The best cover versions can truly reinvent a song – sometimes so much so that they become the definitive recordings. For our list of the best cover songs, we’re not just looking at non-original songs penned for artists to sing (like, say, much of Frank Sinatra’s work), but a song that already existed as a hit or a notable recorded version for someone else. So, you won’t find great records like Mott The Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” or Linda Ronstadt And The Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum” here, since they were the first artists to record those songs, written by David Bowie and Michael Nesmith, respectively. To our ears, the best cover songs go beyond an artist performing a faithful rendition of someone’s else’s work to make the song their own with a complete re-imagining.
Have we missed any of your favorite cover versions? Let us know in the comments section, below.
While you’re reading, listen to our Best Cover Songs playlist here.
Jimi Hendrix Experience: All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan was so impressed by Jimi Hendrix’s reimagining of “All Along the Watchtower” that whenever he performed the song thereafter, he did so in an arrangement more similar to Hendrix’s than his own. Dylan’s late-60s material exists in the shadow of his incredible trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, and it would be easy to imagine newcomers to Dylan’s catalog glossing over an album like John Wesley Harding if not for Hendrix’s cover version of “All Along the Watchtower.” Which would’ve been a shame – “All Along the Watchtower” stands as one of Dylan’s most unsettling tunes.
Bonnie Raitt: Angel from Montgomery (John Prine)
“I think ‘Angel from Montgomery’ probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song,” Bonnie Raitt once said, so it might come as a surprise to learn that Raitt did not compose it. Raitt was one of many artists who enjoyed more commercial success by covering John Prine than Prine ever did singing his own songs, but that’s to take nothing away from his original recording of “Angel from Montgomery,” which ranks as one of his very best compositions.
Quiet Riot: Cum on Feel the Noize (Slade)
Slade were glam-rock godheads in their native England, but they struggled to replicate their success across the Atlantic. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that they finally found a foothold in the American market thanks to Quiet Riot’s faithful cover version (right down to the unusual spelling) of “Cum on Feel the Noize,” which helped usher in the trend of hair metal. (And one year later, Quiet Riot would score another hit with another Slade cover song, “Mama Weer All Crazee Now.”)
Aerosmith: Big Ten Inch Record (Bull Moose Jackson)
“Big Ten Inch Record” was not a hit for Bull Moose Jackson when it was released as a single in 1952, with most radio stations (understandably) hesitant to play such a risqué song. Its bluesy shuffle and suggestive humor made it a natural fit for Aerosmith, who covered it on their 1975 album Toys in the Attic. But it was the Flashcats, a Pennsylvania bar band, whose raucous live performances of “Big Ten Inch Record” convinced Jackson to resume his musical career in the 80s after a two-decade hiatus.
Harry Nilsson: Everybody’s Talkin’ (Fred Neil)
Harry Nilsson won a Grammy Award for his cover version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which was used as the theme song in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson’s version no doubt helped the song become a standard, but Fred Neil’s original still feels like the definitive version – not least because, like the song’s narrator, Neil would eventually leave behind the hustle and bustle of celebrity in favor of a quiet life in Florida.
Roberta Flack: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Peggy Seeger)
The British folk singer Ewan MacColl wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” back in 1957 for Peggy Seeger, with whom he had fallen in love (and would eventually marry). A number of popular folk artists covered the song throughout the 60s, culminating in Roberta Flack’s simmering, soulful take, which became the biggest-selling single of 1972 after its appearance in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut Play Misty for Me.
Rod Stewart: I Don’t Want to Talk About It (Crazy Horse)
Rod Stewart possesses one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most distinctive voices – an inimitable rasp that lends gravity to even the most simple material. But even his take on “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” can’t quite convey the weariness that Danny Whitten, Neil Young’s doomed collaborator, brings to Crazy Horse’s original, which can go toe-to-toe with Young’s most affecting songs.
George Harrison: Got My Mind Set On You (James Ray)
George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You” was the last song by a Beatle to top the Billboard Hot 100, but the song itself wasn’t actually written by a Beatle. It was written by Rudy Clark in 1962, and it was James Ray’s jazzy version that Harrison encountered during a (pre-Beatlemania) visit to the US in 1963. More than two decades later, an off-the-cuff remark from “Dream Weaver” singer Gary Wright about “Got My Mind Set on You” recalled the older song to Harrison, who recorded a cover version of it for his comeback album Cloud Nine.
