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:

“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 (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:

“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:

“Eleanor Rgiby”

  • 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: You have to click on this link to listen, instead, as they disabled embedding, the bastards. (Who are these people disable YouTube embedding?)

“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:

“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:

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 this:

“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?

I’m sorry to say I cannot currently find the cover online. If you can find it, leave a comment and I’ll add it.

“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.

“Friends”

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

“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?

“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.

“Stars”

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

“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
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gChOifUJZMc

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

“Rihannon”

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

“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

“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

“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

“Back in Black”

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

Oh and I can’t help loving this:

And all their AC/DC covers, really.

“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

“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…

“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

If you can find the original online, let me know.

“Close to Me”

  • by Robert Smith
  • Original performed by The Cure in 1985
  • Cover by The Dismemberment Plant in 1995

My favourite Cure song

“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

“Where is My Mind?”

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

“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.

“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.

“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