There’s no formula for a great cover. Sometimes it’s about faithfully sticking to the script written by a master and other times it’s all about making the song “your own.” In between those two extremes is room for subtle touches, genre flips, restoration, and personal flair.
Classic rock earned it’s name, and it certainly doesn’t need any fixing. But over the years music has evolved and new styles are constantly morphing, building on each other, blending together, and trudging forward. Every now and then it’s good to take a time out and look back. With that in mind, here are The 50 Best Indie Covers Of Classic Rock Songs.
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50. Andrew Bird – “Oh Sister” (Bob Dylan Cover)
It’s easy to imagine this one starting off with Andrew Bird whistling away some dewy morning. Patch in the signature string arrangements and gentle voice and this idea bloomed nicely into the Bird’s very own version of Dylan’s “Oh Sister.”
49. Memoryhouse – “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (The Police Cover)
The Canadian indie duo takes up “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by The Police for AV Club’s Undercover series, explaining that they chose to cover this song using “manic pixie dream girl” logic (whatever that means), and creating a slowed-down, melancholic reinterpretation.
48. Bad Brains – “Day Tripper/She’s a Rainbow” (The Beatles/ The Rolling Stones Cover)
One of the coolest things about a cover is hearing songs in a new light, like you’ve never heard them before. With a 1-2 combo of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Bad Brains gives two classic rock songs a reggae twist for what was a fan favorite of the live show.
47. Pavement – “What Goes On” (Velvet Underground Cover)
Pavement mucks up Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” by giving the song a grittier feel, but follows that guitar solo to a tee.
46. The Morning Benders – “I Won’t Share You” (The Smiths Cover)
The Morning Benders’ take on the classic and unfortunately short-lived UK band, The Smiths’ “I Won’t Share You” stays fairly faithful to the original. Slowing it down slightly and lightening it up with some piano, The Morning Benders nonetheless manage to capture that bittersweet sentiment of “if I can’t have you, no one else can.”
45. Tame Impala – “That’s All For Everyone” (Fleetwood Mac Cover)
With the number of Fleetwood Mac covers available due to their forthcoming tribute album, it’s interesting to see how Mac’s classics have been interpreted. Tame Impala not only keeps the hazy quality of the original, but emphasizes it, lifting listeners into a dreamlike state.
44. Band Of Horses – “Your Love Is Forever” (George Harrison Cover)
Band Of Horses’ take on “Your Love is Forever is a straightforward one, but Ben Bridwell’s distinctive voice sets this one off and makes it feel like a song that was theirs for the taking all along.
43. The Decemberists and Death Cab For Cutie – “Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac Cover)”
When it comes to indie rock, not too many do it as accessibly and at times lightheartedly as Death Cab and The Decemberists. Even when they’re getting emo or telling deeply sorrowful tunes, there’s something cute about them, like the knotted fringe of a favorite blanket. “Go Your Own Way” may be one of Fleetwood’s most obvious and catchy tunes, and that’s what makes this cover such a pleasure.
42. The Black Keys – “Act Nice and Gentle (The Kinks Cover)”
The Kinks are one of the essentials of classic rock. The Black Keys are one of the essentials of modern rock. The two bands may come from different eras and have different styles, but real recognize real, right? Right.
41. Spoon – “Panic (The Smiths Cover)”
The moody sound of The Smiths through the filter of Spoon is surprisingly—or not surprisingly, depending on how optimistic you are— pretty perfect. The only downside of this one is we only have a muddled live recording.
40. Tennis – “Tell Her No” (Zombies Cover)
While the cover does not stray too far from the original, Alaina Moore’s soft, soothing voice gives The Zombies’ “Tell Her No” a new life in more ways than one. This song takes new meaning coming out
39. Meat Puppets – “What To Do” (Rolling Stones Cover)
There are probably entire books dedicated to emphasizing the importance of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When bands try to get cute and put a crazy spin on a classic, 9 out of 10 times it ends up being straight disrespectful. Meat Puppets find a slacker-ish tone, but other than that small touch of personal style, they stay true to The Stones’ original.
38. Lucero – “Modern Love” (David Bowie Cover)
Memphis-based Lucero’s lively sound might not be the one you’d expect to cover David Bowie, but Lucero turns up the energy and handles this one well. Not sure what Bowie would think, but we like it.
