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The 30 best cover songs of all time

From soulful makeovers to pop reinventions, these are the best cover songs of all time


They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but where does that leave reinvention? The best cover songs don’t simply repackage something familiar – they completely reinterpret the source material, dismantling the song and reassembling its parts into something exciting while keeping the core of what made it great.

It’s not just a matter of taking a pop song and adding a metal twist or parodying a relic of the past (sorry/not sorry, Limp Bizkit). A good cover can be a novelty, but the best are forged in love and innovation, oftentimes surpassing the source material but always living side by side with it. The 30 artists below exemplify how to do covers right, approaching hits from the heart and leaving their own stamp on the song’s legacy. From pop reimaginings to soulful makeovers, they’re the best cover songs of all time.

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Best cover songs of all time, ranked

1.  ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin

Originally by: Otis Redding

Otis Redding originally released it in 1965, but the true power of this song wasn’t unlocked until two years later, when a rising R&B singer named Aretha Franklin turned it into an irrepressible feminist anthem. Franklin’s version also added what has become one of the tune’s most iconic passages (say it with us now: R-E-S-P-E-C-T). It became the signature song of the Queen of Soul, a tune that twisted its original ‘respect your man’ message into the ultimate and most enduring song about female empowerment of all time. Respect indeed. 


2. ‘Proud Mary’ by Ike & Tina Turner

Originally by: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Tina Turner is the queen of the cover (see also: her sultry takes on Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’), but she practically takes a flamethrower to CCR’s laid-back ‘Proud Mary,’ causing the entire damn riverboat to erupt into fireworks. Few songs of the soul era flit between calm and chaos quite like Tina’s take on the song, which became a signature centerpiece of her live shows thanks to its swelling energy and explosive release. John Fogerty never stood a chance. 


3. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix

Originally by: Bob Dylan

Frequently, the trick of cover songs is to take the bombastic and quiet it down, acoustify a track into new meaning. Hendrix does the opposite here, metamorphosing folkie Dylan into a churning rock n' roll freight train, fueled by the urgent, fluid guitar licks that only Jimi could pull off. Hendrix was by all accounts a superfan, and recorded a number of pristine Dylan covers, but years on ‘Watchtower’ remains the cream of the crop and the song’s definitive version.

4. ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston

Originally by: Dolly Parton

‘I Will Always Love You’ was already a hugely successful single by the time Whitney Houston's take showed up in 1992. Dolly Parton had taken it to number one on the charts twice – once on its 1974 release and again with a new recording in 1982. Houston's remake, a perfect vehicle for her show-stopping vocals and immaculate sense of drama, only bested those numbers by topping nearly every chart that existed and becoming the best-selling single by a woman of all time. Better luck next time, Linda Ronstadt.


5. ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ by The Fugees

Originally by: Roberta Flack

The Fugees' breakout single is not so much a straight-up cover but layers of references, a musical exercise that's more than the sum of its parts. The main influence is obviously Roberta Flack’s 1973 Grammy-winner, but Lauryn Hill & Co. place that chorus over a beat from A Tribe Called Quest's ‘Bonita Applebum,’ itself sampled from the '60s band Rotary Connection. Toss that with the three Fugees' own unmistakeable verses and Hill's respectful but distinctly fresh melodies and you have a prime example of pop music's continual reinvention of itself – and also a seriously fabulous track.

6. ‘Hallelujah’ by Jeff Buckley

Originally by: Leonard Cohen

‘Hallelujah’ may be the most covered cover of all time. A song that's been continuously reimagined and reperformed, it embodies the often tangled relationship between very different and differently beloved iterations of art, in this case even inspiring an entire book (Alan Light's great The Holy or the Broken). All the more impressive then that Buckley’s interpretation remains the definitive one. The message is persistently ambiguous – is it a proclamation? A question? – but that's where its potency is. We can find ourselves somewhere in there, and that’s why we keep coming back to it.


7. ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash

Originally by: Nine Inch Nails

For a song as heavy with melancholy as ‘Hurt’ already was, Cash's straightforward reading of it still somehow added weight. His reckoning with his own mortality and 71 years of transgressions feels pure, poignant, and not at all gimmicky – a worry Trent Reznor expressed when first approached about the recording. Reznor would come around of course, after hearing the song and watching the accompanying video, which featured an ailing Cash sitting among the rubble of his own shuttered museum. He would die seven months after shooting it.

8. ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ by Janis Joplin

Originally by: Kris Kristofferson 

Kris Kristofferson is one of country’s most covered songwriters (see also: Johnny Cash’s excellent ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’), and the most famous instance of the country troubadour’s work translating beautifully to another performer is also Janis Joplin’s most iconic song. Full of heartbreak and ascendant vocal improvisation, this is the song most of us think of when we think about the tragic rocker, a time-capsule distillate of the Summer of Love’s embrace of blissed-out guitars, smoky twang and free spirits. 


9. ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ by Nirvana

Originally by: David Bowie

Covers dominate the Seattle grunge heroes’ legendary 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance, with songs by Led Belly and the Meat Puppets holding court alongside hits from Nevermind and In Utero. But the album's biggest revelation is band’s wounded take on this Bowie classic, which resulted in young concert goers occasionally telling Bowie himself it was cool he was playing a Nirvana song. Awkward.

10. ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper

Originally by: Robert Hazard

Robert Hazard’s original version of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ has something of a leering quality in hindsight. But Lauper – at the height of her ‘80s glory – took the song and reinvigorated it with a playful feminist flair, transforming it into an eternal anthem for girls’ nights across generations.


11. ‘Valerie’ by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse

Originally by: The Zutons

Poor indie-rock band The Zutons: The Liverpoolian band penned one of Amy Winehouse’s most energetic hits, and few realize that the song wasn’t wrested from the mid ’60s and given new life by Winehouse and Ronson. Winehouse’s performance of the bop is just too damn iconic: Even if the song was written by Ike Turner himself, it’s unlikely anyone would remember it as anything but hers.

12. ‘Take Me to The River’ by Talking Heads

Originally by: Al Green

Countless artists have adopted Al Green’s 1974 sleek soul number as their own over the years, including Foghat, Tom Jones, Courtney Love and Big Mouth Billy Bass. No one has quite inhabited it the way David Byrne did in 1978 though, his skittery, unpredictable voice and whiz-kid persona playing ringleader to an arrangement that predicted the full-funk throwdowns his band would unleash on future albums like Speaking in Tongues.


13. ‘Changes’ by Charles Bradley

Originally by: Black Sabbath

The late soul singer Charles Bradley’s cover of the Black Sabbath weepie is perhaps his biggest hit thanks to its use at the opening of Netflix hit Big Mouth, but it’s so much more than the theme song to a show about talking hormone monsters. Bradley, who didn’t achieve fame until later than life, delivers Ozzy’s strained ‘I’m going through changes’ with the force and thunder of a world-weary Otis Redding, with funeral-style horns providing a wall of sound for the singer to lean on should his knees get wobbly. It’s a powerful, unexpected improvement on a classic-rock staple.  

14. ‘Slippery People’ by the Staples Singers

Originally by: Talking Heads

The Talking Heads scored a hit covering a soul singer, so it’s only fair that a different soul singer get a shot at a Talking Heads song. The original version of this funky, skulky tune had already been immortalized in the concert film Stop Making Sense, but in the hands of legendary singer Mavis Staples, the backbone of old-school soul and gospel becomes a downright religious experience. Byrne himself is a fan of the cover, which is a fairly faithful adaptation with the added flair of Staples’ rapturous vocals.


15. ‘Jolene’ by the White Stripes

Originally by: Dolly Parton

Jack White proves a perfect pairing for Dolly Parton’s classic, stretching his vocals to the breaking point and somehow coming across at times like the ghost of Janis Joplin. This is the Stripes at their spookiest: a haunting, fuzz-rock twist on a country staple that takes one of country’s greatest songs and molds it into a haunting, stirring beast all its own.

16. ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ by Joe Cocker

Originally by: The Beatles

It’s hard to improve on most Beatles songs (though if somebody could get us a re-do of ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ we’d be ever so grateful), but on the rare instance it happens, it’s iconic. With respect to Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder, Brit crooner Joe Cocker knocked it out of the park with this one, taking a straightforward Ringo track and interlacing it with gospel backup, emotionally powerful vocals and a steady build into the stratosphere. 


17. ‘Satisfaction’ by Devo

Originally by: The Rolling Stones

Devo has always seemed otherworldly, but when the band broke out with 1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, they announced just how alien they were with a deconstruction of the Stones’ blues-rock classic. Dissecting the song into robotically staggered fragments, the song sounds like it was beamed in from another planet, with Mark Mothersbaugh skipping Mick Jagger’s sultry delivery and subbing in what basically sounds like a high-pitched android completely glitching out.

18. ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell

Originally by: Gloria Jones

One of the most famous hits of the ‘80s began its life as a forgotten song from the Motown era. That’s a bummer for Gloria Jones, who deserved better. But in the hands of synth-pop English duo Soft Cell, ‘Tainted Love’ became an enduring anthem for lovers scorned, a new-wave lament with a porto-emo heart whose signature blips would become synonymous with the era. 


19. ‘Hotel California’ by the Gypsy Kings

Originally by: The Eagles

The Eagle’s spooky Boomer classic gets a rollicking makeover from the French flamenco maniacs, one that takes the ghostly musings of Don Henly and co. and transforms them into a wild, chaotic trip to hell and back. No wonder this is what the Jesus rolls to. 

20. ‘Renegades of Funk’ by Rage Against the Machine

Originally by: Afrika Bambaataa

Rage’s final album is wall-to-wall covers, but their clenched-fist take on Afrika Bambaataa is the only one that sounds like it could have originated in a particularly angsty songwriting session with the band itself. The hip-hop pioneer’s funked-out beat and street-level anger prove perfect for Rage’s revolutionary mindset, with the politically charged band seizing on Bambaata’s fury, repackaging all the Regan-era anger for the second Bush dynasty. 


21. ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ by Led Zeppelin

Originally by: Blind Willie Dixon

The British gods of thunder had a soft spot for Chicago bluesman Blind Willie Dixon, even if they sometimes forgot to give the man credit for his work. This 12-bar blitzkrieg from their debut is the perfect example of Zep’s bravado when it came to mashing up the blues with heavy rock, flipping on a dime from John Paul Jones’ droopy bass line to John Bonham’s crashing drums and Jimmy Page’s innovatively dense guitar work, then dropping right back into the rhythm as if to catch its breath.  

22. ‘I Fought the Law’ by the Clash

You never really got the idea that the clean-cut boys in Bobby Fuller’s ‘60s band had so much as been issued a jaywalking ticket, much less fought the law. When The Clash, however, took a swing at the porto-garage classic, it was immediately clear that these boys were speaking from experience, and probably had the scars to prove it. 


23. ‘Stand By Me’ by Otis Redding

Originally by: Ben E. King

Appearing on his 1964 debut, just a few years after Ben E. King’s recording became a hit, Redding’s version is notable not for any dramatic structural changes, but as evidence of just how much power an incomparable vocalist has over a performance. Yes, the instrumental backing is looser, replacing austere strings with a jazzy horn section, but that's just a polite alteration. Otis’s unrivaled pipes bring the song to soaring, desperate heights. If King is singing you a marriage proposal, Redding’s pleading for you to jump into bed with him.

24. ‘Sweet Jane’ by Cowboy Junkies

Originally by: The Velvet Underground

Against all odds, a group of Canadians took a classic by the Velvet Underground and made it even drozier: The Cowboy Junkies’ version of ‘Sweet Jane’ drains the original of its pep, reimagining it through the kind of opiate haze it was likely written through to begin with. 


25. ‘Season of the Witch’ by Lou Rawls

Originally by: Donovan

Donovan’s psychedelic Halloween creeper gets an organ-heavy dose of sultry soul courtesy of Lou Rawls, whose soul-soaked ode to the witching hour ditches the atmospheric dread and instead conjures the kind of black magic you can’t help to move your feet to. 

26. ‘My Way’ by Sid Vicious

Originally by: Frank Sinatra

Old Blue Eyes’ not-so-humblebrag of a song – which he popularized but did not write – already reeks of rich-boy entitlement, but in the hands of the Sid Vicious, it becomes a sneering, riotously bratty anthem: A middle finger to conformity meted out across a searing four minutes of punk-rock bliss. The hard-rock cover of lounge classics has become a staple. Nobody did it his way quite like Sid.


27. ‘Atlantic City’ by The Hold Steady

Originally by: Bruce Springsteen

This vigorous revamping of Bruce’s Nebraska track was recorded for the charity compilation Heroes, released by the War Child organization in 2009. The premise of that album was that the original artists chose a favorite younger counterpart to cover their songs, and the Hold Steady certainly delivered for the Boss. Recognizing what a true E-Street romp ‘Atlantic City’ could be, the band layers its joyous piano and guitar rabble with passionate sax and stirring gang vocals, and – lest you forget you're listening to the Hold Steady – a correct but non-rhyming pronunciation of ‘promenade.’

28. ‘Life on Mars?’ By Seu Jorge

Originally by: David Bowie

Wes Anderson’s inspired choice to have Brazilian singer Seu Jorge record a suite of Bowie songs for The Life Aquatic didn’t just provide the film with another layer for its dense tapestry of quirk. In stripping Bowie’s hits – particularly ‘Life on Mars’ – of their intergalactic production and arena-ready grandiosity, Jorge finds the delicate beauty at the beating heart of the Thin White Duke’s biggest songs that transcends language itself. 


29. ‘Iron Man’ by the Bad Plus

Originally by: Black Sabbath

With its crashing drums, askew piano and manic presentation, Minnesota jazz quartet The Bad Plus’s take on the Prince of Darkness’s breakout hit is perhaps even more metal than Sabbath. Sacrilege? Perhaps. But listening to the hell and fury unleashed across this avant garde take on the fairly straightforward ‘Iron Man,’ you get the impression that the group destroyed multiple pianos in order to unleash this delightfully vicious mashup of dad metal and stoner jazz, and the world is a better place for it. 

30. ‘Benny and the Jets’ by Biz Markie and the Beastie Boys

Originally by: Elton John

The best covers take a classic and add something different. But the late, great Biz doesn’t add. He subtracts. That’s because this deep-cut B-Boys track is essentially a straight-faced cover… except Biz Markee only knows about 4% of the words. That doesn’t stop the legend from giving it all, mumbling nonsense and made-up sounds with the confidence of a stadium-filling rock legend high on Pixy Stix. And when he hits the iconic chorus of ‘B-b-b-Benny and the Jets,’ the track responds by inserting crowd roars. As it should be.

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