The 10 Greatest Cover Songs of All Time

Posted on by Michael Clyde (Michael Clyde)
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Cover songs are usually just a necessity for bar bands lacking original compositions, or a lazy way established acts can cash in and expand their fan base. Most covers are met with the derision they deserve, like Britney Spears' destruction of The Stones' Satisfaction, Pat Boone's In a Metal Mood album, and William Shatner chewing up Beatles and Elton John tunes the same way he does dialogue (and, judging by his weight, sandwiches with extra cheese). On occasion however, some artists succeed in either completely reimagining a song or making it their own. And what better way to honor the rare successes than with the internets' favorite way to honor anything and everything? A list!

10. Sid Vicious - My Way

It doesn't get much more star-crossed than Ol' Blue Eyes being covered by the bassist of The Sex Pistols. Yeah, the first minute is somewhat campy but then the guitar kicks in and Sinatra's ode to self-congratulation is transformed into a mission statement for the entire punk culture, warbled by its most infamous member. Vicious didn't even know all of the lyrics but it didn't matter; sometimes it's just about capturing a mood and this song does it in spades. Besides, this song plays over the end credits of Goodfellas and Scorsese has forgotten more good music than I'll ever remember.

9. Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You

Only on a list like this can you go from Sid Vicious to Whitney Houston. Now I realize this held the title of most overwrought song in history until Celine Dion showed us her heart would go on by melodramatically slamming her hand against her chest 247 times, but distance from the tremendous amount of overplay does the song good. From effortlessly kicking off the song a capella to stretching out the word "you" twice with beautiful control near the end, Dolly Parton's "It's not you, it's me" lament was Whitney at her very best - Soulfully sincere with a hint of sassy sexuality. Remember the 90s debate of who would you do, Whitney or Mariah? You'd sleep with Mariah, but you'd do it with Whitney's music playing in the background.

8. Stevie Ray Vaughan - Little Wing

The thought of anyone improving upon Jimi Hendrix would strike most as a crime against the music Gods; those people never heard SRV. Stevie left out the throwaway lyrics Hendrix wrote, turned his prodigal gift loose on his Fender Stratocaster of the moment, and created an instrumental piece you could use as background music for making love, smoking substances both legal and illegal, or just sitting on the porch while meditating over life's numerous mysteries.

7. Devo - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction

This is how you cover The Stones. How could the inspiration for Revenge of the Nerds possibly take the signature song of The World's Greatest Rock N' Roll Band and make it their own? First, make the iconic guitar riff sound like it's being played with a super-size rubber band. Second, repeat several words multiple times, culminating in saying baby as many times as possible in 10 seconds. Third, make the song the musical version of exactly what your body feels like in the moments prior to the first drop of a roller coaster. After this, there was nothing else for the band to do but Whip It.

6. Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Blinded by the Light

It is so typical of Bruce Springsteen's career that the only number one song he ever wrote was a cover sung by a group that never had American success again (though they continued to succeed in Norway for years the way David Hasslehoff owned Germany). It's an epic seven minute mix of rock, pseudo disco, and misinterpreted lyrics (for the love of God amateur singers of the world, it is deuce, not DOUCHE). Plus this has to be the only number one song in music history featuring an interlude into Chop Sticks.

5. The Beatles - Twist and Shout

There aren't many music lists that don't reserve a place for the Fab Four and this list is no exception. The Beatles paid musical homage to countless influences in their embryonic days - Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Smokey Robinson to name a few - but this Isley Brothers tune is far and away their most successful cover. John recorded it in one take because he completely shredded his voice. Interestingly enough, neither Matthew Broderick nor Rodney Dangerfield suffered the same fate in 1986 when they brought the song back for another go round on the pop charts.

4. Aretha Franklin - Respect

I bet you didn't realize this was a remake. Before he saw the beauty of sitting on bay docks, Otis Redding wrote and recorded one of music's greatest spelling lessons. But, when the queen of soul was made aware of the song, a signature feminist anthem was born. It's also one of the great family affair songs of all time as Franklin's sisters sing the memorable back up that consists of multiple shouts of "Ooh" "Re" and "Sock It To Me." Franklin is so commanding and charismatic on this track you realize what a tragedy her metamorphosis into Jabba the Hut truly is.

3. Jimi Hendrix - All Along the Watchtower

A case can be made for creating an all Bob Dylan cover list - mainly because there are so many artists who perform Dylan songs much better than the man himself. Hendrix's own unique vocal style and incomparable guitar skills deliver the sense of war going on all around you, perfect for the Vietnam era. It's surprising to note this is the only song Hendrix recorded that made the top forty in America, but I guess that's how it goes when you're the charter member of the "rock star dead by their own hand at twenty-seven club".

2. Johnny Cash - Hurt

A rebel beyond compare, The Man in Black dared to take this Trent Reznor ode to heroin addiction and reimagine it as his life's musical epitaph. Cash's frail voice and well documented bouts with drug dependency lend the song such gravity that the locomotion of a climax feels like a literal existence moving through your ears. And when Cash's final, desperate promise to find a way is finished; you're stunned to not hear a flatline. Some said that Cash exaggerated the fragility of his voice for dramatic purpose, but there's a reason he graced the cover of Time magazine upon shedding his mortal coil just seven months later; nothing was phony about The Man in Black.

1. Marvin Gaye - The Star Spangled Banner

Simply put the best version of our National Anthem ever. This was looked upon by purists with great derision when Gaye unfurled his soulfully original take on the world at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Of course, the majority of people who had this viewpoint were white and defined soul as the bottom of a shoe. But Gaye's sincere passion lifts the music far above the Casio 9000 providing the beat. He doesn't sing every word at a Spinal Tapesque eleven, so when he does stress a note it has truer power. He blatantly replaces "that" with "thy" as the final stanza begins, giving the song an unexpected regal boost and increasing the personal feel for the listener. By the end, The Los Angeles crowd is so moved they spontaneously begin clapping to the beat - and that's not exactly an audience easily swayed into impromptu offerings of appreciation. That is the epitome of a cover song succeeding to maximum effect.

Which type of song is better?

9500 views & 28 votes

Debate It! 7

Some damn good choices on here. Hell, you could just do Johnny Cash for all of them; man had a knack for making everyone else's songs his own.

Posted By jogden,

I'd have to agree with that. I heard Cash doing, won't back down the other day. It was phenomenal.

Posted By lockheed40,

Love the Sid Vicious cover. Definitely a standby of my teen years.

I was always partial to Nine Inch Nails cover of Queen:

Posted By matt,

Johnny Cash is the cover king!

Posted By LiZdAhL,

I'm suprised Van Halen's "you really got me" isn't on the list

Posted By da chiznik,

Marvin Gaye embodies soulfullness and cooliness, what a national treasure. A recent cover that absolutely adore is Australian Band Circle's cover of the Strangler's hit Goldren Brown. Good list, thanks!

Posted By Kath97,

Can we please for everything that is great in this terrible world get Manfred Mann's Earth Band back into the recording studio?

Posted By James97,

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