50 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals
There are some songs that you don’t truly appreciate until another artist takes it on and makes it their own. Oftentimes the newer version draws out the original’s complexities in a way you never would have noticed before. Or maybe the first version is equally compelling, but the cover artist reimagined it with such grandeur that many don’t even realize that it’s a new take on an old song. Whether converting dance bangers to melancholic ballads or pop hits to garage-rock anthems, sometimes a complete 180 is exactly what a track was missing.
50. Thou, “Something in the Way” (Nirvana)
By now, Baton Rouge heavyweights Thou are old hands at translating Kurt Cobain’s misery into the language of crushing, nihilistic doom, but their take on “Something in the Way” is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. The original version of this song is already quiet, hesitant, and raw, and Thou’s version starts out along that muted path, shuddering into the void before abruptly slamming into a wall of cruelly distorted noise. When Bryan Funck wraps his acerbic vocal chords around Cobain’s lonesome lament and his fellows chime in as a ghostly chorus, the effect is absolutely explosive. —Kim Kelly
<h2> 49. Daughter, “Get Lucky” (Daft Punk) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Of the many treatments given Daft Punk’s ubiquitous 2013 single, this cover by U.K. alt poppers Daughter, may be the sexiest. Elena Tonra’s reverb-bathed vocals swim in a delicate swirl of cinematic synths, processed guitars and bare percussion. It’s a completely different atmosphere, but just as hypnotic. Here it feels more as though we’re underwater—a spare bass thump here, shoegaze flourishes there, and Tonra’s floating voice everywhere. By the time all that ambient sensuality builds to its crescendo, the carefree hook-up anthem has taken on a gorgeous, urgent melancholy. The mark of success here is that, despite the absence of Nile Rodgers’ inimitably rhythmic hook, the cover works on its own terms. Gone is the summer heat from this dance jam—instead, we get moody, autumnal, downright cool make-out music. —<i>Amanda Schurr</i></p> <h2> 48. Bettye LaVette, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (Sinead O’Connor) </h2> <p> </p> <p>A veteran soul/R&B singer-songwriter of intermittent solo and group success since the early 1960s, Bettye LaVette flew mostly under the radar until 2005, when her covers album <i>I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise</i> garnered rave reviews from everyone from Elvis Costello to Bonnie Raitt. It’s an inspired collection of songs penned by contemporary female artists (Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann), whose title references Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream,” another funky cover LaVette makes entirely her own. She leads off the record with this breathy, smoldering take on the a cappella title track of Sinead O’Connor’s second, breakthrough album and, in just over two minutes—O’Connor’s original ran a languorous almost six—sets the tone for a defiant soundtrack of survival and rebirth. As lilting as was O’Connor’s delivery, LaVette mines a guttural, hard-won conviction that only six decades on earth could evoke. Preach. —<i>Amanda Schurr</i></p> <h2> 47. Cloud Rat, “The Needle and the Damage Done” (Neil Young) </h2> <p> </p> <p>The original version of this desperate ode to the ravages of heroin is a hard listen in its own right. When Detroit grindcore collective Cloud Rat sink their claws into it, Neil Young’s quavering tenor is replaced by Madison’s haunting whisper-turned-hopeless-roar. The lyrics stick in her throat until they rupture, the words brutally clear amidst the speaker-busting din of crusty grind. Cloud Rat’s version of “The Needle and the Damage Done” is tense, lightless, and unwaveringly bleak; the howling chaos and sheer darkness of their approach underlines the true horrors of heroin addiction. —<i>Kim Kelly</i></p> <h2> 46. Leviathan, “My War” (Black Flag) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Black Flag and black metal go hand-in-hand here, channeling one another’s mutual hatred for mankind and lo-fi scraping to deliver this unholy gem. Rollins’ mistrustful howls rattle in Wrest’s own corroded throat, echoing over weaponized blast beats and the original’s deceptively simple and familiar main riff. Here, “You say that you’re my friend but you’re one of them!” comes across as the paranoid ranting of a Bedlamite rather than a rallying cry for disaffected youth. —<i>Kim Kelly</i></p> <h2> 45. Johnny Cash, “Personal Jesus” (Depeche Mode) </h2> <p> </p> <p>To truly understand the greatness of Johnny Cash’s version of “Personal Jesus,” you have to be pretty familiar with Depeche Mode’s 1990 original—which isn’t too shabby itself. All thumping darkness, it explores sexual power dynamics