Cover versions of songs are a delicate undertaking. Do you merely replicate a song, or do you make it entirely your own? Nearly every artist has tried their hand at covering a song at some point in their career—sometimes with great success, other times not so much. In this top 20 list, we showcase songs where the cover version even outshines the original!
Adele – ‘Make You Feel My Love’
Originally by: Bob Dylan
You’re forgiven if you hadn’t heard Bob Dylan’s gravelly original ballad before Adele’s cover skyrocketed to fame in 2009. Her rendition was so compelling that she briefly became the biggest pop star on the planet.
Jeff Buckley – ‘Hallelujah’
Originally by: Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen first released this song in 1984, and while his mastery is undeniable, it doesn’t quite capture the beauty of Jeff Buckley’s version. Buckley was himself inspired by John Cale’s cover three years earlier.
Sinead O’Connor – ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’
Originally by: Prince
Prince initially wrote this song for his group The Family in 1985, but his version was released only after his passing. It was Sinéad O’Connor’s manager, Fachtna O’Kelly, who suggested the Irish star cover the song. The rest is history.
Soft Cell – ‘Tainted Love’
Originally by: Gloria Jones
Soft Cell’s 1981 synthpop classic may be universally beloved, but this song was originally a Northern Soul anthem by Gloria Jones in 1964. Marc Almond’s group slowed down the tempo, brought in the synths, and made it even more popular than the original.
Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’
Originally by: Nine Inch Nails
Originally an industrial metal song by Nine Inch Nails from 1995, it was covered by Johnny Cash a year before his death in 2002. The accompanying music video, filled with images from Cash’s life and directed by Mark Romanek, won several awards. Trent Reznor became a fan of Cash’s version upon seeing the video: “Tears welling, silence, goosebumps… wow.”
Marvin Gaye – ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’
Originally by: The Miracles
This song floated around Motown for a while, with both The Miracles and Gladys Knight recording versions before Marvin Gaye gave it a go. Initially hesitant, Berry Gordy eventually allowed Marvin to release his version as a single.
Aretha Franklin – ‘Respect’
Originally by: Otis Redding
Aretha owned this song to such an extent that it’s easy to forget she didn’t record it first. Redding’s version was a plea from a desperate man willing to give his woman anything, as long as he gets some respect when he brings home the money. However, Aretha’s version featured a strong, confident woman demanding “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
Whitney Houston – ‘I Will Always Love You’
Originally by: Dolly Parton
Country legend Dolly Parton wrote this song in 1973 for her then-partner and mentor Porter Wagoner. Whitney Houston recorded a new arrangement for the soundtrack of ‘The Bodyguard,’ her film debut, in 1992. It became one of the biggest hits of the ’90s. Dolly later said, “The way she took that simple song of mine and turned it into something so grand, it almost became her song.”
Eva Cassidy – ‘Songbird’
Originally by: Fleetwood Mac
Eva Cassidy covered many songs during her all-too-brief life and career, but perhaps her greatest was this stunning rendition of an already brilliant Fleetwood Mac song. While Christine McVie’s original is fabulous, Eva’s version possesses even more subtle beauty.
Eric Clapton – ‘I Shot the Sheriff’
Originally by: Bob Marley
Bob Marley’s original rendition was a bold commentary on corruption and abuse of power, but Clapton’s guitar-heavy 1974 version transformed it into a rock classic. While not the first to cover Marley, Clapton brought the song to a wider audience and introduced many to reggae music.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – ‘I Love Rock ‘n Roll’
Originally by: The Arrows
“I Love Rock ‘n Roll” was originally recorded by The Arrows in 1975. Joan Jett’s version, released in 1981, has become a classic rock anthem and elevated her to stardom.
Jim Hendrix – ‘All Along the Watchtower’
Originally by: Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan wrote and performed this classic, but even he admitted that Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 version improved upon his original. Hendrix’s extraordinary guitar work turned it into a rock masterpiece.
Natalie Imbruglia – ‘Torn’
Originally by: Ednaswap
“Torn” was initially recorded by American band Ednaswap in 1995. Natalie Imbruglia’s 1997 cover, however, became a massive international hit, arguably overshadowing the original.
No Doubt – ‘It’s My Life’
Originally by: Talk Talk
Talk Talk’s 1984 hit was already fantastic, but No Doubt gave the song a modern facelift in 2003. Gwen Stefani’s distinctive vocals breathed new life into this new wave classic.
Cyndi Lauper – ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’
Originally by: Robert Hazard
Robert Hazard originally wrote and recorded this as a demo in 1979 from a male perspective. Cyndi Lauper turned it into a feminist anthem in 1983, and it’s difficult to imagine it any other way now.
UB40 – ‘Red Red Wine’
Originally by: Neil Diamond
Neil Diamond’s 1967 song is good, but the British reggae band UB40 made it iconic in 1983 with their version, which became a global hit.
Metallica – ‘Whiskey in the Jar’
Originally by: Traditional Irish Folk Song
Metallica’s interpretation of this classic Irish folk song came in 1998. Though it had been covered by several bands, including Thin Lizzy, Metallica’s version won a Grammy and is one of the most popular renditions.
The Fugees – ‘Killing Me Softly’
Originally by: Roberta Flack
The Fugees took Roberta Flack’s 1973 hit and made it their own in 1996. Lauryn Hill’s vocals brought a fresh new layer of depth to the song.
Mark Ronson ft. Amy Winehouse – ‘Valerie’
Originally by: The Zutons
The Zutons released “Valerie” in 2006, and it was already a catchy tune. Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse turned it into a soulful, jazz-infused hit in 2007.
R.E.M. – ‘The One I Love’
Originally by: The Troggs
While The Troggs may have originally penned “The One I Love,” R.E.M. took it to new heights in 1987 with Michael Stipe’s iconic vocals and Peter Buck’s jangly guitar.