44 Best Cover Songs That Live Up to the Originals

There are some stunningly good cover versions of songs out there, sometimes even better than the original recording. As you’re about to see, some of your favorite songs might actually fall into this camp.

So check out this comprehensive list of the best cover songs below. A few might surprise you!

All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix

Folk icon Bob Dylan wrote a slew of songs, including ‘All Along the Watchtower’ at his rural home in Woodstock, NY, after a serious motorcycle crash. The tune appeared on his album, John Wesley Harding. But it wasn’t until Dylan fan and fellow artist Jimi Hendrix got a hold of the song and covered it that it experienced a rise in popularity.

Related: Find this song on our list of the best rock songs.

Valerie – Amy Winehouse

Her sultry vocals and stirring performance of the Zutons’ ‘Valerie’ earned Amy Winehouse continuous praise for her emotional rendition of the romantic song. Supposedly, the groovy tune was written about a makeup artist, Valerie Star, who used to date a member of the British band.

Related: Here is our list of songs about women.

Just Breathe – Willie Nelson

Country artists in the “outlaw” category, such as Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, have long enjoyed covering alternative music not usually performed by more traditional artists. Many remember Cash’s gripping cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ recorded towards the end of his career. For Willie Nelson, he tackled Pearl Jam’s ‘Just Breathe.’ He performed the cover live with fellow vocalist (and son!) Lukas Nelson at a Farm Aid concert in 2013.

Related: Relax with the best breathe songs.

Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley

There aren’t many songs with as much staying power as Jeff Buckley’s cover of ‘Hallelujah.’ Songwriter Leonard Cohen originally wrote the biblical tune, but it only saw modest success. Buckley’s intimate, breathy vocals overlaying paired down production made ‘Hallelujah’ the song of choice for fans to play on repeat after his sudden death in 1997.

Related: Remember your loved one with these celebration of life songs for funerals.

Cocaine – Eric Clapton

Blues-rock musician J.J. Cale avoided the spotlight, but that didn’t stop him from leaving a vast musical legacy behind after he passed away in 2013. In 1976, he wrote a stormy tune about drug addiction called ‘Cocaine.’ When blues guitarist Eric Clapton covered the moody song for his album Slowhand in 1977, his powerful performance forever made ‘Cocaine’ a Clapton staple.

Related: More songs about addiction. Hear the original version on our pick of the best J.J. Cale tracks.

Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon – Urge Overkill

Pop star and hit songwriter Neil Diamond wrote ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ in 1967, which peaked in the top ten of the pop charts. But Urge Overkill’s version of the Diamond classic is etched in cinema history by being included in the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s cult film favorite Pulp Fiction, which debuted in 1994.

Related: See more Pulp Fiction soundtrack songs.

Make You Feel My Love – Adele

Perhaps one of the most romantic songs ever written is ‘Make You Feel My Love.’ It’s no wonder, Bob Dylan, a songwriter whose sensitivity has always shone through in his work, wrote this simple yet powerful confessionalist song. Country legend Garth Brooks covered the tune in the late ’90s for the film Hope Floats. And Adele included the most intimate version of the song yet on her 2008 record 19.

Related: Hear this song on our list of second chance at love songs.

I Fought the Law – The Clash

The rebellious tune is often associated with The Clash as an original composition for the punk rockers. But believe it or not, Crickets crooner Buddy Holly was the first to record this outlaw song right before his tragic death due to a plane crash. Over the years, even though The Clash’s version reigns supreme, other artists, including Green Day and Hank WIlliams, Jr., have covered the song.

Related: Sneak over to our playlist of songs about crime.

Superstar – Sonic Youth

A group of songwriters, including Bonnie Bramlett, Leon Russell, and Delaney Bramlett, originally wrote ‘Superstar.’ Vocalist Rita Coolidge thought of the idea for the song while observing groupies’ strained relationships with rockstar musicians. Eric Clapton even played guitar on the original recording, with the popular group The Carpenters eventually recording a favored cover. Indie-alt. group Sonic Youth became one of many to release another cover when they recorded the song for the film Juno.

Related: Listen to more Juno songs.

Hurt – Johnny Cash

“And you could have it all. My empire of dirt.” Nine Inch Nails band leader Trent Reznor is a phenomenal songwriter. Using simple words, he can convey big, powerful messages and lessons that knock listeners off their feet. Cash’s critically-acclaimed cover of ‘Hurt’ builds on that concept. With a lone piano note droning in the background and Cash’s ever-gritty vocals, his haunting resurrection of ‘Hurt’ became the perfect, lasting high note that allowed him to ride off into the sunset valiantly.