to a clubby yet menacing beat. Cash’s 2002 cover managed to turn the whole thing on its head with a mere shift in tone and a subdued honky-tonk vibe. Whether this was at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin or Cash’s doing, it’s revelatory: Jesus himself, Cash tells us, is your personal Jesus. “Pick up the receiver/ I’ll make you a believer,” Cash sings, and the essence is that prayer is your direct—and accessible—line to salvation. Anyone fluent in Cash’s own infamous personal troubles knows that his steadfast faith got him through, and there’s a plainspoken sincerity in Cash’s working of the lyric “Reach out/Touch faith” that makes Dave Gahan’s vocals in the original seem forced and preening. They’re a perfect yin and yang to each other, but the profundity of Cash’s cover is on a different level entirely. —<i>Sara Bir</i></p> <h2>44. James Blake: “Limit To Your Love” (Feist) </h2> <p /> <p>In the first single from James Blake’s self-titled debut from 2011, a cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” he gives the song a much rawer feel, replacing the strings with his street-worn dubstep and highlighting the lyrics with his plaintive voice. <i>—China Reevers</i></p> <h2> 43. Al Green, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” (The Bee Gees) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Just as Talking Heads did with Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” so too did the soul singer do with a sad ballad by the brothers Gibb: taking the raw material of the original song and transforming it into something far more moving and searing. The key to his success is in the arrangement. Working with longtime collaborator Willie Mitchell, Green pours on the soul with haunting strings—who doesn’t love that moment when they try to match the feeling of a light wind just after he sings, “I can still feel the breeze”?— a roiling organ line, and perfectly utilized background singers. Through it all, Green sounds like he’s on his last legs, near defeat but with that small sliver of hope in his soul that’s keeping him crawling forward. —<i>Robert Ham</i></p> <h2> 42. The Shins, “We Will Become Silhouettes” (The Postal Service) </h2> <p> </p> <p>When The Shins decided to take “We Will Become Silhouettes” and folk-ify it, they were taking a considerable risk. It paid off, though, as this quirky, acoustic-rock version has gained popularity comparable to the original. The prominent vocal harmonies The Shins pull off in their rendition are far more interesting than the “bah-bahs” and “doo-doos” The Postal Service opted for. —<i>Trevor Courneen</i></p> <h2> 41. The English Beat, “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” (Andy Williams) </h2> <p> </p> <p>While many of their 2-Tone Records contemporaries like The Specials and Madness took pains to cover classic ska sides to establish their bona fides, The English Beat took a different tack, embracing easy listening schmaltz with the same fervor as the reggae artists that inspired them. Hence, the group was able to take a 1963 hit by crooner Andy Williams, tease out the romantic sentiments at its core, and turn it into something more slinky and spirited. It helps that the source material was created by the great songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and that their arrangement is so spare and open that it could be easily adapted for a rocksteady beat and Dave Wakeling’s blue-eyed soul vocalizing. —<i>Robert Ham</i></p> <h2>40. Frank Ocean: “Moon River” (Henry Mancini) </h2> <p /> <p>In 2018, Frank Ocean dropped a cover of “Moon River,” as made famous by the 1961 film <i>Breakfast At Tiffany’s</i>. “Moon River” was composed by Henry Mancini, and it won an Oscar for Audrey Hepburn’s famous performance of the track in the film. Ocean offers a smooth R&B take on the track, which was originally done acoustically, but he preserves the minimal, intimate quality of the song’s instrumentation while experimenting with the layering of his rich, soulful vocals. <i>—Lizzie Manno</i></p> <h2> 39. Hole, “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” (The Crystals) </h2> <p> </p> <p>It is a rare but beautiful thing when a cover can right a song in history. The Crystals’ devastating ballad “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” was controversial upon its release in 1962, for narrating the inner justifications of a victim of domestic violence. Though it was gorgeously produced, and almost dirge-like in its pace, there was something that didn’t feel quite right about it to audiences. Perhaps it’s that the violence of the lyrics didn’t match the angelic quality of the vocals. When Hole covered “He Hit Me” for their 1995 MTV Unplugged recording, it was nothing short of a triumph. From Courtney Love’s loud, snarling lips, backed with grunge guitars and mostly female musicians, the song transformed into the subversive indictment of