Best Cover Songs of All Time

Sometimes every so often an artist puts out a hit. And it’s good — sometimes really good. But then someone else does it…and it’s even better. I’ve compiled a list of cover songs that I personally think are better than the originals. Some are obvious choices; some are not. Many might be contentious; feel free to disagree with me if you want.

Classics

Song Name Original Artist Cover Artist Notes
Twist And Shout Isley Brothers (1961) The Beatles (1963) The pop-rock version with the fathers of rock and roll just has more ‘kick’
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door Bob Dylan (1973) Guns N’ Roses (1991) There is no comparison.
In the Pines/Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Lead Belly (1944) Kurt Cobain (1993) Lead Belly didn’t write it but has one of the oldest recorded versions. The song is a traditional American folk tune which dates back to at least the 1870s. Cobain’s best performance is live during Nirvana’s appearance on MTV’s Unplugged.
Tainted Love Gloria Jones (1964) Soft Cell (1981) Bet you didn’t know this was a cover, did you? “Something about Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” is just a bit too cheery. It’s upbeat and Jones doesn’t give the subject matter the level of care or gravity it receives from Soft Cell. It’s an odd reversal of roles almost—one would think the soul singer would convey the heartbreak perfectly and that a electro-pop duo would treat it with carelessly catchy beats. Instead Marc Almond’s near-wails bounce over eerie synth beats, coupled with breathy echoes of choice lyrics. The concept of frantically escaping a toxic relationship is handled correctly by Soft Cell. It maintains high energy, but it’s an energy that matches the anxiety-driven content and still manages to feel appropriately dark and moody.” —Tess Duncan

Modern Covers

Song Name Original Artist Cover Artist Notes
Mad World Tears for Fears (1983) Gary Jules (2003) The cover is so much more haunting and emotional. Made for the movie Donnie Darko, this rendition was poignant and provocative.
Torn Ednaswap / Lis Sørensen as “Brændt” (1995) Natalie Imbruglia (1997) Very few people realize this is a cover. The original song, imbibed with a definite ‘f you’ feel/tone, just never took off the way Imbruglia’s version did. To me it’s a coin flip depending on your mood, but in the end I think we are all so familiar with NI’s song (probably because it played on repeat on all radio stations in the 1990s) it’s hard to consider a substitute. The original is definitely worth listening to though! Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWCOb0wxYCE
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today Randy Newman (1968) Nora Jones (2005) Performed on the 2005 Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert live album, this version captures the beauty and soft depression in the lyrics in a way the original artist never did. He may have been decent song writer (though the soundtrack of Disney’s Toy Story may disagree), but Randy lacked the vocal soul to bring his own song to life.
River Joni Mitchell (1971) Sarah McLauchlan (2006) Off her Christmas album Wintersong, the McLauchlan version is more moody and melancholy.
I Will Always Love You Dolly Parton (1974) Whitney Houston (1992) The original isn’t horrible, but no one can top Whitney Houston’s version of this song, as performed for the movie The Bodyguard.
Sweet Talkin’ Woman Electric Light Orchestra (1978) Five Iron Frenzy (1998) A ska version of the classic riff makes it so much better!
Hallelujah Leonard Cohen (1984) Jeff Buckley (1994) The cover is haunting and beautiful; the original by Cohen sadly seems like he’s reading poem with a sing-song voice. No comparison.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow Judy Garland / Harold Arlen (1939) Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (1997) The classic song from the movie Wizard of Oz with a brilliant Hawaiian flair.
Lost Without You Delta Goodrem (2003) Darren Hayes (2003) It’s just his voice, man. Can’t top it.
I’m on Fire Bruce Springstein (1984) John Mayer (2009) John’s tribute to the classic song is more real and soulful.
Wild Horses Rolling Stones (1971) Susan Boyle (2009) She may not be soft on the eyes, but she is on the ears. I find Mike’s voice in the RS version too grating. Susan’s rendition is subtle and gentle, matching the lyrics better.
Me and Mrs Jones Billy Paul (1972) Michael Buble (2007) There is no comparison here. Buble’s version is more soulful and filled with the passion and longing that the song demands. And no one else could deliver the final crescendo as he does; it is sublime.

Metal Covers

Song Name Original Artist Cover Artist Notes
Bullet the Blue Sky U2 (1987) P.O.D. (1999) POD re-releases the song for those with a hard-rock/metal appetite.
Tainted Love Gloria Jones (1964) Marilyn Manson (2001) Less known than the Soft Cell cover, but this has its own place and is also far better than the original. Interesting trivia: this single was released in the soundtrack of Not Another Teen Movie.
Whiskey in the Jar Thin Lizzy (1972) Metallica (1998) A great cover to an old Irish folk song.

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