When you hear the lyrics, “I fought the law and the law won,” which artist comes to mind? If you’re musically inclined, a certain English punk-rock band likely pops into your head. And the crunchy guitar riffs and raw power of “American Woman” probably conjure the image of a flashy rock star and his Flying V guitar. But get this, neither tune was written by the artist you associate the song with. They are just masterful takes on someone else’s work. To see how your music knowledge stacks up, we’ve gathered the 50 best cover songs of all time. Be honest, how many did you think were originals? And for more great music trivia, check out 50 Songs Turning 50 This Year.
Jimi Hendrix’s rowdier, louder, and punchier electrified version of Bob Dylan’s classic song, released in 1968, blew even the original songwriter away. “It overwhelmed me,” Dylan later said, about hearing Hendrix’s cover for the first time.
Virgin Records America
In 1970, Canadian rock band The Guess Who burned up the pop charts with “American Woman,” which they claimed was a love letter to the women of their own country. Lenny Kravitz’s powerful, updated version won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1999. And for the acts you won’t believe don’t have Grammys, here are 30 Artists Who Haven’t Won Grammys.
Bonnie Raitt’s heartfelt rendition of a middle-aged woman trying to escape her circumstances became one her most important recordings, expressing lost love, regret, and longing. The song, however, was penned by the the masterful John Prine, who recently passed away from COVID-19. The two pals would even perform the song together on occasion. And for more love songs for the record books, here are The 50 Most Romantic Songs Ever Written.
Bruce Springsteen co-wrote the song with Patti Smith, a hit single from her 1978 album Easter. He changed the lyrics for his version from what he described as just another love song into a coarse, introspective journey in search of truth. The fact that he actually co-wrote the track establishes it as one of the best cover songs out there.
The raucous, jangly Kingsmen recorded the number in under an hour in less than ideal circumstances. And despite the band unanimously agreeing that it was awful, the three-chord classic became a sensation, rising to No. 2 on the national charts. Following outrage from parents about the potentially obscene—incoherent, really—lyrics, a two-year FBI investigation was launched. The Feds made countless attempts at deciphering the lyrics, convinced the song was communicating in obscene code to teen subversives. But they came up with nothing. And for more ’60s acts to make you nostalgic, here are 25 Huge Bands from the ’60s You Totally Forgot Existed.
Considered one of the first rockabilly songs, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” would later be covered by the likes of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, such as Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Elvis Presley. Elvis considered his version, which was a massive hit, a tribute to his friend, Perkins.
Joni Mitchell wrote “Woodstock” in a moment of spiritual reflection, considering the Woodstock gathering a biblical fishes-and-loaves story of optimism. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ran with that idea, conjuring up a celebratory, electrified jam, woven together with the band’s mellifluous harmonies to create yet another iconic soundtrack of a generation.
Atlantic Recording Corporation
American singer-songwriter Jake Holmes debuted “Dazed and Confused,” a song about a breakup, in 1967. It was soon copied by the British group The Yardbirds, which became The New Yardbirds with the addition of session guitarist Jimmy Page. Page appropriated the tune further with his next band—a little group you may have heard of called Led Zeppelin. Holmes cited copyright infringement in 2010, though the case was dismissed when a settlement between parties was reached out of court.
Andy Williams’ 1962 hit was reborn reggae-style by The Beat on their 1980 album, I Just Can’t Stop It. Frontman Dave Wakeling’s father loved the original, and as it happened, the song was a perfect fit for the ska treatment. “The bass line translated into a reggae feel effortlessly,” said Wakeling told Rolling Stone. “The pizzicato strings became guitar skanks, and the melody floated over the top.”
Touch and Go
Director Quentin Tarantino is credited with re-energizing this remake by indie rock legends Urge Overkill, after including it in his 1994 film Pulp Fiction. According to Tarantino, it’s “even better” than Neil Diamond’s original. And for more movie soundtracks from the ’90s, check out 17 Movie Soundtracks Every Kid from the ’90s Loved.
