The Top 10 Best Song Covers

The Criteria for this list is pretty basic: A good cover both honors the quality of the original song [1], as well as adds a level of nuance and individuality to it that justifies having done a cover in the first place [2] , and any cover of a Beatles song has been disqualified on principle [3].

1. Ike and Tina Turner – “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

It starts off nice and easy, but anyone familiar with these two deranged lovers knows they never do anything nice and easy. Taking a nice CCR country-folk-rock song and turning it into an iconic pop masterpiece with an uncontrollable rhythm—that’s what Ike and Tina did with this cover. Their rendition was so good, more people associate it with the Turners than they do with Creedence. And it really was sensational (much like their train wreck of a marriage).

2. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz-n-the-Hood” (Eazy-E)

Before hipsters started ironically getting into hip-hop—and then doing so less ironically as “hipster” became more identified with Kanye West than with bands like Pavement—Dynamite Hack busted our guts with this brilliant rendition of Eazy-E’s gangster rap attempt at a solo career. The pleasant guitar coupled with soft voices crooning, “so I grabbed that stupid bitch by her nappy-ass weave,” and an ending which recalls The Beatles’ “Blackbird” was funny before everyone knew things like that were funny. I consider Dynamite Hack to be pioneers in that regard, but like Eazy-E, they fizzled out pretty quick.

3. Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan)

In the sixties, loads of people were covering Dylan, and failing pretty miserably (most notably the Birds’ version of “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” which makes me want to time-travel to the sixties and beat up some real hippies—don’t even get me started on the fake, modern ones). But Hendrix nailed it, because Hendrix did it the Hendrix way. Outside of the lyrics, he renders the song virtually unrecognizable from the original, but it remains an honorable tribute. Though their styles differed dramatically, the nonchalant antiestablishment attitude they both exhibited made Hendrix the only man good enough to rock a Dylan song.

4. Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails)

Okay, so Johnny Cash is a classic country hero, and songs like “Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” are a cannon and yes, that’s all true, but I still don’t think that Cash had ever been better than he was at the end of it all, recording his American series albums. The other covers on these albums are also pretty killer: “Personal Jesus” (Depeche Mode) and “Desperado” (The Eagles) being among the most notable. But listening to Cash do this song with Reznor’s same intensity, yet bring vulnerability and frailty to the table, is the closest you’ll get to divine intervention.

5. Cat Power – “Moonshiner” (folk song with disputed origins – most notable often referenced as the Bob Dylan 1963 recording)

The force of this cover hangs partially in Marshall’s quavering voice and partially in knowing that she is singing her life through another man’s words. Moon Pix was recorded as Marshall was starting to go sober after years of alcoholism, and she really exorcises some demons with this interpretation. It’s haunting and devastating, and it’s one of those rare “better than any version before it” kind of covers.

More From Thought Catalog

  • Anonymous

    The Scissor Sisters- Comfortably Numb

    • http://www.theblogthatshouldnotbe.tumblr.com/ Kushagra Udai

      Come on, as brilliant as the cover is, I don’t think anything could do justice to THAT song!

  • http://facebook.com/sdouglas Scott

    Sublime aside, this is how you do a list of 10 songs. Take notes, O’Connell.

  • http://twitter.com/ozmafan Chelsea Nesvig

    “[3] The principle is that all Beatles songs are already perfection.
    Since no band since the Beatles has been perfect, any cover by another
    band will inevitably fall way short of living up to the original. It’s a
    wonder to me that people don’t get that. ” THANK YOU

  • http://twitter.com/SisterSoda Eva

    I clicked here only to check whether Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ was here. Luckily all is well. Now back to work.

  • http://www.theblogthatshouldnotbe.tumblr.com/ Kushagra Udai

    Mad World – Gary Jules (originally by Tears for Fears)

  • http://www.theblogthatshouldnotbe.tumblr.com/ Kushagra Udai

    Mad World – Gary Jules (originally by Tears for Fears)

  • KP

    Rule 3 is total bs. Have you ever heard Joe Cocker- A little help from my friends. 

    • Anonymous

      Leon Russell produced Joe Cocker.  Leon’s covers of The Beatles, Harrison, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones are much better than the originals.  See his Leon Live! album and a few other studio albums for more.

  • http://www.theblogthatshouldnotbe.tumblr.com/ Kushagra Udai

    Disagree with Rule 3 though –
    Try Across The Universe by Fiona Apple.

  • http://www.behance.net/clifwith1f clifwith1f

    A great list, no doubt about it. 
    I would add a few others:
    1) Dear and the Headlights- Strangers (The Kinks cover): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBQwlgEPMYo
    2) The Black Keys- Dearest (Buddy Holly cover): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlUGP6b7vJc
    3) Creedence Clearwater Revival- Heard it Through the Grapevine (Smokey Robinson cover): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dx6bb0t0yhQ
    4) Cat Power- Sea of Love (Phil Phillips cover): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbMeAOTPJzM
    5) Adele- Make You Feel My Love (Bob Dylan cover): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fnn9JlqqTE4
    6) Yo La Tengo- Speeding Motorcycle (Daniel Johnston cover): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOV_RVjdLXA

    I’m racking my brain, so I’ll stop now.

