What makes a good cover? That depends. Sometimes a good cover pays tribute to the original. These covers will try to stay as close to the original song as possible. Still, some of the best cover songs reinvent the song. Perhaps they change the tempo, medley, genre, or what have you. With all that in mind, there is no formula for what makes a good cover and what makes a bad cover – but our ears tend to know.
Below is a sampling if you will of some of the best cover songs ever recorded or performed. Some of these cover songs try to stay as close to the original, some of these cover songs reinvent the songs – and some of these covers do a little bit of both!
Twist and Shout – The Beatles
The original Top Notes version of “Twist and Shout” really has not aged well. The melody seems forced, their doo wop seems substandard to so many of the doo wop bands of the time. The Isley Brothers version slowed everything down and changed the melody. Still – it wasn’t until the Beatles did Twist and Shout in 1963 that the world realized the potential of the song.
The Beatles sped Twist and Shout’s tempo up significantly, and with John Lennon essentially yelling the lyrics, we get a real high energy song. After all, the song is called “Twist and Shout!” A song with that name should make you want to get out on the dance floor and scream your fool head off – and that’s exactly what The Beatles version of Twist and Shout gives us.
The Man Who Sold the World – Nirvana.
So, I won’t presume to say that Bowie did The Man Who Sold the World better than Nirvana, or vice versa. Both versions were really amazing. In fact, Cobain loved the original, and Bowie loved Nirvana’s version.
Cobain did The Man Who sold the World as a tribute to one of his favorite albums, and that’s probably why the song was so damned good! Why Cobain and the rest of Nirvana decided to do it acoustically, however, remains a mystery. Regardless, the acoustic version worked. Brilliantly in fact. The stripped down nature of an acoustic version makes us realize the song’s deep and creepy premise.
Nirvana’s tribute to Bowie shows an excellent example on how a cover song can both pay tribute to but also reinvent the original.
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Tori Amos
Tori strips Nirvana down to a piano and a minor chord. All of a sudden a song that supposedly acts as an anthem for a generation, turns into a lament. The song makes us wonder what the hell happened to the politically active gen Xers. How did we lose our way?
As Tori sings “A denial” at the end, we realize Tori gets the song perfectly right. Smells Like Teen Spirit was never supposed to be the Gen X theme song. Smells Like Teen Spirit was a song forced upon us by the media. We were just in denial because of how empowered we felt. It took Amos and her piano to tell us how wrong we were about the song.
I Fought the Law – The Clash
If anything, the Clash updates a classic song with their version of “I Fought the Law.” By giving the song a punk flare, we get a full on anarchist feel to the song. I Fought the Law becomes a song about and for the people.
Don’t get me wrong – The Bobby Fuller Four did a great job on I Fought the Law, but their version focused on an outlaw lamenting his choices. The Clash version shows us that we all fight the law. By law, The Clash doesn’t just mean The Police. The law stands for “The Man.” The Law Stands for Justice unserved, and institutions that hold the common man back. The Clash’s version of I Fought the Law screams that we should continue this fight against injustice and inequality. Sure, the law wins most of the battles, but we do win some battles – and maybe one day the tides will turn.
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
To compare the Bob Dylan version and the Jimi Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower is an experiment in futility. Instead, I’ll just say that both songs have amazing qualities. As we’re talking about covers specifically though, Jimi’s electric version makes us feel the emotions of the “Joker” and the “Thief” in a way we didn’t experience with Dylan’s version. We see the disparity of the pair, and yet we also see their hope.
More than anything else though, Hendrix (and his electric guitar) really makes the song sound good. At the end of the day – that makes the song what it is. That’s what makes All Along the Watchtower a classic Hendrix song, and one of the best covers of all time.
Hurt – Johnny Cash
What can I say about the amazing Johnny Cash that I’ve not already said? Again, Johnny, in my opinion was the king of covers. Johnny did so many covers that hit us emotionally. Still, of the (probably) hundreds of covers Johnny recorded, Hurt stirs us the most.
Johnny takes the NIN classic, strips it of its industrial rock sound and rewrites Hurt as an acoustic ballad. Yet when we hear Johnny’s Hurt, we hear so much more than just another acoustic ballad, we hear Johnny’s inner pain. We hear a lifetime of struggles, of his mistakes throughout all his life. Johnny knows success, and yet he calls all the fame and fortune an empire of dirt. With Hurt, Johnny shows he has hurt everyone in his life – his mother, his wife, his children. No one is immune.
Hurt proves Johnny Cash’s humility and frailty. I challenge you to listen to this song and not feel something!
Handle Me With Care – Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins (with others).
Jenny Lewis (with the Watson Twins and others) pay a decent tribute to one of the most amazing supergroups of all time – The Traveling Wilburys. The Traveling Wilburys consisted of George, Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynn, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison – all top tier, A+ talent and all musical legends. The Willbury’s formed their little group as just a fun little side project. A fun little side project is the exact feel that Jenny Lewis and company gives us with their version of Handle With Care.
Jenny Lewis, The Watson Twins, Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie), M. Ward, and Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes) make a fun little cover with the talent they have – almost like a next generation of Willbury’s. Would Harrison like this version? What about Orninson? Did Petty or Dylan or Lynn ever hear this track? I don’t know – and quite frankly I don’t care. I just know that this cover of Handle with Care captures the originals excitement and the passion for music both super groups share, be it indie folk rockers or classic guitar legends.
Rock and Roll – Weird Al Yankovic
Ok, maybe this might not be one of the best covers ever recorded, but it certainly deserves some praise. Rock and Roll, originally a Led Zeppelin song, was performed once by Weird Al (and his band). I happened to be in the audience on that fateful night, and wow. On every night of his “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour” Weird Al and band did a different cover song to close the show. I listened to a recording of all these covers, and, I feel like Rock and Roll was THE best cover. Weird Al and band not only did Rock and Roll well, but they may have out rocked Led Zeppelin themselves. At the very least, Rock and Roll proved to all that heard the song how much musical talent Weird Al and band truly poses. . Seriously, we were all picking our jaws up off the floor after that song. Wow. Just listen!
Will there be a Best Cover Songs…ever (part 2)?
Most likely. I love covers, and I’ve always said covers are an integral part of AudioPerfecta’s overall strategy. This article does not provide a definitive list of the best covers ever recorded – but rather a selection of some of the best cover songs ever recorded. A sort of clearinghouse if you will. So if there’s a song worthy of the best cover songs ever part 2, let me know in the comments. I’ll be sure to give it a listen. If the cover song happens to be rare, all the better! Who knows how many Rock and Rolls are out there that I just have never gotten a chance to hear. Maybe there’s a live version of a pop song that totally kicks the original’s rear end…I’d love to hear it!