Eric Clapton: I Shot The Sheriff (Bob Marley and the Wailers)
Eric Clapton wasn’t much of a fan of reggae, but his backing guitarist George Terry was, and Terry convinced Clapton that he would have a hit on his hands if he covered Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff.” (Sure enough, it became Clapton’s first – and only – American chart-topper.) Still, Marley’s is the genuine article, with its skanky groove looser and spikier.
Whitney Houston: I Will Always Love You (Dolly Parton)
Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” isn’t just one of the best covers of all time – it’s a purging kind of heartbreak, the kind of song that makes you want to throw open your windows and risk breaking your heart all over again for the chance of finding a lasting love. It’s a show-stopping performance, and a radical departure from Dolly Parton’s original, which is affecting in its plaintive intimacy. If Houston was singing it for the whole world, Parton seems to be singing it just for you, and yet both versions are equally perfect.
No Doubt: It’s My Life (Talk Talk)
Before they laid the groundwork for post-rock, Talk Talk was a synth-pop band, and scored a worldwide hit in 1984 with “It’s My Life.” Nineteen years later, it became a worldwide hit all over again thanks to No Doubt, who covered the song to promote their first greatest hits album. Maybe when they release another compilation, they can take a crack at “Life’s What You Make It.”
Donna Summer: MacArthur Park (Richard Harris)
Jimmy Webb is one of America’s finest living songwriters and composers, and “MacArthur Park” ranks among his most enduring compositions, for its campiness as much as its complexity. Donna Summer and producer Giorgio Moroder took the song to the top of the charts with their disco-ready version, but it was actor Richard Harris who first made “MacArthur Park” a hit a decade earlier, with Webb’s lush orchestration only heightening the tune’s sense of melodrama.
Michael Andrews & Gary Jules: Mad World (Tears For Fears)
When Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly asked Michael Andrews to compose the film’s score, Andrews roped in his longtime friend Gary Jules to sing a stripped-down cover version of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” If you’re only familiar with Andrews and Jules’s version, it can be hard to believe that it was first recorded by the same group that made “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” but Tears for Fears’ original sounds much gloomier than you might expect it to, almost as much goth-pop as it is synth-pop.
Nirvana: The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)
Nirvana’s take on “The Man Who Sold the World” became so closely associated with the band that, for years afterward, younger fans would compliment David Bowie for “doing a Nirvana song” whenever he sang it in concert. Bowie was not yet a household name when he wrote “The Man Who Sold the World,” and his recording, while playfully sinister, feels like it’s sung from the perspective of an outsider. Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, seemed to embody the titular character by the time Nirvana performed it on their MTV Unplugged special, and his eventual fate makes their version that much more haunting.
Janis Joplin: Me and Bobby McGee (Roger Miller)
Kris Kristofferson wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1969, but he was neither the first singer to record the song – Roger Miller, Kenny Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot, and Charley Pride all preceded him – nor was his version the most famous. It was Janis Joplin’s cover, which she finished just three days before her death, that turned it into a standard. Her take on “Me and Bobby McGee” is spirited and upbeat, whereas Kristofferson and his fellow countrymen tended to sing it in a simpler, more somber (but no less affecting) manner.
Sinead O’Connor: Nothing Compares 2 U (The Family)
“Nothing Compares 2 U” was one of several songs that Prince, for one reason or another, chose not to keep for himself. (His studio recording wasn’t released until 2018, though he included a live version on a 1993 greatest hits compilation.) It was recorded by the Family, one of the bands Prince assembled on his Paisley Park record label, but the group folded shortly after the release of their lone album, and “Nothing Compares 2 U” was quickly forgotten by all but the most faithful Prince fans. You’re almost certainly familiar with Sinead O’Connor’s cover, an unexpected smash hit that, all too briefly, turned her into the most magnetic singer in the world.
Ike & Tina Turner: Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
“We never, ever do nothing nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough,” Tina Turner purrs at the beginning of her first cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” which she recorded with her then-husband Ike. You’re much more likely to associate “Proud Mary” with Tina Turner than John Fogerty – it’s become one of her signature songs, and was a staple of her live performances until her retirement.
