Cover Songs Better Than The Original Version

What is the secret to performing a great cover version? Many musicians have tried to work that out over the years, but, as this list will prove, there is no set formula for giving a great rendition of another artist's song. In some cases, to craft a timeless cover takes hard work and dedication, while in others a classic arises with minimal effort, through a series of happy accidents. So what exactly do great cover songs have in common?

The musician and producer Nick Lowe once remarked in an interview with GQ: "When I find a cover song that I like, I'll work away at it until I kind of believe that I wrote it." Maybe it's a cliché, but to deliver a great cover version an artist must first "own" their material – and none of the artists on this list have failed to do that.

To say one song is "better" than another will always be a little contentious, and it is also true that few artists would ever choose to cover a bad song. Therefore, all the songs on this list are great, covers and originals alike. But in these instances, the later versions have surpassed the originals in some way, whether in terms of critical reception, their importance in the artist's career, or cold, hard sales. Some are obvious, others surprising, while some you might not know as cover versions at all. Read on.

All Along the Watchtower

The 1968 classic "All Along the Watchtower" is today remembered as Jimi Hendrix's signature tune, a performance that showcased his unprecedented guitar abilities, his perfect affinity with the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, and his singularly charismatic vocals. But though the opening bars of "All Along the Watchtower" scream "Hendrix," the original wasn't by him at all, but was written by the countercultural icon Bob Dylan for his eighth album, "John Wesley Harding."

Per Ultimate Classic Rock, Hendrix, a huge Dylan fan, managed to get hold of a copy of "John Wesley Harding" before general release, and was in the studio recording his classic cover just two months after Dylan had recorded the original. Imbuing the song with a new sense of power and swagger, Hendrix's version outperformed Dylan's by charting at No. 20, whereas Dylan's single had failed to chart the previous year.

Dylan has been effusive in his admiration for Hendrix's cover. "It overwhelmed me," Dylan told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1995, admitting that Hendrix had "probably improved" on the original version. Dylan's appreciation for Hendrix's reworking is palpable in his live shows, as Dylan claims: "I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day." In the liner notes to his 1985 retrospective boxset "Biograph," Dylan wrote about the experience of following Hendrix's lead, stating: "Strange how when I sing it I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way" (via Ultimate Classic Rock).

I Fought The Law

"I Fought The Law" is one of seminal British punk group The Clash's greatest recordings. Released as their first American single in 1979, it is a snappy, radio-friendly anthem reflecting their anti-authoritarian stance and their bearing of the rock 'n' roll torch even as the genre they promoted threatened to explode all that had gone before.

But forgotten in the mists of time by many punk rock fans is the fact that the chart-busting tune wasn't a Clash original by any means. In fact, its roots go all the way back to 1960, and Buddy Holly's clean-cut backing band, The Crickets.

In the wake of Holly leaving the band in 1959 — he tragically died later that year just months into his solo career — The Crickets decided to rock bravely on without their bandleader, and in 1960 released their first record without Holly: "In Style with The Crickets." According to The Financial Times, the album was a moderate success, but "I Fought The Law" – penned by newly recruited Cricket Sonny Curtis, reportedly in less than half an hour – was considered nothing more than an "obscure album track" for more than half a decade, until it was finally covered by The Bobby Fuller Four, whose studio version became a top 10 hit in 1966. Per The Financial Times, it was Fuller's version that The Clash heard on the jukebox of a studio in San Francisco, with the band immediately turning their attention towards recording a live version, which would make their name in the U.S.

Twist and Shout

It's hard to hear the words "Twist and Shout" without the image of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr collectively shaking their mop-tops. The Beatles' version of the song, first released on their debut British studio album "Please Please Me" in 1963, gained its raucous energy through a series of happy accidents. Per All Music, "Twist and Shout" was the last song the band recorded at the end of a marathon session in which they cut 10 of their debut album's 14 tracks, by which point Lennon's vocals were so shredded that he could only perform his lead part in the gravel-voiced manner that made the final record (he was apparently unable to complete a second take). Creative decisions around the record were apparently made just minutes before recording started and the track was pulled together almost instinctively. "Twist & Shout" eventually charted at No. 2 in the U.K. later that year. However, "Twist & Shout" was recorded twice by other artists before The Beatles made their definitive version. 

