Cover Song started out as a racist term. Its first use was to describe a white artist recording a song by a black artist. The black artist did not receive royalties from the use of their song. An example would be Pat Boone poorly covering the Little Richard song “Tutti Frutti.” It was an attempt to keep black artists off the radio airways. It also helped appease uptight white parents who tried to ignore the future of Rock ‘N’ Roll.
As time passed, the words evolved into a new meaning. Some may say “cover song” is incorrectly used, but the definition changed. As I list our favorite cover songs, it represents a new performance or recording by someone other than the original artist who released the song. In many cases, the arrangement, music genre or some lyrics may be different. The original composer should receive royalties regardless of race. Unlike Pat Boone, the cover may even be better than the original.
I attempt to list the greatest covers of all time. I chose 60 because the list kept growing. I believe the ranking is something that will change and rerank every time I think about it. As I write this more and more songs continue to come to mind (I am sorry, Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” is fantastic.). Our goal is to identify songs, which pay homage or improve the original. Changing genres and tempo is a plus. Charting higher is also a measure used. I welcome your opinion about the ranking or any oversights.
Toward the end of Johnny's life, he records an album of cover songs. The song Hurt by far is the best on the album and one of Johnny's best recordings ever. Johnny changes merely a single word thorn from shit. It alters the meaning to a man wishing it wasn't too late to correct his errors. He adds the honesty of a man who looks back in regret at his failures and pain he caused. It is a heartbreaking cover that is difficult to listen without feeling his sadness.
Nirvana recorded the song during the taping of MTV's unplugged. The acoustic cover received heavy rotation on alternative radio stations and video programming. To paraphrase David Bowie, paraphrase "it is a good straight forward rendition that sounds somehow very honest."
Santana's cover made the song a hit in the US. They mix jazz and Latin rhythms to give the song a more magical, voodoo feeling. Santana's version is often blended with the song Gypsy Queen by most DJs. Personally, we believe Greg Rollie's vocals are also superior to the Fleetwood Mac original.
Jimi made the song, about killing a cheating woman and running to Mexico, a top ten hit in the UK. The blues-style vocals and Jimi's guitar help the song to be named 22nd on VH1's greatest rock songs.
To quote Thomas Ryan in SuperSeventies.com about the Talking Heads' version, "It broadsided the status quo by combining the best ingredients of conventional pop music and classic soul music, stirring them together, and then presenting the mix in the guise of punk rock.
The Zutons wrote and recorded the original in 2006. It was a top 10 hit in the UK. The next year Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse recorded it for Ronson's album Versions, an album of cover songs. The uptempo, bass-driven cover blends well with Winehouse's shamelessly bold delivery, which helped the new version out-chart the original. The Zuton's have admitted that people think they covered a song that Winehouse wrote.
The song was recorded as a jazz instrumental by Kai Winding and his orchestra. Irma Thomas recorded the first version with full lyrics. However, the Rolling Stones cover of her version became a top 10 hit in the States surpassing her original release.
Aretha takes Redding's song and makes it an anthem for strong women everywhere. Franklin's version adds the "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" chorus and the backup singers' refrain of "Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me..."
Originally released as a single by Bruce Springsteen, it failed to chart. Manfred Mann recorded the song without the brass instruments and added an organ playing Chopsticks to the end of the song. They also changed the lyrics from "cut loose like a deuce" to "revved up like a deuce" to reference a sports car. However, the "v" is barely heard making people hear it as "wrapped." Also, "deuce" is pronounced "douche" due to a lisp. It is often sung by fans incorrectly as "wrapped up like a douche." The song became a number 1 hit for the band. Springsteen jokes that the song didn't become a hit until they made it about a feminine product.
Simple, it is the only cover of a Michael Jackson song that we feel is worth its wax. On top of that, it's by an alternative band. It may be heresy, but I like it better.
I know this is blasphemy to the Neil Diamond fanatics, but the UB40 version is far superior. Diamond's release is a slow acoustic snore-fest. It has a backing choir that the label added to the recording, apparently without the artist's approval. In 1969, artist Tony Tribe covered it with a more reggae influence. It wasn't until UB40 performed it with a lighter reggae style that it became a significant hit. UB40 also added the opening "Red Red Wine, you make me feel so fine/You keep me rocking all of the time." The band said they had never heard Neil's version prior. They were familiar with Tribe's recording. After the UB40 release, Neil performs their arrangement in concert instead of the way-too-sober original.
