What makes a good cover?
In short, a good cover should be a reinterpretation of the original song, while still respecting the source material.
Think of it this way: the original song is like a really great house. In it, you have a strong foundation and a solid roof over your head. So your job is to simply nest and make it your own: splash a new coat of paint on the walls, hang some art to reflect your taste, maybe add a carport. But don’t act like some disrespectful dirtbag and come in and trash the place. Otherwise, why didn’t you just build your own crappy house to destroy?
A cover shouldn’t be different just for the sake of being different. That feels contrived and it lets us, the listener, know that the musician actually had nothing to say. Thanks for wasting our time, by the way. Have a point of view!
Additionally, a cover should not be done simply to stroke an artist’s ego: we don’t need yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” just because someone thinks their voice is God’s gift to music and we would all be lucky to hear their version. Listeners can tell when a cover is being made out of sheer narcissism and you know what? We don’t like it. Get over yourself.
**Now a quick note: sorry Gleeks, but I decided to discount any Glee (or other television cast) covers for the sake of this list. I limited my selections strictly to career recording artists, not actors or versions used exclusively as a narrative device in a film, TV show, or musical.**
Let’s begin the covers countdown…
20. “Only You” by Vince Clarke & performed by Yazoo , as covered by Joshua Radin
Joshua Radin’s gentle version recalls the upbeat synth sounds of the original, but makes it more intimate. This time the song is less a declaration of love in a public arena, and is more of a sweet confession between two souls.
Check out a live version below.
All I needed was the love you gave
All I needed for another day
And all I ever knew
19. “Sea of Love” by Phil Phillips, as covered by Cat Power
Cat Power takes this seemingly innocent song—first recorded in 1959—and adds inescapable layers of intimacy and come-hitherness. It was charming before, but her vocals make this inviting version downright seductive.
Come with me my love
To the sea
The sea of love
I want to tell you
How much I love you
18. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, as covered by The Puppini Sisters
Want to hear a surprising, yet impressively compatible reinterpretation of a mega disco hit? Check out the Puppini Sisters cheeky rendition of “I Will Survive“. The group takes their ’40s-era-throwback vocal harmonizing style (think the Andrews Sisters or the chicks in the movie White Christmas) and creates a playful version of this empowering anthem for the broken-hearted everywhere.
Oh no, not I
I will survive
oh as long as i know how to love
I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
I’ve got all my love to give
and I’ll survive
I will survive
17. “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” by Whitney Houston, as covered by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
This is an awesome cover band comprised of prominent punk musicians who rotate in and out frequently. The band has quite a large cannon of great covers.
This cover takes a song that, in its original recording and (in my humble opinion), is steeped in too much sentimentality and turns it into a fiery rock howl. The Gimme Gimme’s version takes the title and makes it a question that demands to be answered, not one to be pondered (or weeped) over.
Where do broken hearts go
Can they find their way home
Back to the open arms
Of a love that’s waiting there
And if somebody loves you
Won’t they always love you
I look in your eyes
And I know that you still care, for me
16. “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones, as covered by Franco Battiato
I think this is better than the original (sorry Stones fans! Don’t hate!). What can I say? This cover captures your attention with its subtle build and semi-classical sound. Also, it gets major points for its inclusion in the underrated movie, Children of Men.
There’s no time to lose, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams
And you may lose your mind.
Ain’t life unkind?
15. “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder, as covered by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
The classic funk song by Stevie Wonder gets injected with an infectious sense of urgency. This version has a great forward momentum and, really, isn’t that what rock is all about? Some of my contemporaries will remember it from its use in the campy-but-lovable film, Center Stage.
I’m so darn glad he let me try it again
Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’
Till I reach the highest ground
14. “Feeling Good” written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd and then later recorded by Nina Simone, as covered by Muse
What makes this cover interesting is the juxtaposition of alternative band Muse’s musical style with the song’s original jazz core. Lead singer Matthew Bellamy’s voice is able to carry the song through its soulful depths and to bring a bit of intrigue to a version that rivals (though, does not necessarily best) Simone’s.
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
13. “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster (performed by Roger Miller), as covered by Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin recorded this version just before her death in 1970, and it posthumously became a number one single (only the second time such a thing happened in all of rock history; the first posthumous single released being Otis Redding‘s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”). Her raw, can’t-be-contained-bluesy voice exposes a surprising amount of vulnerability in the song’s narrator.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,
Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, now now.
And feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues,
You know feeling good was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.
12. “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)” by Pete Seeger, as covered by The Byrds
Pete Seeger is a legendary songwriter and musical icon. His music is woven into the fabric of American culture (“This Land is your Land” anyone?). His work has been covered by countless musicians.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” and its cover by The Byrds (released in 1965) is a beautiful and moving song with a passionate plea at its core. The Byrds’s version expertly conveys the joy and pain articulated in the lyrics without ever being heavy handed. It’s a classic for a reason.
Fun fact! Most of the lyrics were lifted from a section of Ecclesiastes of the King James Bible.
