This article contains a list of the absolute best cover songs of all time.
Your favorite song may not be an original created by your favorite band or artist. Instead, tons of cover versions may have been created that take a classic song and improve on them. Whether it is Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift albums or pop stars making classics their own, the cover version is here to stay. Without further adieu, let’s get into the list of the greatest cover songs ever made!
1. Common People, William Shatner
It is safe to say the singing career of William Shatner has not been completely successful. A quick search of YouTube brings up thousands of videos mocking the Star Trek icon. However, Shatner’s version of Pulp’s Common People is a classic cover version. Sheffield poet, Jarvis Cocker’s ironic lyrics about a rich girl wanting to play at being working class lend themselves to Shatner’s over-the-top delivery. Ben Folds’s production makes this a true pop classic.
2. Hurt, Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash was coming to more than the end of his career when producer Rick Rubin convinced him to cover some of the best songs of the 90s. Taking on a Nine Inch Nails classic about certain substance addiction seemed a stretch for the country singer. Cash and Rubin took Trent Reznor’s song and turned it into a heartbreaking classic about loss and mortality. Hurt swept the Grammy’s and became a classic thanks to a video featuring an aging Johnny Cash looking back on his decades-long career.
3. Respect, Aretha Franklin
Did you know Aretha Franklin was not the first artist to record Respect? The song is forever linked with Aretha’s version that was originally written by Otis Redding. The song was written from the male perspective and sung to a woman by her boyfriend. Franklin added the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” refrain and a classic was born.
4. Borderline, The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips have never been afraid to cover songs by other artists. The non-traditional nature of the band means Wayne Coyne and his community of musicians think outside the box. Covering Madonna’s early-90s classic, Borderline, may not seem like a good career move but The Flaming Lips make it work.
5. Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinead O’Connor
Prince was at the peak of his powers in the late-80s and early-90s. Several classic songs were passed onto other singers and bands, including Sheena Easton and The Bangles. Nothing Compares 2 U was written for The Family, a short-lived Minneapolis band that failed to capture the imagination of the public. When Sinead O’Connor took the song and turned it into a powerful ballad, the Irish singer had a global hit on her hands.
6. A Case of U, Prince
Joni Mitchell wrote and performed A Case of U for her 1971 album, Blue. Prince was a huge Joni Mitchell fan and covered several of her songs during live performances. He covered the song during live shows from the early-1980s onwards and constantly tinkered with a studio version up to his untimely death.
7. The man Who Sold The World, Nirvana
From a time before David Bowie was famous, The Man Who Sold The World is not one of his best-known sings. Nirvana took the song to new heights during their MTV Unplugged session. Reflecting on the sinister lyrics and Kurt Cobain’s fate adds to the power of a classic live performance.
8. I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston
Like many of the songs on this list, Whitney Houston made her cover version her own. The song was written and released by Dolly Parton as a minor country hit. Featuring on the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, Whitney added her powerful vocals to the song and immediately eclipsed Dolly’s version.
9. Valerie, Mark Ronson & Amy Winehouse
Ronson and Winehouse had become a celebrated musical partnership when the producer decided to create his first covers album. Alongside cover versions of songs by Britney Spears, Ronson added a song by the little-known Liverpool band The Zutons. Valerie became a global hit taken from its indie-rock roots to a classic 60s vibe.
10. Louie Louie, The Kingsmen
The Kingsmen were an American garage rock band in the 1960s who were searching for a hit song when they came across Louie Louie. The song had been written by Richard Berry and recorded on several occasions. The Kingsmen quickly disowned their version until they climbed to number two in the U.S. charts.
11. Proud Mary, Ike & Tina Turner
The story of Ike and Tina Turner is a heartbreaking tragedy for Tina. The problems of their life together did give the world a cover version that has gone down in rock and roll history. Ike and Tina covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary so well that it has become the standard for the bar band favorite.
12. Gloria, Patti Smith
Van Morrison created a garage band classic when he penned Gloria. Despite Morrison’s impressive version of the song, Patti Smith took it to post-punk heights, not many thought of. Gloria becomes a shambolic masterpiece under the direction of Smith and through her guttural vocals.
13. La Bamba, Los Lobos
The version of La Bamba you thought was sung by tragic pop star, Richie Vallens was probably not his version. Los Lobos recorded a new version of the song for the biopic of Vallens and had a global hit on their hands.
14. Sweet Jane, Cowboy Junkies
The Cowboy Junkies are an influential band that had several hits and influenced many bands with their work. Sweet Jane featured on the soundtrack of the 1994 movie, Natural Born Killers and gave the band a global hit. The original was recorded by The Velvet Underground and is just as impressive in a different way to the cover version.
15. I Fought The Law, The Clash
The Clash recorded several cover versions, with I Fought The Law a punk classic. Several cover versions have been released of The Crickets song that culminated with Joe Strummer’s band achieving chart success. The Clash’s version is closely associated with the version released by The Bobby Fuller Four in 1965.
