At the 2019 iHeart Radio music festival, Miley Cyrus had some surprising words about her biggest hits. After ploughing through “We Can’t Stop” and “Slide Away”, she took a moment to level with the audience. “You know, I sing songs like ‘Can’t Stop’ for you,” she said with a smile. “But then, I sing a couple songs for me.” She then launched clear into outer space for a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. The message was clear: The favored child of a country superstar, groomed from a young age to be the perfect pop princess, had grown disenchanted with some of her old music.
It had happened before. She tried to leave her Hannah Montana days behind her with 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed. As she transitioned away from her squeaky-clean image, she found herself hounded by pearl-clutching parents and professional media scolds — people apparently scandalized at the very thought of a 17-year-old having sex. In response, she introduced a lot more songs by Joan Jett into her sets, using Jett and her band The Runaways to help channel her frustrations and independence.
After a turbulent tour, she took some time off and returned to acting. She seemed to rediscover her fondness for music, covering classic songs at the 2012 Backyard Sessions. Cyrus shined like never before, and her renditions of “Jolene” and “Lilac Wine” remain some of the finest performances of her career. These covers were an important step on Cyrus’ journey to finding her own voice.
She rebounded to pop music with Bangerz in 2013, and while she achieved her greatest commercial success to date, she was already hard at work on one of the most remarkable albums by a young superstar in the history of modern music.
2015’s Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a bizarre piece of pop psychedelia, influenced by hip-hop and rock and roll, and made in collaboration with The Flaming Lips. It’s bracingly personal, strikingly experimental, far too horny for its own good — and at 90 minutes, excruciatingly tedious. But working with Wayne Coyne and the Lips had a profound effect on her approach to music. She said at the time, “On my last record, everything we did was with computers. But they’re real musicians – they can change keys on a whim. I’ve never seen anything like it. They’ve had me on this journey that’s greater than anything I’ve been on.”
It took her a few more wandering years to return to rock and roll, and in the subsequent half-decade she released the forgettable Younger Now and promising but uneven She Is Coming EP. Her voice changed — a result of more experience, more skill, a shit-ton of pot, an unfortunate vocal cord surgery, and eventually, sobriety. Her covers during this period start to change, too. She became less faithful to the original, more willing to rearrange a song’s furniture and slap on a new coat of paint.
Now, Miley Cyrus has tried just about everything. She’s roamed farther afield than most of her peers, and, in the process, risked failure and personal humiliation. At the age of 27, she’s reaping the rewards.
The singer emerged in 2020 with a Joan Jett mullet and “Midnight Sky”. Cyrus has brought back glam rock, and she’s done it with a practiced eye for fashion and a scorching vocal instrument. Already this year she’s delivered two of the great performances of the quarantine: a brand-new Backyard Session for MTV Unplugged, and her powerhouse set for #SOSFest. Both leaned heavily on rock and roll standards. She knows she’s good at this heavy shit, too. She’s working on a Metallica covers record, and she said her new album, Plastic Hearts, was inspired by Britney Spears and Metallica.
In celebration of Cyrus’ rock ascendency, we’ve assembled a list of her 10 greatest rock and roll covers. They span her whole career, though there’s a bias towards her later, mature performances. Listening to these songs, it’s easy to wish she would hit the road, perhaps with a band like the Stone Temple Pilots. That would be almost guaranteed to satisfy. But fans are probably happier to just follow Cyrus wherever she chooses to wander. It hasn’t been boring yet.
10. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” (Arctic Monkeys Cover)
This sultry, funky number from Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 album, AM, was perfect for Miley when she performed it on MTV Unplugged in 2014. Bangerz had been released not too long before this MTV performance, so a song about calling someone up in the middle of the night because you’ve possibly had a little bit too much [insert drug of choice here]? Right up her alley. We were well into the swinging-on-wrecking-balls era of Miley in 2014, and her persona would only continue to get weirder the following year when she became very buddy-buddy with The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. With “Why’d You Only Call Me…” the pop singer starts the song off simply, sticking pretty similarly to how Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner sings it, but by the end, she’s turned it into a full on Miley song, the pop star scream-singing in a way that would wipe the average person out, but makes her even more powerful. –Annie Black
09. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana Cover)
For some people, there will always be something sacred about Kurt Cobain, and they will heap scorn and derision for anyone who approaches that hallowed altar. But the truth is, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a part of the American songbook, and Cyrus seems to be having a blast ripping into this grunge standard. The performance above comes from the 2011 “Gypsy Heart Tour”, which Cyrus didn’t take to America. She said at the time, “I just think right now America has gotten to a place where I don’t know if they want me to tour or not. Right now I just want to go to the places where I am getting the most love, and Australia and South America have done that for me.” Further away from critical eyes, she relished the opportunity to let loose, ping-ponging between the soft and hard sections with reckless glee. –Wren Graves
08. “Just Breathe” (Pearl Jam Cover)
Miley Cyrus could sing any Pearl Jam song and it would be a crowd-pleaser, but her delivery of the Backspacer single “Just Breathe” is something special on its own. She peeled back the layers on the track and found what she was looking for in its true core. Drifting over the song’s gentle melody, Miley’s vocals start softly and get grittier and grittier as the song progresses, turning the original piece of music into something that feels more raw, more powerful than Eddie Vedder’s initial performance. Changing the song into that of a woman’s perspective could be responsible, or it could just be that Miley feels a strong connection to Vedder’s lyrics, but either way, her energy and vulnerability in her performance is palpable. –Annie Black
