Miley Cyrus, Disney star turned perennial headline-maker, has long recognized the power of a good cover. And she has the voice to back it up — one that can effortlessly traverse pop, rock, country, and soul. While she’s been recording covers since the late aughts, she made them a more intentional staple of her repertoire with her Backyard Sessions YouTube series, which first debuted with three fan-favorite covers in 2012 and returned by popular demand in 2015 with even more, along with some guests. She’s found success in other venues, too, from the BBC Radio 1’s “Live Lounge” to the stage of The Tonight Show to tributes and covers compilations. (Not to mention her live shows, where she regularly busts out new covers in the name of fan service.) In 2020, Cyrus’s covers were back in the spotlight thanks to a new cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” hitting streaming (once again, by fan demand) and another revival of the Backyard Sessions as an MTV Unplugged special. The same weekend as the Unplugged special, she surprised with two more covers at her virtual Save Our Stages Fest set, further proving she’s on a real covers streak. It’s the perfect time to take a look back at the highs and lows of Cyrus’s covers discography. (In the name of setting boundaries, we’re sticking to officially released covers, meaning no live bootlegs.)
It’s hard to consistently pinpoint what makes a Cyrus cover great. Sometimes, it’s picking the perfect song for the moment; others, it’s bringing a left-field song to a new audience or imbuing it with new meaning. Sometimes, it’s singing the song that shows off the best contours of her voice; others, it’s bending songs that just shouldn’t work to her will. But a big swing can’t always be a hit. Many of Cyrus’s misses often have the makings of her great covers and end up faltering for the reasons the others succeeded: a vocal performance played too straightforward or too outside the lines; a song choice that sets her up to disappoint or ends up ringing empty. Regardless, her best and worst covers alike are rarely not interesting. Here is every Miley Cyrus cover song, ranked.
49. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (the Beatles) with the Flaming Lips and Moby, With a Little Help from My Fwends
The Flaming Lips’ frenetic Beatles covers album is chaotic, and Cyrus’s participation barely has anything to do with that. This fuzzed-out take on the song sounds just terrible, with Cyrus giving the most absent vocal performance she’s ever sung.
48. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (Song of the South), Disneymania 4
Few things have made me happier that Cyrus eventually left Disney than her terrible cover of the big hit from one of the company’s most racist films.
47. “No Tears Left to Cry” (Ariana Grande), BBC Radio 1 “Live Lounge”
Doing a pop cover with a strings section is a gimmick on its own; singing about “vibin’” while you’re only backed by a strings section is just silly.
46. “Happy Together” (the Turtles), Backyard Sessions 2015
Done well, this one-hit wonder by the Turtles is lighthearted and buoyant. Cyrus makes it the opposite with another checked-out, almost mournful vocal — along with ditching that awesome horn part.
45. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (Robert Hazard), Breakout
Maybe Cyrus could pull off a better cover of this Cyndi Lauper hit today, but she couldn’t shake the Disney off in her 2008 performance.
44. “Different” (Joan Jett & the Blackhearts) with Joan Jett, Backyard Sessions 2015
Cyrus loves to cover a topical song, but this choice — which, on its face, fit her Happy Hippy Foundation well — backfired. Joan Jett’s original performance is tepid enough, and the lyrics make for a pretty thin anthem (“Look, they treat you rough, but you’re tough enough, and we’re all different”). Going acoustic declaws the song the rest of the way, even if Cyrus is still trying to sing it like a full-force rock song.
43. “Why’d You Only Call Me when You’re High?” (Arctic Monkeys), MTV Unplugged 2014
Doing a straightforward acoustic cover of this song just reveals that, sorry, it’s a little boring. Points awarded for Cyrus playing up the lyrics at every chance she gets; points deducted for her out-of-nowhere screaming at the end.
42. “Crimson & Clover” (Tommy James and the Shondells) with Joan Jett, Tommy James, and Dave Grohl; 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction
It was probably a good thing that Cyrus’s voice was lower in the mix so her belting wouldn’t totally blow original performer Tommy James out of the water. Still, it’s sweet to see Cyrus show up for her icon, Joan Jett.
