As we began to compile this list of the 50 Best Bob Dylan Covers of All Time—asking for input from Paste readers, writers and editors—someone suggested that it might be easier to compile a list of artists who haven’t covered Dylan. I’ve listened to literally hundreds of Dylan covers over the course of the past week, trying to weigh choices like, “Who’s version of ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ is better, Nick Drake or Nickel Creek?” But I don’t mean to make it sound like grueling work. My biggest take-away from this exercise is that going to Dylan for source material generally elevates whatever artist is tackling it. There are so many transcendent moments in these 50 songs. Antony’s trembling tenor veering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” into a completely new direction. Beck making “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” sound like he wrote it. I could put this playlist on repeat, and it’d be a long while before it grew old.
We chose only one song from each of the artists, though some are mentioned multiple times in the alternate takes. We disqualified any songs that were duets with Dylan, but we didn’t limit it to official releases or studio versions. There are several rumored songs we wish we could have heard and considered (like Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s “Idiot Wind”), and I’m sure there are songs you love that we just didn’t know about. No artist has likely been covered as much as Dylan, so while this list is pretty well researched, it’s far from exhaustive. Let us know your favorites in the comments section below.
Give the Junkies credit for tackling the greats. On the band’s U.K.-only live album, In the Time Before Llamas, Margo Timmins sings Dylan, Lou Reed, Robert Johnson and Gram Parsons. Opting for a rocking blues version of “If You Gotta Go,” Margo’s smoky vocals make for a lovely send-off.
If not the Junkies, then… we like The Flying Burrito Brothers’ sunny country rave-up.
A decade earlier, The Replacements’ hilarious, drunken Dylan parody “Like a Rolling Pin” proved that there should be no sacred cows in rock ’n’ roll. But this sped-up Ramones cover of one of Dylan’s finest is delivered without a hint of irony. Every bit as simultaneously nostalgic and forward-looking as the original, it does what most punk covers of non-punk songs fail to do—it pays genuine heartfelt tribute to the original.
If not The Ramones, then… we like The Hollies.
Another gospel-soul arrangement, but Hynde lays surprisingly jazzy vocals on top for the verses. That’s jarring enough given her classic rock-chick voice, but more voices join her on the chorus to turn the song into a pure anthem.
If not Chrissie, then… we like Kevn Kinney’s version with Warren Haynes and Edwin McCain.
Stevens’ tasty arrangement includes horns bursting into subtle piano and guitar that make it absolutely his own.
If not Sufjan then… we like Joe Cocker’s earnest growls.
There’s hardly a better song for channelling DiFranco’s cool invective than the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
If not Ani, then… we like… um… anyone beside Vanilla Ice.
Creek’s version is lovely, but despite an early misstep on the lyrics, Drake’s gentle crooning does a better job of capturing the song’s loneliness.
If not Nick, then… we’ll take Nickel Creek’s bright pickin’ and grinnin’.
guitars, driving rhythm, and those indescribable vocals—it’s classic Neil Young. The key to his great performance here is his utter comfort inside the song, as if he was born singing every word.
If not Neil, then… we like Nina Simone. It’s like sitting down with someone over whiskey and soda in the middle of the afternoon and hearing their life story.
We’re pretty sure Bob never envisioned the song this way, but we’ll bet he approves. Zack De La Rocha’s vocals build from soft resentment to outrage, while the instruments maintain a menacing low rumble. The fact that they never quite catch up to his energy shouldn’t work but somehow does.
If not Rage, then… we like Vigilantes of Love. Bill Mallonee and his group of many years play it straight. Recorded just at the end of their punk-folk period, this largely acoustic gem is more driving and gripping than most bands fully plugged in. Mallonee’s whispered “everybody wants me to be like them” is especially eerie and powerful. A cocksure statement of confidence from a band hitting its stride.
The September issue of British magazine Mojo featured a sampler of Dylan covers. Ward, Oberst and James traded verses on “Girl from the North Country.” Since then, they’ve periodically been discussing a “Monsters of Folk” album.
