Amazing cover songs can be the ultimate tribute to a recording artist. There must be no better feeling as a songwriter than to hear your work reinterpreted by those you influenced and with whom your music resonates the most.
Whether catching a cover band at the local dive bar, watching the latest singer-songwriter on Twitch, or grabbing tickets to see your favorite tribute act, the cover song lives strong in the hearts and minds of music fans everywhere.
What Makes a Great Cover Song?
Since the record was introduced to the needle and humankind manipulated electromagnetic signals to reproduce recorded sound, the cover song has been key to the success of many new artists and established artists' reinvention.
Recording artists such as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Hendrix, and The Beatles forged successful careers through cover versions of well-established songs. On the other hand, artists such as Bob Dylan developed a long career as a recording artist and as one of the most covered songwriters in history.
In some cases, the cover becomes the more iconic and well-remembered version, leaving the original artist to collect their royalty checks with mixed emotions as they watch another artist or band take the song and make it their own.
Here is a list of 20 fantastic cover songs that were arguably better than the originals.
1. “Lay Lady Lay” the Isley Brothers 1971. (Bob Dylan, 1969)
Taken from The Isley Brothers' eponymous album of rock covers, Taking It Back, “Lay Lady Lay” was written by Bob Dylan. His poetic wordsmithery and trademark graveled singing tone was taken down a whole new road by the famous Motown family.
Featuring stereophonic lead vocals from Ronald and angelic harmonies from brothers Rudolph and O'Kelly Isley, Bob Dylan diehards will find it hard to argue that The Isley Brothers' polished masterpiece stands on the higher ground here.
2. “Tainted Love” Marilyn Manson, 2001. (Gloria Jones, 1976)
Soft Cell and Marc Almond fans look away now. This controversial choice was a perfect vehicle for the tattooed, pasty performance artist Marilyn Manson.
It turned Gloria Jones' original, high-octane R&B jaunt into a slow, sleazy, metal groove anthem that gave its title the dark makeover it never knew it needed. Perhaps Manson is just as famous for his videos as his music.
In this case, the video adds a new layer of brilliance to the song. Its ‘Goth Thug' lowrider Cadillac gatecrashing a clean-cut fraternity party to cause mayhem stuck its middle finger up to post-911 American society.
3. “Personal Jesus” Johnny Cash, 2002. (Depeche Mode, 1989)
Most fans will consider his version of Nine Inch Nails' “Hurt” to be the superior choice here, but this list is more about less-known covers. As excellent as Depeche Mode's original song is, there is no disputing that Johnny Cash made “Personal Jesus” one of his personal best.
Gone are the pulse of the electric snare, the arpeggio of distorted guitar, and the robotic siren of Dave Gahan's vocals. Instead, we have the gravity of Cash's world-weary voice, the honky-tonk piano hiding under the bright steel acoustic strings of Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitar wizard John Frusciante.
Of course, it did help that Rick Rubin produced this album (Rubin convinced Cash to cover it). Still, in the battle for “Personal Jesus” supremacy, Johnny Cash shades it.
4. “The Man Who Sold the World” Nirvana. 1993. (David Bowie, 1970)
So iconic has Nirvana's “The Man Who Sold The World” become — aided by Nirvana's MTV Unplugged live album release so close to Kurt's death — that one is forgiven for thinking of this song as a Nirvana original.
It is, however, a David Bowie song that has many of its own merits. Kurt Cobain didn't mess with it too much, but he made it Nirvana's own. Cobain's vulnerable, Marlboro-etched voice, Krist Novolesic's jovial bass, the missed note at the start of Cobain's guitar solo: each part makes the song so endearing.
Nirvana's “The Man Who Sold The World” has outlived and outdone Bowie's original.
5. “The Hounds of Love” Futureheads, 2004. (Kate Bush, 1986)
Futureheads' selection will be heresy for her older fans. However, here is the Sunderland-based British band with their excellent offering. Futureheads' take on “The Hounds Of Love” is something to behold. They replace Bush's trademark haunting vocals and analog synth with Telecasters, a polyrhythmic acapella intro, and live drums to complete the revamp.
Maybe the coolest thing is the Northeastern accent in the chorus: “The haw'nds of lov' are corlin' me.” It is a brave interpretation of a song by pop music royalty, and it works. Sorry, Kate!
6. “You Belong to Me” Bob Dylan, 1994. (Joni James, 1952)
Crooner Joni James recorded what is considered the first version in 1952. She would have enjoyed the many versions of “You Belong To Me” from Carly Simon all the way to obscure British dance act JX; this song has worn many outfits.