16. I Only Want To Be With You, The Tourists
Disty Springfield was an original diva of the 1960s and 70s. Springfield’s version of I Only Want To Be With You was topped by The Tourist’s version featuring a young Annie Lennox on lead vocals.
17. I Love Rock & Roll, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
In the early-1980s, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts were beloved by The Sex Pistols and the punk scene. Jett’s most famous song, I Love Rock & Roll was a cover of the song by the little-known English band, The Arrows.
18. I Want Candy, Bow Wow Wow
I Want Candy was one of the biggest hits of 1982 for the English band Bow Wow Wow. The infectious beat was given a new wave feel to remove any memory of the original version by The Strangeloves.
19. Tainted Love, Soft Cell
Marc Almond and David Ball were akin to a British version of Sparks. The cover version of Gloria Jones Tainted Love stands as a classic of the 1980s New Wave era. Gloria Jones was the girlfriend of T-Rex singer, Mark Bolan and recorded a version lacking the sex appeal of Almond’s vocals.
20. Jolene, The White Stripes
Dolly Parton has written some of the greatest songs of the last century and her Jolene is a classic. The song has been covered so many times it is hard to choose the perfect version. Rolling Stone classed The White Stripes version as the definitive cover of a country classic, and we couldn’t agree more!
21. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley
Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has such a unique and interesting meaning behind it. Interestingly, Cohen had to fight his record company to even include Hallelujah in his discography. One of the most covered songs of all time is given extra definition by Jeff Buckley in the wake of his drowning before he truly reached the peak of his abilities.
Next: Saddest songs ever made
22. I Shot the Sheriff, Eric Clapton
The former Cream guitarist has had some tough times but remains one of the most respected guitarists of all time. Bob Marley & The Wailers had already recorded a classic version of the song when Clapton included it on his 461 Ocean Boulevard album. Clapton’s version would become the best-remembered version as reggae took hold of the U.K. charts in the late-1970s.
23. Mad World, Michael Andrews & Gary Jules
Tears for Fears were part of the British invasion of the U.S.in the early-80s and held their position as a favorite for more than a decade. Michael Andrews was scoring the movie, Donnie Darko when he asked Gary Jules to sing the classic Tears for Fears pop song. The original has long been forgotten as the stripped-down version by Andrews and Jules dominates our memories.
24. MacArthur Park, Donna Summer
Actor and sometime crooner Richard Harris created one of the most wonderfully weird musical masterpieces in pop history in MacArthur Park. A complex song about losing a relationship, Harris was outdone by Donna Summer in her disco glory years.
25. Red, Red Wine, UB40
Niel Diamond had recorded a somber ballad about drinking away his blues about lost love. British band, UB40 used a reggae beat for their songs and kept that going with this classic cover version. The Campbell brothers are another set of siblings who have fallen out because of their chart success that peaked with this Neil Diamond cover.
26. Venus, Bananarama
The 1980s were fertile ground for cover versions in the U.K., with Bananarama bringing girl band power to the world. Venus was originally recorded by Shocking Blue in 1969. Nirvana would release a Shocking Blue cover of their own as their first single.
27. Everybody’s Talkin’, Harry Nilsson
Harry Nilsson is famous for being The Beatles’ favorite singer in the 60s and 70s. Nilsson had recorded songs for the movie, Midnight Cowboy but none seemed to suit the needs of the producers. The story goes that Everybody’s Talkin’ was supposed to be used as a guide track for the editors that the producers felt could not be bettered. Fred Neil recorded the original version.
28. Take Me To The River, Talkin’ Heads
The Reverand Al Green recorded the original version of Take me To The River. Talkin’ Heads frontman, David Byrne reimagined the song as a 1980s classic alongside producer Brian Eno. The cover of Green’s song was described by Byrne as being a combination of teenage list and religion.
29. Twist & Shout, The Beatles
Recorded in one take, The Beatles Twist & Shout is one of the classic tunes of the 60s. John Lennon knew the song would destroy his voice and made the decision to leave the song until the end of the recording session. The Isley Brothers recorded the original version, with Lennon claiming a head cold gave his voice its unmistakable rasp.
30. We Can Work It Out, Stevie Wonder
Almost every song by The Beatles has been covered at some point, with Stevie Wonder adding his own twist to the funky cover. The song was originally a plea for a truce with a loved one. Stevie Wonder adds a layer of funkiness that is difficult to match.
31. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper
Cyndi Lauper has become forever linked with two songs, True Colors and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Despite recording the definitive version of Girls Just Wanna have Fun, Lauper was not the first to record the song. Robert Hazard had already released the single when Lauper made it a hit.
