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The best cover songs of all time

Here are the best cover songs of all time that reinterpret the original tunes with inventiveness and soul

Nirvana
Photograph: Stephen Sweet/REX/Shutterstock
By Bryan Kerwin and Kristen Zwicker |
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As any film viewer knows, many movie remakes are duds. Cover songs don’t necessarily fare much better: There’s a whole slew of them that are better suited for a landfill than your precious little eardrums. Now don’t confuse these for easy karaoke songs—many of these cover tunes are even more audacious and hard to replicate than the originals. If you’re really going to reinterpret another artist’s work—and these among the best songs of all time—you better do it right. Accordingly, the tunes on this best covers songs list don’t disappoint.

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Best cover songs of all time ranked

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Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (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.

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Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” (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.

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Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (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.

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Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (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.

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Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (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.

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The Fugees, “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (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,” who had taken their own sample 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.

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Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” (David Bowie)

The Seattle grunge heroes performed this David Bowie tune during their now-legendary 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance, effectively exposing it to a completely new audience—which resulted in young concert goers occasionally telling Bowie it was cool he was playing a Nirvana song. Awkward.

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Otis Redding, “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King)

Appearing in 1964, 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.

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The Hold Steady, “Atlantic City” (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.”

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Talking Heads, “Take Me to The River” (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.

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