Greatest Covers of All Time

Note: This is a list of great covers within the pop rock spectrum because if I widened my net to jazz, this list would go on forever since, in jazz, the act of covering something is often more normal than recording an original composition. It is a list I plan to add to.

“Cover versions form a loose but identifiable category of tracks and performances. We distinguish four kinds of covers and argue that they mark important differences in the modes of evaluation that are possible or appropriate for each: mimic covers, which aim merely to echo the canonical track; rendition covers, which change the sound of the canonical track; transformative covers, which diverge so much as to instantiate a distinct, albeit derivative song; and referential covers, which not only instantiate a distinct song, but for which the new song is in part about the original song. In order to allow for the very possibility of transformative and referential covers, we argue that a cover is characterized by relation to a canonical track rather than merely by being a new instance of a song that had been recorded previously.”

– from “Judging Covers”

Based on this idea, I consider great covers to be very good rendition covers but particularly transformative covers, with the odd referential cover could be great on occasion. I reject mimic covers and most rendition covers as being mediocre and basically not what I look for in a good cover.

“The House of the Rising Sun”

  • Traditional
  • Oldest known recorded version by Tom Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928
  • Cover by The Animals in 1964

Ashley and Foster’s performance is what you’d imagine from a folk recording from the late ’20s. (The uploader claims it’s from 1933.) The recording sounds pretty great but it’s quite primitive otherwise.

I don’t know what version inspired the Animals – I’ve heard it was Nina Simone’s – but they utterly transform the song. The famous guitar riff and keyboard solo are, of course, nowhere to be found in the oldest recorded version.

For me this is the definitive version of the song and every other version I’ve heard – countless at this point – pales in comparison.

“Summertime”

  • by George Gershwin, Dubose Heyward, Ira Gershwin
  • originally recorded in 1935 by an opera singer (Anne Brown???)
  • Cover by Billy Stewart in 1966

I don’t know if this is close to the original bu though it is was recorded 5 years after the first performance of Porgy and Bess it seems to be the correct singer:

Compare it to the Billie Holiday version or any other more famous version; it’s really not the standard version.

Stewart’s version is pretty transformative, not just because of his idiosyncratic vocal performance but because the song feels happy.

“September Song”

  • by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson
  • Originally performed by Walter Huston in 1938
  • Cover by Lou Reed in 1985

The original is a tune from a musical in 1938. It’s performed by an actor (a great one) with a very limited musical range.

Lou Reed’s version utterly transforms the song into a Lou Reed song:

“Unchained Melody”

  • by Alex North and Hy Zaret
  • Original performed by Todd Duncan in 1955
  • Cover by Elvis Presley in 1977

The original is a little more stilted than the most famous version:

I mean, I could easily put the Righteous Brothers’ version here. But the Elvis version is bonkers and unhinged. This is much closer to my ideal musical performance than the slickness of the Righteous Brothers’ version:

“Tequila”

  • by Daniel Flores aka Chuck Rio
  • Original performed by the Champs in 1957
  • Cover by Tony Levin in 2002

You know the original:

Tony Levin’s band utterly transforms the song so that it is barely reconizable. Yes, you could claim this is jazz, but it really isn’t jazz (at least in my definition), and Tony Levin’s music doesn’t really normally fall into jazz. So I’ve decided to include it:

“Summertime Blues”

  • Written by Eddie Cochrane and Jerry Capeheart
  • Originally performed by Eddie Cochrane in 1958
  • Cover by the Dandy Warhols in 201?

A classic rock and roll song:

Two members of the Dandy Warhols turn the song into a lament:

“This Magic Moment”

  • by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman
  • Original performed by the Drifters in 1959
  • Covered by Lou Reed in 1995

I’m actually not sure I am familiar with the Drifters’ version. For me, the definitive version growing up was from Jay and the Americans, because my dad was a fan. But that version just speeds up the original (and sounds slightly more modern).

Lou Reed’s version of this oldie is not anywhere near as different as his version of “September Song,” but it’s still a pretty radical version of the song, which sounds almost sinister, especially if your first exposure to it was in Lost Highway.

“Twist and Shout”

  • by Bert Berns and Phil Medley
  • Original performed by the Top Notes in 1961
  • Cover by the Beatles in 1963

Some people prefer the Isley Brothers version, which is fine. But this is the definitive early Beatles cover and really the only time on their first album they sounded like they did live.

