17 Covers That Are Better Than the Original

stage light front of audience at a concert photo

Covers are often unnecessary and, frankly, not good. In general, I tend to dislike cover songs unless 1) the original song had potential, but was not great (easiest type of cover, especially if you suck, or just want to do a straight-forward cover), 2) the covering artist has something to offer that’s new and different from the original, or 3) you’re sure you can absolutely knock it out of the park because you are that good.

A few notes before we get started:

  • Yes, I’m biased. Music is subjective; we will likely not agree on everything. But I can back up every single one of my picks. I try to be as fair as possible, but bias will sneak in.
  • Unchained Melody is not on this list. Not because Elvis’ cover is not better, but because I don’t like that song. Too sappy for me. Refer to first bullet point though if you’re mad.
  • I made this list with “better” cover songs in mind. If I love a certain cover, that does not mean I will include it, unless I actually think it’s better. “Jolene” by the White Stripes come to mind. Love that cover, but I don’t necessarily feel ready to honor it as better.
  • This is BY NO MEANS an exhaustive or comprehensive list. Consider it abridged.
  • Feel free to make your contributions, but don’t say, “you forgot [song]” or “you missed [song]”. No, I didn’t. I either don’t like it or have never heard it. Next.

So I’m going to kick it off with a controversial one!

17. “Careless Whisper” – Seether
This gritty, alt rock version fulfills criteria number 2, and I love the style of it. I know many people will likely be outraged that I’m choosing this song over the original because they are tied to the George Michael song of the 80s by the strong, unrelenting bond of nostalgia. It’s okay. I understand.

16. “Son of a Preacher Man” – Aretha Franklin
I like Dusty Springfield’s release of the song in question (and also just realized that Dusty is a woman). However, Aretha brings so much soul and passion to her version that I adore. She just knows how to SING–I think that’s textbook criteria number 3 for ya on covers.

15. “All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix
To me this is an open and shut case of criterium 1. I’m not saying Bob Dylan sucks. I’m not saying the original is bad. I get that Dylan is a great songwriter. But you’re taking a moderate folk song about classism and cultural values and putting it in the hands of a rock icon. The guitar work and strong vocals on Jimi’s version make for a much more compelling and intense song. Classic rock radio must agree–I only hear this version, never the original.

14. “Twist and Shout” – The Beatles
One of the few Lennon-led Beatles songs that I love, and I mean really love, the instruments all act as a secondary piece to the vocals, which are a poignant combination of passionate, soulful, and forceful–all underscored by the song’s simple riff.

13. “The Weight” – Aretha Franklin
This is an open and shut case for me. One of the few I don’t feel like I have to defend. The Band’s original was just a plain-sounding, folky/rootsy song. Aretha’s is an R&B masterpiece that’s perfect all-around (OH, and I forgot they added that nasty slide guitar. Even better.)

12. “Rebel Yell” – Dope
Metal covers 80s pop. I’m a big fan. Not only do they pull this Billy Idol song off, the band brings a warcry about independence and fighting back to a genre that lends itself to the message. There’s something about searing guitar solos and banging-ass drums that evokes a desire for anarchy.

11. “I Shot the Sheriff” – Eric Clapton
Lauded as the most successful cover song of all time, I really appreciate the way Clapton performed this one. In fact, due to the voice Clapton affects, I thought this was the Bob Marley original for the longest time (that accent didn’t age well, did it?). The rhythm and beat make for a nice tribute to the song’s roots, and the backup singers do a better job of harmonizing and bring in a nicer-sounding melody. I almost didn’t include it though, for fear that it’s message about justice and oppression was being appropriated by a middle-class white singer. However, upon reading that Marley’s girlfriend said it was originally penned as an opposition to her taking birth control, I decided no harm, no foul.

10. “Hurt” – Johnny Cash
Every list out there will include this at, or near, the top, solidifying it as one of the greatest covers of all-time. Oh, yeah, and Trent Reznor himself said it’s the better version, so there’s that. It’s haunting, eerie, and especially significant, as a remorseful and haggard Cash in the last years of his life sings about isolation and loss. I only recommend listening to this if you are depressed and want to wallow in your own filth (or Wednesday, as I call it).

