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The Top 20 Best Cover Songs of All Time

Updated on March 9, 2015

Baby - Justin Bieber Vs Bob Dylan (Video)

What Makes a Good Cover Song?

The above video is of me doing an intentionally bad impersonation of Bob Dylan singing Justin Bieber's "Baby". This is NOT one of the best 20 covers of all time.

I have always been a fan of musical remakes. So I decided to celebrate this fact, by posting my top 20 cover tunes.

So what is it that determines a good cover tune? Some prefer covers that stick closely to the originals while others prefer a radical reworking. For me the reworking doesn't necessary have to be radical, but the artists needs to find a way to put their own stamp on it. If the cover is too faithful to the original it essentially becomes meaningless. But if they put their signature on it (even if it is done subtly) they have created a piece of music that can now stand on its own.

Feel free to let me know in the comments if you feel that I omitted a cover that you feel should have been on the list.

#20: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - In The Ghetto (Elvis Presley Cover)

Mac Davis wrote the song and it became a comeback hit for Elvis in 1969. The Bad Seeds version was released as their debut single back in 1984. It was later included in CD reissues of the 1984 album From Her to Eternity. Nick Cave may lack the vocal polish of Elvis, but what he lacks in polish he makes up with conviction and passion. I love the dramatic build up of the song. Cave's version also has just the right amount of somberness.

In The Ghetto by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (Video)

#19: Ike & Tina Turner - Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival Cover)

Ike & Tina's classic remake of CCR's classic was from the 1971 album, Workin' Together. As Tina mentions in the intro they start off "nice and easy", but they finish it "nice and rough". The slow build up at the beginning that morphs into a fun funky tune is partly what makes this song so special.

Proud Mary by Ike & Tina Turner (Video)

#18: Tori Amos - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana Cover)

Tori Amos' radical reworking of Nirvana's most well known tune, was a b-side to her 1992 Crucify EP. Tori Amos turning the grunge rock anthem into a slow tempo piano ballad was a bold move, but she pulls it off big time. Even though the reworking was drastic, you can tell it was done with all due respect. It is stylistically different, but on an emotional level, Amos' does maintain the spirit of the original.

Also according to Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain loved Tori's version, and Kurt and Courtney would slow dance to it. I still get goosebumps every time I hear this version.

Smells Like Teen Spirit by Tori Amos (Video)

#17: Alanis Morissette - My Humps (Black Eyed Peas Cover)

Alanis' cover of Black Eyed Peas "My Humps" was posted on her website on April 1st, 2007 as an April Fools Day prank. She posted the video parody to YouTube on April 2nd. Alanis' slowed down piano version, along with her deliberate enunciation sheds a spotlight on how ridiculous the original lyrics were. I also love this remake, because it proves that Alanis actually has a sense of humor.

My Humps by Alanis Morissette (Video)

#16: Sonic Youth - Superstar (Delaney & Bonnie Cover)

Sonic Youth's version of Superstar appeared on the 1994 tribute album If I Where a Carpenter. Even though The Carpenters' 1971 hit was the most well known version of the song, Delaney & Bonnie originally recorded it in 1969 under the name "Groupie (Superstar)". As the title suggest the song was about a groupie.

The song has become somewhat of a modern day standard, but Sonic Youth's version stands out as my personal favorite. I love the atmospheric spaciness of it. They strike the right balance of being respectful of The Carpenters' version without compromising Sonic Youth's experimental nature. Even though it may appear to be an odd match, the band has cited The Carpenters as a major influence. Unfortunately Richard Carpenter has been quoted as saying that he "doesn't care for" the Sonic Youth's version of Superstar.

Superstar by Sonic Youth (Video)

#15: The Staple Singers - The Weight (Cover of The Band)

The Staple Singers gospel inspired cover of The Band's classic is from their 1968 album, Soul Folk In Action. Just like the original version by The Band, the song features impeccable vocals harmonies, but the female and male harmonization adds a different dynamic. Also you can't beat the soulfulness of Mavis Staple's voice.

Also as a note, my favorite version of this song is the one The Staple Singers performed with The Band for the 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. But because they performed with the original artist I didn't consider that version a true cover.

The Weight by The Staple Singers (Video)

#14: The White Stripes - Jolene (Dolly Parton Cover)

This rendition of Dolly Parton's country classic is from the live DVD, Under Blackpool Lights. This live version was released as a single in 2004. They also recorded a studio version in 2000, which appeared as the b-side to their 2000 single "Hello Operator". Both of The White Stripes versions are pretty spectacular, but I prefer the emotional intensity of this live version. It is a lot rawer, but that is part of the appeal. Jack White just pours his whole heart and being into it.