Related: Going through a rough patch? Here are some songs about hurting.

Jolene – The White Stripes

Dolly Parton penned the original ‘Jolene’, of course. Jack White kicks the paired-down country song up a couple of notches with his White Stripes cover from their 2000 album Hello Operator. Over slowly building drums, White adds hints of desperation as his voice cracks and moans while passionately singing lines like, “With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green. Your smile is like a breath of spring.”

Killing Me Softly – The Fugees

American singer-songwriter Lori Leiberman was swindled out of receiving songwriting credits for her hand in writing ‘Killing Me Softly.’ In protest, she released the song herself in 1972. Though it didn’t chart, other artists took note and recorded their own versions. The most notable are Roberta Flack’s rendition and the ’90s group, The Fugees. After the mainstream success of the Fugees’ release, Flack paired up with them to re-release the song and perform it live together.

Related: Sing along with the best songs for karaoke.

I Shot the Sheriff – Eric Clapton

Reggae artist Bob Marley wrote and recorded ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ with his band, the Wailers, back in 1973. But Eric Clapton’s cover version a year later sparked the attention of music critics and mainstream music consumers. The soft-rock bluesy cover added Clapton’s signature electric guitar work, harmonies, and keyboard. The number one hit eventually found a spot as an inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Related: Get to work with the best songs about professions.

Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor

Written as a side project for his band, the Family, Prince released his song ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ with the group in 1985. Five years later, the Prince original would become a global hit for Irish artist Sinead O’Connor.

Related: This also appears on our playlist of best ’90s songs.

The Man Who Sold the World – Nirvana

Grunge rock royalty Nirvana covered a few iconic tunes for their live MTV Unplugged concert in 1993. Besides covering a haunting rendition of Lead Belly’s ‘In the Pines,’ frontman Kurt Cobain also tackled David Bowie’s classic, ‘The Man Who Sold the World.’ It’s a great cover to be fair.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Originally composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg, the duo wrote the comforting tune for Judy Garland to sing in the classic film, The Wizard of Oz. In 1993, Hawaiian ukulele player and singer Israel Kamakawiwoʻole was struck by a brilliant idea at three in the morning that made him take a quick middle-of-the-night trip to a recording studio. For his album Facing Future, he recorded a medley, combining ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ with Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World.’

Related: This song features on our playlist of living life songs.

Proud Mary – Ike and Tina Turner

John Fogerty’s vocals wail over this Creedence Clearwater original, later covered by the dynamic duo Ike and Tina Turner. With freedom at its center, Fogerty uses a fabled steamboat as his form of escape from “the man.” Though CCR’s version combines a languid blues rhythm with powerful vocals, Tina Turner kicks it up a notch with a horn section, and the band eventually plays in double time.

Red Red Wine – UB40

One of the reggae genre’s most recognizable songs was written by soft rock/pop artist Neil Diamond. The ‘Sweet Caroline’ crooner wrote ‘Red Red Wine’ in 1967 about a man who uses alcohol to soothe his troubles. UB40’s popular cover became a number one hit in the UK. If requested in a bar, you bet the band will play UB40’s reggae version.

Related: Here’s a toast to more songs about wine.

Respect – Aretha Franklin

A pioneer of the rhythm and blues movement, songwriter Otis Redding originally wrote the empowering anthem ‘Respect.’ While Redding’s release of the song became a genre-crushing hit for him, Franklin’s rendition received even more praise and accolades due to her stirring performance.

Related: Listen to the best respect songs.

Take Me to the River – Talking Heads

Soul singer Al Green grew up in a deeply religious household and would eventually even become a minister himself. His strong faith helped inspire him to write ‘Take Me to the River’ while meditating on the ritual of baptism one day. Many major artists would go on to cover the tune, including Annie Lennox and the Grateful Dead. The Talking Heads’ cover charted in multiple countries and helped raise funds for Green’s church he built in the mid-70s (from the royalties he received).

Related: Float away with our songs about rivers list.

Common People – William Shatner

A genre-defining song for “Britpop,” ‘Common People’ was originally written by members of the band Pulp. In one of the most surprising twists of fate possible in the music realm, Star Trek alum William Shatner partnered with producer Ben Folds (Ben Folds Five) to record a spoken word-heavy cover of the track. Though Shatner’s musical work hadn’t been taken seriously before, his dynamic rendition received high praise from critics. It also helped that Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker was a huge “trekkie.”