41. “True Trans Soul Rebel” (Against Me!) with Laura Jane Grace, Backyard Sessions 2015
Sure, Cyrus doesn’t add much to this cover, but she did give Grace the platform for an important message. Cyrus has always had a keen sense of when to step forward and when to step back when she performs with others, and this is a great example of the latter.
40. “Jolene” (Dolly Parton), Backyard Sessions 2012
Cyrus does a fine performance of her godmother’s torch song, but without any big vocal moments and with the band leading her at times, it’s the weakest of her three original Backyard Sessions covers. She was a bit looser when she joined Dolly Parton for the song at a 2010 Hallmark event and finally gave the song the belt it deserved with Parton at her 2019 Grammys tribute, but oddly, Cyrus’s all-around best performance just might’ve been with Parton and Pentatonix on The Voice in 2016.
39. “Sleigh Ride” (standard), Spotify Singles
38. “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” (standard), Spotify Singles
There are precisely zero surprises in either of these Christmas performances, for better or worse.
37. “A Day in the Life” (the Beatles) with the Flaming Lips and New Fumes, With a Little Help from My Fwends
This Beatles cover is less obnoxious than Cyrus’s other Flaming Lips team-up, even tolerable when it comes to her bridge. She adds just a bit of humanity, something the rest of the cover is sorely lacking.
36. “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” (Poison), Can’t Be Tamed
Cyrus gives her all singing this power ballad, but the drum track and stiff guitar solo behind her make the whole thing sound sappy — hardly fitting for an album called Can’t Be Tamed.
35. “The Bitch Is Back,” Restoration: The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Many Cyrus fans who happened upon this cover outside the compilation album thought it was an original, and it sure sounds like something she’d make, doesn’t it? Her countrified version surprisingly works, but she doesn’t quite inject it with as much attitude as John’s original. If Cyrus had written the thing, it’d be more disappointing, but as a cover, it’s still pretty fun.
34. “Part of Your World” (The Little Mermaid), Disneymania 5
Cyrus was already a little punk way back in 2007 when she rocked out to, uh, the ballad from The Little Mermaid. Underneath that layer of tackiness that a Disney Channel cover is bound to have, it’s fun and playful, a delectable little hint at where she’d eventually go next.
33. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (Bob Dylan) with Johnzo West, Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International
Cyrus polishes up this Bob Dylan cover and sneaks in a few big notes in the process, but otherwise plays it fairly straight. It’s not a memorable cover (especially when it comes to Dylan), but it’s a nonetheless committed performance of the song.
32. “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd), Saturday Night Live
This Pink Floyd cover is a Rorschach test for your thoughts on the band itself. Love them? You’ll be into Cyrus’s faithful rendition of a ballad fitting for the middle of pandemic lockdown. Hate them? You’ll think it’s a dragging take on one of their simpler songs.
31. “These Days” (Nico), MTV Unplugged Backyard Sessions
At first glance, this bohemian ballad seems perfect for Cyrus. But hearing her perform it, you realize that Nico’s German drawl is its evocative center, and Cyrus can’t match that. She sings it well, and her run-through is a good reminder that “These Days,” written by Jackson Browne, could’ve made a damn fine country song. Instead, Nico’s legacy looms over it.
30. “Heart of Glass” (Blondie), single
There’s almost a hypnotic quality to Debbie Harry’s original performance of Blondie’s first and best hit — her forceful whisper made “Heart of Glass” such a feat of a crossover, bridging the disparate worlds of punk and disco with one intricately constructed song. Cyrus throws disco out the window for her raw performance of the song, released on streaming by popular demand after she debuted it at a fanless iHeart Music Festival. To me, her screaming in the verses shatters the wonder of the song, even if it stands as one of Cyrus’s spunkiest performances ever. That’s the thing: She could’ve done justice to a bigger Blondie song (I know she can scorch “One Way or Another”), and she has the voice for a traditional “Heart of Glass” cover too, but she remains hell-bent on staying original. It’s hard to fault her for it.
