24 Best Cover Songs of All Time
The best cover songs take an original favorite and transform it into something that sounds totally different but familiar at the same time. These are classic tracks reinvented and reinterpreted by artists who make them their own. When talking about the best cover songs, we don’t mean everyday standards that the crooners of yesteryear churned out.
People like Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and Matt Monro released dozens of great covers but never tried to change the composition of the originals or include new lyrics. It’s the artists willing to take risks by singing songs that aren’t in their wheelhouse or stretching their creativity by tackling songs in a surprising way that sparks our interest.
A great cover can totally change the perception of a song or be a powerful illustration of an artist’s creativity. There are more good covers out there than you might know, so we have selected a handful of our favorites that we believe qualify as the best cover songs ever released.
24 Best Cover Songs of All Time
1. Johnny Cash – “Hurt”
Original by: Nine Inch Nails
Recorded during the final years of his life, country singer Johnny Cash turned Nine Inch Nails ballad about drug use into a mediation on life and death. It’s a startling cover that catches Cash near the end, his voice quivering as he sings about wearing a “crown of thorns upon his liar’s chair” and ruminating on his past.
NIN frontman Trent Reznor was initially worried about Cash ruining the song, but quickly changed his mind after hearing it. “Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore,” he told the Associated Press.
This isn’t the only Johnny Cash cover worth checking out, with his take on Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “I Won’t Back Down” all amazing pieces of music.
2. Sonic Youth – “Superstar”
Original by: Delaney & Bonnie
Both the Carpenters and Luther Vandross had success with “Superstar” in the 70s and 80s respectively, but the best version of this song was arguably recorded by Sonic Youth. Big fans of the Carpenters, the grunge group covered the song for the 1994 tribute album If I Were a Carpenter.
There’s something haunting about Thurston Moore’s vocal delivery over the scuzzy guitars that give the song another dynamic.
3. Aretha Franklin – “Respect”
Original by: Otis Redding
You can’t knock the original, but Aretha Franklin’s take on “Respect” was a game changer. She transformed the song into an anthem for women in the mid-60s. Changing the arrangement and some of the lyrics, “Respect” became Franklin’s biggest hit and won two Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female.
4. Ike & Tina Turner – “Proud Mary”
Original by: Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Proud Mary” was a big hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival, reaching the second spot on the Billboard Hot 100. A splash of Californian rock with a catchy chorus, the song took on a new life when Ike and Tina Turner covered it two years later. Their version is much faster and features a brass section, giving “Proud Mary” a soulful funk tone.
The song became one of Tina Turner’s signature songs and won Ike & Tina Turner the Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group in 1972.
5. Whitney Houston – “I Will Always Love You”
Original by: Dolly Parton
Country great Dolly Parton released several versions of “I Will Always Love You” over the years, but most people only remember Whitney Houston’s cover. Recorded for the movie The Bodyguard, which also featured Houston in her first acting role, the song is a soaring ballad that showcased Houston’s spine-tingling vocals.
“I Will Always Love You” will forever be linked to Houston, with the single topping the charts in more than 20 countries and winning every award it was nominated for, including six Billboard Music Awards, two Grammy Awards, and a Soul Train Award.
6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “All Along the Watchtower”
Original by: Bob Dylan
Just six months after the original version was released, the Jim Hendrix Experience recorded a cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” This rockier interpretation would become synonymous with Hendrix and was also looked upon favorably by Bob Dylan, who said, “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” High praise.
7. The Fugees – “Killing Me Softly”
Original by: Roberta Flack
The Fugees only lasted one album before inner turmoil tore the group apart, but during their short time together they gifted us one of the great modern covers. Borrowing a beat from rap group A Tribe Called Quest (“Bonita Applebum“), which samples the 60s band Rotary Connection, the Fugees used Roberta Flack’s chorus to her Grammy Award-winning hit “Killing Me Softly” to create a masterful piece of music.
This song is all about Lauryn Hill, whose voice is absolutely dynamite and hard to shake. “Killing Me Softly” was just a taste of what Hill had in store for music fans, releasing her critically acclaimed debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, just two years later.
8. William Shatner – “Common People”
Original by: Pulp
William Shatner is best known for starring as James T. Kirk in the Star Trek franchise, but he has also dabbled in music. His biggest musical success was a cover of “Common People” from his 2004 album Has Been.
Produced by Ben Folds and featuring Joe Jackson, it’s a spoken-word cover that’s brilliant in its weirdness. Even its creator Jarvis Cocker is a fan, having this to say in an interview: “I was very flattered by that because I was a massive Star Trek fan as a kid and so you know, Captain Kirk is singing my song. So that was amazing.”
9. Post Malone – “Better Man”
Original by: Pearl Jam
This one might shock the pursuits, but Post Malone’s cover of “Better Man” is not bad. Now you might not call it the “best,” but there is an authenticity to Malone that shines through on this acoustic cover. His voice doesn’t hold a candle to Eddie Vedder’s but there is an honesty about his approach to this song that makes it work.
Posty is no stranger to covers either, having also performed tracks by Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Sublime, Metallica, and Sturgill Simpson.
10. Bats For Lashes – “I’m On Fire”
Original by: Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen coves a dime a dozen these days, but one of the best comes courtesy of Bats For Lashes. Natasha Khan’s piano cover is hauntingly good, staying close to the original while offering something more. The unusual instrumentation adds another layer, with Kahn’s soothing voice drawing you into the narrative.
11. Pantera – “Planet Caravan”
Original by: Black Sabbath
Instead of giving fans a heavy metal cover of Black Sabbaths’ famously low-key “Planet Caravan,” Pantera kept things pretty close to the original while still giving the track a point of difference. The cover surprised many metal fans who weren’t ready for such a mellow release, but it proved a success and became one of Pantera’s biggest charting singles.