Twist and Shout – The Beatles

R&B group the Top Notes were the first to record this dance number written by songwriters Phil Medley and Bert Berns in 1961. The first group to experience chart success with ‘Twist and Shout’ was the Isley Brothers when they recorded it a year later in ’62. The Beatles’ version became defining for them after its release on their album Please, Please Me. Their version experienced a resurgence in the ’80s when Ferris lip-synced to it at a New York parade in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Related: Enjoy more songs from the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack.

Mad World – Gary Jules & Michael Andrews

This ’80s classic was initially released by Tears for Fears, with Roland Orzabal credited as the writer and band bassist Curt Smith providing vocals. Many artists have gone on to cover ‘Mad World.’ Music publication Billboard Magazine named Gary Jules’ and Michael Andrews’ cover one of the best interpretations of the track.

Related: See this song on the Donnie Darko music soundtrack.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper

’80s pop star Cyndi Lauper’s cover of Robert Hazard’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is the most famous remake of this mainstream hit. A song paying tribute to women who embrace the party lifestyle, Lauper’s cover also contains a sample of the catchy Redbone tune, ‘Come and Get Your Love.’

Related: Find encouragement on our list of women empowerment songs.

Tainted Love – Soft Cell

Though the original version of ‘Tainted Love’ by vocalist Gloria Jones (in 1964) didn’t chart well, it became a go-to song in England’s “Northern Soul” movement. It wasn’t until the 1980s, with Soft Cell’s synthed-up version, that the song became a mainstream track. Marilyn Manson’s industrial rock version in 2001 has helped the single stay top-of-mind through the decades.

Related: Love a bit of ’80s? Check out our playlist of the best 80s songs then.

Always on My Mind – Pet Shop Boys

Vocalist Brenda Lee, etched in holiday history due to her cheery classic ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,’ was the first to record ‘Always on My Mind.’ Songwriting trio Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher, and Mark James wrote the tune, and its universal romantic message has made it a popular cover over the years. Artists, including Pet Shop Boys and country icon Willie Nelson, have released memorable renditions.

Related: Made a mistake? Oops. Here are the best regretting songs.

Without You – Harry Nilsson

Badfinger bandmates Tom Evans and Pete Ham wrote ‘Without You’ in 1970. The tormented ballad has become a widely covered song with over 180 artists, including Mariah Carey trying their hand with the track. But it’s Harry Nilsson’s version that has become his signature song, so much so that many don’t realize he didn’t write it himself.

Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin

Country songwriter Kris Kristofferson penned this classic about two traveling lovers who eventually drift apart. Originally, Bobby was actually a woman. But when Janis Joplin shook up the country track and made it a powerhouse blues/country-rock hit, she didn’t have too much trouble changing the gender to fit her story. The cover appears on her landmark album, Pearl.

Related: Groove to our playlist of 70’s songs.

Benny and the Jets – Biz Markie and the Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys have built up a cult-like following over the years, getting their start with mainstream success in the ’80s. In ’99, they made a seemingly odd pick by covering Elton John’s hit song ‘Benny and the Jets’ by Barry Taupin. The oddity worked. Their cover has become one of their most popular tracks among fans.

Satisfaction – Devo

English rock band, The Rolling Stones, first recorded and released ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ in 1965. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song is pure rock and roll with a protest element. Devo recorded and released the song in ’78 because they thought it was very “on-brand” for their group. Upon hearing Devo’s cover of the tune for the first time, Jagger supposedly danced around the room shouting, “I like it!”

Hotel California – The Gypsy Kings

The Gypsy Kings added Spanish flavor to the Eagles’ haunting original, ‘Hotel California.’ Eagles band members wrote the hit as a criticism of the glitz and glamor they had to deal with more and more as they became internationally in-demand artists.

Related: Thought you’d heard this before? This classic cover also appears on the Big Lebowski soundtrack.

I Can’t Quit You Baby – Led Zeppelin

The blues deeply influenced the ’70s rock sensation Led Zeppelin. They’d often cover blues classics both live and on their recordings. In the case of ‘I Can’t Quite You Baby,’ they put their own spin on a Willie Dixon original first recorded by Chicago bluesman Otis Rush.