A time to build up,a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
To everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
11. “Thirteen” by Big Star, as covered by Elliott Smith
Smith’s version isn’t much of a departure from the original, but this is an example where the combination of the song and the musician covering it seems like a match made in heaven. Smith’s voice lends itself perfectly to the lyrics and perfectly evokes the sweet longing of “Thirteen[‘s]” narrator.
Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?
Would you be an outlaw for my love?
If it’s so, well, let me know
If it’s “no,” well, I can go
I won’t make you.
10. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by Judy Garland, as covered by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole gives the beloved Wizard of Oz tune a magical ukulele treatment. The result? A truly great example of a cover song with a unique point of view and no gimmickry.
Unless you are made of stone, his version will seriously tug at your heartstrings.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
High above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me
9. “Top of the World” by Patty Griffin, as covered by the Dixie Chicks
This is a devastating song about regret and missed chances. The violin accompaniment by Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines’ voice, in particular, slowly but surely elevate the song to a chilling level of etherealness.
I wished I’d had known you
Wished I had shown you
All of the things I
Was on the inside
I’d pretend to be sleeping
When you’d come in, in the morning
To whisper goodbye
Go to work in the rain
I don’t know why
Don’t know why
8. “I Fought the Law” (written by Sonny Curtis) by The Crickets, as covered by The Clash
Didn’t know this version in all its socially aware, punk-rock glory was actually a cover of a 1959 song by The Crickets (minus Buddy Holly)? Well, now you do. Fiercely urgent and packed with frenetic energy, The Clash make this song truly come to life.
Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won
I needed money ’cause I had none
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won
7. “Somewhere” from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein), as covered by Tom Waits
There’s a place for us
A time and a place for us
Hold my hand and we’re half way there
Hold my hand
And I’ll take you there
6. “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen, as covered by Bettye LaVette
This is an incredible example of an artist making another artist’s song truly her own. LaVette takes this weighty, Oscar-winning song (used in the 1993 film Philadelphia) and makes you forget that it is a cover at all. Not an easy feat, given the source material. LaVette’s emotionally resonant voice injects the song with an impressive amount of soul, giving this version two strong legs to stand on. It’s the same song with a different emotional impact.
The night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake,
I can feel myself fading away,
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss,
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the Streets of Philadelphia
5. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley, as covered by Ingrid Michaelson
This beautiful cover takes a beloved classic and reminds us that new life can always be breathed into a song with such a universally understood confession of honesty at its core. Michaelson’s stripped down version is painfully vulnerable; you’ll feel as if you are looking directly into this lover’s soul.
Fun fact! This version can currently be heard scoring the trailer for the upcoming movie Like Crazy. It won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and looks like it will devastate me when I finally see it. Watch the trailer here. I am willing to put money on the fact that you will get a little teary watching the teaser as well. No? You were just chopping onions. Ok. Sure.
Like a river flows so surely to the sea
Oh my darling so it goes
Some things are meant to be
So won’t you please take my hand, and take my whole life too
Cause I can’t help falling in love, in love with you
Cause I can’t help falling in love, falling in love,
I keep falling in love with you
4. “Twist and Shout” by Phil Medley and Bert Russell and originally recorded by The Top Notes, as covered by The Beatles
This song was originally entitled “Shake It Up, Baby” and was a hit for The Isley Brothers in 1962, before being recorded by The Beatles in 1963. As the story goes, this was the last song the Fab Four recorded for their album, Please Please Me. John Lennon—singing lead vocals on the song—was suffering from a sore and weary throat after a long day in the studio. Strangely enough, his pain was our gain: that rough-around-the-edges voice ripping through the music is what helped give this “Twist and Shout” cover its trademark sound. The Beatles’ version managed to capture a sense of joyful abandon that simply isn’t present in other recordings.
You know you twist your little girl
(Twist your little girl)
You know you twist so fine
(Twist so fine)
Come on and twist a little closer, now
(Twist a little closer)
And let me know that you’re mine
(Let me know you’re mine)
3. “Hurt” by Nine inch Nails, as covered by Johnny Cash
The Man in Black covered this song by industrial rockers, Nine Inch Nails, just before his death. His surprising version is bold, grim, and unbelievably poignant. The Grammy Award-winning video shows Cash pulling back the curtain to reveal a person of deep regret, painful scars, and incredible depth.
Notable Lyrics from “Hurt“
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
2. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, as covered by Jeff Buckley
It seems this song has been covered to death by everyone and their mother (with slight differences in the last two verses). In my opinion, it’s Jeff Buckley’s haunting version that has the most soulful execution. I know a lot of people who prefer the Rufus Wainwright cover version—I am here to say that they are just wrong (no disrespect to Wainwright). My pick for a close second to Buckley’s version: Brandi Carlile‘s live cover (available on iTunes) is nothing short of capital-R-Raw.
Notable Lyrics from “Hallelujah“
Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
Well it goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
1. “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan, as covered by Jimi Hendrix
This version by guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix seems to be synonymous with the Woodstock legend. Not an easy feat considering it was penned by another American music icon, Bob Dylan. This may just be the penultimate cover. But don’t listen to me. Let the music do the talking.
Notable Lyrics from “All Along the Watchtower“
There must be some kind of way out of here
Said the joker to the theif
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Business men they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the wine
Nobody of it is worth