However, Bob Dylan's version of this big band romantic number conquers the peak of greatness. The song's music is simple, with Dylan giving it his standard treatment but adding a new level of the ethereal.
The song's lyrics mesmerize this track, and Dylan adds a layer of laid-back melancholy: “See the pyramids along the Nile; Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle; Just remember, darling, all the while; You belong to me.” It's Dylan at his romantic best.
7. “Reptilia” the Punch Brothers, 2010. (The Strokes, 2004)
This is a controversial choice for Strokes diehards everywhere. Of course, the original “Reptilia” is a fantastic song of its time, possibly The Strokes' best single. However, this version of “Reptilia” by the Punch Brothers grabs the music by the thrift-store lapels to redress it in overalls and a trucker cap, completing a bluegrass makeover that must keep The Strokes' ensemble up at night.
Chris Thile's piercing voice carries more power than Julian Casablancas' compression-heavy original. Somehow, the Punch Brothers' acoustic assault of mandolin, double-bass, banjo, fiddle, and folk guitar make it even more powerful — or should we say, punchier? A masterclass in both musicianship and singing steals this title.
8. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” 1996. (Roberta Flack, 1973)
One of the better-known cover songs in this list, “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” has a checkered history, with the original writing credit going to Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel (who later credited original vocalist Lori Lieberman with co-authorship points).
It doesn't differ too much from Roberta Flack's 1973 single. It does, however, slow it down, adding electric sitar, deep bass, and a heavy drum track to support Lauryn Hill's cascading, superior vocal tone.
This song is as much a testament to modern music production as it is to the musical reworking of the original.
9. “Imagine” a Perfect Circle, 2004. (John Lennon, 1971)
John Lennon fans will be clenching fists at this inclusion. “Imagine” was covered by A Perfect Circle as part of their 2005 Emotive covers album. Critics of Lennon scoffed at lyrics like “Imagine there are no possessions” as part of a song written on a white grand piano in a leafy London estate.
However, one can also argue Lennon's music is hopeful yet sardonic: a fitting hymn to herald the end of such a tumultuous decade before its release in 1971. A Perfect Circle's “Imagine” is a dirge-like procession of moody piano, eclectic strings, and bold single-note guitar licks, with Maynard James Keenan's voice seamlessly narrating a skeptical vision of a post-Gulf War political landscape. This morbid cover is, at worst, the original's equal.
10. “Live and Let Die” Guns N' Roses 1991. (Paul McCartney, 1973)
Guns N' Roses' “Live and Let Die” was one of many smash-hit singles the Sunset Strip quintet released in the early 90s. Where Paul McCartney's original was epic in scale and ambition, Guns N' Roses kept the original arrangement. Still, they added the key ingredient in the form of rock guitar hall-of-famer, Slash.
His biting Gibson Les Paul onslaught formed perfect alchemy with Axl Rose's famous screech to create a genuinely deserving cover that many — including McCartney's own children at one point — thought to be the original version.
11. “I Drove All Night” Cyndi Lauper, 1990. (Roy Orbison, 1989)
Cyndi Lauper's version of a song written by Roy Orbison is overlooked as one of her better pop classics. Yet, strangely, Orbison's version was released nine years after Lauper's cover, which means it is almost a cover of a cover song.
However, when comparing the two, Cyndi Lauper's stands out. Orbison's bittersweet falsetto riding the waves of high-tempo rock and roll is not quite as abrasive and urgent as Lauper's post-punk pop-queen version. Nevertheless, “I Drove All Night” still stands as the best rendition of a song covered by numerous artists, including Celine Dion.
12. “Try a Little Tenderness” Otis Redding, 1967. (Ray Noble Orchestra, 1932)
It is hard to deny the magic that Otis Redding sprinkled over everything he sang, including “Try a Little Tenderness,” which is now Redding's song. Its first recording was in 1932 by the Ray Noble Orchestra; then, it was later made famous by Bing Crosby, Aretha Franklin, and even Frank Sinatra.
Otis Redding was nicknamed the King of Soul for a good reason. For years to come, his lovesick, frantic rendition of the song was played across block parties and dance halls worldwide. It has never been bettered, nor will it likely ever be.
13. “Heartbeats” Jose Gonzales, 2006. (Knife, 2002)
Both formats of this Swedish electro-trash song are incredible. However, it is noteworthy that the superior version is from another Swedish artist, José González — Sweden clearly deserves to keep this song in the family. The original bursts with a kaleidoscope of dirty synth and distorted vocoder and stands as a modern dance floor mover that can match anything of its time.
