Cover Songs Better Than the Originals

Joe Cocker

When it comes to successful bands remaking a classic song, I’ve always asked myself “What’s the point?” Take something that wasn’t successful and make it better: now, that makes sense. Lori Lieberman released “Killing Me Softly With His Song” in 1972, but it was Roberta Flack’s 1973 cover that won the Grammy for Record of the Year. So why do I need the Fugees releasing another version? But in some rare cases, the cover song tops the original. Here is a list of some of the best.

“Twist and Shout”

Usually, it’s the other way around: bands cover the Beatles. This track was first recorded and released in 1961 by The Top Notes (and produced by Phil Spector) but that version sounds nothing like the Beatles’ recording. Then The Isley Brothers took a crack at it in 1962 with a much more laid-back version. Their song cracked the top 20 but didn’t do nearly as well as the one by the four boys from Liverpool. The Beatle version was released in the U.K. in 1963 and in the U.S. in 1964 hitting #2 on the charts. A fast-paced track with overlapping harmonies, what George Martin would call a “larynx-tearer,” a lot of its success should be attributed to John Lennon’s throat-shredding vocals. But I defy you to put on this song and sit still.

“I Love Rock `n’ Roll”

Joan Jett’s version of “I Love Rock `n’ Roll” is a rock anthem where you can feel attitude through the music. Originally recorded by the Arrows in 1975, it was then recorded by Jett in 1979. But it was her second recording of the song in 1981 with the Blackhearts that spent 7 weeks at #1. The Arrows’ version sounds a lot like Joan’s hit, with the obvious exception of replacing the “He” for a “She” but the big difference is Jett’s vocals. Her version rocks an arrogance and brashness missing from The Arrows track.

“Walk This Way”

If you’re going to make a hit song, might as well be a cover of one of your own. “Walk This Way” was the second single off Toys in the Attic from 1975 and hit #10 on the Billboard 100. But it’s the 1986 version with Run-DMC that really pulsates with both a groove and emphasis. The rap group would record the track with both Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and the new version rose to #4 on the charts. The new song still has Perry’s driving guitar riff but when you add the Run-DMC style of punching certain lyrics, trading off lines, and doubling up on others you get a rap/ rock classic.

“I Will Always Love You”

Dolly Parton’s 1974 original version is simply beautiful. The song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart twice (she re-recorded it in 1982). So how do you top it? By stripping it down even more and letting Whitney Houston’s voice shine through. Houston’s version was done for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, spent 14 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and won the Grammy for Record of the Year at the 36th Awards. As good as Parton’s version is, Houston’s (along with producer David Foster) just manages to top it.

“With a Little Help From My Friends”

It’s almost impossible to top The Beatles. They were such an original, inventive band; if anyone was going to do it would you have picked Joe Cocker? It started as the second track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a sort of come-down from the brassy opening title track. Yes, Ringo does sing lead vocal but that’s not why Cocker’s is better. Cocker’s version is a completely different song, not just another version. Honestly, if you removed the lyrics could you even compare them? With a much longer intro and build up Cocker’s song also features amazing background vocals and a back and forth that totally complement Cocker’s singing. And don’t you wish you could shriek like Joe Cocker?

And just to end with an honorable mention, here are two of the worst cover songs ever recorded.

“Come Together”

As I said, it’s very hard to cover The Beatles, and Aerosmith does a terrible job at it on this song. It’s not different enough for anyone to care about it, and Steven Tyler is trying so hard on the vocals that I’d rather just turn on the original every time.

“American Pie”

This masterpiece was just ruined by Madonna in 2000. From the start, her terrible dance track from the start begs us to listen to Don McLean’s original with his beautiful piano beginning. The worst part of this cover is that Madonna did not record the whole song. McLean’s song tells an 8-minute story while Madonna cut out many verses of the song missing whole chunks of the narrative.

-Robert Matvan

This post originally ran back in 2021, but the interweb has re-discovered it, so it seemed a good time to revisit…

Photo: Joe Cocker (Getty Images)

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22 comments on “Cover Songs Better Than the Originals

  1. Steven Valvano

    Thanks, great piece, Robert…. Adding an additional worst: “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” by Elton John. He took psychedelic and made bubble gum.

  2. All Along the Watchtower: Jiimi’s cover is much much better than Dylan’s. Maybe Dylan comes in as a special category: most covers of his songs are better than his originals.