37. The Cardigans – “Ironman” (Black Sabbath Cover)”
Metalheads may think that this cover is sacrilegious, but The Cardigans’ may have just trumped all of metal’s rebellion with one move: turning Black Sabbath’s “Ironman” into something delicate and pretty.
36. Bon Iver – “Come Talk To Me” (Peter Gabriel cover)
Peter Gabriel has an iconically smooth sound. So does Bon Iver, although until “Beth/Rest” came out it was with about as different an aesthetic you could imagine. Justin Vernon & co. saw the connection, though, and bridge the two sounds with this cover. It gives Gabriel’s original the sparse, affecting, falsetto-laden sound we’ve come to expect from the Wisconsin outfit, and works wonders.
35. The Kills – “Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac Cover)
Stripping down Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” to dark essentials, The Kills tease out turbulent overtones only previously suggested (and perhaps reflective of the state of Fleetwood Mac during the period that produced “Dreams”). Propelled by sparsely clattering percussion and persistent bass, The Kills’ “Dreams” burns but never fully boils, accentuating an already eerie energy by denying full catharsis. A definite gem of recreation.
34. Beck’s Record Club – “Venus In Furs” (Velvet Underground and Nico Cover)
Sometimes a great cover can also be a faithful one. In his on again off again “let’s get the famous friends together and have a jam” Record Club music series, Beck and some friends decided to have a go at the Velvet Underground and Nico’s eponymous debut album. The Record Club’s cover hews very closely to the original, replacing Lou Reeds hauntingly measured performance with Beck’s familiar drone.
33. Phoenix – “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (Bob Dylan Cover)
Phoenix manages to replicate that same hypnotic ballad singing that Bob Dylan is so well known for through their cover of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
32. Death Cab For Cutie – “Free Fallin” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Cover)
Ben Gibbard knows how to give the people what they want. Yes, yes, it’s awesome when you can pull out an obscure Rolling Stones rarity to cover, but sometimes the people just want some fucking “Free Fallin’.”
31. Vampire Weekend – “I’m Going Down” (Bruce Springsteen Cover)
At first glance, there’s not much in common between Bruce Springsteen and Vampire Weekend. It’s blue collar versus blue blood, classic Americana taken on by a band that uses Afro-Caribbean rhythms and acoustic guitars. In this context, though, the juxtaposition makes perfect sense.
30. Dirty Projectors – “As I Went Out One Morning” (Bob Dylan cover)
Bob Dylan and Dirty Projectors are a strange combination, and this cover unreservedly reflects that. Longstreth and his band utilize a jangling guitar riff and bursts of vocals, strings and percussion to set the backdrop, putting Dylan in a new environment that makes a lot of sense once you hear it.
29. M. Ward – “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie)
You’re crazy for this one. M. Ward discovers the soft underbelly of David Bowie’s electro soul in this unusual acoustic cover of “Let’s Dance,” expanding the character of a classic and spinning it into an unrecognizable web.
28. Radiohead – “On the Beach” (Neil Young Cover)
Radiohead gives Neil Young’s “On the Beach” the paired back, straight ahead treatment, resulting in a cover that undeniably sounds like the work of the idiosyncratic British band while capturing the essence of their source material.
27. Jeff Tweedy – “I Shall Be Released” (Bob Dylan Cover)
Jeff Tweedy and Wilco understand the value of no-frills rock. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot they proved that they can master the experimental as well, but taking on a Dylan cover isn’t the place for that, and Tweedy’s cover of “I Shall Be Released” is a back-to-basics example of letting the song do all the work.
26. The Antlers – “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd Cover)
The Antlers nails their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” increasing the longing channeled in the original by tenfold, making it the ultimate “love and lost” anthem.
25. The Dimes – “Donna” (Richie Valens cover)
The Dimes manage a beautiful acoustic cover of “Donna” by Richie Valens. Be prepared to reminisce about an old flame.
24. Cat Power – “I Found A Reason” (Velvet Underground)
Often great covers work best via simplification–stripping down the elements to an essential core that highlights the qualities of the interpreter. Such is the case with Cat Power’s version of “I Found A Reason,” which doesn’t necessarily best the Velvet Underground version, but emphasizes the uniqueness of Power’s voice with a simple piano and vocal arrangement that eschews the originals light rock swing for something more skeletal, but no less impactful.