If not these guys, then… we like John Gorka.
Every note out of Jones’ mouth feels like a caress, making you believe she will indeed be your baby tonight.
If not Norah then… Michelle Malone may have the best voice you’ve never heard.
Arrangement-wise, Yo La Tengo’s cover of “Fourth Time Around” is pretty faithful to the original—even the organ they use sounds 1960s-ancient. But what completely sets their version apart is the dreamy, Vince Guaraldi-esque piano playing and Georgia Hubley’s absolutely entrancing vocal.
If not Yo La Tengo, then… we like Calexico’s version.
Tedeschi takes you back to church—like Aretha singing with Duane Allman rocking out on the dobro (in fact, Tedeschi is playing with husband Derek Trucks here, whose uncle is Allmans drummer Butch). The production is perfect—just enough of every element, with nothing out of place. And the “oohs” alone are worth the price of admission. Gospel blues at its best.
If not Susan then we like… The Lost Dogs.
Verlaine (Television) and Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and um… everyone).
If not Malkmus… then you have to go back to the original version.
The Quiet Beatle makes it sound like he wrote this song himself. The layered slide guitars are a brilliant touch, and there’s just a hint of harmonica, as if in tribute to the author.
If not George, then… we like Richie Havens.
We have to be honest; we don’t always love the sweet, plaintive Dylan covers of Joan Baez. But her approach fits tunes like “Farewell Angelina,” that sound as if they were written by the hills of Appalachia themselves.
If not Joan, then… we like Jeff Buckley’s soulful version despite the horrible sound quality of the recording.
“Simple Twist of Fate” is Dylan’s best song about unrealized love. Listening to it on his legendary divorce record Blood on the Tracksmusic waxing as cloudy as a Hollywood flashback while his uniquely phrased guitar licks pirouette atop Melvin Seals’ shimmering organ and John Kahn’s dreamy bass playing.
If not Jerry, then… we like Jeff Tweedy’s version from I’m Not There.
For her cover of this Blonde on Blonde highlight, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall uses the same soul band that backed her on her masterful album The Greatest. These authentic Memphis horns add a whole new layer to “Memphis Blues Again,” the tune crooned so coolly by Marshall that you can picture her laying down her vocal from behind a barricade of Dylan-esque Ray-Ban Wayfarers.
If not Chan, then… we like Catbird Seat.
Even with the bass guitar and backing vocals, you’d swear it’s just Wendy alone on the balcony of her apartment at 3 a.m., the night’s last cigarette in front of her, memories churning in her brain. It’s pensive, tender and heartfelt. And she sings the hell out of it, too.
If not Wendy… then we like Neko Case’s twangy pedal steel, walking basslines and trademark vocals—half cocksure and half plaintive. Lots of fun.
Reed’s 10-minute talking roadhouse blues gives new life to this seldom-covered track.
If not Lou, then… we have to pick a new song because we’ve never heard anyone else tackle it.
One of the best songs off of Osborne’s Grammy-nominated album Relish was her gorgeous rendition of this Dylan cut from Oh Mercy.
If not Joan, then… we like Mark Lanegan.
With guitars flying around the melody, the Watson boys’ bluegrass version is absolutely satisfying.
If not the Watsons, then… we like Billy Bragg.
Just after the departure of Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman released 1971’s The Flying Burrito Brothers, which included this country-rock cover.
If not the Burrito Bros. then we like… David Gray.
There’s not a false note in one of the finest of Van Morrison’s many legendary performances with Them. As an added bonus, Beck built one of his best songs around a sample the organ part.
If not Van, then… we like Echo & Bunnymen’s version, notable if only for its ballsiness; not many New Wave bands had any interest in covering their parents’ songs, especially those of Dylan. But the band’s underwater-shimmery sound and Ian McCulloch’s out-on-a-limb vocals are a great fit for “Baby Blue.”
Garage rocker Mitch Ryder’s cover of Dylan’s definitive anthem doesn’t improve on the original (how could it?), but it annexes a Godfather of Soul funk groove that totally reinvents the song. “How does it feel?” is transformed from a righteous sneer into a call to get up off your ass and dance.