Plenty of artists have covered this iconic number written by Robert Hazard, but none come close to the iconic version by Cyndi Lauper, which exploded on radio and MTV in 1983.
Patti Smith’s guttural voice, smoldering and dangerous, unfolds with the words, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” (an excerpt from “Oath,” an early poem disavowing her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing ). The song steadily builds tempo like a locomotive, transforming the garage-rock classic into a full-on punk explosion.
Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” is a secular take on the beloved Leonard Cohen hymn, imbued with sexual tension, longing, and reflection on the fleeting nature of life—a sentiment made even more poignant by the singer’s untimely death-by-drowning on May 29, 1997.
It’s hard to believe anyone would be bold enough to tackle a tune by Stevie Wonder, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Higher Ground” more than did justice to one of the soul legend’s biggest hits. It even scored the group its first Grammy nomination (1991—Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group).
In the twilight of a legendary career, Johnny Cash recorded one of his most memorable songs, aided by super-producer Rick Rubin. Cash is transcendent, making Trent Reznor’s dark, mournful, lyrics seem all his own—as if they had been all along. Sadly, Cash passed away seven months laster.
The ultimate new wave twist on a song about alienation and sexual frustration, delivered by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, who likely understood those sentiments intimately. Recorded in 1977 with genius producer Brian Eno at the helm, it was cleared for release by Mick Jagger himself.
This song was originally penned by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets, Buddy Holly’s replacement following his untimely demise. Covered by Hank Williams, Jr., the Dead Kennedys, and others, The Clash took its cue from the Bobby Fuller Four’s 1965 rendition.
First recorded by little-known English band The Arrows, Joan Jett’s version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” became a definitive statement for the singer, going platinum after commanding the top of the charts for seven weeks in 1982.
With an infectious Bo Diddley shuffle and primal beat, this bubblegum classic by The Strangeloves was given new life when Bow Wow Wow released their version in 1982. The group’s singer, Annabella Lwin, was only 15 when the hit spun into heavy rotation on MTV.
Recorded for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston’s epic vocals made Dolly Parton’s already beautiful song the best-selling single by a female singer ever.
Third Man Records
Rolling Stone named The White Stripes’ cover of Parton’s timeless, aching “Jolene” one of the greatest remakes ever. Jack White, singing from the feminine perspective without a trace of irony, brings down the house in his epic rendition of a country classic.
While Roberta Flack’s original is flawless, Lauryn Hill and crew give this classic ’70s ballad new life with stunning vocals and reggae-imbued soul.
Jamaican singer Grace Jones’ hard-edged, urban sound was one of the coolest acts in ’77. With her adaptation of Édith Piaf’s signature song (from way back in 1945), Jones displayed her softer, jazzy side, making “La Vie En Rose” (Life in Pink) an international hit all over again.
While this playful little Stones number was a provocation to prude’s everywhere in 1967, David Bowie’s raunchier glam rendition arrived as if it was from the future, infused with gender-bending sexual bravado.
The first song, and single, from Springsteen’s seminal 1973 album Greetings From Asbury Park, “Blinded by the Light” never made the charts until Manfred Mann’s Earth Band released their take in 1976. And its mangled lyrics were widely misunderstood in the remake. “Cut loose like a deuce,” (a reference to deuce coupe hot rods) was changed to “Revved up like a deuce,” and misheard as “wrapped up like douche.” Springsteen later mused that it was the cover version’s allusion to a feminine hygiene product that popularized the song.
Bob Marley’s masterpiece is faithfully reproduced on Eric Clapton’s monumental 1974 album, 461 Ocean Boulevard, though it packs a bigger punch. The song was one of several examples of reggae’s growing influence on British and American pop music.
Repurposing some of the most beguiling lyrics ever, about an expiring love affair, producer Giorgio Moroder guided the extraordinarily gifted Donna Summer to multi-million platinum status with this cover in 1978.
Re-imagined by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews, the Tears for Fears ’80s hit became a brooding, down-tempo piano ballad famously featured in the 2001 cult-classic Donnie Darko.