Aretha Franklin: Respect (Otis Redding)
Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” is so definitive that it might make you think Otis Redding wrote the song specifically for her. (It was Franklin’s decision to add the climactic “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me” lines, and it’s hard to imagine the song without them.) Redding’s original version was sung by a man to his romantic partner, pleading for respect in exchange for his hard work. In changing the song’s perspective, Franklin transformed the song into a feminist anthem.
The Brothers Johnson: Strawberry Letter 23 (Shuggie Otis)
If life were fair, “Strawberry Letter 23” would have been a breakout moment for teenage guitar prodigy Shuggie Otis. His bluesy licks and psychedelic arrangements caught the attention of B.B. King and Sly Stone, but their praise never translated to mainstream recognition for Otis. It wasn’t until 1977 – three years after Otis’ final major-label album – that the Brothers Johnson put their thumbprint on “Strawberry Letter 23,” taking the track to No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Mark Ronson & Amy Winehouse: Valerie (The Zutons)
Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse were struggling to come up with ideas for Ronson’s second album, Version – a collection of Motown-inspired covers of contemporary pop and rock tunes – when Winehouse suggested that they have a go at “Valerie,” a recent single from a British indie rock band the Zutons that she was obsessed with. Ronson and Winehouse’s rendition is a marvel, offering a perfect union of his punchy production and her cracked, smoky vocals. But the Zutons’ original is a fizzy, addictive shot of guitar pop that’s lots of fun in its own right.
Talking Heads: Take Me to the River (Al Green)
What makes Al Green so unique as a soul singer is that he’s not a belter – he sings like he’s holding something back, like he’s trying to get you to come in closer. That’s a key component of his most seductive songs, like “Let’s Stay Together” and “Take Me to the River,” the latter of which became a hit for David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Smartly, the Talking Heads’ cover keeps the original’s light touch, paring away anything that could get in the way of the song’s slinky groove.
Bananarama: Venus (Shocking Blue)
“Venus” is one of only a handful of songs that multiple artists have taken to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. You’re probably familiar with Bananarama’s slick dance-pop version from 1986, but it was first a hit for Dutch rock band Shocking Blue back in 1969. (Fun fact: Nirvana’s debut single was a cover of a different Shocking Blue song, “Love Buzz.”)
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Woodstock (Joni Mitchell)
Depending on whose version you’re listening to, “Woodstock” doesn’t just sound different, but feels different. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their rendition in March 1970, but the song was written by Joni Mitchell, whose take wouldn’t be heard for another month. Mitchell’s is slower and more wistful, tapping into a bittersweetness that gets lost in CSNY’s more rollicking spin.
Linda Ronstadt: You’re No Good (Dee Dee Warwick)
“You’re No Good” was several years old by the time Linda Ronstadt began performing it in concert. It was first recorded by Dee Dee Warwick in 1963, and though her version wasn’t a hit, the tune got around, being covered by several artists until Ronstadt – always a skilled interpreter of other people’s songs – added it to her live repertoire. Ronstadt finally recorded it in 1974 as the lead single to Heart Like a Wheel, the album that catapulted her to a tier of rock iconography that few other women reached.
James Taylor: You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King)
We should all hope to have a friend as supportive as Carole King, who wrote “You’ve Got a Friend” after James Taylor sang “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend” on his own “Fire and Rain.” Though King intended to keep the song for herself and her landmark album Tapestry, she allowed Taylor to cover it, and his version became the biggest hit of his career.
– Jacob Nierenberg
Charles Bradley: Changes (Black Sabbath)
One of the greatest modern-day soul ballads, as written by… Black Sabbath? Sure enough, the Ozzy ballad proved the perfect vehicle for the soul singer Charles Bradley to eulogize his mother and generally pour his heart out. It would later be used to convey a different kind of change, on the animated TV series about puberty, Big Mouth.
Pretenders: Stop Your Sobbing (The Kinks)
For their 1980 self-titled debut album, Chrissie Hynde and producer Nick Lowe give a great Kinks obscurity the Spector-type treatment it deserved in the first place. Plenty of people fell in love with both the cover and Hynde herself, including Ray Davies.
Gregg Allman: These Days (Jackson Browne)
Nobody gave more soul to this oft-recorded Jackson Browne tune than Gregg Allman on his 1973 solo debut album, Laid Back. In turn, Browne gave Allman all the world-weariness he ever needed from a lyric. Nico’s early cover is a gem as well, just ask Wes Anderson.
