenland? No? Just me?). But guess what–it isn’t even the original!
Jackie DeShannon released “Bette Davis Eyes” in 1975, six years earlier. DeShannon c0-wrote it with Donna Weiss, who actually ended up as a backup vocalist on a couple of Carnes’ albums. You may know DeShannon from her big hits “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
Even though DeShannon’s and Carnes’s versions are pretty different from one another, they both got Bette Davis’s stamp of approval. In her book This ‘n’ That, she wrote, “When I heard the lyrics – ‘She’ll expose you when she snows you / Off your feet with the crumbs that she throws you’ – I dashed off a note saying, ‘How did you know so much about me?'” She appreciated that the song kept her relevant to the youths, and thanked Carnes, DeShannon, and Weiss for making her “a part of modern history.”
We are closing in on six decades of amazing music from Bruce Springsteen. In all those years of performing, The Boss has covered over 300 songs. Some he’s covered hundreds of times. Others he’s covered just once.
A new “Songs Under Cover” playlist he just released as part of his Live Series collects 15 soundboard covers spanning several decades and genres of music. Some of the covers are more successful than others, and we’re going to rank them for you right here. (Play along with the official playlist on Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music).