The 25 Greatest Cover Songs of All-Time
The 25 Greatest Cover Songs of All-Time
The most legendary reworkings of smash hits and unknown failures.
By: Sam Eeckhout
Cover songs unite us.
There’s a specific feeling you get when you hear a cover song that works. When an artist rearranges and adds to an existing song, serving up a new edition of a previous gem, it can unleash an incredibly unique listening experience.
However, in today’s world of search engine optimization and Spotify playlist algorithms, it can be tempting for artists to cover established hits just to get some clicks. This list isn’t for them.
Truly great cover songs go one of two ways: they take an already amazing song - and flip it on its head, or they take a previously unknown song and make it accessible for all. Our cover criteria demands they must change the song enough that it is creatively their own, while still honoring the inner soul of the track. It’s a difficult balance. It’s why you won’t find The Ataris on this list.
The following 25 cover songs maximize the strengths of the originals, discard the weaknesses, move the ingredients around, and bring us together.
Here are the greatest to ever do it.
"Sea of Love" (Phil Phillips)
You may not have heard Phil Phillips beautiful 1959 tune “Sea of Love”, but Cat Power’s rendition is a must-listen.
Now a staple at weddings, “Sea of Love” made its mark in the 2007 film Juno, and never looked back. It’s a stripped back and simple cover, with Cat Power using her raw vocals to captivate listeners.
Ben l’Oncle Soul
"Seven Nation Army" (White Stripes)
Ben successfully takes the legendary guitar riff and iconic vocals of Jack White, and transforms them into a funky, toe-tapping soul fuelled jam.
It’s a risky move, taking a gigantically well-known and simplistic riff and giving it an entirely different feel. But it works effortlessly.
Complete with horns and an organ solo that replaces the landmark guitar solo, this rendition of “Seven Nation Army” takes the original to an entirely different and unexpected happy place.
The Talking Heads
"Take Me to the River" (Al Green)
David Byrne and the gang took Al Green’s 1974 track, slowed it down, and gave it a whole new vibe. With a creative reputation utterly oozing out of Byrne, successfully transforming “Take me to the River” into an undeniably Talking Heads sounding tune should come as no surprise.
It’s weird, it’s different, it’s The Talking Heads. Byrnes unusual vocal mannerisms work wonders in this track, and it aesthetically creates an entirely unique dimension for the listener. With easily over ten established artists, from Foghat to Annie Lennox, attempting to cover Green’s hit, The Talking Heads version of “Take Me to the River” is miles ahead of the others.
"Paint it Black" (The Rolling Stones)
32 years after its release, the Canadian punk band Gob took the relatively soft 1966 Stones hit - and cranked the volume to 11. The distortion blasts, the tempo is quickened, and the band builds the final climax into a frenzy.
“Paint it Black” is a rock anthem that was a prime candidate for a facelift. Paying homage to a Stones tune with every instrument bigger, brighter, louder, faster, while maintaining the core ideas and meaning is what a great cover song is all about.
Nick Murphy / Chet Faker
"No Diggity" (Blackstreet)
Blackstreet dropped the anthemic “No Diggity” in 1996, featuring Dr. Dre and the first recording of Queen Pen. It was a monumental release and even knocked the “Macarena” off the Billboard charts #1 slot.
Nick Murphy and Chet Faker found the perfect balance to give the 90’s hit a modern touch. It takes a few seconds to realize what it is, the next thing you know - you’re stuck in a mesmerizing groove.
"Toxic" (Britney Spears)
Israeli-French vocalist Yael Naim’s rendition of Britney Spears “Toxic” is the perfect example of flipping the original upside down.
Half the tempo of the original, Naim starts us off with nothing but chimes and her unmistakable accent. Her version of “Toxic” is dripping with emotion, tension, and a dream-like atmosphere.
Things slowly build, drums leak in, the bass begins to walk, guitars begin to soar, and the song takes us to places Britney never could.
"Mustang Sally" (Mack Rice/Wilson Pickett)
If there was one band on this list that defies the Sacred Exile Law of Covers, “thou shalt change the original enough to make it their own,” it’s The Commitments.
Hell, they weren’t even a real band. Created solely for the film, The Commitments still managed to sneak their movie soundtrack all the way to number eight on the Billboard 200.
Anchored by Joe Cocker-esque frontman Andrew Strong (who started filming the movie at 16 years young), The band absolutely nails the 1965 Mack Rice song. The perfect cover for the perfect fictional Irish cover band - and a perfect fit for our list.
"A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke)
Seal’s vocals speak for themselves. Powerful, weighty, and emotional, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is the perfect fit for Seal’s robust range.
