CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast "Ongoing History of Protest Music."
The Top 20 Best Cover Songs of All Time
I have always been a fan of remakes, so I decided to celebrate this fact by posting my top 20 favourite cover tunes.
What is it that determines a good cover song? Some prefer covers that stick closely to the originals, while others prefer a radical reworking. For me, the reworking doesn't necessarily have to be radical, but the artists need to find a way to put their own stamp on it. If the cover is too faithful to the original, it 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 section if you feel that I omitted a cover that you feel should have been on the list.
Best Cover Songs of All Time
20. "In The Ghetto"
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
19. "Proud Mary"
Ike & Tina Turner
Creedence Clearwater Revival
18. "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
17. "My Humps"
Black Eyed Peas
Delaney & Bonnie
15. The Weight
The Staple Singers
The White Stripes
13. "It's Oh So Quiet"
12. "God On Our Side"
The Neville Brothers
11. "With a Little Help from My Friends"
10. "Piece of My Heart"
Big Brother and the Holding Company
8. "Sweet Jane"
The Velvet Underground
7. "Nothing Compares 2 U"
5. "All Along The Watchtower"
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
3. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"
2. "Midnight Train to Georgia"
Gladys Night & the Pips
Nine Inch Nails
20. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds—"In the Ghetto" (Elvis Presley Cover)
Album: From Her to Eternity
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 their 1984 album From Her to Eternity. Nick Cave may lack the vocal polish of Elvis, but what he lacks in polish, he makes up for with conviction and passion. I love the dramatic build-up of the song. Cave's version has the right amount of somberness.
19. Ike & Tina Turner—"Proud Mary" (Creedence Clearwater Revival Cover)
Album: Workin' Together
Ike & Tina's remake of CCR's classic was from their 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 morphs into a fun and funky tune. This is part of what makes this song so special.
18. Tori Amos—"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Nirvana Cover)
Read More From Spinditty
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's version maintains the spirit of the original.
According to Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain loved Tori's version and they would slow dance to it.
17. Alanis Morissette—"My Humps" (Black Eyed Peas Cover)
Album: N/A (Done as an April Fools' Day prank)
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.
16. Sonic Youth—"Superstar" (Delaney & Bonnie Cover)
Album: If I Were a Carpenter
Sonic Youth's version of Superstar appeared on the 1994 compilation tribute album If I Were 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 suggests 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 favourite. 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.
15. The Staple Singers—"The Weight" (Cover of The Band)
Album: Soul Folk in Action
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 vocal 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 favourite 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.
14. The White Stripes—"Jolene" (Dolly Parton Cover)
Album: Hello Operator
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.
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 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.
12. The Neville Brothers—"God on Our Side" (Bob Dylan Cover)
Album: Yellow Moon
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.
11. Joe Cocker—"With a Little Help From My Friends" (Cover of The Beatles)
Album: With a Little Help from My Friends
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.
10. Big Brother and the Holding Company—"Piece of My Heart" (Cover of Erma Franklin)
Album: Cheap Thrills
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 apart. You can feel the raw emotion; you get shivers down your spine as she screams the pain away.
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.
8. Cowboy Junkies—"Sweet Jane" (The Velvet Underground Cover)
Album: The Trinity Session
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."
7. Sinéad O'Connor—"Nothing Compares 2 U" (Cover of The Family)
Album: I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got
Prince wrote the original version for his side project called 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 lusher musically, and you can't argue with her emotional vocal performance. There is a certain vocal vulnerability to the song that is truly beautiful.
6. Aretha Franklin—"Respect" (Otis Redding Cover)
Album: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
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 background 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, who doesn't want respect? It is hard not to get pumped up and sing along when you hear Aretha's version.
5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience—"All Along the Watchtower" (Bob Dylan Cover)
Album: Electric Ladyland
This is a perfect example of what it means to remake a song. Jimi Hendrix 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.
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. Initially, both the album and the song were somewhat overlooked. But, after Cale's and Buckley'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 has been a couple of solid covers, most were unnecessary). Jeff Buckley's version has become a sacred relic. It is too bad that in recent years that sacred relic has been defecated on by countless reality show singing contestants (and Bon Jovi).
3. Nirvana—"Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (Cover of Lead Belly)
Album: MTV Unplugged in New York
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" and "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. 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.
2. Gladys Night & the Pips—"Midnight Train to Georgia" (Cover of Jim Weatherly)
This song has always been an all-time favourite 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." Then, he 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 than Houston's version, which was slower. But, the irresistible groove does not take away the emotional wallop of "Empress" Gladys's vocals.
1. Johnny Cash—"Hurt" (Nine Inch Nails Cover)
Album: American IV: The Man Comes Around
When compiling this list, in order to prevent it from becoming too predictable, I was debating selecting another cover song by 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 have ranked this #1.
Concerning this song, the original appeared on Nine Inch Nails' 1994 album, The Downward Spiral. In my youth, both NIN's album and the song "Hurt" resonated with me. I was going through anger and depression issues and I could relate to the sentiments in the lyrics. Even though I've never gone to the point of self-mutilation, 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'd 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."
© 2012 CJ Baker
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on September 15, 2014:
Thanks Robert! The Last Waltz performance really is something special. The movie is also my all time fave concert film.
Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on September 15, 2014:
Great list. I also love the performance of "The Weight" in The Last Waltz.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on January 27, 2014:
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 from United States on January 27, 2014:
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 ve