Los Lobos: La Bamba (Ritchie Valens)
It was a real kick to hear Ritchie Valens’ hit “La Bamba” revived in the 80s for the biopic soundtrack starring Lou Diamond Phillips. Los Lobos gave it a personalized touch by adding the traditional Mexican flourish at the end. Nowadays they’re likely to do the acoustic version, if they play it live at all.
Todd Rundgren: Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (The Yardbirds)
Unlike most of the soundalike cover songs on his 1976 Faithful album, Todd Rundgren performs the lead track in his own voice, absolutely blazing through The Yardbirds’ proto-metal tune. In the context of the album, it meant, “Before we take this trip, here’s what it’s all about.”
Humble Pie: I Don’t Need No Doctor (Ray Charles)
The rave-up that closes Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore is among one of the greatest hard-rock cover songs of an R&B tune (in this case, a Ray Charles original) and certainly one of the most fun. Got to love Steve Marriott’s little vocal improv: “I sho’ feel good… therefore, therefore, I don’t need no doctor!”
Bob Marley And the Wailers: Sugar Sugar (The Archies)
Yes, it’s true: One of the many Jamaican singles the early Bob Marley and The Wailers released was a cover of the 60s novelty bubble-gum hit “Sugar Sugar,” by the fictional band The Archies. The sheer unlikelihood makes it hilarious, but The Wailers actually make a pretty great groove out of it.
Glen Campbell: Hold On Hope (Guided By Voices)
This surprising cover of the indie power-pop heroes’ “Hold On Hope” was one of the many powerful moments on Glen Campbell’s 2011 album, Ghost On The Canvas. While it was intended to be the country icon’s “farewell album”, he was able to release his 64th and final album, Adiós, in 2017. Who better to sing “There rides the cowboy…” than the Rhinestone Cowboy himself?
The Dickies: Nights In White Satin (The Moody Blues)
It started purely as a joke, with L.A. punk pranksters The Dickies thrashing through the least appropriate cover songs there were (up to and including “Silent Night”). Only trouble is, The Moody Blues’ hit worked great as a punk-pop number delivered in a Buzzcocks style. Even the Moodies’ frontman Justin Hayward gave it a thumbs-up.
Gladys Knight And The Pips, Marvin Gaye: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Smokey Robinson)
Hard to say which was the original and which the cover of ”I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, since Gladys Knight’s barnstorming version topped the charts a year before Marvin Gaye’s slow-groove take, yet the latter was actually recorded first. And both versions were technically cover songs, since the first recording was an overlooked Miracles album track.
Bryan Ferry: The ‘In’ Crowd (Dobie Gray)
Whether solo or with Roxy Music, this is one of the few Bryan Ferry tracks that cracks a wide smile, sending up his jet-set image while celebrating it at the same time. Originally recorded by soul singer Dobie Gray, “The “In” Crowd” often gets confused for a Motown number, thanks to the label’s arranger Gene Page, who gave the single the Motown touch. Before Ferry tackled the tune, Ramsey Lewis Trio recorded a live instrumental version in 1964; later, Cheap Trick performed a cover of Ferry’s cover.
Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band: Trapped (Jimmy Cliff)
You could make an extensive box set out of Bruce Springsteen’s live cover songs, but this Jimmy Cliff cover was special, The Boss turning it into an arena anthem without losing the desperation. It remains far and away the musical highlight of the splashy We Are The World benefit album.
The Tourists: I Only Want to Be With You (Dusty Springfield)
The Tourists’ 1979 cover accomplishes the near-impossible task of making the Dusty Springfield hit more joyful and wide-eyed than it already was. It was also the first indication that singer Annie Lennox was going to be something special. Their version also managed to match the No.4 peak of the 1963 Springfield original.
The Continental Drifters: Some Of Shelly’s Blues (Linda Ronstadt And The Stone Poneys)
From The Nitty Gritty Dirty Band to Linda Ronstadt, a roomful of first-class singers has recorded this terrific, largely-unsung roots-pop cut. But it’s The Bangles’ Vicki Peterson doing the honors on this perfect New Orleans-meets-Laurel Canyon version of the Michael Nesmith-penned gem.
Soft Cell: Tainted Love (Gloria Jones)
“Tainted Love” was originally a minor UK hit for T.Rex member and Marc Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones, but in Soft Cell’s cover, the minimal synth backing and Marc Almond’s obsessive vocal makes it both more disturbing and far sexier.