The White Stripes Perform Jolene Live at Under Blackpool Lights

#13: Björk - It's Oh So Quiet (Betty Hutton Cover)

Betty Hutton's version was recorded in 1951 as the b-side to her single "Murder, He Says". Hutton's version was technically a cover of a German tune recorded by Horst Winter in 1948, "Und jetzt ist es still". But Hutton's version featured different lyrics that where written in English.

Björk's version is from her 1995 album, Post. I love all of the tempo changes in the song. It starts off all slow (oh so quiet) then it gets all crazy, and it gets slow again. It is just a really fun and catchy song that makes me giddy every time I hear it.

It's Oh So Quiet by Björk (Video)

#12: The Neville Brothers - God On Our Side (Bob Dylan Cover)

The Neville Brothers remake of the Bob Dylan classic is from their 1989 album, Yellow Moon. Aaron Neville's soulful and mournful vocal adds a different dynamic to Dylan's original version. I can't listen to this song without getting goosebumps.

God On Our Side by The Neville Brothers (Video)

#11: Joe Cocker - With a Little Help from My Friends (Cover of The Beatles)

Cocker's radical reworking of The Beatles tune, was the self titled track to his 1969 debut album. It is a near impossible feat to cover a Beatles' song and do it better. But Cocker scales those lofty heights. You can't deny his powerful and soulful vocal rasp. It also helped that a tight backing band, which included Jimmy Page on guitar, backed him. This song packs an undeniable emotional wallop.

With a Little Help from My Friends by Joe Cocker (Video)

#10: Big Brother and the Holding Company - Piece of My Heart (Cover of Erma Franklin)

Erma Franklin (Aretha's older sister) originally recorded this song in 1967. Just like her sister she was a soulful vocal powerhouse, but unfortunately she flew below the radar.

Big Brother and the Holding Company recorded their version for their 1968 album Cheap Thrills. Of course, Big Brother features the vocal powerhouse that was Janis Joplin. Joplin totally tears the song a part. You can feel the raw emotion; you get shivers down your spine as she screams the pain away.

Piece of My Heart by Big Brother and the Holding Company (Video)

#9: Patti Smith - Gloria (Cover of Them)

Just as a note the opening lines of Patti Smith's radical reworking of Them's "Gloria": "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" was an excerpt of an earlier poem that she wrote. This was the perfect segue into the song. Patti Smith's reinvention of Gloria is just so emotionally intense. It is hard to deny its impact.

Gloria was the opening track to Smith's influential 1975 debut album Horses. There is a reason why she is quite often referred to as the "Godmother of Punk". This song and that album helped establish her legacy.

Gloria by Patti Smith (Video)

#8: Cowboy Junkies - Sweet Jane (The Velvet Underground Cover)

The Cowboy Junkies reworking of the Lou Reed written tune (originally recorded by his band The Velvet Underground) was from the Junkies 1988 landmark album The Trinity Session. The Junkies' version of "Sweet Jane" also gained notoriety when it was used for the soundtrack to the 1994 film, Natural Born Killers. I love the lush laid back musical arrangement along with Margo Timmins beautifully ethereal vocals.

Lou Reed was also a fan of the Junkies version, calling it "the best and most authentic version I have ever heard".

Sweet Jane by Cowboy Junkies (Video)

#7: Sinéad O'Connor - Nothing Compares 2 U (Cover of The Family)

Prince wrote the original version for his side project The Family. The original version appeared on The Family's self titled 1985 album. O'Conner's more well known cover version appeared on her classic 1990 album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. The Family's version featured lite funk, and it does sound a bit dated. O'Conner's remake is more lush musically, and you can't argue with her emotional vocal performance. There is a certain vocal vulnerability to the song that is truly beautiful.

Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinéad O'Connor (Video)

#6: Aretha Franklin - Respect (Otis Redding Cover)

Otis' version was released as a single in 1965. Aretha's version was released in 1967, and it became such an iconic hit that many forget that it is a cover. It is hard to top Aretha's version. Two notable changes that were added to Aretha's version is the memorable chorus "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" and the back ground singers singing "Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me..." Also through a few minor lyrical changes Aretha turned this song into an empowerment anthem. Even though it may be considered a female empowerment anthem, which of us doesn't want respect. It is hard not to get pumped up and sing along when you hear Aretha's version.

