Among the most affecting songs out right now is Willie Nelson’s cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” for that wildly popular Chipotle commercial about sustainable food.
It got us thinking: what other cover songs are actually better than the original recording?
We wanted to gather 17 examples where an artist gave a song new meaning, unlocking its true potential and making it their own.
There was only one rule: it had to be a recorded song, not an impromptu performance (however in some instances we’ve included the videos of live versions, and also when a live version became a well-known recording).
Check it out:
17) Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
As you’ll notice on this list, many artists’ entire legacies are defined by a cover song — like this one:
16) Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar,” first recorded by Delaney and Bonnie (and then by The Carpenters)
It also seems like artists choose darker or more fraught songs to cover. This song was written by Leon Russell for the folk folk rock duo Delaney and Bonnie, but was made famous by The Carpenters. Sonic Youth’s version is part of their many haunting tributes to Karen Carpenter, who died at 33 from anorexia nerviosa.
15) Galaxie 500’s cover of “Listen The Snow Is Falling” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
The most quietly awesome band of the ’80s rescued this song from its cheeky bed-in connotations and turned it into something gorgeous:
14) Manfred Mann’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light”
Candidate for most ’70s song of the ’70s:
13) Type O Negative’s cover of “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts
A terrible ’70s AM radio song rendered awesome by the most unsung band of the alternative era:
12) Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails
Cash made a career out of covers, and he may ended his career with arguably his greatest ever:
11) The Dream Academy’s “Please Please Please” by The Smiths
Most Smiths songs are basically untouchable, but here’s an example where the original contained a tentative stab at overproduction. The Dream Academy realised what decade they were in, and that if you were going to go that route, you can’t go half-hearted. So they added a string section, an oboe, and backing vocals.
10) Nirvana’s cover of “Lake Of Fire” by the Meat Puppets
An example of a superior artist helping a song realise its true potential.
9) Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson
Another example of a career-making cover:
8) Isaac Hayes’ cover of “Walk on By,” first recorded by Dionne Warwick
Warwick never had a chance after Hayes released this epic 12-minute electric “vamp” through this Bacharach and David tune.
7) The Carpenters’ cover of “Close To You,” first recorded by Richard Chamberlain
The Carpenters’s version of this song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, was so huge that they rendered Richard Chamberlain into a permanent trivia question.
6) The Fugees’ cover of “Killing Me Softly,” first recorded by Robert Flack
Yet another example where a group jumped into the pantheon of all-time greats via cover:
5) Ryan Adams’ cover of “Wonderwall” by Oasis
Perhaps the best and greatest example on this list of an artist changing an entire song’s meaning through his own version:
4) Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Because The Night,” first recorded by Patti Smith
We made an exception here: Springsteen actually co-wrote this song but never released a recorded version. But he did eventually record a live version that is absolutely breathtaking.
Dylan was so thrilled by Hendrix’s version that he began playing it in his style.
2) Sinead O’Connor’s cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Prince
The video got a lot of attention, but the song itself never fails to stun. Another example of an artist practically basically taking ownership of the original.
1) Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton
Bar none the greatest cover of all time.
Bonus*: Madonna’s Cover of “American Pie” by Don McLean
BI editor Joe Weisenthal insisted we add this cover to this list to drive home the point that McLean’s original is the most overrated and derivative song of all time.
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