At 73, it’s a safe bet that Bob Dylan has spent most of his waking life writing and recording music. While some complain about the nasal, gravely, or strained quality of his vocals on this song or that album, there’s no question that he’s a songwriting giant. Because Columbia Records cracks down on the availability of free, original Dylan content online, fans who don’t own the albums have mostly covers to work from. While the web is saturated with sub-par versions of excellent songs, there are a few gems from major artists hiding out in the far reaches of the internet. A cover that’s as good or better than the original is one that pushes the song into a different genre, gives the lyrics new meaning, captures an aspect of human emotion that the writer neglected, or does all three simultaneously.
10. The Clash-“The Man in Me”
This scratchy, reggae-influenced cover of The Big Lebowski’s theme song will warm the hearts of die-hard Clash and Dylan fans. Unless you’re a stickler for sound quality, in which case, a demo from “The Vanilla Tapes” might not be music to your ears. The sessions from “The Vanilla Tapes” would go on to become the classic “London Calling,” the title track of which Dylan himself has been known to cover from time to time. Joe Strummer once called Jakob Dylan and Jakob hung up thinking it was his dad putting on an accent. Go figure.
9. Iggy and the Stooges-“Ballad of Hollis Brown”
The “Raw Power” of Iggy, James Williamson, Ron Asheton, and Scott Asheton gave this song from “Times They Are A-Changing” a darkly psychedelic twist in 1973. The muffled, yet hypnotic pounding of Scott Asheton’s drum and Williamson’s haunting guitar work drive this version as Iggy’s hysteric vocals float over the top. Todd Haynes used this version for a montage in “I’m Not There” where Cate Blanchett’s amphetamine fueled Dylan character was furiously writing, but it’s not on the soundtrack. Got to admit, it’s good background music for writing.
8. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds-“Death Is Not The End”
While Dylan’s 1988 album, “Down in the Groove” wasn’t a critical or commercial success by any means, it provided the perfect ending track to Nick Cave’s brilliant 1996 album, “Murder Ballads.” Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue, PJ Harvey, Anita Lane, and two members of the Bad Seeds all sing on this song. If you aren’t a fan of any of those people, steer clear of this one. If you are, or haven’t heard of them, give it a listen. Fun fact: Paul Simonon of The Clash played bass on “Down in the Groove,” but not on this track.
7. Judy Collins-“Bob Dylan’s Dream”
This one has Bob Dylan’s name in the title, so how could Judy Collins do it better? Well, as she says, Bobby swiped the melody from an old English ballad called “Franklin’s Lament,” so it’s not entirely his to begin with. Her singing stops at about two minutes in, so pause it after that if you don’t want to hear Pete Seeger talk about learning a song. If you do, try to find Pete’s TV show “Rainbow Quest” which had guests like Judy, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Donovan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Len Chandler, Elizabeth Cotten, and so many more. Judy Collins’ stunning vibrato really makes this version, listen to the way she thumbs her heart into those strings, too.
6. The Specials-“Maggie’s Farm”
When I interviewed Roddy Byers, he said that The Specials decided to do a version of this song when Jerry Dammers saw The Blues Band do their version. He also said that he preferred Dylan’s version, but I have to respectfully disagree. The jungle beat of the drums and the anti-Thatcher message make this version praise worthy. It’s not only a great version of a Dylan classic, but an important historical document.
5. Jimmy Cliff-“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
“Where have you been my brown-eyed son?” Waiting to hear this gorgeous tune, that’s where. The Tim Armstrong-produced “Sacred Fire,” released in 2012, sounds like it could have been released in the mid-70’s. It takes a reggae titan like Jimmy Cliff to make such a jaw-dropping version of one of Dylan’s most famous and lyrically complex songs. Check out Jimmy’s cover of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” while you’re at it.
4. Buckwheat Zydeco-“On A Night Like This”
While the “Planet Waves” version of this song uses accordion, Buckwheat Zydeco’s accordion playing powers this entire jam. This one sounds fuller, sexier, and more celebratory than the original. It doesn’t snow much on the bayou, though, so that line’s a little weird. The sax and the washboard really help give it that down-home feeling. Nothing like a Dylan song steeped in the swamp.
3. The Faces-“Wicked Messenger”
Before Rod Stewart was an overblown, overrated rock “icon,” he was in a kick-ass British mod group called The Faces, which formed out of the ashes of Small Faces and Jeff Beck Group. This song is the first one on their first LP and it rockets a simple guitar and harmonica tune into a heavy-sweating rock anthem. Ian McLagan can play those notes right into your nerves. Rock critic Andy Gill thinks the song’s “messenger” is Dylan himself, while I think interpreting a song, poem, or story as a direct, literal extension of the writer is a mistake, which is a different subject for a different time.
2. Odetta-“Paths of Victory”
It must have been exciting and surreal for Dylan to hear Odetta, one of the people who inspired him to trade in his Ritchie Valens-inspired rock and roll style for an acoustic guitar and a button-down shirt, record an album entirely of songs he wrote. The beauty of this song is that it can be about an apolitical kind of hope, if there is such a thing, and about any and all protest movements at once. Coming out of Odetta’s mouth, the words seem like they belong in a gospel hymn book, but they were written by a skinny Jewish kid from Minnesota. In all seriousness, if Dylan decided to cede any of his songs to the public domain, this one would be at the top of my list.
1. Nina Simone-“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
Only Nina Simone could be so soft and forceful at the same time. While Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” version presents a whiny, crass, and resentful speaker, Nina Simone gives us a delicate, somber, and remorseful voice for the same lyrics. The lullaby-like piano lulls the listener in as the pitter-patter of the drums calls out to heartbeat. The lyrical change from “picking up Angel,” to “picking up my brother Carl,” may not make sense, but it works so well with this arrangement. Every time I listen to this version, I well up with tears. This has to be one of the most spellbinding recordings ever made.