9. Ain’t No Mountain – Michael McDonald
I have to admit. I feel kind of bad including this, because the original with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is a classic. I’ve just loved this version since I was little; it’s one of the few songs I can pin specifically to my childhood. Damn. My bias hard at work again. I really love McDonald’s voice though, and I’m a sucker for that smooth soul sound and piano. All respect to Mr. Marvin Gaye, but I have to include this on the list.

8. “Pretty Woman” – Van Halen
I know Roy Orbison is a God to many old country lovers. But, I don’t think I’m going to be a big hit with that demographic anyway, so I don’t have to worry about offending anyone. With that being said, I mean no disrespect. I’m a fan of big guitar, big sound, and powerful presentation. Eddie Van Halen was one of the best guitarists of his era, if not the best. I can’t turn down those skills. While the version I shared here is just “Pretty Woman”, I prefer it with the “Intruder” intro because, again, big fan of guitar.

7. “Free Fallin’ ” – John Mayer
This is a pure cover; criterium 1 at its finest. When I say finest though, I mean a stripped down, acoustic version with pure, gorgeous vocals making the song more beautiful and meaningful. This might be cheating because it’s a live version, but it was officially released as a video, so I’m including it.

6. Sound of Silence – Disturbed
This is a beautiful cover, a clear case for point number 2 on my criteria for good covers. I never thought I’d call a Disturbed song beautiful. The heavy metal band is usually about screaming and face-melting guitar riffs. But frontman David Draimen shows off the true range and essence of his voice, while the dark, brooding musical composition brings out the depth and emotion of the original lyrics by Simon & Garfunkel.

5. “Wrecking Ball – Cry to the Blind
I heard a decent cover of the already uninspired Miley Cyrus original, and it made me think, “surely a good artist can do this song justice”. Enter hard rockers from New York, Cry to the Blind. I love the hardcore sound–that beautiful marriage of heavy guitar, loud-as-hell drums, and a vocalist who can belt it out. He can sing, but he can also do that metal singer yell without sounding like a shrieking demon opening the gates of hell. It definitely adds a level of emotion to a song that was written to be felt exactly the way Cry to the Blind delivers it.

4. “Proud Mary” – Tina and Ike Turner
Especially live, Tina Turner absolutely slays CCR on this one. There are several things about this that I prefer to the original: 1) the “nice and easy” intro, where Tina and Ike harmonize to create a gorgeous melody, 2) the vivacious (“rough” as Turner calls it) second half of the song, featuring rock and roll guitar, a horn section (fantastic addition), and soulful vocals, 3) the voice. John Fogerty has a great voice for folksy/Americana/blues-inspired/country-inspired rock. But Turner’s beautiful, strong vocals add a whole new dimension of enjoyment, and 4) sung from the perspective of a hard-working black female shifts this song into a whole new dimension that I’m sure resonated with Tina and Ike’s fans.

3. “Respect” – Aretha Franklin
I almost didn’t include this on the list. Only because I just found out it was a cover in my research for this article. I looked it up though, and Otis Redding’s original is fine. But Aretha sure knows how to do a cover. This is another open and shut case. Listen to the song: defense rests. Also, three of Aretha’s covers on my list? Including this one which had to bump Tina Turner out of the top 3–that’s a true Queen move, Aretha.

2. “With a Little Help From my Friends” – Joe Cocker
Unlike with Roy Orbison, my target demographic loves the Beatles. I love a lot of the Beatles work; I’m not saying this as an enemy. I’m saying this as a fan of classic rock, and also, in the most objective way possible: Cocker took an okay song, changed the time and tempo, created this gorgeous rhythm on it, and made it a blues song. I mean, damn. How can you argue with that? Combine that with the fact that the original is subpar and kind of cheesy anyway, and it very nearly became number one on this list. It encapsulates what a good cover song is about. It fulfills criteria 1 and 2.

1. “I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston
I forget this is a cover song because, to me, it’s one of the greatest recordings of all-time. No offense to Dolly Parton, but Whitney owned this. I really don’t know what else to say because I’m pretty sure most people would unanimously agree. Wait. They don’t? This is an abomination. I would link to the articles that don’t bother to even include this in their top 25 best covers, but I don’t want to get mad at people’s subjective music lists, you know. Whitney, RIP. You’ll always be my favorite singer of this song, and the ruler of all cover songs, as long as I have a say (again, no shade to the amazing Dolly Parton, whose original is very special).

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