Many have attempted to tackle this beauty, from the great Aretha Franklin version to the painful attempt from Greta Van Fleet. However, Seal’s 2008 interpretation of the classic stands above them all.
It’s fair to say Cooke’s version may have eventually transcended beyond its original meaning, but Seal neatly articulates the struggle built within this cover.
"Over the Rainbow" (Judy Garland)
Armed with his ukulele and his silky smooth voice, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole took “Over the Rainbow” to new depths.
It’s no easy feat, as the original was no slouch - winning countless awards and becoming one of the most iconic songs in the history of music.
However, the fearlessness to cover such an untouchable song paid dividends. Israel’s version has a warmth and soul to it that can make everyone’s tear ducts open wide.
First Aid Kit
"Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" (Fleet Foxes)
In 2008, Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg uploaded a video of themselves singing “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” in a forest onto YouTube, catapulting them into the music world firmly for the first time. It even made its way on to their debut EP Drunken Trees. It’s a heartwarming story and an even better cover song.
Fleet Foxes captivating “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” couldn’t have been a more fitting song for First Aid Kit to cover. It sounds like it was made exclusively for the sister’s dueling harmonies. With the ability to weave their vocals flawlessly together, the duo was able to elevate the original to different heights, while maintaining its essence. It’s still simplistic - guitar and vocals, nothing more.
"Feeling Good" (Nina Simone)
Nina Simone has been covered consistently for many years now, but Bassnectar’s elite production and use of Nina’s original vocals are next level.
With immaculate trap 808s and a blasting horn section, Bassnectar takes Nina Simone to completely new heights. By taking the raw vocals of Simone’s 1965 track “Feeling Good”, bass legend Bassnectar created a fresh version of a classic.
"I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor)
For almost 30 years now, Cake has been entertaining us with slick sarcastic lyrics, a catchy horns section, and a blend of funk, soul, and hip-hop.
But in 1996, on their certified gold Fashion Nugget album, the band put out the Gloria Gaynor cover “I Will Survive.” Not only did they put it out as a single, but it also went all the way to #38 on US Modern Rock charts.
Despite the band claiming they took the tune very seriously, Gloria Gaynor is quoted to have said it was her “least favorite version of the song.” We disagree.
A Perfect Circle
"Imagine” (John Lennon)
If you’re going to cover one of the most legendary songs of all time, you better nail it.
Maynard James Keenan and A Perfect Circle created an ominous and dark version of the classic, added a strings section, and interpreted the original expertly. The band coupled the track with a haunting and powerful music video, and together executed one of the most interesting and unique cover songs ever written.
The Rolling Stones
"Just My Imagination” (The Temptations)
The original “Just My Imagination” by The Temptations is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most perfect songs of all time.
The Rolling Stones were able to pull off a cover that only The Rolling Stones could, turning it into a nearly seven minute jam session, with epic guitar solos, quintessential Jagger-isms, and an elongated outro.
The band manages to keep the narrative of a man whose imagination of a relationship with a woman is getting the better of him. It’s edgy, it’s bluesy, it’s textbook Stones.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
"Little Wing” (Jimi Hendrix)
Very few have been able to tackle a Hendrix song, but none have been able to elevate a Hendrix song - except for Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Dallas born virtuoso was heavily influenced by Hendrix, and his cover of “Little Wing” is a fitting tribute to an idol of his. Vaughan took the catchy and compact two-minute tune from Hendrix, and smashes it through the stratosphere.
Lyrics? Who needs em. Vaughan smashes all other futile attempts to cover the classic track, in this tour de force guitar performance. There are all ranges of the spectrum in this gigantic seven minute cover, from subtle ‘verses’ with a walking bass line, to larger than life guitar solos. “Little Wing” has uncanny energy to it, gripping the listener’s ears with wonder throughout, in both a technical and creative masterpiece. Fittingly, Vaughan posthumously won Best Rock Instrumental Performance for his cover in 1992.
"Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson)
Leave it to Chris Cornell to turn the dance anthem of “Billie Jean” into an absolute rock power ballad. Cracking the top ten of our list is a masterclass from a true rock legend, deconstructing Jackson’s upbeat pop hit, into a heartbreaking and powerful song.
Performed by Cornell with just an acoustic guitar, his rendition forces the listener to completely hear the song in a different way, both compositionally and lyrically. It’s a gutsy and creative decision, and clearly not one made simply to wow fans at large arenas.
"All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan)
Hendrix covered Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” a mere six months after its release in 1968. Hendrix influence consistently far outweighed his commercial success - but it’s hard to fathom that his cover of the Dylan tune was his only Top 40 hit.