Written by Bert Berns and Phil Medley and originally titled "Shake It Up, Baby," it was first put to wax with a Latin swing by The Top Notes in 1961, as a single produced by Phil Spector (who, by coincidence, would go on to produce The Beatles). But the single was not a success, and bears few of the hallmarks of the song as it is remembered today.

The Beatles' version was closely modeled on an earlier single by The Isley Brothers, who in 1962 had introduced the song's infectious "woops."

Nothing Compares 2 U

It is one of the most memorable music video moments of the 1990s: simply a close-up of Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O'Connor's face, who, singing into the camera, eventually breaks into genuine tears after the line: "All the flowers that you planted mama/ In the backyard/ All died when you went away."

In truth, the video for O'Connor's version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," – a song originally written in 1985 by Prince for a band known as The Family, signed to his Paisley Park record label – is even more historic than the recording itself, revealing for those who couldn't hear it in her voice how truly she connected with the themes of the song. Sinead O'Connor's mother died while the singer was still a teenager, and as she wrote in her autobiography: "My cover of Prince's 'Nothing Compares 2 U' was something I was always – and am always – singing to my mother" (per Ultimate Prince).

Such genuine emotional connection helped transform an otherwise unloved album track into an international smash. Per The Guardian, The Family's Paul Peterson claimed that Prince was jealous of O'Connor's version, which outperformed all of his releases in the U.K. by spending four weeks at the top of the singles chart in 1990, while also challenging his career thus far in the American market, performing better than all of his singles bar "When Doves Cry." However, though he later released his own version under his own name, The Purple One could never soar to the emotional heights of O'Connor's performance.


In her tragically short career, British singer Amy Winehouse established herself as a hugely talented songwriter across numerous genres including soul, jazz, and R'n'B. But the London native was also an exceptional interpreter of other people's songs, as was immediately apparent on her debut album, 2003's "Frank," which included stellar renditions of two jazz classics: Eddie Jefferson's "Moody's Mood For Love," and "(There Is) No Greater Love," written by Isham Jones and Marty Symes. And as People notes, in live sessions Winehouse cast her net wider, covering everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Specials.

But Winehouse's finest cover arguably came with her as a feature artist, when she provided guest vocals on Mick Ronson's version of "Valerie," a cover of a 2006 single by Liverpool indie rockers The Zutons. Though the single was originally a Top 10 hit for The Zutons on release, Winehouse's version the following year got to No. 2, and thereafter became one of her signature songs. As Zuton's songwriter Dave McCabe told Manchester Evening News in 2019, though many Winehouse fans may today be unaware that the song is a cover, the singer certainly made it her own. "It's the biggest compliment in the world to have Amy Winehouse cover your song and for it to become massive," McCabe said. "She was an unbelievable talent. Some people have said to us, 'oh but they stole your song'. The honest answer is, I love it. Amy absolutely nailed it."

Hanging on the Telephone

Countless punk and new wave bands formed and broke up in the 1960s and 1970s with just a single release to their name, but nevertheless went down in the annals of alternative music history for coming out with a bona fide classic. One of these bands was The Nerves, a trio formed in Los Angeles in 1975 whose self-titled EP — released the following year — was their only official release before they eventually parted ways in 1978, per All Music.

According to The Independent, Nerves songwriter Jack Lee remembered that at the time of the band's split, he was at a low ebb, living at the point of poverty with his utilities – including the telephone – due to be cut off when a call came in from Blondie leader Debbie Harry requesting to cover The Nerves' best song, "Hanging on the Telephone." It proved to be a financial lifeline that allowed Lee to pursue a solo career under his own name.

The Guardian argues that it is Debbie Harry's forceful vocal performance and the "Louder, brighter, brasher, and tougher" production on the Blondie cover which made their version of "Hanging on the Telephone" eclipse the original to become one of the band's biggest hits.