23. Of Montreal – “Trouble” (Lindsey Buckingham Cover)
Of Montreal’s front-man Kevin Barnes deserves some credit for his job on this cover of Lindsey Buckingham’s (of Fleetwood Mac) “Trouble.” Soft and vulnerable, Barnes locks up that feeling of missing an ex-lover.
22. The Dum Dum Girls – “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (The Smiths Cover)
Trading anguish and longing for sounds simultaneously edgier and sweeter, the Dum Dum Girls recast The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” as an insistent rocker. It maintains the message, but tweaks the medium enough that it works.
21. A.A. Bondy – “I’m On Fire” (Bruce Springsteen cover)
The first thing that comes to mind when talking about Bruce Springsteen is rock ‘n’ roll; bold guitars and strong songwriting. A.A. Bondy stripped “I’m On Fire” to it’s essence, an acoustic guitar and harmonica cover that exposes the soul of the track.
20. The Blacks Keys – “Dearest” (Buddy Holly)
The Black Keys would be good restoring classic cars or interior decorating with vintage furniture. The guys have such a great understanding of how to bring something old into current times without fucking it up or making it corny. That’s exactly what they did here.
19. Franz Ferdinand – “Call Me” (Blondie cover)
Franz Ferdinand covering Blondie feels right. Dance-ready new wave being interpreted by dance-crazed indie rockers? Is there a better fit? No. No there is not.
18. Nicolas Jaar and Sasha Spielberg – “Avalanche” (Leonard Cohen cover)
Leonard Cohen songs typically traffic in adjectives like “aching” and “haunting.” An icy, spacious re-imagining by Nicolas Jaar and Sasha Spielberg is a perfect way to update Cohen’s work, keeping ache and wistfulness fully intact.
17. The Feelies – “Paint It Black” (Rolling Stones Cover)
When you think of classic rock, there aren’t many bands that embody the spirit as perfectly as The Rolling Stones. That’s why it’s so impressive that The Feelies pulled off this “Paint It Black” cover with a current of post-punk running through it.
16. St. Vincent – “Dig A Pony” (Beatles Cover)
Annie Clark was recently voted Sexiest Woman In Indie Rock. It wasn’t just for her looks, although those doe eyes probably didn’t hurt. Annie’s nonchalant demeanor disappears when she steps on stage with a guitar strapped over her shoulder. Her “Dig A Pony” cover is just another reason to love Annie. She’s confident, she’s talented, and her solo take on The Beatles’ classic is proof that Annie Clark is more than just a sexy indie chick.
15. The Black Keys – “She Said, She Said (The Beatles Cover)”
The Black Keys throw their trademark muscle onto an enduring Beatles tune, giving a nice layer of fuzzy grit to the winking, pleasant pop of “She Said, She Said.”
14. Memoryhouse – “This Will Be Our Year” (Zombies Cover)
Giving the swaying percussion that makes The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” such a feel-good track a different approach, Memoryhouse’s cover, which was released on New Year’s Day earlier this year, appropriately contains a grand yet understated “Auld Lang Syne” feel.
13. My Morning Jacket – “Rocket Man” (Elton John cover)
Elton John has written some near-perfect pop songs. “Rocket Man” is one of them, and My Morning Jacket recorded a rendition that softened the edges, making the effervescent cut a fuzzier, warmer version of itself, but without losing that indescribable quality that makes it one of the songs everyone in the world can sing along to.
12. Bon Iver – “With God On Our Side” (Bob Dylan Cover)
Obviously, without Bob Dylan’s signature harmonica and twang, any cover of Dylan’s songs will be lacking a certain something. Bon Iver strips “With God On Our Side” down, allowing the audience to focus on the lyrics instead. Even then, this is probably one of the more upbeat songs that Bon Iver has ever performed.
11. Ellie Goulding – “Your Song” (Elton John)
Ellie Goulding has outgrown her indie roots now, becoming a full blown pop star. However, she proved her sensibilities haven’t shifted too much with this exquisitely arranged take on the legendary Elton John hit. Over restrained piano and strings she lets the songwriting speak for itself in this delicate take on a classic.