29. “Help!” (the Beatles), “Global Goal: Unite for Our Future”
Cyrus gives her cover more groove than the Beatles original has, but her raspy voice doesn’t quite jell with such a down-to-business song, and she overdoes it with the belt in the chorus. But we all know she really chose this song, performed for a COVID-19 relief special, for the title alone, right?
28. “Communication” (the Cardigans), MTV Unplugged Backyard Sessions
First of all, points to Cyrus for surprising once again here and not choosing “Lovefool” like many assumed when she teased a Cardigans cover. That said, that song would’ve been a welcome upbeat turn at this point in her Unplugged special. Instead, her “Communication” cover drags at points, as much of a vocal tour de force as it is.
27. “Maneater” (Hall & Oates), The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Cyrus could not have chosen a more perfectly on-the-nose song, keeping with the ’80s influences of her latest single “Midnight Sky,” and which she dedicated to her “future ex-husband” weeks after she confirmed her breakup with Cody Simpson. Otherwise, it’s a good run-through of a playful song that gets a little carried away at the end.
26. “Head Like a Hole” (Nine Inch Nails), Black Mirror
It can be hard to tell how good we’re supposed to think a TV music performance actually is: Is Cyrus just covering Nine Inch Nails on her Black Mirror episode for the bit, or did she actually want us to enjoy this? But if her song as Ashley O charted, then let’s give this performance its due, too. Cyrus puts a punk spin on “Head Like a Hole” to nice effect, and after she pulled out some great hard-rock covers on her Bangerz tour, it’s great to hear her snarl again.
25. “Gimme More” (Britney Spears), MTV Unplugged Backyard Sessions
This is the perfect cover to set the scene of Cyrus’s anticipated Backyard Sessions special because, well, it’s weird. Britney Spears’s “Gimme More” is the direct opposite of a country-rock barnstormer, but that’s exactly what Cyrus turns it into. It’s not a song with much room to belt, but Cyrus finds it anyway, although she cuts her abbreviated takeoff right when things start going through the roof. Uh, give us more!
24. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (Elton John), Revamp: The Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin
The bar is high for one of Elton John’s best songs, which experienced a second life 15 years after its release thanks to a cover duet by George Michael. It’s a vocal mammoth and a lyrical masterpiece; Cyrus steps up to the challenge, giving as big and poignant a performance as she can muster. Like Michael’s performance, I’m sure it would be a stunner live, but here, the backing feels just a bit too artificial and schmaltzy.
23. “Wildflowers” (Tom Petty) with Billy Ray Cyrus, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
One of Cyrus’s strengths as an artist is channeling the emotion of a moment into an off-the-cuff reaction, like this cover, performed just days after Tom Petty’s death. What starts as a fairly subdued take on this simple Petty ballad turns into a poignant free fall as Cyrus taps into her belt. Having her father on backing only sweetens the whole moment.
22. “Boys Don’t Cry” (the Cure), Save Our Stages Fest
Cyrus’s cover of “Zombie” was the clear takeaway from her three-song set at an empty Whisky a Go Go, but don’t count out her opening cover of another moody, punk-inflected rock song. She dives into one of the Cure’s signature songs smoothly and performs a faithful take on the song, never laying on too much rasp. Forgive her if it’s a bit rushed, though — she was just building up to the real treat that came afterward.
21. “Tiny Dancer (Elton John) with Elton John, Grammys 2018
When Cyrus finally gets her moment to perform with John himself, she doesn’t take it for granted. She’s fittingly theatrical alongside the bonafide showman, and her voice makes up for the range that John’s lost after 50 years of performing. Yet she doesn’t overshadow him, instead accentuating his best parts for a loving tribute.
20. “New York State of Mind” (Billy Joel) with Billy Joel, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Does it veer on too much at times? Yes. Is it damn impressive? Also yes.
19. “These Four Walls” (Cheyenne Kimball), Breakout
Cyrus had one great cover under her belt before she even turned 16, while she was still tied to Disney and Hannah Montana. It was impressive at the time, and all the more now given how well it still holds up to the rest of her catalogue.
