It’s easy to get cynical about cover versions these days. Every new movie trailer or advert seems to be accompanied by a tooth-achingly cute take on a classic track, clearly intended to avoid excessive royalty payments as well as to hit those lucrative nostalgia neurons.
It didn’t used to be like this, of course, and in many respects it still isn’t. Indeed, throughout the golden period of the ’60s and ’70s, many of the tracks that built the foundation of popular music as we know it turned out to have been performed by someone else before – or even by several artists.
And that’s okay. A good cover version is, to this very day, a beautiful thing. In most cases, the best cover songs will re-contextualise the original, making you see the darkness or poignancy in a lyric, or the underlying genius of a melody that was all but hidden in the original.
Sometimes it’s not that complicated, and a cover version simply succeeds though popularity or sheer brilliance, thus becoming the definitive version to most people.
The following 20 tracks are some of the best cover songs ever recorded, for a whole range of reasons. Which one is your favourite? Be sure to vote below.
The best cover songs of all time
1. Jimi Hendrix – ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (Bob Dylan)Stream now on Spotify
Bob Dylan is the most covered artist on this list, and quite possibly of all time, but the most impactful of these Dylan covers has to be Jimi Hendrix’s take on All Along the Watchtower. The guitar maestro took Dylan’s dour acoustic fever dream and transformed it into a full-blown psychedelic rock classic. He picked up the pace, cranked up the volume, and applied layers of squalling electric guitars that perfectly synced up with the song’s vivid apocalyptic imagery.
Image Credit: Reprise
2. Sinéad O’Connor – ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (Prince)Stream now on Spotify
The initial formulation of this list sadly coincided with the death of Sinéad O’Connor, so it’s only fitting that we include the Irish artist’s defining artistic statement. Her cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U turns the soulful 1985 original into a desolately lovesick ballad. Out goes the uplifting gospel inflection and jaunty rock guitar punctuation, and in comes a sparse arrangement of swooning strings, choral ahhs, and O’Connors startlingly impassioned voice. Not many artists can claim to have outdone Prince, but here we are.
Image Credit: Nothing Compares 2 U, Official Music Video
3. Johnny Cash - ‘Hurt’ (Nine Inch Nails)Stream now on Spotify
Late in his life, country legend Johnny Cash enjoyed an Indian summer as a weathered reinterpreter of younger artists’ work. Nothing was more devastating than his cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, though. The song’s sparse arrangement and Cash’s timeworn vocal somehow added extra weight and meaning to anguished lyrics written by a much younger man – albeit one who had seemingly hit rock bottom. “That song isn’t mine any more” said the aforementioned younger man, Trent Reznor, having heard The Man in Black’s version.
Image Credit: American Recordings
4. Aretha Franklin - ‘Respect’ (Otis Redding)Stream now on Spotify
If you frowned at this entry, scratched your head, then reached for Google, don’t worry. This is the appropriate response to learning that Respect is anything other than a pure Aretha Franklin original. So comprehensively did the great singer make the track her own, it’s easily forgotten that it was originally an Otis Redding production. Don’t get us wrong, the 1965 original is brilliant, but everything from the song’s chiding sentiment to the sassy delivery sounds far better from Franklin’s perspective.
Image Credit: Atlantic Records
5. Marvin Gaye - ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ (Gladys Knight & the Pips)Stream now on Spotify
I Heard It Through The Grapevine has become so inextricably linked with Marvin Gaye, it often comes as a surprise to learn that he didn’t actually record the song first. The Motown approach in the ’60s and ’70s meant the song was recorded by several artists in quick succession. However, it was first covered by Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967, with Gaye’s legendary take coming the following year. With its sultry groove and paranoid lyrics about a suspicious lover, Gaye’s pleading vocal seemed perfectly matched from the off.
Image Credit: Tamla
6. Soft Cell - ‘Tainted Love’ (Gloria Jones)Stream now on Spotify
Tainted Love was no smash hit in its original Motown-influenced incarnation. Originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964 as the B-side to a flop single, it largely disappeared without trace until it found a second life on the UK northern soul scene of the ’70s. However, the song only truly entered the modern pop music lexicon in 1981, when Soft Cell released a slower, moodier synth-pop reworking. The icy electronics and Marc Almond’s dry new wave delivery perfectly suited the sinister undertone of the lyrics, and a British pop classic was born.