“Stand by Me”

  • by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
  • Original performed by Ben E. King in 1961
  • Cover by Dan Reeder in 2010

Reeder, whom I’m not familiar with, basically completely alters the famous vocal melody:

“Charade”

  • by Henry Mancini
  • Original performed by unknown musicians under the direction of Mancini in 1963
  • Cover by Fantomas in 2001

If you don’t like metal, you’ll probably hate this version of “Charade” but it’s one of my favourite covers ever:

“Gloria”

  • by Van Morrison
  • Original performed by Them in 1964
  • Cover by the Patti Smith Group in 1975

The original is great and justly famous. But Patti Smith completely reframes the song:

“Mr. Tambourine Man”

  • by Bob Dylan
  • Original performed by Bob Dylan in 1965
  • Cover by The Byrds in 1965 (recorded 5 days after Dylan’s version)

The Byrds did not invent folk rock but their version of this Dylan song made folk rock The Thing for like a year and a half.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

  • by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
  • Original performed by the Rolling Stones in 1965
  • Cover by DEVO in 1977
  • Honourable mention to Cat Power’s version from 2000

“Satisfaction” is not a song I thought I needed a great cover of until I heard DEVO’s version:

Cat Power goes a completely different direction:

“Respect”

  • by Otis Redding
  • Original performed by Otis Redding in 1965
  • Cover by Aretha Franklin in 1967
  • Honourable mention cover by Rotary Connection 1969

Funnily enough Otis has a decent version of “Satisfaction” which is just not different enough for me.

Anyway, we all know what Aretha did to this song:

Also there’s this from the same era:

“Drive My Car”

  • Written by Paul McCartney with John Lennon
  • Originally performed by the Beatles in 1965
  • Cover performed by Buddy & the Huddle

The original is loud (for the Beatles at the time) and upbeat. This version is something very different:

“What Goes On”

  • Written by John Lennon with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr
  • Originally performed by the Beatles in 1965
  • Cover by Sufjan Stevens in 2005

Certainly one of my least favourite Beatles songs, Stevens completely reinvents it. I missed the bus on him, because my brother liked him at a time when I was pretty determined not to like stuff he liked. But this song makes me want to listen to him.

“Solitary Man [Woman]”

  • by Neil Diamond
  • Original recorded by Neil Diamond in 1966
  • Cover by Della Reese in 1966

Sometimes changing the words is stupid. Not here:

“Femme Fatale”

  • by Lou Reed
  • Original performed by The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1966
  • Cover by Aloe Blacc in 2010

Did you know “Femme Fatale” is really a slow jam?

“Eleanor Rigby”

  • by Paul McCartney
  • Original performed by the Beatles in 1966
  • Cover by Ernie Garrett in 1972

My favourite of George Martin’s arrangements for the Beatles is in this song. Ernie Garrett doesn’t care about that arrangement. Not one bit:

“Season of the Witch”

  • by Donovan Leitch
  • Original performed by Donovan in 1966
  • Cover by Al Kooper and Steven Stills in 1968

What? You didn’t know you needed a nearly 10 minute cover of this song?

Note: I’ve since learned that Terry Reid also recorded an extended cover of this track in the same year. I don’t know who was first. I like the Kooper-Stills version more because I heard it first.

“Let’s Spend the Night Together”

  • by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
  • Original performed by the Rolling Stones in 1966
  • Cover by David Bowie in 1972 or 1973

One of my favourite Stones songs from when they randomly tried to be a pop rock band instead of a blues rock band. I have a cover in my head that I would have made myself had I any musical talent.

Instead, I give you David Bowie:

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

  • by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
  • Original performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967
  • Cover by CCR in 1969 or 1970

Everyone prefers the Marvin Gay version.

I prefer the unnecessarily long CCR version that I used to play computer games to when I was in my teens. You know what this song needed? Unnecessarily long guitar solos!

“I Am the Walrus”

  • by John Lennon
  • Originally performed by the Beatles in 1967
  • Cover by Isto in 2017

One of the Beatles’ most important and significant recordings because of how dense and complicated its arrangement and production are.

Isto does it convincingly with just his voice and a lap steel.

“Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)”

  • by James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot
  • Originally performed in the musical Hair in 1967
  • Cover by Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and the Trinity in 1969

One of the rare covers where I think someone else just did it better. (Yes, she over-sings it. But I was just discovering her when I first heard it and I couldn’t believe she could sing like that.)

The Who Sell Out

The entire album. I’m serious. Another rare example of a straight-up cover that works for me. I’m not embedding each song because that’s crazy.

“All Along the Watchtower”

  • by Bob Dylan
  • Original performed by Bob Dylan in 1967
  • Cover by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968

Much like Aretha with Otis’ song, it’s hard to understand how Jimi heard this and turned it into what is now the definitive version:

“So Long, Marianne”

  • by Leonard Cohen
  • Original performed by Leonard Cohen
  • Cover by Tanger in 1999

As Eric Clapton would say, “see if you can spot this one”:

“Lady Madonna”

  • by Paul McCartney
  • Original performed by The Beatles in February 1968
  • Cover by Area Code 615 in 1969

An extraordinarily early music video shows you that people don’t always get media when it first emerges. Like, is any shot synced with the song?

Dig that pedal steel:

“I Wanna Be Your Dog”

  • by Dave Alexander, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, Iggy Pop
  • Original performed by The Stooges in 1969
  • Cover by Uncle Tupelo in 1991

My Favourite Cover of All Time (FOAT?) A noisy proto punk song is turned into a country song which has always existed:

Note: this is the demo, I prefer the demo – the demo is my favourite – to the more polished electric version they made later.

“Bridge over Troubled Water”

  • By Paul Simon
  • Original performed by Simon and Garfunkel between August and November 1969
  • Cover by Aretha Franklin in 1971

I’m not sure I can put into words how much more I like this version than the original.

“Friends”

  • by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
  • Original performed by Led Zeppelin between November 1969 and August 1970
  • Cover by Arc Iris in 2019

One of the least Zeppelin-y Zeppelin tracks get’s a makeover:

“The Man Who Sold the World”

  • by David Bowie
  • Original performed by David Bowie between April 18 and May 22, 1970
  • Cover by David Fonseca and Ana Moura in 2017

Is it ridiculous that I get annoyed by the Nirvana version because they use distortion during an Unplugged performance?

Anyway, this is a little more off-beat:

“Changes”

  • credited to Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward but written by Iommi and Butler
  • Original performed by Black Sabbath in 1972
  • Cover by Charles Bradley in 2016

Count me among those who don’t like the original. They should have just found a soul singer in ’72.

“Ooh La La”

  • by Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane
  • Original performed by Faces in 1973
  • Cover by Silkworm in
Unfortunately now I know what all the words mean:

“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

  • by Bob Dylan
  • Original performed by Bob Dylan in 1973
  • Cover by Television sometime in the late ’70s

New Wave Neil Young:

“Stars”

  • by Janis Ian
  • Original performed by Janis Ian in 1974
  • Cover by Nina Simone in 1987

I found out about this performance, like most of you, from Bojack.

“Autobahn” [single version]

  • by Ralf Hutter, Florian Schneider and Emil Schult
  • Original performed by Kraftwerk in 1974
  • Cover by Guga Stroeter, Lucio Agra and Renato Soares in 2020

This comes from an entire album of samba esque covers of Kraftwerk and you should really check out the whole thing.

“SOS”

  • by Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Stig Anderson
  • Originally performed by ABBA in August 1974
  • Cover by Portishead in 2016

I’m not a fan of ABBA. This cover makes me an ABBA fan?

“Don’t Fear the Reaper”

  • by Donald Roeser
  • Original performed by Blue Oyster Cult in 1975
  • Cover by The Beautiful South in 2004

I think this iconic song really needs some samba:

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

  • by Gordon Lightfoot
  • Original performed by Gordon Lightfoot in 1975
  • Cover by Rheostatics in 1991

Not my favourite Canadian songwriter despite my Canadianess. But I really like this version:

“Silly Love Songs”

  • by Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney
  • Original performed by Wings in 1976
  • Cover by Red House Painters in 1996

Imagine if Neil Young covered Paul McCartney:

Red House Painters: “Silly Love Songs”

“Rihannon”

  • by Stevie Nicks
  • Original performed by Fleetwood Mac in 1976
  • Cover by Zeke in 2000

I love this version, I have listened to it far too many times:

“Ave Satani [The Omen]”

  • by Jerry Goldsmith
  • Original performed by unknown musicians under Goldsmith’s direction in 1976
  • Cover by Fantomas in 2001

I probably could put every song from The Director’s Cut here. Well, almost every one.

