The ten best cover songs of all time
Our favourite cover versions, from Nick Cave to Stevie Wonder. Read our list and tell us your choices
The cover. Loathed by everyone who prizes originality above all else (is there any more sneery a showbiz description than ‘covers band’?) and loved by all those who just want a song where the chord changes come as no surprise, it’s long provided a polarising point of debate.
Detractors argue that the cover version is the last refuge of the creatively impoverished. They see it as a lazy way of winning audience favour via simple familiarity, something too often delivered from the safe distance afforded by self-conscious irony.
Advocates, however, claim that a well-chosen cover by a talented act can not only totally reinvent the original – often to a startling degree – but also frequently surpass it.
It’s with that potential for superiority in mind that we’ve compiled a list – in no particular order – of our top ten cover songs, all of which stand head and shoulders above the originals and – crucially – do so in 100 per cent good faith. Or do they? Are these renditions rapturous or rubbish? Have your say – or tell us what your favourite cover version of all time is in the comments below.
‘Jolene’ - The White Stripes
The White duo turned the plea of Dolly Parton’s country-pop original into an anguished and desperately yelped entreaty, set against clamorous guitar and urgently thumping drums. The fact that Jack White doesn’t swap gender in the lyrics somehow doubles the song’s emotional wallop, although he’s admitted to mental role-playing in its performance. ‘I thought to take the character and change the context and make this red-headed woman my girlfriend, and that she's cheating on me with one of my friends,’ White once said. ‘Then, that would be what I could really get emotionally attached to.’
‘We Can Work it Out’ - Stevie Wonder
Lennon and McCartney’s 1965 hit for their little-known beat combo has been covered by everyone from Chris de Burgh to Deep Purple, but never as winningly as by Stevie Wonder for his single of six years later. Made over as a raw, ineffably funky chunk of R&B pop, it grafts on a hammering organ part and fuzzed guitar, while making maximum use of exclamatory backing vocals and both Wonder’s extravagant falsetto and harmonica skills, carving a fly and fabulously groovy path around the swinging original. It’s the shift in sound and attitude from the ’60s to the ’70s, perfectly encapsulated.
‘Hurt’ - Johnny Cash
It’s the impossibly poignant video that everyone remembers – and with good reason. Cash’s interpretation of the angsty NIN original is harrowing in the extreme, as he was clearly a frail and elderly man looking back at his remarkable life as it drew to a close. But self-pity and sentimentality were strangers to The Man in Black, who plays it low, simple and subtle. Just his finger-picked guitar, a hammering, single-note piano motif and that unmistakeable voice, now cracked with age and packing a life-time of pain, but proud and indomitable to the end.
‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ - Sinead O’Connor
Prince penned this unashamedly mawkish ballad for his The Family project, but their rendition (from 1985) never stole the public’s heart in the way O’Connor’s did. The video – which filmed the crop-haired, luminously beautiful singer in close-up, a tear running down her cheek – certainly had an impact, but it’s her highly personal delivery that wins it. The bloated, funky fusion of the original is turned into a vehicle for her wounded and furiously regretful, devastatingly intimate vocal, which even synthesised strings and piano (well, it was 1990) can’t ruin.
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ - Cat Power
This appeared on ‘The Covers Record’ of 2000, which also featured takes on Dylan’s ‘Paths of Victory’ and Smog’s ‘Red Apples’, but none is initially as thrillingly unrecognisable as Cat Power’s interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ classic. She takes the almost desperate, predatory swagger of the original – its potency diminished by repetition through the decades and bludgeoning by countless lumbering pub-rock bands – and teases it into a gorgeous and ghostly, sweetly faltering shadow if its former self. Mick and Keef are a million miles away.
‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ - Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
It’s a brave artist willing to take on one of country-pop great Glen Campbell’s most popular and enduring songs, but Cave and co tackled an entire album of covers with1986’s ‘Kicking Against the Pricks’, which also included the supposedly untouchable likes of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and ‘Hey Joe’. Cave’s richly resonant, low baritone is the most immediately obvious point of departure, but a blood-red glower – its gloomy drama heightened by its restrained arrangement – replaces the original’s romantic, honeyed glow and Doris Day-sweet orchestration. Game, set and match to The Bad Seeds.
‘I Heard it Through the Grape Vine’ - The Slits
First recorded by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and then by Gladys Knight and The Pips, it became a massive hit for Motown in 1968 when they cut Marvin Gaye’s version as a single. In 1979, crypto-feminist all-gal trio The Slits re-imagined it as a loping, dub-heavy exercise in punky tribalism. It wasn’t quite the commercial hit their record company were hoping for when they suggested it (it was released as a B-side), but creatively it was a triumph, shifting the original into a radically different territory.
‘Eight Miles High’ - Hüsker Dü
Popularly assumed to be a drug reference, the lyrics of this tune by west coast Rickenbacker kings The Byrds in fact refers (they claim) to a flight to London. Whatever – the 1985 cover by Bob Mould’s post-hardcore trio blasted every blissed-out jangle away with their trademark blow-torch ferocity. Mould’s primal, howling vocal makes the lyrics all but unintelligible, while what sounds like 20 guitars clang in thrilling unison. And yet, the melodic pull of the original is intact. It’s quite an achievement.
‘Jailbreak’ - Susanna
Forget the fact that exquisite-voiced Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanna Wallumrød (of Susanna and The Magical Orchestra) was first nudged into the cultish spotlight via ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. There’s nothing cosily coffee-table about any of her covers, this highly individual but devastatingly affecting revision of Thin Lizzy’s classic rawk number among them. ‘Jailbreak’ may have its own (genre-straitjacketed) charm, but Susanna’s frosted-honey tones and spreading ripples of electric piano – slowing it down to what must be quarter speed and stripping it of its leather-trousered machismo – beat it hands-down.
‘Take Me to the River’ - Talking Heads
A matter of taste, possibly, depending on whether you like your soul-funk warmly and insistently swinging, with brass and strings attached – as in Al Green’s original – or coolly detached and slightly military in its languor, but we reckon David Byrne and co’s daringly attenuated rendition has the edge. The organ keys parp and plink, punctuating the fabulously fluid rhythm (this song is all about the rhythm) and slowly urging the song on to an inevitable climax. No great surprise that it gave Talking Heads their first Billboard Top 30 hit.