Image Credit: Phonogram Records
7. Righteous Brothers - ‘Unchained Melody’ (Todd Duncan)Stream now on Spotify
Possibly one of the most overtly romantic pieces of music ever committed to tape, Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers has it all – swooping orchestration, an unbelievable keening vocal performance, and a desperately romantic sentiment. Except, it wasn’t written for the Righteous Brothers at all. In fact, it was written for a fairly forgettable prison movie. It was Todd Duncan who sung the 1955 cinematic original, a full 10 years before the Righteous Brothers made it their own.
Image Credit: Philles Records
8. Nirvana – ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (David Bowie)Stream now on Spotify
When Nirvana took to a New York studio in 1993 to record an Unplugged performance, there was a great deal of doubt and anxiety from the band. This was a fiercely independent group that built its brand on ferocious riffs and a sense of discordant authenticity. The following set (which included six covers) was packed full of low key acoustic beauty. At its bruised heart was this haunting take on David Bowie’s cryptically creepy 1970 hymn, The Man Who Sold The World. The closing guitar solo, in particular, brings out all the goosebumps.
Image Credit: MTV
9. The Beatles – ‘Twist and Shout’ (Isley Brothers)Stream now on Spotify
The Beatles effectively started out as a covers band, as was the norm in the early ’60s, but it was their version of Twist and Shout that arguably put the band on the map. Initially recorded by the Top Notes in 1961, it was the subsequent Isley Brothers version that really made an impression in 1962 – not least with a certain group of four young mop-topped scousers. The Beatles version added a raw rock ‘n’ roll edge that took the song down and dirty, aided by a throat-shredding lead vocal from John Lennon.
Image Credit: ‘Twist and Shout’ official music video
10. Jeff Buckley – ‘Hallelujah’ (Leonard Cohen)Stream now on Spotify
Jeff Buckley’s intimate, heartfelt cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah actually owes a great deal to a prior live cover by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. It’s a cover of a cover, if you will. Meta appeal aside, Buckley’s stripped back take on the song is widely held to be the best out there. The prodigiously gifted late musician’s angelic voice proves to be the ideal vehicle for Cohen’s ode to the ecstasy and pain of love. Add the barest sliver of delicate guitar picking, and you have a truly divine piece of music.
11. Joe Cocker – ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ (The Beatles)Stream now on Spotify
With a Little Help from My Friends was one of The Beatles’s lighter, jokier tracks, as evidenced by the fact that the band assigned it as Ringo’s vocal contribution to 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Just two years later, English blues singer Joe Cocker lifted the song to a level the Fab Four could never have dreamed of. In Cocker’s hands, the track becomes a cathartically soulful rocker that brings whole new layers of pathos to an ostensibly cheerful tale of companionship.
Image credit: Woodstock, Warner Bros.
12. Pet Shop Boys - ‘Always On My Mind’ (Elvis Presley)Stream now on Spotify
Who knew that Always On My Mind had the bones of a pulsating disco epic? Apparently, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe did. Among the Pet Shop Boys’s many accomplishments, transforming one of Elvis Presley’s all time classic ballads into a transcendental synth-pop banger has to rank near the top. The reworking’s driving rhythm and synth motif somehow make this most timeless of melodies even catchier, and contrast marvellously with those achingly tender lyrics. It would be sacrilegious to call it an improvement, and yet…
Image Credit: Parlaphone
13. Whitney Houston – ‘I Will Always Love You’ (Dolly Parton)Stream now on Spotify
For those of a certain age, I Will Always Love You will eternally be associated with a time (1992) when it was a permanent fixture of the pop charts, back when such things mattered. It was a peak-era Whitney Houston who accounted for the song’s ubiquity, her peerless vocal range powering the song to new glossy soul-pop heights that were far removed from Dolly Parton’s gently lilting country original. Houston also co-starred in The Bodyguard, the movie to which the song was attached, but the cover song has aged way better.