I Put A Spell On You

In 1956, a little-known singer-songwriter named Jay Hawkins was grappling with a difficult song, a forlorn love ballad that he had written and recorded the year before, but which just didn't seem to work. According to Gaslight Records, Hawkins returned to the studio, eager to record a new take of "I Put A Spell On You" – only this time, he was drunk to the point of later being unable to recall the session. Rather than play it safe, Hawkins delivered an incendiary performance of grunts, snarls, and howls, which earned him a new monicker: Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Though the single failed to chart, it would go down as a classic, and be covered by a bevy of artists from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Annie Lennox, with varying degrees of commercial success.

The musician who has become most closely associated with Hawkins' song, however, is Nina Simone, who recorded a version for her 1965 album of the same name. Simone's version replace's Hawkins' monstrous ravings and brash horns with a simmering vocal performance and sultry strings, becoming as seductive as the song's title implies. So closely did the singer associate the song with her public persona that she also recycled the title for her autobiography, while her rendition would later become known to audiences as the soundtrack to various classy TV commercials for brands such as Dior.

The Man Who Sold The World

David Bowie was just 19 when he wrote the title song of his third solo album, "The Man Who Sold the World," released in 1970. Now considered a vital track in his oeuvre, it sank like a stone on its first release – as did the album – and only became a success years later as the B-side to Bowie's hit single, "Life On Mars?"

The song's cult status was solidified, however, in 1993, when premier grunge band Nirvana covered the track as part of their acclaimed "MTV Unplugged in New York" set, which was released as a live album the following year, six months after frontman Kurt Cobain's untimely death. As Classic Rock History notes, the set comprised numerous successful covers, including songs by The Vaselines and blues pioneer Leadbelly, but it was the reworking of the underappreciated Bowie classic that really stole the show. ​​

After Cobain's untimely death in 1994, Bowie spoke highly of the Nirvana's version, telling a Dutch interviewer in 1996: "It's a sad rendition, of course, because it's so tied up with [Cobain's] own life and death. So it takes on all these different shades for me. Because I also remember fairly clearly my own states of mind when I was actually writing it, which I guess was as near to a mystical state that a 19-year-old could get into ... it's interesting that it had two mystical states, the time when I wrote it and recorded it ... and when [Cobain] recorded it." (via YouTube)

House of the Rising Sun

There aren't many No. 1 transatlantic smash hits that are played in the time signature of a waltz, but then again almost everything about The Animals' 1964 classic "House of the Rising Sun" is unusual. Such as the fact that such a flawless song was recorded in one take, according to Ultimate Classic Rock, or that, initially, the song's producer, Mickie Most, thought it was trash, but was so convinced by the band's studio performance that he insisted the recording didn't require a single edit.

"House of the Rising Sun" proved to be a major phenomenon in popular music, most notable for being the folk-rock tune that finally convinced the previously purist Bob Dylan that he should finally go electric, according to the same source. And perhaps integral to the song's influence on Dylan was the fact that it wasn't an original, but a traditional folk song first recorded by musicians Clarence "Tom" Ashley and Gwen Foster all the way back in 1933, per American Blues Scene.

It may be debatable whether a version of a folk song strictly counts as a "cover," as such songs, in a way, belong to everyone – Ashley claimed he had first learned the song from his grandfather, so maybe it should be Ashley Sr. who gets the credit? But in any case, The Animals recorded the definitive version, which remains a karaoke and open mic night mainstay to this day.

It Must Be Love

In a 2022 Guardian interview with British singer-songwriter Labi Siffre, journalist Tim Jonze noted the veteran musician's surprisingly limited public profile considering how famous many of the songs written in his heyday of the 1970s and 1980s remain. As well as being the creator of the anthemic "Something Inside So Strong," a major hit for numerous artists and a staple of sporting event montages, Siffre's discography has been widely sampled by the biggest hip-hop artists in the business, most notably Dr. Dre, who used Siffre's "I've Got The..." as the basis for Eminem's platinum-selling single "My Name Is."