07. “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd Cover)
Miley Cyrus performed Pink Floyd’s 1975 track “Wish You Were Here” for Saturday Night Live at Home this past April, towards the beginning of the pandemic. An excellent song choice, Miley sings her version of the Pink Floyd classic with a pining that only could come from what we were dealing with as a country in April — businesses closed, friends and families separated, the world completely at a pause. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Sung over simple strumming, Miley’s rendition could very well have been a capella. All focus was on her strong, yet quiet, unwavering voice. For all of her vocal talent, she keeps it simple on “Wish You Were Here”, letting the song speak for itself in a time of complete and utter uncertainty. –Annie Black
06. “Nothing Else Matters” (Metallica Cover)
The cover that launched the cover album. Cyrus performed “Nothing Else Matters” only once, at Glastonbury 2019. Crammed into the confines of a Festival slot, she skipped most of the original track’s slow building of tension and turned a six-and-a-half-minute epic into a three-minute scorcher. After that first “Nothing else matters!”, the song is already a success, and the second “Nothing else matters!” tops it. She inflects the verses with the appropriate snarl, and when she snaps off the “know” on “And I know!”, her voice crackles like lightning. A powerhouse performance. –Wren Graves
05. “Cherry Bomb” (Runaways Cover)
This 1976 classic from the Joan Jett-fronted The Runaways has been one of Cyrus’ go-tos in concert for a decade now. Unsurprisingly, it started popping up after she endured the puritanical backlash to Can’t Be Tamed. Considering the flack she was getting for her teenage rebellions, it’s easy to understand the appeal of lyrics like, “Hello, daddy, hello mom, I’m your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!” Cyrus hasn’t scandalized parents for half-a-decade now, a result of personal maturations, a changed media landscape, and a fan base aging alongside her. But you know what? Sometimes you just need to piss off your parents, even if that urge becomes less urgent once you move out of the house. Besides, feeling like a horny, ticking bomb happens to grown-ups, too. It’s easy to imagine Cyrus still ticking away well into her old age. –Wren Graves
04. “Head like a Hole” (Nine Inch Nails Cover)
This standout track from NIN’s debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, was given a radical reinvention in the Black Mirror episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”. Cyrus played a pop star named Ashley O, unhappy with her life and wishing she could reinvent her image. The plot overflowed with sci-fi twists, but here we’re most interested in Ashely O’s big single “On a Roll”. It’s a glitzy, sugared reimagining of Nine Inch Nail’s “Head Like a Hole”. Only the melody is the same, and the catchiness of “On a Roll” is an argument for Nine Inch Nails’ inspired songwriting. But the original heavy setting is much more fun, and Cyrus’ cover of “Head Like a Hole” is better suited to the strengths of her voice. She revels in the energetic shouting and brings a sultry heat to lyrics like, “God money, nail me up against the wall!” Granted, Black Mirror is firmly on the side of rock and roll. But it’s hard not to agree with the show that Cyrus sounds better with an edge. –Wren Graves
03. “Heart of Glass” (Blondie Cover)
We already know Debbie Harry herself gave Miley the seal of approval on this cover, and it’s pretty obvious why. Miley didn’t sing “Heart of Glass” the way Harry did. Harry’s version is a falsetto almost in its entirely, right down to its signature “Oohs.” Miley turned some of those “Oohs” into belting “Whoas,” because, to quote Mel Brooks’ The Producers, “when you got it, flaunt it. And Miley Cyrus certainly has got it. What Debbie Harry did as slightly deadpanned, Miley did with feeling oozing into every part of the disco track, even the short instrumental break, allowing herself a bit of time to groove. Performance-wise, Miley owned the stage at the 2020 iHeartMusic Festival, stomping around in her stilettos in a mesh unitard with more bling than we’ve ever seen on the pop star. Glam Miley is a great Miley phase, and hopefully, it’s here to stay for a while. –Annie Black
02. “Wildflowers” (Tom Petty Cover)
“Wildflowers” is a touching tribute to Tom Petty no matter who sings it, but Miley Cyrus’ cover is in its own category entirely because of its steadfast adherence to the song’s message. In her version, she honors the 1994 track, staying mindful of each note, taking care with each phrase. Her unwavering control over her voice is on full display here, her low register at work as she winds through the lyrics. It’s hard not to feel emotional during her rendition; there’s something hopeful, a yearning for more, in her delivery. It feels like she genuinely wishes that the listener finds their peace, their freedom, just like Tom Petty wished. Towards the end, she belts in a way that the beloved rock ‘n’ roll hero never could, but in a way that he’d most likely be proud of. She is, after all, a lot like him in a lot of ways. –Annie Black
01. “Zombie” (Cranberries Cover)
So far, Cyrus has only played “Zombie” once, at a #SOSFest benefit for the National Independent Venue Association. But it was so well received, and seemed to come so easily to her, that she’s already announced a place for the cover on her upcoming album, Plastic Hearts. On the one hand, it might seem strange for Cyrus to take on an Irish protest song. But Dolores O’Riordan’s cry of pain is universal, and her melody lines are perfectly tailored to Cyrus’ strengths. The cover takes a more muscular approach, with Cyrus roaring where O’Riordan wailed. But she doesn’t give it all away at once. With all the experience of a veteran performer, she delivers the verses in a softer tone, allowing the bridge to build her rage until she reaches the furious heights of the chorus. She has all the charisma that made her famous, the best breath control of her career, and the passion to push through the emotionality in the lyrics. At 27 years old, she has a veteran’s toolbox and a young person’s hunger. More than any other rock and roll cover, “Zombie” finds her putting all of her immense talents together. No doubt she’ll be returning to this song for many years to come. –Wren Graves