“”Heroes””

  • by David Bowie
  • Original performed by David Bowie in 1977
  • Cover by Peter Gabriel in 2009

I really like Gabriel’s orchestral versions of his own songs and I find it works just as well for a song that is too often played entirely straight in covers:

“Up to My Neck in You”

  • by Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Bon Scott
  • Original performed by AC/DC in early 1978
  • Cover by Sister Ray in 2022

Actually it’s a ballad:

“Miss You”

  • by Mick Jagger
  • Original performed by the Rolling Stones in 1978
  • Cover by Grace Kelly in 2018

Never been a fan of this era of the Stones but I like what is done with this track:

“Hey Hey, My My”

  • by Neil young
  • Original performed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 1978
  • Cover by Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld in 2017

One of Young’s greatest songs is given a very artsy makeover:

“Transmission”

  • By Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and Bernard Sumner
  • Original performed by Joy Division in 1978 and then again in 1979
  • Cover by Low in 1996

I do wonder if this is closer to the original version (at least a little bit):

“Against the Wind”

  • Written by Bob Seger
  • Original performed by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band in 1980
  • Cover by Cat Power in 2022

I’ve never been a big fan of Bog Seger, or Heartland Rock in general and I love what Cat Power does with this song:

“Ace of Spades”

  • by Eddy Clarke, Lemmy, Phil Taylor
  • Original performed by Motorhead in 1980
  • Cover by Union Avenue in 2007

Actually, it’s a country song:

“Once in a Lifetime”

  • by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth
  • Original performed by Talking Heads in summer 1980
  • Cover by the Bad Shepherds in 2016

So many Talking Heads covers try too hard to sound like the original. These guys try to capture something of the original song while playing with entirely different instruments:

“Back in Black”

  • by Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Brian Johnson
  • Original performed by AC/DC in 1980
  • Cover by Hot Kangaroo in 2011

Imagine if James Brown did it instead (though this singer doesn’t sound like Brown):

Oh and I can’t help loving this:

And all their AC/DC covers, really.

“Say Say Say”

  • By Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson
  • Original performed by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson in 1981
  • Cover by Wild Thrones in 201?

I mostly know this song from Pop Up Video and never liked it. Wild Throne turn it into something much closer to the kind of music I like:

“You Shook Me All Night Long”

  • by Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Brian Johnson
  • Original performed by AC/DC in 1980
  • Cover by Bing Ji Ling in 2016

Imagine if Marvin Gaye did it instead, only funkier:

“Glory Days”

  • by Bruce Springsteen
  • Original performed by Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band in 1982
  • Cover by Basia Bulat in 201?

In my humble opinion, Springsteen’s songs are always better stripped down to their essence:

“Eye of the Tiger”

  • By Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik
  • Performed by Survivor in 1982
  • Cover by the Rural Alberta Advantage in 2008

I always preferred “The Rye or the Kaiser” but I’ve finally found a version I like:

“Mad World”

  • by Roland Orzabal
  • Original performed by Tears for Fears in 1982
  • Cover by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules in 2000

I know, I know, this caused an endless parade of piano covers but, you guys, it’s so good:

“Owner of a Lonely Heart”

  • by Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Trevor Horn
  • Originally performed by Yes in 1983
  • Cover by Trampled by Turtles in 201?

I love how they didn’t like the song – I don’t either – and then they just owned it anyway:

“Lovers in a Dangerous Time”

  • by Bruce Cockburn
  • Originally performed in 1984
  • Cover by Barenaked Ladies in 1991

It’s rare when a fairly traditional cover of a song shows you the way the song should be performed, but that’s what happened here. Cockburn’s version is horribly ’80s and the pace is off. BNL perform it like it’s a folk song and mess with the pace both by slowing it down and then speeding it up. In BNL’s hands, it sounds like a classic song.