male violence it was meant to be. You realize, watching them, that Hole could have written the song. They certainly own it in that moment. —<i>Liz Galvao</i></p> <h2> 38. Cat Power, “I Found A Reason,” (Velvet Underground) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Found on the band’s 1970 album <i>Loaded</i>, the Velvet Underground original is a stately ballad, influenced by Lou Reed’s adoration of ‘50s doo-wop and dreamy Phil Spector productions, complete with a spoken word lament/plea to a lover. Chan Marshall’s version, by contrast, is of a piece with most of the material she recorded for her 2000 <i>Covers Record</i>. Beyond the lyrics, all the musical signifiers have been removed in place of a quiet piano line, her aching vocals, and an emphasis on the line, “You better run to me.” Through Marshall’s eyes, it’s a line of near desperation and almost defeat, a last chance call to some distant figure in the place of Reed’s pure romance. —<i>Robert Ham</i></p> <h2>37. Rihanna: “Same Ol’ Mistakes” (Tame Impala) </h2> <p /> <p>In their 2015 album <i>Currents</i>, Tame Impala ended this third album with “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” a bold, hazy change from the rest of the trippy album. In a similar way, Rihanna’s <i>ANTI</i> was also quite a change for her. Rihanna’s eighth album featured more soul and straightforward pop and R&B, mostly staying away from the more dance-y material of album’s past. In that context, Rihanna’s cover of the Tame Impala song—changed to “Same Ol’ Mistakes”—makes perfect sense. If <i>ANTI</i> is Rihanna rediscovering herself, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is her becoming a completely new entity. Rihanna doesn’t change Tame Impala’s original at all, simply getting rid of Kevin Parker’s vocals in exchange for her own, but it almost works better as a Rihanna song. It’s hard not to hear the lyrics and think of her past relationships, or to marvel at the fact that—holy crap!—Rihanna is covering a Tame Impala song. “Same Ol’ Mistakes” was such a welcome surprise from Rihanna that shows the depth and range of her tastes and influences. —<i>Ross Bonaime </i></p> <h2> 36. Björk, “It’s Oh So Quiet” (Betty Hutton) </h2> <p> </p> <p>The soft/loud theatrics of this song make it perfectly suited to Bjork, and while Betty Hutton’s 1951 original goes big as well, the Icelandic singer goes even bigger. Shrieks and throaty growls complement the song’s brassy choruses, and “It’s Oh So Quiet” remains her highest-charting single to date. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 35. Iron & Wine, “Such Great Heights” (The Postal Service) </h2> <p> </p> <p>With all due respect to the adorable, digitized tunes on The Postal Service’s indie cult-classic, <i>Give Up</i>, it seems some of the songs are just better suited for other artists. Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam provided convincing evidence of that when he took the skeleton of “Such Great Heights” and dressed it in the dreamiest of dulcet tones. The signature sounds of hushed guitar plucking and nearly-whispered vocals could easily fool anyone unfamiliar with Ben Gibbard’s early electronic days into thinking the song was an Iron & Wine original. —<i>Trevor Courneen</i></p> <h2> 34. Cat Power, “Sea of Love” (Phil Philips) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Recorded in 2000 for her <i>The Covers Record</i>, Chan Marshall’s version of this doo-wop classic is sparse and lovely, allowing her voice to do all the heavy lifting and resulting in an arresting interpretation. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 33. Ray Charles, “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” (Don Gibson) </h2> <p> </p> <p>When Ray Charles released <i>Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music</i> in 1962, the idea of an African-American artist recording country music was still something people had trouble wrapping their minds around. The fact that its single “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a Don Gibson cover, was able to hit No. 1, stay there for five weeks, get certified gold and knock back a few of those racial barriers by becoming a crossover success during a time when that sort of thing was frowned upon speaks volumes about its quality. The answer to “is the Ray Charles version of this song going to be the best one?” is pretty much always yes, and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is a great example of why. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 32. Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now” (Judy Collins) </h2> <p> </p> <p>This one is a bit of a knotty situation as the song was written by Joni Mitchell but her recording of it (found on her 1969 album <i>Clouds</i>) was preceded by a hit version made two years earlier by Judy Collins. So, a cover of her own original? Both renditions of the song reside in their own space and time: the Collins version with its chiming keyboard line and swinging beat feels set in the bright afternoon hours while Mitchell’s spare acoustic guitar and vocals seems perfect for watching the dusk give way slowly to nighttime. —<i>Robert Ham</i></p> <h2> 31. Led Zeppelin, “Dazed and Confused” (Jake Holmes) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Jake Holmes may not have gotten credit for inspiring Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” until 2012, but without his original trippy folk song, this Zeppelin mega-hit would not have existed. Holmes wrote a very different version of this song for his 1967 solo record <i>“The Above Ground Sound” Of Jake Holmes</i> and supposedly Jimmy Page heard it while Holmes opened for The Yardbirds. Page later took his own psychedelic interpretation to Led Zeppelin, featuring his iconic guitar bowing and wild instrumental breakdowns. —<i>Hilary Saunders</i></p> <h2> 30. Bright Eyes, “Devil Town,” (Daniel Johnston) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town” is a short, sweet, and pure ditty. Its raw simplicity is admirable, but Bright Eyes’ gorgeous instrumental additions are what make their version so exceptional. Conor Oberst gives a nod to Johnston in the first few seconds with his similarly unadulterated vocals, but then the gentle claps, sporadic piano chords, and syrupy backing vocals slide in. A careful drum fill picks up and the track’s grandest moment comes with a screechy, careening guitar solo. All of these elements climb on top of each other to turn just a few humbly sung lines into a fuller, more textured song. The misty, lingering chords and Maria Taylor’s forlorn whisper-singing during the outtro is just icing on the cake. —<i>Tess Duncan</i></p> <h2> 29. The Bobbyteens, “Young and Dumb” (Rubber City Rebels) </h2> <p> </p> <p>The original “Young and Dumb” is a rock’n’roll anthem, a reckless teenage celebration of adolescent naivete. If there was ever someone who could take that unruly sentiment, pump it full of snark and disaffected angst, and coat it in garage-punk fuzz, it’s Tina Lucchesi. The Bobbyteens’ scrappy, budget rock approach feels rough and greasy with heavy riffs and battering drums. It’s hard to beat Lucchesi’s menacing, guttural delivery when she proclaims, “She needs a cigareeeette!” She’s so unapologetically adamant you get the feeling she’s singing in the third person. —<i>Tess Duncan</i></p> <h2> 28. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins ft. M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Ben Gibbard, “Handle With Care” (Traveling Wilburys) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Although both are total dream teams, Jenny Lewis & Co.’s take on this classic is ever-so-slightly more catchy and dynamic. It’s partially due to the mildly quickened pace, but the main reason the cover is so memorable is because of its perse roster of voices. Lewis’ alt-country twang complements Oberst’s desperate croon, Ward’s lazing rasp, Gibbard’s tender earnestness, and the twins’ swaying altos. It’s also a lot more satisfying to sing that you’ve been “fucked” off and fooled rather than “fobbed.” (No offense, George.) —<i>Tess Duncan</i></p> <h2> 27. Father John Misty, “Baby Ride Easy” (Johnny Cash and June Carter) </h2> <p> </p> <p>First things first, Father John Misty’s take on this lost Johnny Cash/June Carter duet for La Blogotheque is gorgeous. The slowed-down tempo showcases FJM’s pristine vocals perfectly, but he also slips in a few edits to the lyrics that make the whole thing a little more Josh Tillman. “Arm-wrestled” becomes “mud-wrestled.” “Chuck the chuckwagon” becomes “fall off the wagon.” “If your lovin’ is good and your cooking ain’t greasy” morphs into “if the lovin’ is good and freaky and easy.” Most significantly, Father John Misty ditches the outdated verse about June Carter doing chores in the White House for President Johnny Cash and adapts it for these times: “If I ran the country/you’d be my First Lady/we’d smoke cigarettes at the end of the day/and spy on civilians and put brown folks in prison/If your dad’s got some money, I think I can run.” —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 26. George Benson, “On Broadway” (The Drifters) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Already a beloved figure in the jazz world, George Benson became an international superstar when he decided to fold elements of soul and R&B into his already potent post-bop sound. One of the songs that helped find a crossover audience was a passionate and driving take on a song first recorded by The Drifters in 1963. Found on the 1977 live album <i>Weekend In L.A.