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15 Cover Songs that Are Better than the Original

Updated on August 8, 2017

Hurt by Johnny Cash

Original by: Nine Inch Nails
Written by: Trent Reznor
Album: American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)

Trent Reznor mostly whispered his way through the original by Nine Inch Nails, which itself is a great song. But Cash brought a level of passion and urgency to it that I feel was missing from most of Reznor's version. A writer on wondered how Reznor must have felt when he first heard the cover. How must it feel to hear:

"someone perform his song with more soul and ache than he could muster as a late twenty-something habitually depressive substance abuser."

Reznor was unsure when first approached about Cash covering the song fearing it would sound gimmicky. But he was impressed by the cover.

"It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. Cash brings a certain darkness to the song. It's melancholy and spooky."

Borderline by The Flaming Lips

Original by: Madonna
Written by: Reggie Lucas
Album: Covered, A Revolution In Sound: Warner Bros. Records (2009)

Anyone who knows the The Flaming Lips know they like to cover other artists' albums. They've also done some impressive covers of pop songs. They took Madonna's hit pop song Borderline and turned it into an experimental alt rock track. While Madonna's original version is a great pop song, the Flaming Lips along with Stardeath And White Dwarfs bring a dreaminess to the song that makes it far superior to the pop version.

Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin

Original by: Roger Miller
Written by: Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster
Album: Pearl (1971)

I was surprised when I found out that Me and Bobby McGee wasn't originally a Janis Joplin song. The song was first performed by country singer Roger Miller. Joplin's version was a #1 hit, so it's not surprising the song is associated with her. It was the second posthumous #1 single in the U.S. after "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding. In Miller's original version, Bobby is a woman. In Joplin's Bobby is a guy. The song is about two young drifters who travel around together. Bobby gets tired of life on the road and settles down. She continues travelling but regrets parting from him.

Blind by Lydia Loveless

Original by: Ke$ha
Written by: Kesha Sebert, Benjamin Levin, Joshua Coleman
Single: Mile High/Blind

One of the big problems with Kesha's debut album Animal is that songs clearly written to be ballads or country songs were turned into thumping club tracks. Kesha managed to bring some real emotion to Blind but it's covered with electronic vocal effects. The simpler country rock version by acclaimed indie artist Lydia Loveless makes the lyrics and emotion front and center.

Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You by Kesha

Original by: Joe Sun
Written by: Hugh Moffat and Pebe Sebert
EP: Deconstructed (2012)

Kesha is also capable of pulling off stripped country ballads. Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You is a country classic that was originally released by Joe Sun in 1978. Dolly Parton had a #1 hit with the song in 1980. Many other country greats like Johnny Cash/June Carter and Merle Haggard covered the song as well. Old Flames is typically sung as an cheerful love song. Kesha brings a sense of melancholy to Old Flames and a feeling of sincerity that really works. But this might be because Kesha has a special connection to the song. Her mom Pebe Sebert was a co-writer on the track and royalties from Old Flames helped the financially struggling single mom provide for Kesha and her two brothers.

Across the Great Divide by Nanci Griffith

Original by: Kate Wolf
Written by: Kate Wolf
Album: Other Voices, Other Rooms (1993)

This is a close call because the Kate Wolf and Nanci Griffith versions are so similar. What makes the Nanci Griffith version preferable to me is the presence of Emmylou Harris on backup vocals. Griffith's version appeared on her Grammy winning all covers album Other Voices, Other Rooms (the title was influenced by the Truman Capote novel Other Rooms, Other Voices). Kate Wolf died young at the age of 44 but she's had such an impact on folk music that there's a yearly music festival held in her honor.

Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin

Original by: Jake Holmes
Written by: Original version Jake Holmes, Cover Jimmy Page
Album: Led Zeppelin (1969)

If you've seen the track listing for Led Zeppelin's self-titled debut, you'll see the song is credited to Jimmy Page. In actual fact, the original version was written by Jake Holmes. Holmes' version was released in 1967. Holmes opened a show for Jimmy Page's band The Yardbirds that same year. Page basically reworked the song with new lyrics and claimed it as his own. Holmes sued years later and in 2012 he reached a settlement with the group. Holmes' version is psychedelic rock while the Led Zeppelin version is blues rock. While both versions of the song are great, I slightly prefer the "stolen" version.

