13 Cover Songs That Are Better Than The Originals
Left to Right: Jeff Buckley, Aretha Franklin and Joe Cocker.
From The Beatles and Joe Cocker to Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nails, some songs become magically improved upon when left in the (equally-talented) hands of another artist.
Sometimes it takes another artists interpretation of a song to really help you appreciate the complexities of the original. Or, as often happens, you don’t realize it’s a cover because it achieved greater success than the original while in the capable hands of another performer—we’re looking at you, “Hound Dog.”
While some versions are undeniably superior to the original, like Johnny Cash’s heartbreaking rendition of the Nine Inch Nails track “Hurt”, others leave listeners more divided—for example, is it even possible to choose between The Beatles’ and Joe Cocker’s versions of “With A Little Help From My Friends” when both are stylistically different but equally compelling.
In the end, as with any art form, it all boils down to the preference of the audience.
Here, we compile a list of cover songs many music fans and critics believe are better than the originals—and it’s up to you to decide it you agree or disagree.
Song: “With A Little Help From My Friends”
Original: The Beatles (1967)
Cover: Joe Cocker (1968)
Original: Nine Inch Nails (1994)
Cover: Johnny Cash (2002)
Trent Reznor of the American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails penned this Grammy-nominated song for the groups second studio album, The Downward Spiral. The song references severe depression, self-harm and heroin addiction and was a major success for the band upon its initial release.
Song: “All Along the Watchtower”
Original: Bob Dylan (1967)
Cover: Jimi Hendrix (1968)
From his album John Wesley Harding, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s folksy “All Along the Watchtower” has become a staple on his subsequent greatest hits and live concert compilations. However, the American poet enjoyed a brief moment in the sun with his song before it was made infinitely more well-known a mere six months later when Jimi Hendrix recorded a psychedelic version for his album, Electric Ladyland.
Song: “Hound Dog”
Original: Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1952)
Cover: Elvis Presley (1956)
Originally recorded by blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, “Hound Dog” was written as a twelve-bar blues song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952. Although the song was the only major hit for Thornton, it has since been recorded more than 250 times by various artists and is credited as one of the great influencers behind helping the evolution of black R&B into rock n’ roll territory.
Song: “Me & Bobby McGee”
Original: Roger Miller (1969)
Cover: Janis Joplin (1971)
Co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, “Me & Bobby McGee” weaves the story of two young drifters who hitch a ride from a truck driver. When the couple eventually go their separate ways when they reach California, the narrator expresses his regret as seeing her—Bobby McGee—go.
Song: “Twist and Shout”
Original: Isley Brothers (1962)
Cover: The Beatles (1963)
The song, written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, was originally recorded by The Top Notes in 1961, but didn’t become a bona fide chart topper until it was released as a single by the Isley Brothers the following year.
Over the years, “Twist and Shout” has been covered by several artists, but none to greater levels of popularity than The Beatles’ version. In July 1963, the track became the first release from the band’s first UK record. A week after the song’s release, it made the EP bestseller list and remained at the top for 10 weeks.
Song: “I Will Always Love You”
Original: Dolly Parton (1974)
Cover: Whitney Houston (1992)
The soundtrack for the 1992 thriller, The Bodyguard, sold more than 17 million copies in the U.S.—and fans have Whitney Houston’s stunning cover of “I Will Always Love You” to thank. Houston had the uncanny ability to infuse her songs with an added layer of emotional depth—and never was that more apparent than when she tackled the doomed romance featured in “I Will Always Love You.” As the Hollywood Reporter wrote in their tribute to Houston’s cover, “It’s a gospel singer’s touch.”
Song: “The Man Who Sold The World”
Original: David Bowie (1970)
Cover: Nirvana (1993)
The title track of his third studio album, the song “The Man Who Sold The World” was a modest hit for David Bowie. Although he performed it off and on during his live performances throughout the years, it wasn’t one of his most iconic songs. It was ultimately the grunge band Nirvana’s 1993 live performance on MTV Unplugged that breathed new life into the song and introduced it to an entirely new generation.
Song: “Dazed and Confused”
Original: Jake Holmes (1967)
Cover: Led Zeppelin (1968)
A blues-rock song written and performed by Jake Holmes, “Dazed and Confused” chronicles the break-up of a longterm relationship. Although the song was first covered by the Yardbirds, it was the version put forward by Led Zeppelin that is most fondly remembered. Featured on the group’s self-titled debut album, it featured long stretches of improvisation during live sets—even running as long as 40 minutes in some performances. Zeppelin also upped the ante on theatrics—this was one of only three songs where guitarist Jimmy Page used a violin bow on his guitar.
Song: “Mr. Tambourine Man”
Original: Bob Dylan (1965)
Cover: The Byrds (1965)
There’s usually at least a year or two in between a song’s original release and a cover rendition, but this was not the case with Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Written, composed and performed by Dylan in 1965 (for his album, Bringing It All Back Home), the song reached No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart—but as a song by The Byrds.
Original: Otis Redding (1965)
Cover: Aretha Franklin (1967)
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, is what we should all give Aretha Franklin for her powerful R&B rendition of the Otis Redding original. Thanks to minor revisions to the lyrics, Franklin’s version became a landmark in the feminist movement and one of her signature songs. Hers is told from the viewpoint of a strong, confident woman who knows her self-worth. Redding’s, by comparison, chronicles the life of a desperate man who will do anything he can to keep his lady love by his side.
And it was Franklin’s version that added the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to the chorus and the backup singers’ refrain of “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me…”
Original: Dolly Parton (1973)
Cover: The White Stripes (2004)
It’s one of renowned singer-songwriter Dolly Parton’s most memorable tracks. Originally released in 1973, it ranked No. 217 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Centred on a heart-wrenching plea from a woman who fears losing her man to the beautiful and charming Jolene, the song is the most frequently covered track in Parton’s extensive catalogue.
Original: Leonard Cohen (1984)
Cover: Jeff Buckley (1994)
This one tends to generate the most debate when it comes to discussing cover versions of popular songs. Leonard Cohen loyalists may even find it difficult to admit that, for many, Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is the most memorable incarnation of the song.