Adele creates an intensely soulful rendition. There are both angst and sorrow in her vocals compared to Dylan's less dynamic original.
I think this may be a big surprise to most of you. Cyndi's breakthrough song was not the first recording of it. Even more, it was written and performed from a male perspective. With Hazard's blessing, Lauper changed the words to fit her point of view and made it a pop song instead of the odd-voiced, rock-influenced original.
The song, first covered by the Bobby Fuller Four in 1966 with a twangy delivery, is still the highest charting US release of the song. However, twenty years later the Punk Legends brought the rebellious song to the Punk masses. The lyrics encompass the punk rock attitude. Its opening drum solo and Strummer's powerful vocal delivery make the song a punk classic.
Originally written and released by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix recorded his interpretation just six months later. It became a top 20 hit and appeared in the top 50 on Rolling Stones Greatest 500 Songs of All Time.
Hands down, there is no real comparison. Iggy Pop adds a more modern rock sound with a slower deep-throat delivery. There is a soul to the punk legend's vocals. He easily surpasses the original soulless fifties version with his cover.
The Allman Brothers band created a southern rock classic out of the original blues classic. McTell's 1928 recording was made with a single acoustic guitar and sung in a blues storytelling style. The Allman's added the use of a steel guitar mixed with their southern rock sound. Rolling Stone calls it the 9th best guitar song of all time.
The song has two excellent cover versions. Roberta Flack and the Fugees both had significant hits. You could flip a coin, but I choose the Fugees version because of Lauryn Hill's vocals and the use of sampling from the song Bonita Applebum by A Tribe Called Quest.
Freeman's version drips with innocence from a time long gone. The Ramones and their two minutes of no-nonsense energy convert the 1958 rock classic to a danceable punk song. Who knows, it may be a song to remind another generation of a more innocent time. I miss the Ramones.
The Animals' version became a top twenty hit in the US, England, and Canada. It became popular in part to the band's rock and blues arrangement. The group increased the tempo form Nina Simone's slower, jazzy version. Simone also used a supporting choir to sing backup. Instead, The Animals added rock guitars and an organ riff to their final release. Rolling Stone Magazine lists The Animals' version as number 322 in 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
I don't think a lot has to be said here. Dolly wrote the song and made it a number 1 country hit twice. Whitney recorded it for her movie The Bodyguard. She removed the twang and took the country music hit to a new plane. Houston reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot One Hundred chart. It remained there for 14 consecutive weeks to become the best selling song by a female artist in music history. Her version also recharted after her death in 2012.
The comparison is easy. Gloria Jones' 1964 release was on the B-Side of an uncharted single. The arrangement is drastically different than Soft Cell's 1981 version. Soft Cell removed all instruments replacing them with synthesizers and drum machines. Lead singer Marc Almond required that the song be performed in the Key of G. This matched better with his lower voice. It became a softer, catchier tune. The changes made all the difference, and it became a hit. It reached the top 10 in the States and held in the top 100 for 43 weeks.
Nick Lowe wrote and first recorded the song with Brinsley Schwarz. The bar band played the song with a very folksy sound similar to the Byrds. Elvis Costello--strangely with Nick Lowe producing--covered the song with an edgier post-punk sound. Costello brought the song to life more like an angry edge. It is this version that Rolling Stone ranks as the 284th best song of all time.
The original recording was released shortly after Otis Redding's death. It was a modest hit until The Black Crowes released it as their debut single. The Black Crowes' version had a more bluesy, southern rock feel and became the more popular of the two.
First recorded by the Strangloves using what is known as the Bo Diddley beat. It rose to number 11 on the US charts. Almost 20 years later Bow Wow Wow records with the teenager Annabella Lwyn on vocals. The song barely cracked the top 50 in the States. However, it became a new wave classic and one of the most known songs of the 80s. VH1 voted it one of the 100 best songs of the 80s. Although there was minimal chart success, the music video, featuring the exotic Lywn with mohawk-style hair, helped it stay popular with the MTV crowd.
Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster wrote the song. Roger Miller and then-Canadian Gordon Lightfoot recorded and made the song a hit. Each version made the country charts for their respective countries. However, the song is synonymous with Janis Joplin. Her rendition, included in her final album, Pearl, released shortly after her death. The song was a posthumous number 1 hit. "Bobby McGee' is her only number 1 and appears at 187 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest songs of all time.
Ok, Ok, maybe you think I am an idiot, but Chris Cornell's version seems so much rawer. You can hear the wounds of an abandoned lover when he sings. It is less, yet so much more than the overproduced cover made famous by Sinead O'Connor.
The Cowboy Junkies based their cover off of a live version recorded by the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed reportedly called it “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard." Enough said.
If you have never heard the cover, treat yourself. The alternative country band The Gourds pay tribute to Snoop's original. They stay more or less true to the lyrics and maybe make it a little less cool, but even more fun.
Most of the covers on my list are significant changes in arrangement. However, the Bjork remake is very close to the original. That is except for her voice range and projected ummm.....qirkiness.
Without a doubt, Stevie's original is a great song. However, the Chili Peppers faster tempo alternative version is a classic, thanks to its dependence on a heavy guitar sound led by Flea's bass.
Iggy Pop and David Bowie co-wrote the song. Iggy recorded it first, but it did not become a hit until Bowie recorded it on his most commercially successful album, "Let's Dance."
The original version has an almost a comical delivery. The Wild Ones sang it with a whiny, nasally delivery. It lacked the more mature sexual feel of the Troggs and Jimmy Hendrix versions. The original rightfully never charted. I am a fan of both the Troggs and Hendrix's cover, but I have chosen the Troggs only for its successful chart history. Their version climbed to number one and remained on the charts for eleven weeks, with eight being in the top ten.
Big Momma Thorton's version is a song about a strong black woman throwing a gigolo out of her house. She belts out the lyrics to a simplified R&B sound. Her rendition appears on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 songs that shaped Rock 'n' Roll.
Elvis' cover includes lyrical changes that seemed to have a more humorous approach to the song. Critics often say it is a "Black Face" version. Regardless, it is known as an emblem of the Rock 'n' Roll revolution. It remained on the top of the charts for 11 straight weeks, which stood as a record for 36 years.
Big Momma Thorton
George Thorogood altered the song by combining two of John Lee Hookers original songs into his version of One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer by mixing it with House Rent Boogie to create a backstory to the singer's situation.
I love both singles. Each is perfect for their time periods and rightfully remain in play on my music collection. Tommy James has a higher, softer voice and a poppier sound. Billy Idol recorded a live, edgier rock version. His vocals are gravelly and sung with anger. Each is a classic in its own right. Strangely, when Idol's song reached number one in the States, it surpassed the Tiffany single "I Think We are Alone Now," which is another James song.
The original recording included brass instruments and less raucous vocal styling than the Beatles cover. It is the only cover song by the Fab Four to reach the top 10, making it to number 2 on the charts. Note that numbers 1 through 5 were all Beatles songs.
Initially, an Irish Folk song made an international hit by the Dubliners. Thin Lizzy later recorded it with a slow rock tempo. Many young people may only know the Metallica cover. Dare I say, it is quite heavy, and lacking melody. It doesn't compare to Thin Lizzy's version and the soulful voice of the late Phil Lynott.
George Thorogood altered the song by combining two of John Lee Hooker's original songs. His rendition mixes One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer with House Rent Boogie to create a backstory to the singer's situation.
Bob Dylan's original and the Guns N' Roses covers are great songs. Dylan's version is soft and slow, played with an acoustic guitar and sung with his nasally delivery. GNR plays it as a power ballad with Axel's Ethel Merman-esque vocal styling and the iconic Slash on the guitar.
The Beat took a Motown classic and increased the tempo. The arrangement gave it Ska sound. Playing it as Ska made it a great party song which reached number 2 in the UK during Christmas of 1979,
In 1968 CCR recorded the song, giving a rock sound in contrast to the original rockabilly version by Dale Hawkins. It is the only hit by Creedence not written by John Fogerty. The song became an 8-minute jam session on their debut album. The abridged single made it to the top twenty on several charts.
The 1978 international smash by Scotsman Gerry Rafferty is a hard song to follow. Gerry's voice is very smooth, and the sax solo is one of the most well-known in rock. The Foo Fighter's do not surpass the original, but they seem to pay tribute to it with a straight face delivery. Their arrangement is harder rocking with the saxophone solo replaced by a mimicking guitar riff.
Clapton recorded several of J.J. Cale songs, including "After Midnight" and "Cocaine." Clapton's 1977 cover popularized the song, which reached the top 40 in the states.
The song is Bob Dylan's experimentation with an electric blues sound. Rage's rendition is much harder with an angrier delivery in spoken word, compared to Dylan's original nasal delivery.
Wayne Cochran wrote the sad teen tragedy, recorded and released it several times to no avail. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers released their version three years later. It made it to number 2 on the charts.