If not Mitch, then… we like The Rolling Stones, in part, because it becomes a theme song.
With nothing but acoustic guitar for accompaniment, Simone’s version sounds more like something passed down through the ages than a Dylan cover.
If not Nina, then… we also like the Neville Brothers.
Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine collaborated with Calexico for the 2005 EP In the Reigns. The two bands reunited to record “Dark Eyes” for the I’m Not There soundtrack, and the result is a dark, haunting ballad.
If not Sam, then… we like Patti Smith.
Even with the greatest soul voice this side of Otis Redding, why Cooke would take this classic, plaintive anthem and turn it into a bop is puzzling at first listen. But by the time he reaches the chorus, you’re no longer wondering; instead you’re tapping your toes and marveling at his genius. Cooke’s is better than Stevie Wonder’s soulful take, and that’s
If not Sam… then we love Peter Paul & Mary’s more famous version. So square they’re hip, PP&M are a Wes Anderson soundtrack away from being the next big thing in 2009. Some of the most beautiful harmonies of the 20th century are theirs—veritably dripping with sincerity and urgency.
Colvin closes her Cover Girl album with a live version of this Dylan nugget, and its a lovely outro.
If not Shawn, then… we like Elvis Costello’s cut off the reissue of 1995’s Kojak Variety.
The “Godmother of Punk” hangs with the Dylan original, snarl for snarl.
If not Patti, then… we like both the The Black Keys and The Faces.
With an authoritative wail, Eddie Vedder leads a 2006 crowd in a timely rendition of Dylan’s response to the “military-industrial complex.”
If not Pearl Jam, then… we like Lucinda Williams’ twangier approach.
Dylan wrote this song specifically for Nico, and it’s a beautiful pairing. A string section compliments the Warhol collaborator’s unusual voice.
If not Nico, then… we like Marianne Faithfull.
Johnny Cash’s version is so definitive that he’s more identified it with it than Dylan himself, but Cash gets his due further up the list. And Nick Cave is more believable as a wanted man—a criminally deranged one at that—in this relentless version.
If not Nick, then… we’re quite happy to listen to Johnny Cash.
The Scorchers strip out the groove and turn the song into a straight rocker, with one of Jason Ringenberg’s best surly vocals. You’ll never so completely believe you’re in a rocking roadhouse deep somewhere in the Texas countryside.
If not Jason then we like… the Flaming Groovies.
Maybe it’s not fair to include Dylan’s longtime collaborators on songs they know so well, but The Band puts its experience to good use on “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” complete with some sweet, sweet accordion.
If not The Band, then… The Grateful Dead gets the nod over Elliott Smith on sound quality alone.
Chapman’s voice is nearly as unique as Dylan’s and carries a similar heft for a song that needs it.
If not Tracy, then… Simon & Garfunkel are no slouches either.
A crazy punk-blues-industrial version with Harvey alternately whispering and screaming the vocals. A primal, brilliant cry.
If not Polly Jean, then… Johnny Winter’s classic electric-blues version of the song. It reminds you—forcefully—of the underlying roots of the chord structure.
This song should really be heard in the context of the whole Secret South album for full effect. Like every Sixteen Horsepower album, it’s haunted and haunting, with Appalachian instrumentation and apocalyptic visions of guilt, remorse and confusion emanating from David Eugene Edwards’ hypnotic and manic tent-meeting delivery. The Dylan song is a hard-won moment of transcendence and faith, nearly triumphant in its assurance.
If not 16HP then… we heard that The Waterboys do a great cover, but we couldn’t find it.
Dylan and The Band first released this sad-eyed ballad on The Basement Tapesscrub-covered canyon—does just this, with the help of Calexico’s geographically perfect Southwest horns.
If not Jim then… we like Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
An unapologetically worshipful rendition of one of the most epic Dylan story songs, and the Girls’ utter sincerity really sells it. If not Amy and Emily… Dickie Betts turns in a countrified take on “Tangled” and, no surprise, adds a beautiful, extended guitar solo to the middle of it. It’s a version to drink cold beer to on the back porch as the sun goes down.