</i>, the track sails on for 10 minutes, buoyed by an insistent piano line, a stomping beat, and one of Benson’s most hot-blooded vocal takes that turns the dour lament of the original into something more defiant and almost joyous. What pushes it over the top, though, is the little moment when you can hear the audience respond rapturously to the line, “But I can play this here guitar.” You sure can, George. —<i>Robert Ham</i></p> <h2> 25. Screaming Females, “If It Makes You Happy” (Sheryl Crow) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Sheryl Crow’s sassy original track is radio-friendly ‘90s pop that Screaming Females turned into a rock ballad in 2012. Marissa Paternoster’s unmistakable vocals let loose with brazen vigor during the chorus, exuding an in-your-face urgency that demands an answer from its addressee. The frustration behind the question is executed with far more potence and indignation, plus it’s much easier to believe that Paternoster is “not the kind of girl you’d take home.” And of course, where the original calms down and scales back, the Screamales’ version derails into Paternoster’s frenzied guitar-shredding. —<i>Tess Duncan</i></p> <h2> 24. The Fugees, “Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Although Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” is timeless, Lauryn Hill brought something entirely new to the table when the Fugees covered it in 1996. Her velvety smooth pipes are immediately striking, but it’s her ability to convey such a palpable feeling of hurt and devastation that make the Fugees’ reggae-infused soulfulness here so remarkable. The mid-tempo beat allows Hill time to draw out syllables and intermittently mingle with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel’s vocal riffing. Though their time as a group was cut far too short, their unforgettable edition of “Killing Me Softly” immortalized them. —<i>Tess Duncan</i></p> <h2> 23. Soft Cell, “Tainted Love” (Gloria Jones) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Something about Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” is just a bit too cheery. It’s upbeat and Jones doesn’t give the subject matter the level of care or gravity it receives from Soft Cell. It’s an odd reversal of roles almost—one would think the soul singer would convey the heartbreak perfectly and that a electro-pop duo would treat it with carelessly catchy beats. Instead Marc Almond’s near-wails bounce over eerie synth beats, coupled with breathy echoes of choice lyrics. The concept of frantically escaping a toxic relationship is handled correctly by Soft Cell. It maintains high energy, but it’s an energy that matches the anxiety-driven content and still manages to feel appropriately dark and moody. —<i>Tess Duncan</i></p> <h2> 22. Nirvana, “Lake of Fire” (Meat Puppets) </h2> <p> </p> <p>When Nirvana took the stage for their legendary MTV Unplugged performance in November 1993, the show’s producers weren’t sure the concert would even happen. The rehearsals were awkward, as frontman Kurt Cobain—suffering from drug withdrawal—battled the higher-ups over the set list’s lack of hits. But something magical happened that night. Freed from the baggage of their grunge label, Nirvana showcased their more sensitive, reflective side, including a show-stopping cover version of the Meat Puppets’ “Lake of Fire.” In its original form, the track is a dopey blues-rock lark. But Nirvana transformed it into a simmering anthem, wringing out the turmoil from lyrics about hellfire and sin. “Where do bad folks go when they die?” Cobain sings over the Puppets’ crawling, bluesy guitar fills and Dave Grohl’s subtly brushed drums. The key is too high for the frontman, so he cracks and squeaks his way through, his yelp threatening to collapse under the strain. It’s a performance of raw magnetism and one of the most striking moments in the band’s discography. —<i>Ryan Reed</i></p> <h2> 21. Talking Heads, “Take Me To The River” (Al Green) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Cover versions superseding the original in the minds of music fans is not an unusual occurrence, but there’s something to be said about four skinny white kids from New York finding deep wells of soul and emotion that the Reverend Al Green and his Southern soul cohorts somehow missed. The Talking Heads version of “Take Me To The River” is a shot of whiskey to the soul, all slow burn and lingering warmth, and centering on this notion that, as David Byrne wrote about in the liner notes for his former band’s best of album, it’s “a song that combines teenage lust with baptism.” And the way he and the rest of the Heads perform it, as a slow caress under the cover of darkness, it’s enough to leave you sweaty and spent. —<i>Robert Ham</i></p> <h2> 20. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Joni Mitchell’s original version of “Woodstock” is spine-tingling folk-jazz magic, a ruminative Wurlitzer ballad that perfectly captures the spirit of 1969—the Vietnam War, the counter-culture movement, and the titular festival that changed rock history. Folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young flipped the script with their 1970 cover, unearthing a celebratory quality into the bluesy melody and peace-freak lyrics. You can feel the August heat of Yasgur’s Farm radiating from Stephen Stills’ soulful lead vocal and the band’s trademark harmonies. And that fading guitar freak-out is one for the history books. —<i>Ryan Reed</i></p> <h2> 19. Janis Joplin, “Me and Bobby McGee” (Kris Kristofferson) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Recorded just a few days before her death, Janis Joplin’s gorgeous version of this Kris Kristofferson-penned song would go on to be a posthumous hit—in fact, her only song to reach No. 1. Lines like “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday” hit especially hard in light of the legendary singer’s premature death, and her unparalleled vocals make this one an enduring classic. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 18. The Rolling Stones, “Not Fade Away” (Buddy Holly) </h2> <p> </p> <p>This Buddy Holly cover served as America’s introduction to the Stones, released as their first single on this side of the pond in 1964. They ditched the bounciness of Holly’s arrangement and replaced it with a more driving beat, some handclaps and Brian Jones’ harmonica. When Mick Jagger sang “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be/you’re gonna give your love to me,” he couldn’t have had any idea how right he’d turn out to be. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 17. The Ramones, “Do You Wanna Dance” (Bobby Freeman) </h2> <p> </p> <p>The Ramones took this already-lean Bobby Freeman original (also famously covered by the Beach Boys) and trimmed it of any remaining fat—like many a Ramones song, it clocks in at under two minutes. But boy, do they make every second count. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 16. Nico, “These Days” (Jackson Browne) </h2> <p><br /><br />In the ‘60s Jackson Browne wrote and recorded demos of “These Days.” Browne provided the mournful subject matter but his countrified version doesn’t quite match the gloom that Nico brought to it in her 1967 version. The cold, low hum of her voice evokes a sense of utter hopelessness, not a glimpse of light in sight. And of course, the track perfectly captures the unrequited romance of Margot and Richie in that unforgettable <i>Royal Tenenbaums</i> scene. —<i>Tess Duncan</i></p> <h2> 15. Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton) </h2> <p><br /><br />Listen, Dolly Parton’s original farewell to Porter Wagoner is no slouch either, but there’s no doubt Whitney Houston’s rendition has become the definitive version. There’s a reason why her arrangement is the one attempted countless times on virtually every TV singing competition and sung into hairbrushes at home by future pas: it is a grand showcase of technical ability. That a capella intro is like a master class in control, with Whitney starting things off at a slow burn before building all the way up to that glorious key change—you know the one—making the neck-hairs of even those who claim to be staunchly against pop balladry stand on end. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 14. Ike and Tina Turner, “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival) </h2> <p><br /><br />It’s one thing to successfully cover someone else’s song and put your own spin on it; it’s another thing entirely to completely blow it out of the water. Ike and Tina Turner’s take on this CCR song isn’t just better than the original; it’s better than most songs, <i>period</i>. From the “nice and easy” intro to the whirling dervish of horns and spinning backup dancers, this song is more than a successful cover—it’s a Tina Turner signature number. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 13. Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (Otis Redding) </h2> <p><br /><br />Legendary R&B singer Otis Redding may have penned this tune, but it was Aretha Franklin who made it anthemic. Redding’s original version definitely comes from a male perspective of touring regularly and just asking for “a little respect when I get home,” in all implications of the word. Franklin, however, a powerhouse vocalist and presence herself, sings a brand new hook in the chorus, spelling out R-E-S-P-E-C-T and inciting her audiences to “find out what it means to me.” Meanwhile, her sisters Erma and Carolyn contribute backup vocals, repeatedly taunting all the boys and girls to “sock it to me.” Her cover first appeared on 1967’s <i>I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You</i> and to this day, Aretha is still primarily thought of for, and with, “Respect.” —<i>Hilary Saunders</i></p> <h2> 12. The Beatles, “Twist and Shout” (The Isley Brothers) </h2> <p><br /><br />The story behind this, one of John Lennon’s rawest vocal performances, is the stuff of legend: the Beatles recorded <i>Please Please Me</i>’s 11 tracks in 10 hours, cutting “Twist and Shout” in the session’s final 15 minutes. Lennon had a cold at the time, and by the end of the day, his voice was nearly shot, but thankfully he was able to use that to his advantage and deliver a raucous take that sounds like it could fly off the rails at any second. It was the only take he could muster, but it was also the only one he needed; “Twist and Shout” shot to No. 2 in America (another Beatles song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” was already sitting pretty at No. 1) and became an instant classic that’ll continue get people moving at weddings and bar mitzvahs until the end of time. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 11. Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night” (Patti Smith) </h2> <p> </p> <p><br />When The Boss released 2010’s <i>The Promise</i>, a collection of outtakes and rarities from the <i>Darkness on the Edge of Town</i> era, fans rejoiced at hearing the original recording of the song co-written with Patti Smith. Originally released in 1978 as a single from The Patti Smith Group’s album <i>Easter</i>, Bruce had also included a version on his three-disc <i>Live 1975-85</i> box set in 1986. While Smith uses different lyrics that inject a fierceness and lustiness into the track Springsteen originally rejected as another love song, his version offers a torpid gruffness that searches inward for meaning. —<i>Hilary Saunders</i></p> <h2> 10. The Byrds, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Bob Dylan) </h2> <p> </p> <p><br />Like the Beatles, dozens of ‘60s acts latched on to the songs of Bob Dylan, reworking them to fit their sound and then working them into their repertoire. It was such a habit at the time that at least 13 versions of “Mr. Tambourine Man” were recorded in 1965 alone, the same year that Dylan released the original. As interesting as some of those takes were, the best came from the California-based folk-rock band The Byrds. The title track to the group’s ‘65 album, it set the tone for their work over the next few years (the tight-knit harmonies, the jangly guitars, the gently psychedelic notions) and continued canonizing Dylan’s poetic visions of one of America’s most vibrant and fraught periods. —<i>Robert Ham</i></p> <h2> 9. Elvis Costello, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” (Nick Lowe) </h2> <p> </p> <p><br />Elvis Costello trades the lullaby-like idealism of Nick Lowe’s folk song for a reproach ridden with urgency on his 1979 LP <i>Armed Forces</i>. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” asks a very real question in response to the cynicism of the day without making the song feel mawkish or a mockery of itself. Its greatest triumph, however, rests with its timelessness and continued relevance, as newer bands continue to cover this song, often citing Costello’s version as the source of inspiration. —<i>Hilary Saunders</i></p> <h2> 8. Joe Cocker, “With A Little Help From My Friends” (The Beatles) </h2> <p> </p> <p><br />English singer and guitarist Joe Cocker actually released a studio version of this classic Beatles sing-along on the 1969 LP of the same name. But it was his incendiary performance at Woodstock that made his version so famous. Cocker’s air-guitar flailing and guttural sing-scatting, combined with the meandering blues guitar solos and strange new tempo brings this Ringo song to new depths of passion and gratitude. —<i>Hilary Saunders</i></p> <h2> 7. Mark Ronson ft. Amy Winehouse, “Valerie” (The Zutons) </h2> <p> </p> <p><br />Winehouse released this rendition of The Zutons’ “Valerie” with producer Mark Ronson as part of his <i>Version</i> album in 2007, and it stands as both one of her best singles and a sad reminder of what her post-<i>Back to Black</i> career might have looked like had substance abuse not taken over (and eventually ended) her life. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 6. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “I Love Rock N Roll” (The Arrows) </h2> <p> </p> <p>This song is so closely associated with Joan Jett that many people may not even realize it’s a cover. Jett’s a pro at covering other people’s songs and making them her own (see also: Crimson & Clover, Love is All Around, You Don’t Own Me, Do You Want to Touch Me (Oh Yeah), Love Stinks), and any number of them would be worthy of this list, but none are as definitive as “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” which went platinum and spent seven weeks atop the charts in 1981. —<i>Bonnie Stiernberg</i></p> <h2> 5. The Clash, “I Fought the Law” (The Bobby Fuller Four) </h2> <p> </p> <p>“I Fought the Law” became a punk anthem thanks to The Clash, but it started life as a much milder rock tune. Penned by Buddy Holly’s bandmate Sonny Curtis in 1960 and later popularized by the Bobby Fuller Four, the track is basically one sunny chorus extended to two-plus minutes—but what a chorus it is. The Clash’s influential take was recorded for their 1979 EP, <i>The Cost of Living</i>, and was issued on that year’s American version of their self-titled debut LP. Of course, it became much more than a tossed-off bonus track: With Joe Strummer’s snotty vocal charisma and Mick Jones’ expansive lead guitar, “I Fought the Law” was a staple of the band’s set-lists—and remains an unimpeachable punk classic. —<i>Ryan Reed</i></p> <h2> 4. Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen) </h2> <p> </p> <p>It took three degrees of separation before Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s original composition “Hallelujah” reached Jeff Buckley. Cohen swathed his version in ‘80s synths and gospel tomes on his 1984 album <i>Various Positions</i>. Yet, in 1991, John Cale released a version on <i>I’m Your Fan</i> that sheds Cohen’s musical schmaltz and brought the song out of obscurity with its clean, solo piano lines. American guitarist Jeff Buckley is said to have heard Cale’s “Hallelujah” and was inspired to cover it on his only complete LP, 1994’s <i>Grace</i>. Shaped by slow arpeggios played on a distortion-less electric guitar, Buckley’s voice builds over the nearly seven minute track to the point of nearly cracking with emotion. He accentuates the allusions in “Hallelujah,” but renders it both spiritual and secular. He imbues “Hallelujah” with sexual tension, leaving it aching and confessional. But Buckley’s tragic and untimely death also shrouds “Hallelujah” in a somber post-mortem reflection of love and life and their fleetingness. Still, it’s Buckley’s song that has transcended ideologies and musical confines and continues to draw from our lips the “Hallelujah” today and for generations to come. —<i>Hilary Saunders</i></p> <h2> 3. Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Prince) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Back in early 1990, when MTV was king and hair metal was, um, queen, a buzz-cut sporting Irish folk singer redefined his Purple Highness with a stripped-down cover and video to match. Originally written in 1985 by Prince for one of his side projects, The Family, the song was something of an obscure throwaway until O’Connor’s version made it a worldwide smash. The arrangement is simple, soulful: strings, synth and piano, basic percussion, the occasional background “ah-ah-ah-ah.” Then there’s O’Connor’s aching, at-turns angry and forlorn voice—and, in the video, face—front and center. It’s doubtful the cover, brilliant and singular as it is, would still resonate as it does a quarter of a century later were it not for that tear-dotted music video. In an age when acts were pulling out all the visual bells-and-whistles to ensure heavy MTV rotation, O’Connor took a cue from her wailing confessional, breaking and comforting a generation of hearts in the process. —<i>Amanda Schurr</i></p> <h2> 2. Jimi Hendrix, “All Along The Watchtower” (Bob Dylan) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Released just six months after Bob Dylan’s original from the 1967 <i>John Wesley Harding</i> sessions, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower” has since become the definitive version of this song—the one that all the little kids want to learn when they first pick up their Squier starter packs. The virtuosic guitarist lifted Dylan’s lyrics, but wholly recreated the music. Hendrix doubled the length of the song on the <i>Electric Ladyland</i> studio version, but often performed it live with even longer squealing jams. And those sounds—the wailing wah pedal riffs emitted from his upside-down Fender Stratocaster—span the melodic range in a way that listeners can sing along with them as much as Hendrix’s actual vocals. Dylan later admitted then each time he performed “All Along The Watchtower” after Hendrix’s death, he viewed the song as a tribute to the man who reinterpreted and reinvigorated the song so completely. —<i>Hilary Saunders</i></p> <h2> 1. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails) </h2> <p> </p> <p>Country icon Johnny Cash released his final album, the covers-heavy <i>American IV: The Man Comes Around</i>, in November 2002. His wife, June Carter Cash, died six months later—followed four months after by Cash himself. It’s hard to separate the album from its contextual sadness—especially given the LP’s heart-stopping centerpiece, a brooding rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” in which the iconic singer glimpses his own mortality. “I hurt myself today/ to see if I still feel,” Cash sings over wispy acoustic guitar and piano chords, his ancient baritone quivering in the darkness. “What have I become, my sweetest friend?/ Everyone I know goes away in the end.” Trent Reznor’s dissonant original—recorded for the second NIN album, 1994’s <i>The Downward Spiral</i>—is often interpreted as a suicide note. In Cash’s hands, it’s a death-bed confessional. —<i>Ryan Reed</i></p>