    • Abby

      I’m OBSESSED with the Make You Feel My Love cover. Beautiful.

  • Joanna Ladzinski

    Muse – “Feeling Good”

  • http://twitter.com/raustill Ryan

    Ryan Adams – “Wonderwall”

    When Noel Gallagher admits that your cover is better than his own band’s orginal (http://musicinducedeuphoria.blogspot.com/2008/10/noel-gallagher-ryan-adams-version-of.html) you know you’ve got it right.

  • http://twitter.com/THEaquino Chris Aquino

    Billy Jean by Chris Cornell

  • Tim

    Antony and the Johnsons- Crazy in Love (Beyonce cover)

  • ______

    When I saw NIN as the image for this article, I was kind of hoping you would troll all the readers and write about how Hurt was a great cover of a Johnny Cash song. That would have been good for a laugh.

  • Cole

    Britney – My Perogative

  • http://twitter.com/bsdf BEN ENGLISCH

    the feelies – paint it black and everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my monkey

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it’s coincidence but I really enjoy both the Adele and the 311 covers of Lovesong by the Cure.

  • scin

    when did liking the white stripes become uncool?
    i’m still gonna love them either way, i’m just curious about the general consensus.

    • No

      me too

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    Uhhhhh… Jimi Hendrix All Along The Watchtower. So good that Bob Dylan, who wrote the song, says this “”I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”

  • http://thefirstchurchofmutterhals.blogspot.com/ mutterhals

    Not complete without this:

  • Shwax

    For the most part, I can’t complain about the songs on this list.  Heck, half this list includes songs from Rolling Stone’s Top 10 plus a couple named in the comments.

    But in addition to some of the good suggestions thus far, I’d advocate any of the covers done by A Perfect Circle on eMotive: Imagine (Rule #, I know, but surprisingly good, albeit not as good as the original), Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye), People are People (Depeche Mode), Freedom of Choice (Devo), Lets Have a War (Fear) or When the Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin) – all very interesting and unique takes on the originals.

  • Shwax

    For the most part, I can’t complain about the songs on this list.  Heck, half this list includes songs from Rolling Stone’s Top 10 plus a couple named in the comments.

    But in addition to some of the good suggestions thus far, I’d advocate any of the covers done by A Perfect Circle on eMotive: Imagine (Rule #, I know, but surprisingly good, albeit not as good as the original), Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye), People are People (Depeche Mode), Freedom of Choice (Devo), Lets Have a War (Fear) or When the Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin) – all very interesting and unique takes on the originals.

  • Shwax

    Also for your consideration:
    Patti Smith – “Gloria” (Them)
    Lenny Kravitz’ – “American Woman” (The Guess Who)
    The Wallflowers – Heroes (David Bowie)

    and a number of other covers by the Foo Fighters, especially: Baker
    Street (Gerry Rafferty), Down in the Park (Gary Numan) and Have a Cigar
    (Pink Floyd)

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

      Lwenny Kravitz destroyed that once awesome song. Same with the Wallflowers. 

  • Anonymous

    Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinead O’Connor (Prince)

  • Anonymous

    I can’t believe that Nirvana Unplugged made this list.  1) Nirvana Unplugged sucks (Why would they betray what made them relevant?) 2) This cover sucks.  The more conventional title of that song is “In the Pines.”  Please listen to any bluegrass cover of it, especially Bill Monroe’s original recording, and you will find they all have more soul than this piece of shit that they played to try to seem more “rootsy.”

    • TO

      Oh wow…could not disagree more, and I’ve heard all these versions, including the original Leadbelly recording. The Nirvana version always leaves me with chills.

      • Anonymous

        It’s boring.  Kurt plays some chords and yells, the bass player is late to the down beats because he doesn’t know the song, the drummer does a simple rhythm, and the cellist plays a boring bass note progression.  No one plays a melody or improvises on one.  Nothing is added to the song.  In fact, this cover fails the author’s own criteria.  It lacks quality and nuance, but I guess it has individuality but then how could any cover not?  It’s all subjective anyway.  Making a list like this is just asking for nit picky debates in the comments.

      • http://www.oneyearintexas.com Perfect Circles

        I could not disagree more if the new Health Care law mandated that I do so.  Nirvana Unplugged is the best Nirvana album and one of the best live albums of all time.  

        I took the time to listen to a Leadbelly version before writing this and it’s great, of course, but Cobain absolutely adds his own voice to it and the “unplugged” element as they execute it does too.  

      • Anonymous

        If the 6th district court in Cincinnati upheld anything today, it upheld the fact that “unplugged” live albums are the worst and that all printings of the Nirvana Unplugged album must be subjected to a Death Panel.

        I will give Kurt Cobain’s voice credit, but Nirvana sounds like a shitty high school garage band unplugged.  They should have plugged back in and played the way that made them famous: like a shitty high school electric garage band.