In 1985, during the Live Aid concert, Patti LaBelle went absolutely huge on this song, doing vocal gymnastics on just about every line. Bombastic? Certainly. Still awesome? Absolutely.
If not Patti, then… we like The Pretenders.
The blues have come a long way from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Beck’s fuzzed-out interpretation of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” The chord progressions and harmonica are still there, but it’s been broken down and reassembled, and the results are sublime. Plus it’s for a good cause as part of the impressive War Child presents Heroes album.
If not Beck, then… we’ll settle for John Mellencamp.
On The White Stripes’ debut album, the song of a man departing his unrequited love is rubbed absolutely raw.
If not Jack & Meg, then… we like Roger McGuinn’s recent version with Calexico.
After the British folk band heard a preview of Dylan’s then-unreleased Basement Tapes, bassist Ashley Hutchings said, “this strange, kind of mish-mash of styles and drawled lyrics came out of the speakers. It sounded kind of subterranean; there was this strange cloak of weirdness covering them. We loved it all. We would have covered all the songs if we could.” That adoration comes through on Fairport’s cover of “Percy’s Song” from Unhalfbricking, one of only two albums to feature both Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson.
If not Fairport Convention, then… we like Arlo Guthrie.
The queen of Americana lives at the complete opposite end of the vocal spectrum from Dylan, and with producer Daniel Lanois at the helm, her angelic singing floats above atmospheric clouds of music.
If not Emmylou, then… we like Derek Webb’s sincere approach.
The fiddles soar. The drums march. And the depth and power of Miller’s voice deliver both passion and gravitas at a time when the song’s message mattered as much as ever. It’s an epic moment on Miller’s best album Universal United House of Prayer.
If not Buddy, then… we like Manfred Mann.
Wonderfully phrased and tenderly sung, Havens adds a level of empathy missing from the original.
If not Richie, then we love both Nina Simone’s understanding version and Jeff Buckley’s subtle one.
Roger McGuinn and the rest of The Byrds pretty much made it their job to cover every new Dylan song they heard. This California-country shuffle—the opening track on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeosteel adds a whole new layer to the song, as do The Byrds’ harmonies, with Mcguinn, Parsons and Chris Hillman creating an un forgettable vocal blend. It’s every bit as beautiful as their cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
If not The Byrds, then… we like Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s version on the I’m Not There soundtrack.
Antony Hegerty pours his otherworldly soul into this version until it’s completely spent. When he sings, “I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door,” he sounds like he’s actually knocking on heaven’s door—though it’s unclear whether he’s an angel of darkness or light.
If not Antony, then… we also bow at the feet of Guns N’ Roses.
Though Dylan was coming from the countercultural folk movement and Cash was part of the more conservative country-music world, they were huge admirers of each other’s work, and actually ended up doing a loose, off-the-cuff (probably drunk and stoned) session together in 1969 that was never formally released. Five years before that, though, Cash’s cover of the Dylan classic “It Ain’t Me Babe” transformed the song completely. While a master songwriter, Dylan’s voice and trickster persona never lent themselves well to sincerity—listeners were always left wondering exactly where Dylan stood, and whether he really meant what he was singing. Cash, on the other hand, is sincerity personified, and with his booming, sure voice (and June Carter’s harmonies making things even more poignant), he imbues the bittersweet song with more power and tough honesty than any singer before or since.
If not Johnny & June, then… we also adore Nancy Sinatra’s take on the song.
Dylan’s folky, foreboding original version—from his stripped-down John Wesley Harding album—is an interesting character study of two men living outside the law, on the fringe of society. But from the opening notes of Hendrix’s otherworldly cover, the whole tune comes alive, seedy but enlightened protagonists the Joker and the Thief jolted to life like hobo Frankensteins by Hendrix’s supercharged guitar playing and desperate vocal delivery.
If not Jimi, then… we like XTC’s gutsy reworking.