1. Ike and Tina Turner – “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
It starts off nice and easy, but anyone familiar with these two deranged lovers knows they never do anything nice and easy. Taking a nice CCR country-folk-rock song and turning it into an iconic pop masterpiece with an uncontrollable rhythm—that’s what Ike and Tina did with this cover. Their rendition was so good, more people associate it with the Turners than they do with Creedence. And it really was sensational (much like their train wreck of a marriage).
2. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz-n-the-Hood” (Eazy-E)
Before hipsters started ironically getting into hip-hop—and then doing so less ironically as “hipster” became more identified with Kanye West than with bands like Pavement—Dynamite Hack busted our guts with this brilliant rendition of Eazy-E’s gangster rap attempt at a solo career. The pleasant guitar coupled with soft voices crooning, “so I grabbed that stupid bitch by her nappy-ass weave,” and an ending which recalls The Beatles’ “Blackbird” was funny before everyone knew things like that were funny. I consider Dynamite Hack to be pioneers in that regard, but like Eazy-E, they fizzled out pretty quick.
3. Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan)
In the sixties, loads of people were covering Dylan, and failing pretty miserably (most notably the Birds’ version of “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” which makes me want to time-travel to the sixties and beat up some real hippies—don’t even get me started on the fake, modern ones). But Hendrix nailed it, because Hendrix did it the Hendrix way. Outside of the lyrics, he renders the song virtually unrecognizable from the original, but it remains an honorable tribute. Though their styles differed dramatically, the nonchalant antiestablishment attitude they both exhibited made Hendrix the only man good enough to rock a Dylan song.
4. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails)
Okay, so Johnny Cash is a classic country hero, and songs like “Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” are a cannon and yes, that’s all true, but I still don’t think that Cash had ever been better than he was at the end of it all, recording his American series albums. The other covers on these albums are also pretty killer: “Personal Jesus” (Depeche Mode) and “Desperado” (The Eagles) being among the most notable. But listening to Cash do this song with Reznor’s same intensity, yet bring vulnerability and frailty to the table, is the closest you’ll get to divine intervention.
5. Cat Power – “Moonshiner” (folk song with disputed origins – most notable often referenced as the Bob Dylan 1963 recording)
The force of this cover hangs partially in Marshall’s quavering voice and partially in knowing that she is singing her life through another man’s words. Moon Pix was recorded as Marshall was starting to go sober after years of alcoholism, and she really exorcises some demons with this interpretation. It’s haunting and devastating, and it’s one of those rare “better than any version before it” kind of covers.