José González approached “Heartbeats” with a capo-tuned classical guitar and straightforward, stereo vocals. By stripping it down to its bare bones, González somehow elevated the grave romance of the song and made it come to life.
14. “Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon” Urge Overkill, 1994. (Neil Diamond, 1967)
Neil Diamond's songwriting talents have never been in question: cover-song listicles across the music journalism universe demonstrate how influential an artist he has been. Even “Sweet Caroline” has become the go-to anthem for sports fans across the United Kingdom and other countries.
Not many acts have the right to say they have bettered a Neil Diamond song; Urge Overkill's offering of “Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon” earns them that right. They don't stray from the script; they just deliver it with seething passion and gravitas hotter than Diamond's.
15. “Lilac Wine” Jeff Buckley, 1997. (Nina Simone, 1966)
Jeff Buckley fans will be double-taking right now because Buckley's legendary “Hallelujah” is not on this list. However, they can rest easy knowing that “Hallelujah” is just too obvious a choice and appears in pole position on many other cover-song best-of lists.
Instead, the lesser-known “Lilac Wine” gets the nod on this one. Many artists have covered “Lilac Wine” since its first recording by Eartha Kitt in 1953. James Shelton's song came to life when Nina Simone took the helm in 1966.
Buckley followed her arrangement closely, singing it in an octave above Simone's distinctive alto. Producer Andy Wallace's layers of delicate brush drums and Buckley's pick-less clean electric guitars provide a more calming, heartfelt song that is very much at peace with itself.
16. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” Big Sugar, 2001. (Traffic, 1967)
British rock stalwarts Traffic released “Dear Mr. Fantasy” back in 1967. It remains a firm piece of 60s rock canon, with warm Marshall valves amplifying the band's assortment of electric guitars, Hammond organs, and layers of psychedelic intricacy.
However, the Canadian band Big Sugar's 2001 cover version is an entirely different entity. It opens with strummed acoustic guitars before launching into a slow march of grizzly electric slide guitar and an extroverted snare drum that would shake any stadium west of the Atlantic Ocean. Big Sugar's transformation of Traffic's song is not for the faint-hearted but is superior.
17. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” Chris Thomas King, 2000. (Skip James, 1931)
A country-blues classic that artists have covered up and down the Mississippi Delta since its first recording by Skip James in 1931. Again, production and recording technology can claim some responsibility for Chris Thomas King's “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” success.
First brought to life in his portrayal of Robert Johnson in The Coen Brothers' movie, O' Brother, Where Art Thou, his performance evokes sorrowful imagery through his rueful voice and flawless blues guitar. This song should be celebrated in all its forms, though Chris Thomas King's is the one to beat.
18. “Mad World” Michael Andrews Ft. Gary Jules, 2003. (Tears for Fears, 1982)
Donnie Darko‘s emergence as a teenage cult classic movie presented Michael Andrews' “Mad World” as a refreshing update on Tears for Fears' electropop, radio-friendly number. With Gary Jules' fragile vocals supporting the misty piano and melancholic reverb, and with the imagery of such a great movie as part of the song's package, it creates a new perspective on an established pop masterpiece.
The winning moment is the use of the vocoder in the key phrase of the chorus, its pathos effective in creating a mood for quiet reflection.
19. “It's Oh So Quiet” Björk, 1995. (Betty Hutton, 1951)
Björk copied Betty Hutton's arrangement of this originally German song (written by Horst Winter in 1948), though omitting the duet with a male vocalist as in Hutton's version.
It was still early in Björk's career, and “It's oh so Quiet” was conservative compared to much that followed. Björk's husky voice shouting and screaming her way through what would become known as her song is still wonderful to hear today. “It's oh so Quiet,” if nothing else, is a testament to the versatility of a massively talented musical artist.
20. “Ray of Light” Madonna, 1998. (Curtiss Maldoon, 1968)
Madonna paired up with William Orbit for what would become her most critically acclaimed album to date (and never topped, in most critics' opinions).
The title track “Ray of Light” turned 1960s duo Curtiss Maldoon's sun-drenched folk fable into a dancefloor Goliath, charting in top-tens across the free world. This song encapsulates a pre-911 America full of confidence and swagger. Moreover, it is a celebration of modern dance music — a movement that was still relatively young at the time.
William Orbit catapulted into legend after producing this album. At the same time, Madonna cemented her place in American heritage as the Queen of Pop.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.