18. “Just Breathe” (Pearl Jam), MTV Unplugged Backyard Sessions
She already proved she could match Eddie Vedder’s guttural growl when Cyrus pummeled her performance of “Say Hello 2 Heaven” with Temple of the Dog at a 2019 Chris Cornell tribute concert. So always going for breadth, she chose Pearl Jam’s breakout ballad for her Unplugged. Once again, her voice matches Vedder’s well, with Cyrus digging deeper than his original take, adding some more growls, and leaving little to complain about.
17. “Man of Constant Sorrow” (Soggy Bottom Boys), AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to George Clooney
Don’t dare forget that Ms. Miley Cyrus can act. And boy does she play up her performance of the signature song from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, one of George Clooney’s more absurd and beloved credits, at the American Film Institute’s tribute to the star. She’s costumed, she’s owning the stage, she’s joking with the audience, and she’s selling that song better than the Soggy Bottom Boys ever did. Clooney eats it all up, too.
16. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (Paul Simon), Backyard Sessions 2015
Paul Simon wrote this song as a fun, low-stakes romp, and Cyrus plays it up in her cover, giving it that twangy swing that she can effortlessly add to a performance. It’s even more exciting in front of an audience (including Simon himself) for Saturday Night Live’s 40th-anniversary special — Cyrus shows off breathy vocals, growls, and belts, all in just three minutes.
15. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Mark Ronson and Sean Ono Lennon, single
Cyrus’s voice draws out everything somber and grieving from one of the saddest Christmas songs ever written, and that ending features one of her finest wails. I’m just begging for her and Sean Ono Lennon to get a chance to perform it free from Mark Ronson and his synthesizers just once.
14. “Baby I’m in the Mood for You” (Bob Dylan) with the Roots, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Cyrus has never made belting sound as effortless as she does covering Dylan with the Roots. One second she’s grooving with the band, then she’s moaning out that whole chorus, then she’s making small talk with the audience like it was nothing — only to do it all again for the ending.
13. “Take It to the Limit” (the Eagles), BBC Radio 1 “Live Lounge”
Are the Eagles supposed to sound this emotional? Regardless of your feelings on the band, it’s pretty hard to deny that Cyrus turned this song into a special moment, in tribute to her grandmother, who died just days before. She builds it into a powerful rock ballad that sounds just as classic as the original, backed by one of her band’s finer arrangements and performances.
12. “No Freedom” (Dido), Backyard Sessions 2015
Without Cyrus, this little-known Dido song would’ve stayed a soft-spoken breakup song. But she made it her canvas when she dedicated her Backyard Sessions performance to Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who died by suicide the year before. For that performance, she made the song into a gentle, heartfelt elegy, letting the simple chorus speak for itself. When she revisited it in 2017 on The Tonight Show, the day after the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting, she turned it into a passionate call to action — you can hear equal parts anguish and frustration in her voice.
11. “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” (Noah Cyrus) with Noah Cyrus, MTV Unplugged Backyard Sessions
Noah Cyrus, younger sister to Miley, has been putting out music since 2016, yet it took until 2020 to get the sisters to share a stage. Their duet of Noah’s twangy “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” has me wondering what other wonderful moments we’ve missed in those four years. Sure, the song fits Miley’s voice wonderfully, but she mostly steps aside to let her 20-year-old sister shine. Noah reaches bigger than she did on her studio take of the song, proving she can hold her own just fine against Miley.
10. “Summertime Sadness” (Lana Del Rey), BBC Radio 1 “Live Lounge”
There’s a similar fuck-it attitude between Bangerz-era Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey’s early ’10s persona, which makes this cover feel like it was concocted in a lab. The song already stood out among Del Rey’s early material as one of her more dynamic, but Cyrus multiplied its peaks and valleys, emotionally and sonically. And who else would dare to blow that bridge up like that?
9. “Zombie” (the Cranberries), Save Our Stages Fest
The Cranberries rocked harder than many give them credit for, and Cyrus reminds us of that by spinning “Zombie” into one of her darkest, heaviest covers. In the chorus, the guitars blend into a wall that could be impenetrable, but Cyrus’s voice crashes right through. Like her “Heart of Glass” cover, it’s another example of Cyrus taking a (somewhat) polished rock song and roughing it up — just with a more fitting song choice this time. So when do we get this one as a single?
