The 80 Best Bob Dylan Covers, Ranked
Celebrate Dylan's 80th birthday with the most impressive cover versions of his songs
As he celebrates his 80th birthday today (May 24), the songs that make up Bob Dylan’s massive catalog have come to be some of the closest things we have to modern standards. He’s currently the second-most covered artist of all time, behind The Beatles, and his songs have attracted everyone from folk singers to country musicians, jazz artists and pop stars. Just as Dylan so often defied genre in his own career, there’s something about his songs that encourages whoever’s performing them to get creative with it.
That was the case with Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift, who released a critically acclaimed album of Dylan covers last year called Blonde on the Tracks and is currently gearing up for a slate of Dylan-themed tour dates Down Under next month.
“I was really depressed and I had writer’s block, and I didn’t really know what to do with my life,” Swift tells InsideHook. “I was kind of floating around doing not very much of anything, which is a really frustrating place to be in creatively. And I got this idea in my head that a way to work myself out of this sort of malaise that I had going on would be to book some recording time and sing someone else’s songs. I landed on Bob Dylan because he’s my favorite songwriter of all time. The genius is undeniable. And I don’t really like that word very much, but in terms of his songwriting and his catalog, there’s so much to choose from. You can make a record of Bob Dylan covers — anybody could do it, Chrissie Hynde’s just done it — and no one would be the same because there’s just so much wonderful, beautiful and quite diverse and different material to pick and pull from.”
Maybe it’s because the fact that his outstanding lyricism often gets lauded more than his distinct vocals and there’s less pressure to replicate his songs note for note, but there’s something about Dylan tracks that makes them inherently coverable. (Not to mention the fact that, as Swift pointed out, he’s got a song that’ll suit just about every style of musician.) But according to Swift, ultimately what draws artists to cover Dylan over and over again is the fact that Dylan himself was so open to reinventing himself.
“I think the way that he’s been a fabulous and entertaining shape-shifter for his entire career is very inspiring to a lot of artists,” she explains. “And because of the way that he’s reimagined his own songs over time, he hasn’t stuck to keeping those songs the same in a live format. It opens the playing field a little bit for others to do the same. I think it does help starting out in that folk tradition. So many of his songs got covered so early. So The Byrds, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and Joan Baez and Judy Collins and those artists, they really kind of set it up for us to follow the path. I think it’s really interesting that many of his songs have incredibly specific poetic details that you can’t imagine on a pop chart now, but then he’ll have a song like ‘Make You Feel Me Love’ or ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ —there’s something about the songs that they’re not too didactic in their terms. They ask to be reinterpreted in a way. If you think about that era of songwriters, like thinking about John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the Beatles, they are not nearly as reinterpreted. A lot of people cover the Beatles, but not in the same way that Dylan has really become the singer’s songwriter. I think Bob Dylan is a wonderful singer and a master of phrasing, and yet he gets kind of labeled sometimes as a non-singer.”
To honor Dylan on his milestone birthday, we’re looking back at 80 of the most memorable reinterpretations of his songs, whether they remain fairly true to the originals or are barely recognizable. Check them all out below.
Bettye Lavette’s powerful rendition of “Things Have Changed” serves as the title track for her 2018 album of Dylan covers, and though it’s only been out for a few years, its influence is already being felt. Margo Price and Adia Victoria are among the singers who have taken to performing Lavette’s arrangement of the song live in recent years.
If you’re only familiar with “Wrecking Ball” or “Party in the USA,” you’re likely shuddering at the idea of Miley Cyrus covering Bob Dylan. But the pop star shows off her country bonafides with Johnzo West on this version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” demonstrating what she’s capable of when she’s actually singing a song that suits her voice. Why can’t she do this sort of thing all the time?
Emma Swift’s rendition of “I Contain Multitudes” is easily the most recent cover on this list; she recorded the Rough and Rowdy Ways track just months after it was released last year. “So I’m a really slow moving person and I’ve never been fast on a musical project in my life, except for this one moment,” Swift tells InsideHook. “Basically what happened is Bob Dylan put out ‘I Contain Multitudes’ in late April of 2020. And by the first week of May 2020, I’d recorded it from lockdown in Nashville in my living room … It’s such a glorious song to me. It’s really beautiful but also really funny. And the best Bob Dylan songs to me are always ones that have that tragic-comic element. When he sings “Follow me close, I’m going to Bally-Na-Lee, I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me,” that just makes me tear up. It’s so profoundly beautiful. And then couple of lines later, “I drive fast cars and I eat fast food. I contain multitudes.” I think that Whitman would get a laugh out of it. I know I do.”
“Percy’s Song” was still an unreleased Basement Tapes outtake at the time that Fairport Convention recorded it for their 1969 album Unhalfbricking, though Dylan would go on to officially release his own version of the car-crash tale in 1985. When the group first heard the song, 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.”
Warren Zevon’s version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is excellent devoid of context, but it really packs an extra emotional punch when you get a little background on it: after being diagnosed with inoperable pleural mesothelioma, Zevon was determined to make one last record (2003’s The Wind) and — after hearing Dylan cover several of his songs in concert in 2002 — he wanted to include a Dylan cover on it. What better way to grapple with your own mortality than to deliver a heart-wrenching version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” when you are literally knockin’ on heaven’s door?
Leave it to Lou Reed to choose a Dylan deep cut like this Infidels outtake (which eventually wound up on The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3) to cover. Reed delivered an excellent, nearly nine-minute version of this roadhouse blues number at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992.
In addition to his iconic cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Joe Cocker’s 1969 debut album actually includes two Dylan covers (“Just Like a Woman” and “I Shall Be Released”), but it’s his interpretation of “Dear Landlord” that opens his sophomore album Joe Cocker! (produced by the legendary Leon Russell) that has a special place in our hearts.
Elvis recorded this Dylan tune in May 1966 during the sessions for his album How Great Thou Art, and Dylan was reportedly thrilled by it, considering it to be a career highlight. In a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan called Elvis’s version of the song “the one recording I treasure the most.”
If we really want to split hairs here, The Band released their version of this Dylan song in September of 1971, two months before he put out his own in November that year. But for the purposes of this list, we’re counting it as a cover. The Band’s version features some excellent accordion work from Garth Hudson along with mandolin and a solid vocal performance by Levon Helm.
Bob Dylan’s own performance at Live Aid in 1985 was marred by some controversy when he said “I hope that some of the money … maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe … one or two million, maybe … and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks.” (His remarks would eventually inspire the creation of Farm Aid, but it perhaps wasn’t the time or place, and Bob Geldof was reportedly pissed.) Patti LaBelle was also on hand and performed a truly stunning version of “Forever Young” full of the kind of vocal gymnastics that’ll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
The Flying Burrito Brothers had big shoes to fill after they fired Gram Parsons in 1970. But they bounced back quickly with their 1971 album The Flying Burrito Bros, replacing Parsons with singer/guitarist Rick Roberts and delivering this excellent rendition of Dylan’s “To Ramona.” Founding member Chris Hillman was, of course, no stranger to covering Dylan at this point, thanks to his years with the Byrds.
“Make You Feel My Love” has been covered by over 450 different artists at this point, but none have had quite as much success with it as Adele. She included the cover on her debut studio album 19 in 2008, but she reportedly took a little convincing to do so. “I was being quite defiant against it,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t want a cover on my album. It kind of implies that I’m incapable of writing enough of my own songs for my first record.’” Thankfully, she changed her mind, and Dylan’s romantic lyrics paired with her powerhouse vocals earned her a gold record.
Jeff Buckley’s folk-rock musician father Tim once famously responded “I don’t” when asked what he thought about Bob Dylan, but we have to believe he would have changed his tune had he lived long enough to hear his son’s gorgeous take on “Just Like a Woman.” Recorded in 1993 shortly after he signed to Columbia Records, the sparse six-and-a-half-minute rendition features some strong vocals from Buckley and gives his famous cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a run for its money.
George Harrison tackled this Dylan track on his legendary 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass, and he managed to make it sound as if he wrote it himself. The former Beatle added a little melodic pop sheen to it as well as those cool layered slide guitars, and the following year he and Dylan would team up on a casual-yet-memorable performance of it at the Concert for Bangladesh.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is a civil rights anthem in its own right — one that has been embraced and covered by legendary Black artists like The Staple Singers and Stevie Wonder — but it’s also indirectly responsible for another iconic protest song from the era. When Sam Cooke first heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963, he was so moved by it that he immediately incorporated it into his repertoire and included it on the live album Sam Cooke at the Copa. He also was reportedly struck by the fact that such a spot-on song about racism in America could be penned by a white man and ashamed that he hadn’t yet written something like it himself, which eventually inspired him to write “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
By the time Van Morrison covered this Blonde on Blonde classic live at San Francisco’s Pacific High Studios in 1971, he was an old pro at tackling Dylan songs. He had, of course, already had a hit in 1966 during his garage-rock days with Them with the band’s take on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” But by the time he covered “Just Like a Woman,” he had evolved artistically and was firing on all cylinders (having just released Astral Weeks in 1968 and Moondance in 1970), and the result is a soulful, slowed-down version that stretches it out to nearly eight minutes and sounds like Morrison himself could have written it.
There’s a case to be made that entire genres of music — specifically folk-rock and jangle pop — wouldn’t exist as we know them today if the Byrds’ manager Jim Dickson hadn’t convinced them to record it. It’s a hugely influential song thanks to those lovely harmonies and the musical contributions of legendary LA session band The Wrecking Crew. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 upon its release, making it the first Dylan song to reach No. 1 on any pop music chart.
Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan were great friends and admirers of each other, and naturally that led to plenty of covers and collaborations between the two. (See also: Johnny Cash and June Carter’s take on “It Ain’t Me, Babe.“) The Man in Black’s iconic duet with Dylan himself on this The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan track (which eventually became the opening song on Nashville Skyline) isn’t eligible for this list since it involves the original artist, but fortunately for us, it’s not the only time Johnny Cash tackled it. He also delivered an absolutely stunning version of it alongside Joni Mitchell on his Johnny Cash Show in 1970.
Yes, we know that like their take on “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” this one’s technically not a cover because The Band recorded their version of the Dylan-penned track for their untouchable 1968 debut album Music from Big Pink before Dylan himself got around to recording it (in a 1967 Basement Tapes session that didn’t get officially released until 1991, and again in 1971 with a different arrangement). But The Band’s version is simply too good and too influential to not include here. Richard Manuel handles lead vocals on “I Shall Be Released” a few years before his substance abuse would begin to take a toll on his range, and his falsetto is absolutely pristine. Almost a decade later, The Band would enlist an all-star lineup of guest musicians (including Dylan) to help them close the book on their touring career by bringing things full-circle with the song for The Last Waltz.
It’s rare that a cover version of a song usurps the original, but — no offense to Bob, of course — we’re willing to bet that more people think of “All Along the Watchtower” as a Jimi Hendrix song than a Dylan track at this point. Part of that could be due to timing: Hendrix released his version just six months after Dylan put out the original on his John Wesley Harding album. But Hendrix absolutely made “All Along the Watchtower” his own — so much so that Dylan has taken to performing it his way in live shows. “It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan said in a 1995 interview about the Hendrix cover. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
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