This song crystalizes the melancholy and wanderlust of its era, weaving the tale of young drifters hitch-hiking across America. Janis Joplin’s searing execution gave it wings to become the anthem for a generation.
“Nothing Compares 2 U,” a monster hit for Irish chanteuse Sinead O’Connor, is perhaps the ultimate breakup song. Written by Prince for one of his side projects, O’Connor delivers an emotional performance that is impossible to resist. Just try to hold back the tears.
Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, with only his voice and his ukulele, redefined a beloved classic.
Tina Turner lays it down from the very start: “We never, ever do nothin’ nice and easy. We always do it nice. And rough.” Then she proceeds to rip it to shreds. It’s a song so seared into our collective consciousness that it taps into a primal urge to get up and dance.
UB40’s reggae-fied cover of Diamond’s somber acoustic ballad is an ode to drinking as a way to forget your romantic woes—needles to say, it was a hit.
Atlantic Catalog Group
“Respect” marked Aretha Franklin’s breakout as a major force in pop music and became a clarion call for feminism that still resonates today.
Johnny Cash’s iconic song invites stylistic interpretation, though none as memorable as this acerbic, industrial punk-rock, synthesizer-driven spaghetti western take on the country classic.
Es Paranza/Atlantic Records
Former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant crooned a faithful rendition of this 1950s R&B classic with his band The Honeydrippers, comprised of an all-star lineup of musicians, including former Yardbirds member Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.
Tori Amos defanged Nirvana’s signature anthem, rendering its gnashing, tortured disaffection into a tender but desperate plea, stripped of all accompaniment but her piano.
The Cowboy Junkies’ best-loved track springs from their seminal album, The Trinity Session. It was recorded in one day around a single microphone in a Toronto church. Singer Margo Timmins delivers a dreamy, drowsy take on Lou Reed’s 1969 classic.
Soft Cell’s dark take on the Gloria Jones classic about escaping a toxic relationship struck a chord with legions of listeners.
In the liner notes on their 2004 compilation, The Best of Talking Heads, David Byrne writes that “Take Me to the River” is “a song that combines teenage lust with baptism.” Co-produced by Brian Eno, the track established the thoroughly original band as a powerhouse in pop music.
Nirvana’s haunting, introspective cover track made a surprise appearance in 1993 on MTV’s Unplugged—finding new resonance thanks to Kurt Cobain’s emotional performance.
A 1964 hit, “Twist and Shout” was recorded in a single take, with John Lennon suffering a bad cold, which accounts for the song’s wonderfully raspy delivery.
Universal Island Records
This Zutons original only really came to life after Amy Winehouse put it to tape in the studio with producer Mark Ronson, instantly making the undeniable tune her own.
This truly groundbreaking collaboration launched Aerosmith’s comeback and set the stage for the continuing dominance of rap on the pop charts. Run-D.M.C. fuses rock and rap with this cover, recording it with the actual band instead of simply sampling the original.
This beautiful song as performed by The Beatles was a plea for reconciliation, expressed with passion—though little hope. Conversely, Stevie Wonder’s rousing funk version, from his 1970 masterwork Signed, Sealed & Delivered is all about desire and promise.
Metallica takes an old Irish folk song earnestly recorded by Dublin’s Thin Lizzy, and shreds it to bits, in this raucous remake.
Joe Cocker’s combustible performance at Woodstock elevated Ringo Starr’s sweet little ditty to become the anthem of a generation.
Eric Clapton insisted that, though his 1977 hit sounded like a love song to an illicit substance, it was actually a cleverly disguised anti-drug message. The riff-heavy number became one of Clapton’s signature hits, and one of several JJ Cale songs he recorded during that substance-soaked era.
Awesome as The Kinks’ original is—the tune was a defining moment of the British Invasion—it instantly became eclipsed by this thundering, new, over-the-top sensation from Van Halen.
One of the most prolific artists of the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt gave this someone-done-me-wrong song a sinister edge as she weaved through her many moods, supported by Motown-like backup vocals. Others have recorded Dee Dee Warwick’s poppy jingle, but none come close to Ronstadt’s.
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