8. “Look What They’ve Done to My Song” (Melanie), Backyard Sessions 2012; with Melanie Safka, Backyard Sessions 2015
Cyrus already performed a great cover of this song in 2012, so much so that Melanie herself joined Backyard Sessions for its next iteration. Then she took it miles further the second time, singing like the words had taken on new meaning to her in the intervening three years. But Melanie being there keeps things from getting too serious; she pulls out a verse in French, making Cyrus giggle like no other duet partner.
7. “Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground), MTV Unplugged Backyard Sessions
Cowboy Junkies’ muted, folky take of “Sweet Jane” might be the officially sanctioned cover of one of the Velvet Underground’s last and best hurrahs, boasting an endorsement by Lou Reed himself. Smartly, Cyrus chose to perform a cover of that cover, taking the song to yet another new place. She keeps the arrangement with her unplugged band, but recalls Reed’s wild vocals with her belt: always unpredictable, but never out of control. Most great covers can be chalked up to genius, skill, or emotion; Cyrus’s is a rewarding mix of all three.
6. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (Roberta Flack), BBC Radio 1 “Live Lounge”
When choosing covers, Cyrus doesn’t go for the notoriously huge singers, like Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin. She is an undisputed old soul though, meaning her Roberta Flack cover both fits perfectly and is the most daunting song she’s ever taken on. Cyrus keeps the song as delicate as Flack intended, singing deliberately as if the whole song would crumble if one note were off-key. It’s a treat to hear her voice tremble in parts of this performance, but when she goes big on the finale, it’s a reminder that she’s still the same confident Miley Cyrus.
5. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (Crowded House) with Ariana Grande, Backyard Sessions 2015
The Backyard Sessions take of this cover is the definition of casual, with Cyrus and Ariana Grande wearing onesies and hanging out like longtime friends, talking during the instrumental break and flubbing their lines. Their chemistry is alone is like a shot of serotonin. They’re a good match musically, too: Grande’s silky vocals balance out Cyrus’s smokier tone. When they revived the cover at Grande’s “One Love Manchester” concert, it took on new meaning as a song of resilience, even as it provided a much-needed moment of levity.
4. “Androgynous” (the Replacements) with Laura Jane Grace and Joan Jett, Backyard Sessions 2015
She doesn’t take a verse or chorus for herself, but Cyrus is the glue that holds together this cover, of one of the better songs ever written. Her joy is infectious as she harmonizes with two of her heroes, rock icon Joan Jett and Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace. Eventually, Cyrus turns to passionate shouting that should make Paul Westerberg proud; a month later, when she came out as gender-fluid, fans would know what the words truly meant to her.
3. “Lilac Wine” (standard), Backyard Sessions 2012
Cyrus wasn’t even old enough to drink when she delivered what may well be the definitive take of this then-62-year-old standard — outdoing Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone. Her voice is as entrancing as the elixir she’s singing about, but she performs with unmatched control, pushing and pulling the notes toward a huge, stunning finale.
2. “my future” (Billie Eilish), BBC Radio 1 “Live Lounge”
Condolences to Billie Eilish, because not only did Cyrus sing this song like she wrote it, she turned it into a master class in restraint. Her raspy belt makes the song sound bigger than you ever thought it could, before she reigns her voice back in for smooth runs that string you along. The conviction she brings to each line allows Cyrus to make Eilish’s anthem for a generation at a crossroads into her own, turning it into a statement from an oft-misunderstood artist entering the next stage of her career.
1. “Peace Will Come (According to Plan)” (Melanie) with Melanie Safka, Backyard Sessions 2015
You can see in Cyrus’s face just how excited she is to be singing with Melanie, a ’60s folk icon she first covered back in 2012. Or you can hear it after the second chorus of “Peace Will Come,” when Cyrus sings with a religious fervor that she’s never quite matched before or since. That’s the standout moment of this performance, but hearing Cyrus and Melanie gently land the song is impressive in its own right, as their voices meld like the intergenerational soul sisters they are. Listening to it is experiencing a perfect minute of the peace they’re singing about.
*A version of this article appears in the October 12, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!