Pearl Jam: Last Kiss (J Frank Wilson And The Cavaliers)
They may have meant it as a goof, but Pearl Jam made a solid rock ballad out of J Frank Wilson And The Cavaliers’ early-60s teen weeper “Last Kiss.” After Eddie Vedder got the band on board, the group recorded it on the cheap and offered it to their fan club members as a Christmas gift. Still, it does boggle the mind that this remains the biggest chart hit of their career, and one of the best-known cover songs of all time.
Johnny Cash: Solitary Man (Neil Diamond)
While Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” gets all the press, this Neil Diamond song was really a better fit – and more heartbreaking, too. The 1966 Diamond version was about young-adult heartbreak, while Cash’s rendition is about going through life and never getting over it. It remains not only one of Cash’s best cover songs, but one of his finest moments on the American Recordings albums.
Jeff Buckley: Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
Jeff Buckley’s searing rendition ‘Hallelujah’ rendered 25 years of further covers of the same song unnecessary. Buckley’s great performance has all the dark beauty and sensuality that composer Leonard Cohen intended (and it followed a great, if less accessible version by John Cale). As one of the most ubiquitous cover songs of all time, most people mistake Buckley’s version for the original.
The Mamas And The Papas: Dedicated To The One I Love (The Shirelles)
We’re willing to nominate this cover for the most gorgeous harmonies ever on a pop single, turning an already-fine Shirelles hit into the very essence of romance. When The Mamas And The Papas deliver that line “… And it’s something that everybody needs,” it still brings shivers…
Joan Jett And The Blackhearts: I Love Rock And Roll (The Arrows)
A great taste in cover songs has always been a trademark for Joan Jett, who has recorded everything from Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed”. Here she took a minor UK hit by The Arrows that most of her fans hadn’t heard, and turned it into her lifelong manifesto.
Elvis Presley: Tomorrow Is A Long Time (Bob Dylan)
Just when nobody was looking, Elvis snuck two triumphs on the otherwise forgettable soundtrack album for the 1966 film Spinout. First, The Coasters’ rollicking “Down In The Alley”, and then this Bob Dylan cover, performed with great tenderness. What if post-army Elvis had stuck to covering songs worthy of his talents? For five minutes, we had the answer.
Run-DMC: Walk This Way (Aerosmith)
“Walk This Way” is one of the most groundbreaking party records ever. With the first major rap cover of an arena-rock standard (with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler making a cameo, and the unforgettable use Joe Perry’s iconic guitar riff, Run-DMC brought those two camps together, just as radio and MTV were trying to get segregated.
Elvis Costello: (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding (Nick Lowe)
Adding a few shots of righteous anger to this song (originally a country-rock tune by Nick Lowe with Brinsley Schwarz) proved the perfect tonic. In Elvis Costello’s hands (and Lowe’s again, since he produced it) it became a song for the ages.
Harry Nilsson: Without You (Badfinger)
… On the other hand, Harry Nilsson’s cover stands as one of pop’s greatest solo vocal performances, wringing every bit of passion from the 1970 Badfinger tune. It’s ironic that master songwriter Nilsson had his two biggest hits (this and “Everybody’s Talkin’”) with cover versions. And for those who came of age during the 90s diva heyday, Mariah Carey’s take didn’t do too shabby on the charts either.
Stevie Wonder: We Can Work It Out (The Beatles)
Motown was never shy about covering The Beatles; Berry Gordy already had The Supremes making an album called A Bit Of Liverpool a few months after the group spearheaded the British Invasion. Stevie Wonder’s cover, however, was the first to give the original a run for its money. When he recorded it in 1970, The Beatles’ hit was five years old, and Stevie was just coming off back-to-back masterpiece singles in “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” and “Heaven Help Us All.”
So he had no reason to cover the Beatles unless he could make it something special – which he does by turning it funky, giving a classic vocal performance and changing the mood of the song. The first thing that grabs you in the intro is the then-novel sound of the clavinet, which Wonder would later use to spectacular effect on “Superstition.” Most of all, he gives the song an optimism it had lacked before. While Paul McCartney’s original vocal had a pleading tone, Stevie’s effectively says, “Don’t worry, we got this.”
– Brett Milano
Looking for more? Discover the best Beatles covers with 20 essential versions of Fab Four classics.