Image Credit: RCA Victor
14. Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse - Valerie (Zutons)Stream now on Spotify
Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse’s take on Valerie is remarkable because of the humbleness of the source material. In its original form, Valerie is a well-constructed but fairly forgettable track from noughties indie also-rans the Zutons. With a sprinkle of retro production magic from Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse’s inimitable (though somehow constantly imitated) vocal delivery, however, it becomes a brilliantly upbeat pop track. Listened to cold (and perhaps through an old fuzzy speaker), you’d swear this was a lost Motown classic, with the Zutons track a slightly beige cover.
Image Credit: Valerie (Official Video)
15. Adele – ‘Make You Feel My Love’ (Bob Dylan)Stream now on Spotify
Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love may have proved that the old master’s creative juices were still flowing back in 1997, but it’s not the version that millions of modern newlyweds choose to have their first dance to. Nor does that honour belong to a whole litany of subsequent cover versions from the likes of Neil Diamond, Boy George, and Pink. It took pop megastar Adele to fulfil the song’s popular potential in 2007, with a classy piano ballad interpretation that nails the song’s devotional appeal in a cleaned-up, youthful fashion.
Image Credit: Make You Feel My Love Official Music Video
16. José González - ‘Heartbeats’ (The Knife)Stream now on Spotify
The Knife’s original 2002 recording of Heartbeats is a bracingly fresh slice of warped electropop balladry, but it was singer-songwriter José González’s wistful acoustic cover version that well and truly took the song to the masses a year later. For a full decade after its release, González’s gently melancholic version of Heartbeats seemed to be everywhere – adverts, movie trailers, documentaries – and clearly struck a mainstream chord that the chilly original couldn’t quite manage. It’s way too good a song (and cover) to be consigned to aural wallpaper status, though.
Image Credit: Peacefrog
17. Donna Summer – ‘State of Independence’ (Jon Anderson and Vangelis)Stream now on Spotify
State of Independence is another of those tracks that has become so inextricably linked with a certain artist that it generally leads to much confusion when you play people the original. In this case that certain artist is Donna Summer. The original recording was made by Jon Anderson and Vangelis in 1981, just a year ahead of Summer’s version. The two versions aren’t fundamentally all that different when you break them down, but Summer’s peerlessly majestic vocal delivery, along with the cover version’s ecstatic choral accompaniment, send it into a whole different league.
Image Credit: State of Independence Official Music Video
18. John Coltrane - ‘My Favorite Things’ (1960) (Rodgers and Hammerstein)Stream now on Spotify
We haven’t really covered (pun intended) the vast world of jazz covers on this list, for reasons of brevity and cowardice. But it would be remiss of us not to include John Coltrane’s seismically influentially 1960 take on My Favorite Things. It’s quite a journey from naive Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty to undeniable jazz standard. The legendary saxophonist and his band recorded their blissful, sashaying instrumental take just a year after Julie Andrews first sang the original song in The Sound of Music.
Image Credit: Atlantic Records
19. Frank Ocean – ‘Moon River’ (Henry Mancini)Stream now on Spotify
It takes some chutzpah to tinker with a monolithic song like Henry Mancini’s Moon River, which has worked its way deep into the cultural fabric. Thankfully, Frank Ocean is short of neither confidence nor talent. His take on the swooning 1961 original strips away the lush orchestration to create a deeply sad alt-soul track. Despite the song’s heritage, it comes away feeling very much like a Frank Ocean original, the maestro duetting with his own pitch-shifted voice over a spare, woozy backing track.
Image Credit: Moon River Official Music Video
20. Hot Chip – ‘Dancing in the Dark’ (Bruce Springsteen)Stream now on Spotify
Hot Chip’s version of Dancing in the Dark hasn’t become an integral part of popular culture like many of the other songs on this list. It’s way too recent and niche for that. But the way it updates The Boss’s 1984 power anthem for the indie-dance crowd, adding a driving rhythm and a nimble bass line, somehow makes the song even more air-punch-worthy. As if that wasn’t enough, it then seamlessly morphs into another famous ode to loneliness and frustration in LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends. It’s a totally inspired cover song mash-up.
Image Credit: BBC/T In The Park
- Next up, check out the best rock songs of all time