Respect by Aretha Franklin (Video)

#5: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan Cover)

This is a perfect example of what it means to remake a song. Jimi Heindrix just didn't remake this song that originally appeared on Bob Dylan's 1967 album, John Wesley Harding, but he claimed ownership of it. Bob Dylan himself said of Jimi's version of Watchtower: "I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this and ever since he died I've been doing it that way... Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way."

Jimi was able to radically reconstruct the song while still respecting the integrity of it. It was a true work of genius.

All Along The Watchtower by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Video)

#4: Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen Cover)

Jeff Buckley's rendition of Leonard Cohen's modern day standard appeared on his 1994 album, Grace. It should be noted the arrangement for Buckley's cover was based on John Cale's 1991 version. To make this list less predictable, I was contemplating using Cale's version for this list instead. It really is a wonderful version, and one of the few essential versions of this song. But I could NOT exclude Buckley's version. His vocals are just so exquisite. You can sense the sadness and pain, but there is also an overall sense of beauty as well.

Cohen's version appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions. Both the album and the song were initially somewhat overlooked. But after Cale's and Buckely's cover versions, the song became a modern day standard. After Jeff Buckley recorded the perfect version of the song there should have been some law on covering this song (even though there as been a couple of solid covers, but most where unnecessary). Jeff Buckley's version has become a scared relic. It is too bad that in recent years that scared relic has been defecated on by countless reality show singing contestants (and Bon Jovi).

Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley (Video)

#3: Nirvana - Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Cover of Lead Belly)

Just as a note I listed this as a Lead Belly cover, because Nirvana based their cover on Lead Belly's arrangement. That being said the song is a traditional folk tune, which also goes by the titles "In The Pines" & "Black Girl" (or Black Gal). I was debating whether or not to include this, because I was avoiding traditional tunes for my list. I was doing this because there is no known original version, and it would make my job a lot harder to narrow down the list to 20 songs. But I chose to make an exception with this song.

This version was recorded in 1993 for MTV Unplugged, and it was released after Kurt Cobain's death on the 1994 album MTV Unplugged in New York. Even though this song was acoustic, it was one of the heaviest and emotionally intense things Cobain ever did. You could sense the raw emotion. MTV producers wanted Nirvana to do an encore, but Kurt knew there was no way he could top that performance. I still get goosebumps every time I hear this song.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Nirvana (Video)

#2: Gladys Night & the Pips - Midnight Train to Georgia (Cover of Jim Weatherly)

This song has always been an all time favorite of mine, but up until recently I did not realize that it was a cover song. It was originally written and recorded as a country song by Jim Weatherly under the title "Midnight Plane to Houston". Shortly after Weatherly recorded it, the song was sent to producer Sonny Limbo who asked permission to change the title to "Midnight Train to Georgia" and he then had Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston's mom) record the song.

Shortly after Houston had a minor hit on the R&B charts, Gladys Night & the Pips recorded their version in 1973 which hit #1 in the US on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts. It became one of Night's signature tunes. Night's version was based on Houston's versions but it was more groove oriented while Houston's version was slower. But the irresistible groove does not take away the emotional wallop of "Empress" Gladys' vocals.

Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Night & the Pips (Video)

The Tomb of Johnny Cash

RIP, Johnny Cash, the greatest interpreter of other people's material who ever lived.
RIP, Johnny Cash, the greatest interpreter of other people's material who ever lived. | Source

#1: Johnny Cash - Hurt (Nine Inch Nails Cover)

When compiling this list, in order to prevent it from becoming too predictable I was debating selecting another cover song of Johnny Cash. There would have been no shortage of songs to choose from. Johnny Cash was an impeccable interpreter of other people's material. He was able to put his own unique stamp on every song he covered. That being said there was no way that I could exclude this song, and there was no way I could not of ranked this #1.

Concerning this song, the original appeared on Nine Inch Nails' 1994 album, The Downward Spiral. In my youth both that album and in particular the song "Hurt" resonated with me. I was going through anger and depression issues and I could relate to the sentiments of the lyrics (even though I've never gone to the point of self mutilation). But it got to the point that the music I was listening to was like giving a chocolate bar to a diabetic. There was a period where I couldn't listen to The Downward Spiral and the song "Hurt". But now that I'm a relatively well adjusted adult I was able to revisit music that I've listened to in my youth. It doesn't impact me the same way. If anything it is a reminder of how far I have come.