In 1998 the band Pearl Jam decided to record it as a gift for their fan club. They then included it in the album "No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees" helping to raise ten million dollars for the charity. The song started receiving significant airplay which led to the band releasing it as a single in 1999. "Last Kiss" soon reached number two on the US charts. It remains their highest charting song.
Jolene is arguably Dolly Parton's best song, covered more than any other she has written. Rolling Stone Magazine ranks her original as #217 on their Great Songs of All Time. The White Stripes were one of such artists to cover it. The duo's cover was recorded live with a more electrified garage band sound. Jack White's delivery is more screeching and bluesy. Rolling Stone magazine also called it one of the greatest live covers of all time.
In an AllMusic review, they describe the song as "a perfect example of how Hendrix took the Delta blues form and not only psychedelicized it but cast an even more powerful spell by delivering the lyric in the voice of a voodoo priest." It also shows his experimentation with the wah-wah pedal. In the case of Vaughn's cover, they are both excellent versions. I list Vaughn not because it surpasses Hendrix original, but because it does it justice.
The original performed by the glam rock-styled band the Darkness. The vocals are almost entirely in falsetto. It's a great song, but the Branches cover it with their unique styling. The indie music band give the song a folk sound sang with two-part harmony between the female and male vocalist. The two versions are unique and good songs in their own right.
Six different artists recorded the song in 1940. Sammy Kaye was first by six days. The backing music has a big band sound and very straight, uptight vocals. Fats stripped the song down using his piano as the focus mixed with his deep soulful voice. His version is number 82 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Cat Power strips the song of all thrills. The croony doo-wop is gone. The soul is gone. The accompanying instruments are not heard, except an amateur-like playing of the autoharp. The middle 8 bars are there to help eliminate repetition. It is a bare-bones cover, but this is the source of its charm. It is almost eerie and yet beautiful. I like the cover for its uniqueness and to be honest, it was my wedding processional.
Ray Charles covered Nappy Brown's song with a faster tempo. He also gave it a more blues-oriented sound than the original, which was more of a gospel sound backed by a gospel chorus.
Kravitz's version is slower and softer. It also excludes the signature guitar solo. The Guess Who's original was a political statement about the evils of America's city temptation in comparison to their small town lives in Canada. Lenny's version seems to lose this meaning as it has a more sexual tone to it.
Etta James speeds up the song giving a more soulful sound than Muddy Waters' blues take on the song. Waters' lyrics describe how he doesn't want his woman doing housework. He only wants her to make love. Etta spins it, and she claims that she wants to do the chores because of her love for him, but most of all she wants to make love to him.
Joan Baez recorded the first version of the song crediting the writing as traditional. The actual writer was Anne Breslin. Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin picked up the song and ultimately rearranged it into a superior version released by the band. Page initially credited the author as traditional arranged by Page. However, once he learned of Breslin being the initial composer, they shared credit among Page, Robert Plant, and Breslin.
"Sweet Dreams" is the breakout song for the New Wave duo Eurythmics and is arguably their signature release. However, Marilyn Mansion further twists the song to be even darker and disturbing. It relies on a heavier guitar sound compared to the synthesis of the original. His delivery is eerie, giving a vibe of insanity. The lines "I wanna use you and abuse you. I wanna know what's inside you" along with "I'm gonna use you and abuse you. I gotta know what's inside you" were added by Manson to increase his dark interpretation of the song.
The two songs are like choosing your preference between Kool-Aid and liquor. Martha Reeves recorded a pop song that is danceable with a party sound. It reached number 2 on Billboard's Hot 100. Van Halen covered it in 1982 with the use of electric guitars and synthesizers to give it a much harder sound - in essence, the liquor of choices. Van Halen's cover reached number 34 on the Billboard charts.
Andy Williams' original went to number two on the US and UK chart. In 1980, The Beat--called "The Beat" in the US to the annoyance of Beat Fans--gave it a more reggae rearrangement. They finally released it in 1983 shortly before the band announced their breakup. Their cover rose to number three on the UK charts. I always thought Dave Ranklings' vocals sound much like Williams in his original.
The Scot's band Travis tried their hand at taking on Ms. Spears breakthrough smash. The group replaced the sunshine with their unique brand of rainy day depression to create their interpretation of the hit.
First recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960, it was released as a single. However, in 1961 Roy Orbison recorded it and it was a top five song in Australia. It wasn't until 1975 that it became a hit for the Scottish band, Nazareth, landing in the top ten in the States, Norway, and the Netherlands.