My Way – Sid Vicious

Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious was a key factor in the ultimate demise of the punk rock group. One of his last recordings was a startling cover of lounge crooner Paul Anka’s smooth single, ‘My Way.’ Though Sid’s is well-remembered, primarily for its shock value, Frank Sinatra’s graceful, empowered cover of Anka’s original is the most sought-after version.

Related: This track is played in the closing credits of the classic Scorsese gangster movie, Goodfellas. Go to our playlist of music from Goodfellas.

You’ve Got A Friend – James Taylor

One of America’s most prolific songwriters, Carole King, originally wrote the heartfelt number, ‘You’ve Got a Friend.’ When James Taylor covered her tune, she was delighted. The two have performed the song together many times over the years for live shows.

Related: Celebrate your buddies with the best songs for friends.

Across the Universe – David Bowie

The Beatles’ ‘Across the Universe’ was a John Lennon composition which almost never made it onto the album, Let it Be. “It’s one of my favourite songs, but I didn’t like my version of it” he’s on record as saying. In 1975 he got a chance to right that wrong. David Bowie decided to do a version of the song for his album Young Americans, and invited his idol John Lennon to the studio to help him with it (Lennon plays rhythm on the track). They recorded that other Bowie classic, ‘Fame’ (where Lennon joins him on vocals), straight after. Not bad for a night’s work.

Related: Blast off to our playlist of universe songs.

Life on Mars? – Seu Jorge

David Bowie’s masterpiece ‘Life on Mars’ takes some beating. This version by Brazilian Seu Jorge is sung in Portuguese and accompanied with a classical guitar, giving a whole new feel to the song.

Related: This song appears in the ecclectic Wes Anderson movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Borderline – The Flaming Lips

Written by Reggie Lucas, Madonna’s first hit was the sugar-pop track, ‘Borderline.’ The Flaming Lips traded in ’80s synth harmonies and electronic keys for a slow-building dynamic remix of Madonna’s early claim to fame. The band is not one to shy away from pop covers. They also released a cover version of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head.’

With a Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker

In 1967, The Beatles released their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club which would become one of the band’s most cherished projects. On that album is a little ditty called ‘A Little Help From My Friends.’ Joe Cocker took the McCartney/Lennon hit and reworked it, changing the title slightly to ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’ It went on to be a massively successful release for him as well.

A Case of You – Prince

“Part of you pours out of me from time to time in these lines.” Critics have called ‘A Case of You’ one of folk songwriter Joni Mitchell’s best songs. She wrote it after her tough breakup with fellow musician Graham Nash. Prince captures every ounce of vulnerability and emotion with his heart-tugging rendition, which debuted in 2002.

Strawberry Fields Forever – Candy Flip

The Beatles are possibly one of the most covered artists in music, and Candy Flip’s claim to fame rests on their cover of the Beatles’ tune ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ It’s nowhere near as good as the original, obviously, but it’s quite fun nonetheless.

Related: Frolic in our field of strawberries songs.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – Guns N’ Roses

Bob Dylan is the father of protest songs, and when he wrote ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,’ he was searching for a way to remember soldiers who tragically became war casualties. Several mainstream artists would go on to cover the gut-wrenching tune, with Guns N’ Roses’ rock-induced version being a widely popular cover. Eric Clapton also put a bluesy spin on the tune in 1977.

Related: See our playlist of songs about heaven.

Got My Mind Set on You – George Harrison

During former Beatle George Harrison’s solo career, he released several covers. His cover of ‘My Sweet Lord’ continues to be one of his biggest songs. He also covered the R&B hit ‘Got My Mind Set on You’ written by Rudy Clark and originally released by singer James Ray. The song would go on to be Harrison’s last number one hit.

Blue Suede Shoes – Elvis Presley

The origin story of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ is surrounded by myth. While musician Carl Perkins is officially credited as the first to write and record the blues standard, Johnny Cash long ago claimed he was actually the one to give him the idea for the song in the first place. Elvis would go on to record ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ making it one of the defining releases of his career. It even gave rise to the popular Elvis Presley Blue Suede Boot Collection by the American Rebel Boot Company!

Related: Step over to the best songs about footwear.

Sweet Thing – Hozier

Irish singer-songwriting sensation Hozier took it upon himself to record a version of Van Morrison’s classic song, Sweet Thing, which is no small undertaking. The result was pretty spectacular. Recording in a church, this powerful performance (just him and an acoustic guitar), does the song justice.

Recommended: Our pick of the best Hozier songs.

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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