32. Killing me Softly, The Fugees
The Fugees were riding a wave of success when they released this cover of the Lori Lieberman song. Roberta Flack had made the original a hit, with Lauryn Hill taking lead vocals on their version. The beat and hip-hop elements date The Fugees version to the 1990s when the band overtook the most famous version from Roberta Flack.
33. Let’s Spend the Night Together, David Bowie
The original song by The Rolling Stones is rightly remembered as a classic of minor importance. Bowie’s version is an improvement on the original for several reasons, including the addition of the glam aesthetic that launched the Starman to stardom.
34. Strawberry Fields Forever, Candy Flip
The electronic dance duo, Candy Flip, gave the world a new version of the classic song by The Beatles in 1990. The duo turned the psychedelic song into a dance floor classic for the Baggy generation.
35. Changes, Charles Bradley
The soul singer Charles Bradley turned a Black Sabbath ballad into a tender tribute to his mother. Ozzy Osbourne’s version of Changes is a completely different animal to that sung by Bradley.
36. You’ve Got A Friend, James Taylor
James Taylor will forever be linked to You’ve Got A Friend but it was not his original song. Carole King wrote the song as a response to Taylor’s sense of loneliness on his Fire and Rain album. King recorded the song herself, before allowing Taylor to cover it and get the biggest hit of his career.
37. These Days, Greg Allman
Choosing between the version of These Days recorded by Nico and Greg Allman is difficult. Both give staggering performances of the Jackson Browne classic in completely different ways. Nico’s vocal performance is impressive, but the soulful tune created by Allman just wins out.
38. I Don’t Need no Doctor, Humble Pie
Ray Charles recorded so many great songs that it is sometimes hard to imagine anybody else singing his songs. Steve Marriott and Humble Pie blow Charles’ version out of the water with this hard-rocking version recorded live. The former Small Faces frontman never sounded as good.
39. Hold On Hope, Glen Campbell
Guided by Voices is a strange choice of cover song for the Rhinestone Cowboy, Glen Cambell. After the success of Johnny Cash’s album of covers, Campbell did the same after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Hold on Hope is given extra resonance because of Campbell’s health issues.
Next: Greatest songs about hope of all time
40. Just Breathe, Willie Nelson
Pearl Jam’s grunge-tinged song is given a new lease of life by the country veteran, Willie Nelson. The song is a classic in its own right, which Nelson pays tribute to alongside Lukas Nelson.
41. The In Crowd, Bryan Ferry
In the 1980s, Bryan Ferry was the coolest man on the planet who dated supermodels and lived the playboy lifestyle. At least, that was the image he chose for himself. The In Crowd is a parody of his image and continues his lounge lizard persona to its natural end. The original by Dobie Gray is an early-60s dancefloor classic.
43. Me and Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin
Before he became a country superstar, Kris Kristofferson was a bonafide songwriting legend. Kristofferson wrote Me and Bobby McGee for Roger Miller and Kenny Rogers. The melancholy song tells the story of the end of an era in American culture, with this one of the last songs Joplin recorded before her death in 1970.
44. Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon, Urge Overkill
Quentin Tarantino went a long way to changing the musical landscape with his first few movies. Including the indie rockers, Urge Overkill’s version of the Neil Diamond standard was inspired. The song is often cited as an example of a cover better than the original.
45. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses were known for their bloated tours and over-produced albums when they recorded this Bob Dylan classic. Axl Rose provides a stunning vocal and Slash gives his usual impressive guitar solo on a piece of soft rock art.
46. Got My Mind Set On You, George Harrison
George Harrison had been through many incarnations in his post-Beatles career, including pop star during his 1987 return to the music scene. Harrison was a keen movie producer and returned to the music studio several times to fund his love of film. Got My Mind Set On You was first heard by Harrison in the 60s and remained a favorite from James Ray.
47. Doin’ Time, Lana Del Rey
Sublime was one of the top indie rock bands of the 1990s and inspired Lana Del Rey to become an artist. The singer covered their classic, Doin’ Time for her sixth album and released it on the same day as a Sublime documentary premiered.
48. Dazed & Confused, Led Zepplin
Jimmy Page and Led Zepplin made Dazed & Confused a hit after Page heard it playing as part of the New Yardbirds. The Yardbirds had copied the song from American Singer-Songwriter, Jake Holmes soon after its release in 1967.
49. Blue Suede Shoes, Elvis Presley
This may be difficult for fans of The King to believe, but he was not the first artist to record Blue Suede Shoes. Carl Perkins had already recorded the song, with Elvis declaring his version a tribute to his friend.
50. C** on Feel the Noize, Quiet Riot
Slade were English leaders of the Glam Rock scene and had a string of hits throughout the 1970s and early-1980s. Quiet Riot made their classic glam rock song a hit with a straight cover that sounded exactly like the original.