        I submit this YouTube video of a listening of an original Decca records vinyl of Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys for consideration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_UkluxB7gc
        They are “unplugged,” as it were, and they add some nice whistling sound effects to their high and lonesome yodeling.  That’s pretty hi-tech for a 1952 recording.

      • http://www.oneyearintexas.com Perfect Circles

        You are obviously working out some personal issues with bluegrass and your love of “authentic” bands on all of us.  Nirvana wrote some shit songs sure but I didn’t hang upside down here and advocate every song on Nevermind or In Utero was good.  But on Nirvana unplugged they were at their absolute finest, with his voice bared for all the world to see and some wonderful acoustic guitar play from Krist and Pat.

      • Anonymous

        While I may be working out some of my own issues in my zealous defense of authentic music and righteous prosecution of this cover, I sense that you are also working out issues by trying to infantilize yourself by reliving your glorious youth; the time when wearing plaid and mumbling along to incoherent Cobain lyrics were the essence of your “Tween Spirit.”  You long for the innocence of your childhood before reality and adulthood (or at least teen-hood) hit you like a shotgun blast to the head.  Nirvana Unplugged has done more to ruin their legacy than Courtney Love ever could.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

        You guys are super retarded for arguing about something so trivial.

        That said, cmon, its Nirvana, of course it sucks. Everyone is just so enamored with them because everyone and their mother wanted to be as cool as them in 1992.

      • Anonymous

        Poe’s Law, bro. PC and I actually know each other IRL.  WELCOME TO THE INTERNET.

      • Katie

        okay, so as a general rule i don’t respond to comments to my articles because i believe the article should stand on its own.  and i’m not going to defend my choice for this song or my love of the unplugged album, or condemn your dislike of it.  music is subjective.  i respect your right, nay, your duty, to not agree with everything you read on the internet.  but i can’t not say this:  don’t trivialize nirvana.  i know it’s cool to bash things that were/are perhaps undeservedly praised and worshipped, but when it comes down to it, all praise and worship are undeserving.  worship is a psycho/fanatic reaction.  but the reason cobain captivated his audience was that he not only understood the general emotions and disillusionment of kids coming out of the 80s, but he was the one guy who did it with a shockingly self-aware and scathing sense of humour.  “here we are now, entertain us, i feel stupid and contagious…”  that’s hilarious, and he’s essentially mocking the hell out of his fans that are sitting there screaming along, and actually feeling those emotions.  the irony was not lost on cobain.  the opening line on in utero is “teenage angst has paid off well, now i’m bored and old.”  again, hilarious self-aware mockery.  unlike eddie vedder, scott weiland, or even billy corgan, cobain got the joke.  not enough people on the planet are self-aware, and practically zero famous musicians are.  and i think there’s something to be said for that. 

      • Anonymous

        Ok ok, did you read the last comment on this thread?  I mentioned Poe’s Law.  I stand by my criticism of Nirvana Unplugged, but at the moment my friend IRL, Perfect Circles, started commenting, this took a sharp turn toward the sarcastic.  I find it funny that you defended Cobain with his sense of sarcasm and self-awareness while I was just sarcastically arguing with my friend for the last half of the thread.  You should stick to your policy of not responding because some commenters might just be trying to get a rise out of you.  I usually don’t even read comments on stuff I write professionally.

        I am a fan of Nirvana.  I also happen to be a big fan of bluegrass and music in general.  Knowing the TC crowd you should have predicted a torrent of love and hate coming at you as soon as you wrote the title.  This list does have some good covers in it.  If you do a follow up may I suggest a list of ONLY Beatles covers?  C’mon, you can’t think everything they did was pure gold.  Also, maybe ad a criterium: did the cover expose the original artist’s work to a new audience?  Inevitably the answer is yes, but sometimes covers can lead to revivals of an artist or genre.  Can you find examples of those?

      • Katie

        i would hardly say you got a “rise” out of me…  and I would hardly say that TC is professional writing…  i mean, i didn’t get paid, and i do believe that being paid for work is one of the foundations of claiming it as a “profession.”  to be honest, i didn’t even feel hate coming at me.  i, perhaps naively, believe that when people make comments, they are opening doors for discussion and not mere negativity.  did i seem bothered?  i just felt like jumping in and saying something that i think doesn’t get said enough.  i did indeed fail to detect your sarcasm, sir.  perhaps if this conversation had ocurred IRL i would have understood until i was ROTFL, and then we would be BFF and OMG we could get together and watch LOTR and listen to ELO, and reminisce on CBGB’s circa 1979.  LOL. 
         and, yes, i do believe everything the beatles did is perfect (not gold, but perfect and there is a difference), and context has a lot to do with it.  i have yet to hear a beatles cover that doesn’t make me cringe and wish those songs would be left in peace.  i concede your addition of criterion.  that’s a valid point which i overlooked.  i do feel several of the covers on this list meet said criterion, however, as you are not my third-year American literature professor, i’m not going to respond to that follow-up question, and will instead encourage you to write a list of your own.

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