All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix

Original by: Bob Dylan
Written by: Bob Dylan
Album: Electric Ladyland

I've loved this song since I was a child, so I've always associated it with Jimi Hendrix. It was a shock when I found out it was actually a Bob Dylan song. Dylan released his original in 1967 on the album John Wesley Harding. The Hendrix cover appeared on Electric Ladyland the following year. While Dylan's acoustic guitar and harmonica folk version is a great song, it doesn't come close to Hendrix's bluesy psychedelic take on the track.

I Love Rock n' Roll

Original by: Arrows
Written by: Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker
Album: I Love Rock 'n' Roll (1982)

Yes, the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts classic I Love Rock n' Roll is a cover. The original version by Arrows was released in 1975. Joan Jett's version went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. It's also #89 on Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitar Songs. Jett was touring with her band The Runaways in the UK when she saw Arrows perform the song on TV. While Jett's version is very similar to the original, I feel like her voice works better with the song.

Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Original by: Joni Mitchell
Written by: Joni Mitchell
Album: Déjà Vu (1970)

This one probably won't be a shock to most people because Joni Mitchell's 1970 original is also very well known. Mitchell herself didn't go to Woodstock. She based the song on what she was told about the event by Graham Nash. She said:

"The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock."

The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version, which had minor lyrical changes, was also released in 1970 on their album Déjà Vu. While both versions of the song are really good, I prefer the bands' rockier cover over Mitchell's original folk version.

I Fought the Law by The Clash

Original by: The Crickets
Written by: Sonny Curtis
EP: The Cost of Living (1979)

The original version by The Crickets came out in 1959. The Clash weren't the first band to cover the song. The Bobby Fuller Four had a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with I Fought the Law in 1965. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones from The Clash heard Fuller's version on a jukebox in 1978 when they were working on their second album. They released the song the following year on an EP called The Cost of Living. It's interesting to hear a 1950's, and 1960's dance version of a song that's best known as a punk rock song today.

You Don't Own Me by Poliça

Original by: Lesley Gore
Written by: John Madara and David White
Album: Shulamith (2014)

You Don't Own Me was initially released by Lesley Gore when she was just 17. Released in 1963 the song became a feminist anthem.

And don't tell me what to do
Don't tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you
Don't put me on display 'cause

You don't own me
Don't try to change me in any way
You don't own me
Don't tie me down 'cause I'd never stay

While I love Lesley's version of the song, I feel Channy Leaneagh from the Minneapolis based band Poliça brings more passion to it. Their version also feels darker to me. Rather than sounding like a song about women's liberation like Gore's 1963 version, the Poliça version sounds like the words of a woman in a controlling relationship.

Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris

Original by: Neil Young
Written by: Neil Young
Album: Wrecking Ball (1995)

Emmylou Harris' cover of Wrecking Ball beats Neil Young's because of her far superior vocal ability. Harris made the song the title track of her Grammy winning 18th album Wrecking Ball. Neil Young provided harmonies on the song. The wrecking ball in the song refers to a dance rather than to a type of demolition equipment.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper

Original by: Robert Hazard
Written by: Robert Hazard
Album: She's So Unusual (1983)

This will probably shock many people but Cyndi Lauper's mega-hit Girls Just Want to Have Fun, which is a staple of oldies radio stations today, is a cover. And not only that, the song which went on to become a feminist anthem was originally written and recorded by a guy named Robert Hazard. No offense to Robert but his version is terrible. So, if you love this song as much as I do be grateful for Cyndi's version.

Time Is on My Side by The Rolling Stones

Original by: Kai Winding and his Orchestra
Written by: Jerry Ragovoy (pseudonym Norman Meade)
Album: The Rolling Stones No. 2 (1965)

The original version of this song was recorded by jazz musician Kai Winding and his Orchestra. The Rolling Stones recorded two versions of the song with the second version being the best known. The song was the first top ten hit for the Rolling Stones in the United States. The original Kai Winding version of this song is definitely worth checking out. But the Stones did it better.

What are your favorite cover songs?

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