Hendrix fought feverishly to get this track just right, and while his bandmates grew frustrated and left the session, Jimi pushed on to nail it. It was well worth it. “All Along the Watchtower” is a relentless rock classic, with three essential Hendrix solos.
Dylan approved highly of the cover, and is quoted as saying, "It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them."
"Mad World” (Tears for Fears)
Gary Jules crafted an immaculate cover when he tackled the Tears for Fears hit “Mad World.” Jules voice is undeniably the perfect match to turn the track into the emotional and sorrow filled version we know today.
It’s heavy. But while it’s considered one of the more depressing songs of our time, it has an introspective element that makes the listener pause and look at life a little differently for that moment.
Jules wrote the song for the 2001 film Donnie Darko, and the track went all the way to #1 in the UK. It is an odd paradox, however, as it became so synonymous with Jules voice that he struggled to get any momentum with any other song in his career. He is unique on this list as he remains exclusively known just for this cover song.
"Last Kiss” (Wayne Cochran)
Eddie Vedder and the gang took Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss” and soaked it in melancholy, unleashing a beautiful cover version of the 1961 track. Vedder’s classic vocals were made for a song like this, and he delivers a pin-perfect performance.
Recorded during a soundcheck in 1998, the band’s version became their highest peaking song on the charts, while Cochran’s original failed badly after its release.
Anchored by an incredibly heartbreaking premise, the Seattle band was able to take their distinct sound and elevate a song that never got the chance to resonate with many people.
Alien Ant Farm
"Smooth Criminal” (Michael Jackson)
Alien Ant Farm unintentionally turned a Michael Jackson cover into something of an anthem in the ‘90s. Can you name another AAF song?
Taking the original riff, turning up the distortion, and completely making it their own, the track went to #1 in several countries, was the soundtrack to countless video games, and is still a mainstay on all rock radio stations.
While the cover has overshadowed everything the band did since, and remains their only known hit, it would be simplistic to dismiss Alien Ant Farm’s impressive cover. It wasn’t just an attempt to make it big, the song is everything you’d want in a cover, and to this day it continues to urge listeners to turn it up.
“Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails)
One of the most out of left field covers of all time is Johnny Cash’s cover of "Hurt.” Along with one of the most devastating and sorrow filled music videos, Cash’s weighty voice was made to sing Trent Reznor’s original version.
Touching on themes of pain, grief, and decay, Johnny Cash (with the help of Rick Rubin) created something historic. Cash would pass away just seven months after the video was released, and serves almost as an unofficial epitaph of the legendary singer-songwriter.
Rage Against The Machine
"Renegades of Funk” (Afrika Bambaataa)
If you listen to the original “Renegades of Funk” from 1983, it becomes clear that what Rage Against the Machine did with it is truly special.
Riddled with prototypical Rage riffs and Zach de la Rocha’s urgent vocals, “Renegades of Funk” is an exact fit for what the band was and stood for.
It maintains the groove that Afrika Bambaataa created, while completely Rage-ifying it. There are backup vocal chants, singalong moments, head-banging moments, and still room for Tom Morello to have some fun with his guitar pedals.
"Killing Me Softly” (Lori Lieberman)
When The Fugees dropped “Killing Me Softly” it was an instant hit. It beautifully maintains the spirit and emotion of the original 1972 Lori Lieberman track (who has a fascinating story in her own right) and combines an updated breakbeat and reggae feel.
The majority of people don’t know “Killing Me Softly” is even a cover because The Fugees did such an incredible job making it their own, with Lauryn Hill delivering a glorious vocal performance that wonderfully elevates the original melodies of Lieberman.
"With a Little Help From My Friends” (The Beatles)
Joe Cocker’s legendary performance at Woodstock in 1969 centered around his unbelievable cover of The Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
In The New York Times, Robert Christgau fittingly wrote of the cover, “his transformation of "A Little Help From My Friends" from a light-hearted ditty into wails of human need succeeds perfectly.” He’s right. Cocker took a playful Beatles tune and elevated it to heights that make the original seem painfully plain.
Cocker’s powerhouse vocal performance in the cover is one of the most magical and unforgettable in music history, but it wasn’t enough to take the top spot on this list.
“The Man Who Sold the World” (David Bowie)
Kurt Cobain loved paying tribute to those who inspired him, and in Nirvana’s infamous MTV Unplugged concert - he did just that.
The soaring guitar solo, the classic Cobain vocals, the unintentional feedback, and the honest styling of the Bowie tune all crackle - turning this unique cover into the greatest one of all time.
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