10. Dirty Projectors – “Dark Eyes (Bob Dylan Cover)”
Any song that was performed by artists of such a calibre (Bob Dylan on guitar, Patti Smith and Dylan on vocals) automatically makes it daunting to cover. Dirty Projectors, however, managed to take “Dark Eyes” and make it their own. While Smith sings it so sweetly, the girls of Dirty Projectors contribute some beautiful harmonies to accompany David Longstreth’s vocals.
9. Tallest Man On Earth – “Graceland” (Paul Simon Cover)
Paul Simon’s “Graceland” is lively and rubbery, but with a voice like his, Kristian Matsson doesn’t need much help making a song move. Using only a banjo and his vocal chords, this Tallest Man On Earth cover of “Graceland” takes on an almost painful tone, and it’s hauntingly powerful.
8. The White Stripes – “Party of Special Things to Do” (Captain Beefheart cover)
The White Stripes never shied away from surrealism or the hard charging blues rock so important to their canon. Both rear their heads in this stomping cover of Captain Beefheart’s already unhinged “Party of Special Things to Do,” as Jack’s cunning wail and searing guitar and Meg’s lockstep drums crystallize the magic of the Stripes at their most powerful.
7. TV On The Radio – “Heroes” (David Bowie Cover)
David Bowie’s “Heroes” has lent itself to covers before–the Wallflowers cover most publicly notable among them. TV On The Radio eschew straightforward rock sensibilities for a skittering anthemic sound that will be immediately familiar to fans, rising from a slow build and hitting towering heights before fading back into the ether. Heroes indeed.
6. Lykke Li – “Silver Springs” (Fleetwood Mac Cover)
When talking about covers, the goal is often to “make the song your own.” It’s a simple and obvious goal, but harder than you’d think, especially when it comes to classic rock. “Silver Spring” is the perfect example of metting this goal. For those unfamiliar with the original, Lykke’s take on “Silver Spring” could pass as simply another great Lykke Li track.
5. Chromatics -“Into The Black” (Neil Young Cover)
Polished to a sharp point, Chromatics kicked off Kill For Love in style with their take on the Neil Young classic. The smoky guitars and boldly melancholic air sell the iconic”It’s better to burn out than to fade away” maxim in a new light that’s just as romantic as it ever was.
4. Elliott Smith – “Jealous Guy (John Lennon Cover)”
Elliott Smith has countless covers that wouldn’t be out of place on this list, including plenty from The Beatles’ arsenal. But this take on John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is simply gut-wrenching. The already beautiful song takes a tragic, desperate tone with Elliott on the microphone.
3. The Kills – “Pale Blue Eyes (Velvet Underground)”
Not just anyone can pull off a Lou Reed cover. Lou fucking Reed could school any of these rappers claiming “swag” with his effortless cool that exudes from every vocal delivery he lays down. There aren’t too many rockers around today that can match that level of nonchalant style, but Allison Mosshart is certainly one who can. The Kills’ version of “Pale Blue Eyes” is less sedated than the original, but manages to capture that druggy, head-in-the-clouds vibe in its own way.
2. The White Stripes – “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” (Bob Dylan Cover)
If the White Stripes knew how to do one thing, it was rock. On “One More Cup of Coffee,” the duo takes a moderately rockin’ Bob Dylan song and slams it with their signature bluesy inflection, imbuing it with an evocativeness that suggests both source material and the influences that swirl around their music. And when that organ hits? Things get positively religious–adding very real weight to the dark promise of heading to the valley below. A very intriguing reinvention.
1. The Breeders – “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (The Beatles Cover)
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is one of The Beatles’ sharpest, most mischievous tracks. There’s a badass-ness about it that lends an even more formidable quality to it, as if being a Beatles song didn’t already command respect. If there’s one person to tackle a song like this, it’s Kim Deal, and that’s what she did on The Breeders’ 1990 debut album, Pod. Deal balances the natural sweetness of her voice with an almost malicious intent evident from the very beginning.
The Breeders didn’t just do Lennon and McCartney’s classic song justice with this cover—they gave it a new life with an indie attitude that only the ’90s could supply.