    Yes’s cover of the Beatles Every Little Thing is really great, and transformative, like Cocker’s version of WALHFMF.

  3. Yes’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’ is an absolute marvel to behold as well.

  4. Gary Theroux

    A lot of people consider the first version of a song they hear as “the definitive version” and everything else is a lesser imitation (even if it was cut first). I have enough early versions of songs on singles which flopped but later soared in the hands of other artists to demonstrate this point. The “definitive version”: of a song may be the first one recorded — but, then again, it may not. As examples, go on You Tube and listen to “Brandy” by Scott English, which peaked at #91 in 1972. Two years later, Barry Manilow re-recorded the song as “Mandy” and the song went to #1. Or compare The Gladiolas’ clumsy take on “Little Darlin'” (which peaked at #41) with The Diamonds’ #2 version from later in 1957. Likewise, listen to Huey Smith’s 1957 recording of “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” (which peaked at #52) and compare it to Johnny Rivers’ million-selling cover in 1972. It’s hard to believe but true that the boogie woogie piano player on Johnny’s single — Bread member Larry Knechtel — also played the sensitive piano on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

  5. Nice piece here, Robert. And, yeah, it is hard to sufficiently convey how wretchedly Aerosmith (like many of us, a band I really like) demolished a great song like “Come Together”. But they managed. Boy, DID they.

  6. george r

    Paul McCartney apparently loves the Dear Prudence cover by Siouxsie And The Banshees.

  7. Edd Davies

    I am a true blue, dyed in the wool Beatles fan and I love “Got to Get You Into My Life” on “Revolver”. But the cover by Earth, Ind & Fire is hotter than a firecracker. At times I think I might actually prefer the cover!

  8. Hard to say it but Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out” is breathtaking

  9. Lee Deboer

    Give a listen to Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold”…..

  10. Paul Owen Jenkins

    George Harrison’s “If Not For You” is superior in my opinion to Dylan’s original.

  11. Eric Gray

    An article about something I think about often. To me, for a cover to be “good” it has to be different. Light My Fire by Jose Feliciano. You Keep Me Hanging on by the Vanilla Fudge. Anything Michael Bolton does? Awful and pointless as he just copies the original. I like the Bangles’ Hazy Shade of . Back in the days of cassette tapes, I did one on remakes.

    Robert, I am writing a book about folks’ stories, memories, regarding concerts and music in general. If you have a short memory you would like to contribute, or if any one reading my post does, please email me at eric.concertstories@gmail.com and I will tell you more about it Thanks!

  12. Not to mention Rod & Faces version of Maybe I’m Amazed, which is way better than McCartney’s. Sorry, Paulie, but it’s true.

  13. Cliff Cherry

    Maybe it’s a case of “the one you heard first is best” but I think Sinead O’Connor’s take on “Nothing Compares 2 U” is way way far better than Prince’s original; admittedly many are enamored of his version but I’ll stick to my assessment 🙂

    Also, I consider The Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always On My Mind” to be one of the best remakes ever, as it’s a completely different musical arrangement but still retains the spirit

  14. NOBODY BUT ME by the Human Beinz.

  15. ron gardner

    Eva Cassidy’s version of “Fields of Gold” needs to be at the top of this list. Sting himself would agree.

  16. Worst cover ever: Nazareth’s recording of “Love Hurts”. It’s downright offensive to even compare it to the Everly Brothers original, and it’s not even in the same league as the best rendition – the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris cover.

  17. So many good ones inc. Tina Turner – “Help”, Susan Tedeschi – “ Angel of Montgomery” and Beth Hart ( 2 ) – “ Soulshine” and “ I’d rather be a blind girl”.

  18. Dirk Woods

    Roy Buchanan’s “Hey Joe” is one of the few instances of an improvement on Jimi.

    • Paul Overly

      But Jimi’s “Hey Joe” is a cover, too. Previously recorded by the Byrds and the Leaves, and possibly others. A ton of acts have covered it over the years.

  19. Bill Malmros

    Sorry, mate, wrong Joe Cocker cover. His version of The Letter blew the original out of the water.

  20. Mr. Harry S. Steinmetz

    Lots of great cover songs mentioned here. I’d add to the list the Beat Farmers cover of Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” and Dave Edmunds cover of Bruce’s “From Good Things”. Both are much more rocked out and gritty than the originals.

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