51. Across the Universe, Fiona Apple
John Lennon wanted a much harder edge to Across the Universe, at a time when The Beatles were imploding. Fiona Apple’s version would have annoyed Lennon even more because of its dreamy quality that makes it sound like a cross between a dream and a nightmare.
52. Tainted Love, Hannah Peel
Soft Cell’s version of Tainted Love appeared earlier on this list and is joined by Hannah Peel’s cover. Northern Irish singer-songwriter and classical conductor, Peel began her career using a music box as her backing music for a beautiful, dreamy cover of the Gloria Jones classic.
53. Ring of Fire, Wall of Voodoo
Johnny Cash gave Ring of Fire a simple melody that invites artists to give their own take on the song. Wall of Voodoo took their industrial post-punk sound and twisted it to an almost unrecognizable cover of the Johnny Cash country classic.
54. Walk This Way, Run DMC
If Run DMC would have sampled the original version by Aerosmith the course of music history would have been changed forever. Instead, Run DMC chose to record the song with Aerosmith and create a musical collaboration laying the groundwork for rappers working with mainstream artists in the 1980s.
55. Kiss, Art of Noise featuring Tom Jones
The Welsh baritone of Tom Jones juxtaposed perfectly with the original version of this song by Prince. The funky sound of the purple songwriter was given a late-80s update by Art of Noise and Tom Jones.
56. Dedicated to the One I Love, The Mamas and Papas
The Shirelles classic was covered by The Mamas and Papas to truly improve on the original. The romantic harmonies of The Mamas and Papas change the feel of the Motown classic into a beloved family favorite.
57. Whiskey in a Jar, Metallica
The best cover songs take a song and change it into a new version. Irish rock band, Thin Lizzy had been annoyed at their record company for releasing a cover of the Irish folk song, Whiskey in a Jar. Phil Lynott would have been happier with Metallica’s version that took the folk song into rock and roll territory.
58. A Little Help From My Friends, Joe Cocker
The Beatles had given A Little Help From My Friends to Ringo Starr and abandoned the song as a novelty. Joe Cocker was a powerful performer, with a voice from the gutter who elevated the song to become more powerful than ever. Performing the song at Woodstock made Cocker a superstar.
59. Trapped, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen has a long history of returning to his bar singer days to fill his hours-long shows with covers. At the We Are The World Benefit Concert, Springsteen and his band stole the show with Jimmy Cliff’s Trapped. The usual swagger of the Boss adds to the desperation of the material.
60. Because The Night, Bruce Springsteen
There is a little controversy about this choice because Springsteen wrote the original with Patti Smith. Smith’s version was released first and became a hit. Springsteen released his version later and changed the lyrics and melody to create a completely different song.
61. Torn, Natalie Imbruglia
Former soap opera actress Natalie Imbruglia has made Torn her own song. However, the song was first recorded in Danish by Lis Sorenson, followed by several bands and artists. Imbruglia had a global hit with the song in 1997.
62. American Woman, Lenny Kravitz
In 1999, Lenny Kravitz recorded his version of American Woman and made the song popular again. The Guess Who had released their version of the song way back in March 1970 without the hard rock edge of Kravitz.
63. Love Hurts, Gram Parsons & the Grievous Angel
Written by Boudleaux Bryant and recorded by The Everly brothers in 1960, Love Hurts has become a pop, rock, and country staple. The country stars, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris recorded a duet of the song in a country and western style. Released after Parsons’ 1973 death, the song has become a classic of early country-rock.
64. I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Marvin Gaye
I Heard It Through The Grapevine will always be linked to Marvin Gaye. The song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Motown Records. Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded a version of the song that would be eclipsed by Marvin Gaye’s version.
65. I Feel For You, Chaka Khan
Prince wrote some of the best-known songs of the 1980s, including Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You. Prince released his version on his self-titled 1979 album without having the impact of the disco diva.
Next: The best disco songs of all time
66. Always on my Mind, Pet Shop Boys
Written as a country and western standard for Brenda Lee, Always on my Mind has been covered by many artists. The U.K.’s Pet Shop Boys gave the song a pop twist in 1987. The song drew heavily from the Elvis Presley version that increased the pop leanings of the song.
67. All Along The Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix
Written by Bob Dylan in the wake of his motorcycle accident in the mid-60s, All Along the Watchtower has stripped-back production values. Jimi Hendrix brought his charisma and expert guitar playing to his cover version just one year after the Dylan version was released. Dylan was so impressed by Hendrix’s version he has played it in the guitarist’s style ever since it was released.
The best cover songs are often completed by artists in different genres. As Bob Dyland explained when discussing Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along The Watchtower, another artist can find new directions to take a song as they deconstruct and reconstruct it for themselves.
There have been so many great songs throughout the years, as well as even greater covers to those same songs! Oftentimes, the song that is played on the radio and really hits it big in popular culture and media isn’t actually the original version of the song.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.