Cash's version appeared on his 2002 album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash's version impacted me on a whole different level. Instead of being about self mutilation it is about self reflection. It is about looking back on your past mistakes. You can see why the song resonated with Cash, and it spoke to me personally.

Cash's version is another example of an artist not only covering a song, but claiming ownership of it. Trent Reznor himself made the following statement concerning Cash's version: " the video in, and wow... Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore... It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure."

Hurt by Johnny Cash (Video)

© 2012 CJ Baker

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    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks Robert! The Last Waltz performance really is something special. The movie is also my all time fave concert film.

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 3 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      Great list. I also love the performance of "The Weight" in The Last Waltz.

    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      You are not alone in thinking that Sinead and Aretha were the originals. In many ways, theirs is viewed as the definite version. It is also cool that you were familiar with the Betty Hutton version. That is another example of a song that people don't always view as a cover. Absolutely agree with you about "Hurt". Thanks for the read and the comment.

    • oldiesmusic profile image

      oldiesmusic 3 years ago from United States

      As I was slowly reading and scrolling the page down I thought that Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" would top your list. A fitting swan song -- he was dying and it seemed he couldn't get over the death of his wife June Carter.

      Surprise, I thought Aretha and Sinead's songs were originals. In the manner that I thought that Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" is really hers too.

      My dad owns a CD containing the Betty Hutton version of "It's Oh So Quiet", I heard that first before Bjork's version came out. I was amused by it thinking that it was the earliest "screaming" song of that era. Bjork's version is great too, and I loved the video as well.

      Awesome hub. Cheers! :)

    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Docmo - Sorry for the late response. I appreciate the read and the comment. I agree that a well done cover can display an artist creativity and inventiveness.

      ParadigimEnacted - Once again apologies for the late response. I definitely respect your views concerning the Dylan original. Even though I prefer Hendrix, the original is not without its own merits. I also agree with you on your thoughts on "Hurt". It is really cool to have those two different versions to choose from.

    • ParadigmEnacted profile image

      ParadigmEnacted 4 years ago

      Well done hub covering the most well known cover songs. I've always disagreed with the consensus that Hendrix's version of All Along the Watchtower is better than the original. He does some interesting stuff with it and it is a highlight of his catalog, but it's very gimmicky. Dylan captures in aura of isolation and desperate anticipation that suits the verses and gives me goosebumps. I don't believe that a person who performs a better version of a song should have sole jurisdiction over it, but all the same Dylan knows what he's doing. Less was more in this instance.

      Cash's version of hurt was also great because it fits his own outlook as he traveled through life, but it's good to have Trent Reznor's hollower version with the musical dynamics laying around too. I frequently interchange those two.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      What a brilliant anthology of cover versions... This shows the sheer inventiveness, creativity and musical ability of the artists as well as the difference between a perennial classic and an also ran. .. Great hub'

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I agree. I also always felt that the original was way to upbeat for the subject matter.

    • Andy McGuire profile image

      Andy McGuire 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Pearl Jam's "Last Kiss" is also far more potent than the original version, which sounds too peppy for a song about a car crash and death.

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I am already familiar with the Rise Against version of "Hollis Brown", and I agree it is a great cover. Nina Simone also does a pretty spectacular cover of "Hollis Brown" as well (even though it didn't quite make this list). Thanks for your comment.

    • Andy McGuire profile image

      Andy McGuire 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      I would like to suggest listening to RISE AGAINST's cover of BOB DYLAN's "The Ballad of Hollis Brown."

      That cover is far beyond amazing.

    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks teaches! Glad that we share the love for Respect and In The Ghetto!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      You have listed some I love and agree with on the best cover song. Aretha's RESPECT is tops with me. Also love that you listed In The Ghetto -- love Elvis!

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Alecia - Agreed! Both of those covers are awesome. I also agree there is something special about an artist making someone else song their own. Thanks for the vote and the share!

      e-five - Thanks for mentioning the Warwick covers. I agree it is really cool to discover a well done cover.

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      Just going with cover versions of Dionne Warwick songs alone, I like Luther Vandross' "A House is Not a Home," The Stranglers' version of "Walk on By," Issac Hayes' version of "Walk on By," and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's version of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose." A well-done cover can be a revelation.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Great list! My favorites are Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Respect." But covers are awesome when done in a way to make the song their own. Voted up and shared!