“Nothing Compares 2 U”

  • by Prince
  • Original performed by The Family in 1984 or 1985
  • Cover by Sinead O’Connor in 1989

There’s nothing I can or need to say about this one:

“Cloudbusting”

  • by Kate Bush
  • Performed by Kate Bush in 1985
  • Cover by Martin Newnham in 2014

Not necessarily my favourite Kate Bush song but this is one of those covers that very much makes the song sound timeless:

“Danger Zone”

  • by Giorgio Moroder, Tom Whitlock
  • Performed by Kenny Loggins in 1986
  • Cover by Calexico in 2012

Remember when people only liked this song ironically? I do. And I miss those days. But here’s a good version:

“Close to Me”

  • by Robert Smith
  • Original performed by The Cure in 1985
  • One cover by The Dismemberment Plant in 1995
  • Another cover by The Separate featuring Mark Lanegan

My favourite Cure song but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying creative covers:

Here’s another:

“Just Like Heaven”

  • by Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, Boris Williams, Lol Tolhurst
  • Original performed by The Cure in 1987
  • Cover by Dinosaur Jr. in 1989

Robert Smith likes this one too:

“Where is My Mind?”

  • by Black Francis
  • Original performed by Pixies in 1987
  • Cover by Bobby Bare Jr. in 2006

Another stripped down version that finds something new in the song:

“November Rain”

  • by Axl Rose
  • Original performed by Guns ‘n’ Roses in 1991
  • Cover by Nicole Atkins and Mark Lanegan in 2018

Maybe this song should have been a duet with like 1/4 the bluster?

“Black Hole Sun”

  • by Chris Cornell
  • Original performed by Soundgarden in 1993
  • Cover by John Wheeler in 2018

So it turns out John Wheeler is a physicist who coined the term “black hole” and whoever actually did this cover was being a little too clever. I stupidly didn’t note down the url of the song when I heard it. If you know it, please comment.

In the interim, we’ll take Norah Jones’ cover instead:

Norah Jones’ version of “Black Hole Sun”

“Sabbotage”

  • by Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch
  • Original performed by Beastie Boys in 1993
  • Cover by Steve ‘n’ Seagulls in 201?

The cover you didn’t know you needed:

“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

  • by Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood, Philip Selway
  • Original performed by Radiohead in 1995
  • Cover by The Darkness in 2013

My favourite song from The Bends. When I first heard it I imagined it would make a good uptempo hard rock song. I had no idea someone would do that but much, much more:

“Pony”

  • by Stephen Garrett, Elgin Lumpkin, Tim Mosley
  • Original by Ginuwine in 1996
  • Cover by Slothrust in 2023:

This version is absolutely amazing:

“Paranoid Android”

  • by Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood, Philip Selway
  • Original performed by Radiohead in 1997
  • Cover by Sia in 2006

The Radiohead song I used to play to doubters. A song I didn’t know could use a good cover:

“Viva Forever”

  • Written by Geri Halliwell, Victoria Adams, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Matt Rowe, Richard Stannard
  • Originally performed by The Spice Girls in 1997
  • Cover by Jim O’Rourke in 2010

The cover is utterly transformative:

“Believe”

  • Written by Brian Higgins, Stuart McLennen, Paul Barry, Steven Torch, Matthew Gray, Timothy Powell, Cher
  • Originally performed by Cher in 1998
  • Cover by Barbaro in 2021

It turns out there are actually a bunch of great “Believe” covers but I think this is the first really great one I was aware of:

<iframe style="border: 0; width: 100%; height: 120px;" src="https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=4049951442/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/track=2117422868/transparent=true/" seamless><a href="https://barbaro.bandcamp.com/album/under-the-covers">Under the Covers by Barbaro</a></iframe>

“Seven Nation Army”

  • Written by Jack White
  • Originally performed by the White Stripes in 2003
  • Cover by Zella Day in 2018

The most overplayed White Stripes song is given a new aesthetic that makes it fresh again:

“Toxic”

  • Written by Christian Karlsson, Pontus Winnberg, Cathy Dennis and Henrik Jonback
  • Original performed by Britney Spears in 2003
  • Cover by Hope D in 2021

Another pop song I didn’t like when it came out which has lots of great covers. This is my favourite:

“Rebellion (Lies)”

  • by Howard Bilerman, Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, Tim Kingsbury, Richard Reed Parry
  • Original performed by Arcade Fire in 2003 or 2004
  • Cover by Trampled by Turtles in 2012

Arcade Fire were so cool in the mid aughts that I couldn’t like them. (Yes, I was that guy.) But I like this: