1. Def Leppard, Yeah! (2006)
Aging hard-rock bands have been piling up the covers albums lately, baffling their fans by revealing heretofore-unacknowledged influences. If Def Leppard's Yeah! is any indication of what makes a veteran metal act's heart beat, then it appears 20-odd years of arena bombast have been masking a glam-rock band. On Yeah!, Def Leppard muscles through songs by David Essex ("Rock On," naturally), Roxy Music ("Street Life"), and David Bowie ("Drive-In Saturday"), as well as more power-pop-inclined acts like E.L.O. ("10538 Overture") and Badfinger ("No Matter What"). They render most of these into slop, because, frankly, the monster-riffing behemoth that is Def Leppard can't be expected to master sweeter, trickier melodies. But as a statement of self, Yeah! is kind of heartening. When the band serves up an unfortunately booming cover of The Kinks' elegiac "Waterloo Sunset," the song choice puts the band's Union Jack stage costumes into context. Who knew these dudes loved Britpop?
Most unlikely cover: A remarkably credible—and likeably brisk—take on Blondie's "Hanging On The Telephone."
2. Ozzy Osbourne, Under Cover (2005)
Like Def Leppard, Ozzy Osbourne has apparently been nurturing a T. Rex fetish, which he indulges on one of the weirdest sets of covers ever committed to tape—digital or analog. Under Cover plays up the football-hooligan undertones of Mott The Hoople's "All The Young Dudes" and King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" one minute, then gets all sensitive and schmaltzy the next. Osbourne pays tribute to John Lennon by mush-mouthing his way through "Working Class Hero," "In My Life," and—no shit—"Woman." Then he rebounds with suitably overpowering metal-boogie covers of "Rocky Mountain Way" and "Mississippi Queen." All the wistful gazing at musical roads not taken is moderately touching, But did the Ozz-Man need to play to his base by cutting an extra-demonic take on Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love," or a too-on-the-nose version of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown's "Fire" (complete with the "I am the god of hellfire!" intro)? Or, for that matter, did we need the seven-minute funk interpretation of "Sympathy For The Devil?" We get it, Ozzy. You're scary. Though, honestly, you're even scarier singing "Woman."
Most unlikely cover: A wildly inappropriate pub-rock version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth."
3. Styx, Big Bang Theory (2005)
Dear Styx, if you replace Dennis DeYoung's trademark bellow with the generic chops of Lawrence Gowan, then attempt a collection of songs that could've been culled from any classic-rock station's "Memorial Day 500," how do you differ from every other well-heeled boomer cover band in heartland U.S.A.? Well, maybe you're a little quirkier. Not too many local bar-crawlers are willing to befuddle their party-ready patrons with songs made popular by Procul Harum or Free—though way too many of them would obliterate "I Am The Walrus," "I Can See For Miles," and "Locomotive Breath" in exactly the way you do on Big Bang Theory. When you start thinking that Blind Faith's lilting "Can't Find My Way Home" would sound better as a Mr. Big-style power ballad, maybe it's time to reconsider the musical company you keep.
Most unlikely cover: The Allman Brothers' backwoods boogie anthem "One Way Out," which Styx plays so faithfully that it's almost like a lament for the roots-rock band they might've been.
4. Rush, Feedback (2004)
The '60s hippie-pride standard "For What It's Worth" gets another airing here, but unlike Ozzy Osbourne's stupidly shiny take, Rush does the song proud, starting in a mellow vein and getting stormy at the end—just like the '60s itself. It helps that Feedback includes a second Buffalo Springfield song—Neil Young's "Mr. Soul"—along with a pair of Yardbirds covers that help locate this record's heart somewhere between Sunset Strip and Swinging London. Like a lot of the covers albums on this list, Feedback is too thick and overplayed, but Rush comes closer to getting the low, gritty vibe of a song like The Who's "The Seeker" than a lot of its supercharged brethren.
Most unlikely cover: At a glance, Love's "Seven And Seven Is" would seem to be a nutty choice for Rush, but it fits well into Feedback's free-love/bad-trip spirit.
5. Guns N' Roses, The Spaghetti Incident? (1993)
Probably the most famous covers album by hard-rock superstars, Guns N' Roses' The Spaghetti Incident? was intended as a little palate-cleanser between the epic Use Your Illusion disc and whatever was going to come next. Only, so far, nothing has come next, and until Axl Rose brings Chinese Democracy to the marketplace, the final statement of Los Angeles' premier rafter-rattlers remains this collection of proto-punk covers, originally recorded by The Heartbreakers, New York Dolls, The Dead Boys, The Damned, The Stooges, and the like. The band adds a layer of glitter that tends to choke off the originals' raunch, but it's fascinating to hear Rose and company locate their roots in rough-cut slabs of post-adolescent rebellion. The Spaghetti Incident? attracted some controversy due to its hidden cover of Charles Manson's "Look At Your Game Girl," but the worst part of the uproar was how it deflected attention from the song the Manson cover was buried beneath: a storming version of Fear's "I Don't Care About You," the quintessential anthem of pissed-off L.A.
Most unlikely cover: The album-opener, a kicked-up swing through the doo-wop classic "Since I Don't Have You," which is bookended later in the record by the thematically and melodically similar Johnny Thunders ballad "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory."
6. Metallica, Garage Inc. (1987/1998)
Metallica arguably started the hard-rock covers-album trend with the limited-edition 1987 EP
Garage Days Re-Revisited, an homage to the band's favorite NWOBHM (that's "New Wave Of British Heavy Metal"). Those tracks—including roaring versions of songs by Diamond Head, Holocaust, and Budgie—were later re-released on the double-disc Garage Inc., along with new recordings of more mainstream rock songs like Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey In The Jar," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone," and Bob Seger's "Turn The Page," as well as a quartet of Motörhead covers. But no matter what Metallica takes on, it all gets processed through the same grinding guitars and machine-gun drums—what drummer Lars Ulrich described in the documentary Some Kind Of Monster as "a little stock."
Most unlikely cover: A winding, seven-minute slog through Nick Cave's "Loverman," which proves that if a covers album is all about revealing what a band wishes it was, then Metallica would just as soon stay Metallica.