12. Amy Winehouse – “Valerie”
Original by: The Zutons
First released by UK act the Zutons, “Valerie” was chosen by producer Mark Ronson for his sophomore album Version. He drafted soul singer Amy Winehouse to sing the cover, turning it into a soulful jazz number that highlighted the singer’s tremendous vocals. The song was a huge hit and is better recognized than the Zutons version, which is still pretty decent.
13. The Rolling Stones – “Like a Rolling Stone”
Original by: Bob Dylan
A smattering of artists has covered “Like a Rolling Stone” over the years, from Jimi Hendrix to John Mellencamp. None have managed to do the song justice like the Rolling Stones. Their version harks back to the band’s blues roots and even features Mick Jagger on the harmonica. A worthy tribute to Bob.
14. Nirvana – “The Man Who Sold the World”
Original by: David Bowie
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album is arguably the greatest record in their small but impactful catalog. Stripped back to the bare bones, this live performance exposes the vulnerability of frontman Kurt Cobain, with the Seattle grunge pioneer exposing his emotions for the whole world to see.
Along with performing several of Nirvana’s biggest hits, the concert is punctuated with covers from Cobain’s heroes, including a goosebumps-inducing cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” It’s one of the few times when the cover is better than the original.
15. Taylor Swift – “Riptide”
Original by: Vance Joy
The BBC’s Live Lounge is famous for high-profile artists performing covers and has provided some excellent versions of great songs over the years. In 2014, Taylor Swift took on Aussie singer Vance Joy’s hit “Riptide,” turning it into a laidback piano ballad showcasing the song’s simple but effective composition.
16. John Prine – “I Just Called To Say I Love You”
Original by: Stevie Wonder
If you ever need a reminder of John Prine’s versatility as an artist, listen to this cover of “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Prine turned Stevie Wonder’s pop ballad into a country ditty that emphasizes the romantic vibes of the song. You don’t realize how sad the song actually is until you hear Prine’s pleading vocals.
17. Janis Joplin – “Me and Bobby McGee”
Original by: Roger Miller
Written by Kris Kristofferson and first performed by Roger Miller in 1969, “Me and Bobby McGee” was a moderate hit before Gordon Lightfoot released a cover that went to number one on the country charts. Realizing he had a hit on his hands, Kristofferson released his own version in 1970. While all three are easy on the ear, none compare to Janis Joplin’s soul-quenching cover version.
Recorded days before her death, Joplin’s cover was included on her posthumous album Pearl. Released as a single in 1971, “Me and Bobby McGee” went straight to the top of the charts and was the talented singer’s only number one. Joplin slightly reigns in her booming voice on the track, giving an understated performance that highlights her incredible vocal range.
18. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”
Original by: Leonard Cohen
It’s a little unfortunate that Jeff Buckley’s best-known song is a cover. Although his life was cut short at 30, meaning he only released one album, the songs he did record are all special in their own way. But as this is an article about covers, we can’t not include Buckley’s cover version of “Hallelujah.”
Akin to a religious experience, this is a powerful cover with a haunting feel due to Buckley’s passing. It’s been covered to death by a host of artists, but none quite captured the soul of Cohen’s original like Buckley.
19. Patti Smith – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Original by: Nirvana
You’ve never heard Nirvana like this before. Taken from her cover album Twelve, Patti Smith’s almost acoustic version features a banjo, country twang, and Smith’s own free-flowing poetry. It’s bizarre but also refreshing and is a cover we believe Kurt Cobain would have approved.
20. Charles Bradley – “Changes”
Original by: Black Sabbath
Who would have thought heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath would be cover song fodder? Charles Bradley takes what was a piano ballad about Bill Ward’s divorce and transforms it into a celebration of his recently deceased mother’s life.
It’s amazing that a song can have such duality thanks to those who perform it, with Bradley’s heartbreaking vocals dripping with emotion over the soulful arrangement.
21. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
Original by: Robert Hazard
It’s still strange to think “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was first performed by a male. Thank god for Cyndi Lauper. The New Yorker took the original, which was written from the male point of view, changed some lyrics, added synthesizers, and ended up with a feminist anthem that still resonates today.
22. Metallica – “Die Die My Darling”
Original by: Misfits
Not everyone will agree with this one, but Metallica’s cover version of Misfits’ “Die Die My Darling” is just as frantic and hard-hitting as the original. And that’s saying something considering how loved the Misfits version is.
There’s not a lot of difference between the two besides James Hetfield’s aggressive vocals and Metallica’s version being slightly faster. Still, it makes for a great two-and-a-half minutes of driving punk rock that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Metallica album.
23. Led Zeppelin – “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
Original by: Anne Bredon
If you didn’t know this was a cover, we don’t blame you. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is exactly what you would expect from Led Zeppelin during their early years. Written by Anne Bredon in the late 1950s and first performed by her on TV in 1960, the folk song was then covered by Joan Baez in 1962. Neither version is that memorable and the song would have been quickly forgotten if not for Led Zeppelin rearranging the track and recording it for their debut album.
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page based their version on Baez’s but incorporated a rock sound with a bluesy twist. The result is a song that still stands as one of the band’s best. A driving ballad about the breakdown of a relationship, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” starts with a light strumming and ends in a hailstorm of percussion and electric guitars before petering out with Plant’s soulful voice.
24. Joan Jett And The Blackhearts – “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Original by: The Arrows
Joan Jett took a little heard song by the UK act The Arrows and turned it into one of the biggest hits of the early 80s. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” is Jett’s highest charting single of her career and will forever be associated with the American singer and guitarist. As for The Arrows, they actually had an ok career in the United Kingdom and made plenty of coin thanks to Jett’s cover.
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