Despite becoming known as the creator of songs that become touchstones for other musicians, Siffre is a scintillating performer in his own right, and Jonze is rightly puzzled as to why one of Britain's greatest living singer-songwriters isn't better known. "I would say I'm not very good at selling myself," Siffre told him.

However, Jonze quite rightly admits that one Siffre classic, his 1971 romantic gem "It Must Be Love," received its "definitive" recording in 1980, when British ska band Madness released it as a single, hitting No. 4 in the U.K. and 33 in the U.S., their second-highest chart placing across the Atlantic.


Artists generally have mixed feelings about other artists covering their songs, something Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor openly admitted in a 2008 interview, when he told the U.K.'s tabloid The Sun that his first reaction upon hearing Johnny Cash's 2002 version of his 1995 track "Hurt" was similar to witnessing someone "kissing [my] girlfriend" (via NME).

As noted by The Financial Times, Reznor's original was written as a deeply personal portrait of his own depression, but the song's universal theme of suffering makes it prime material for a cover artist – especially one of Cash's stature. Cash's version was released alongside a music video that revealed the veteran musician's age and frailty, which subsequently gave the song greater resonance and reportedly brought Reznor to tears when he first watched it, according to the same source.

Per NME, Reznor later explained what Cash's cover came to mean to him. "Having Johnny Cash, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, want to cover your song, that's something that matters to me. It's not so much what other people think but the honor that this guy felt it was worthy of interpreting ... [Cash] said afterwards it was a song that sounds like one he would have written in the '60s and that's wonderful."

I Will Always Love You

It is doubtful that Dolly Parton could have envisioned what a seismic song "I Will Always Love You" would eventually become when she wrote it back in 1973. According to Entertainment Weekly, the song was originally a heartfelt farewell to her creative partner, the country singer Porter Wagoner, and became one of the highlights of Parton's album "Jolene," which hit No. 6 on the Hot Country chart. ​

But its real impact would only be felt two decades later, when it was recorded by Whitney Houston as the lead song for the 1992 movie "The Bodyguard," in which Houston also starred. Imbuing the song with incredible vocal dexterity and power, Houston spent a record 14 week at the top of the Billboard chart, making "I Will Always Love You" into one of the best-selling singles of all time (via Vibe).

In January 2022, it was reported that 30 years after the world-beating single was first released, Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You" had been officially certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for sales in excess of 10 million units, the late singer's fourth release to achieve such an honor, and in doing so joining the movie soundtrack from which the song was taken (via Vibe).


It is believed that there are more than 300 versions of Leonard Cohen's mournful ballad "Hallelujah," a song which took Cohen five years to write and was not greeted with great enthusiasm by either his record label or by the listening public on its first release in 1984, according to USA Today.

Today, the song is ubiquitous, having appeared in movies as diverse as 2001's Shrek and 2009's Watchmen, as well as being the material for countless talent show contestants over the years. However, there is one version of "Hallelujah" that can be said to have single-handedly turned the song's fortunes around: that recorded in 1994 by Jeff Buckley, the highpoint of "Grace," the only studio album he released in his lifetime. According to USA Today, Buckley first heard the song as covered by ex-Velvet Underground musician John Cale, on a record he found while catsitting in a friend's New York apartment. He immediately saw new possibilities in the song and reworked it into the form by which it is best known.

The musician Glen Hansard – a close friend of Buckley's who used to live with him in New York – explained the emotional investment that Buckley made in his performance of Cohen's song: "He gave us the version we hoped Leonard would emote, and he wasn't afraid to sing it with absolute reverence. Jeff sang it back to Leonard as a love song to what he achieved, and in doing so, Jeff made it his own" (via The Atlantic).

Tainted Love

Everyone can replicate the infectious four-part vocal melody that follows the words "Tainted Love," first put to record by Gloria Jones in 1964. An infectious, stomping Northern soul romp, the song was only initially released as a B-side and received little airplay amid a disappointing commercial performance, according to udiscovermusic, though it would later be remembered as a masterpiece of the genre.

However, in 1981, the song took on a very different energy, thanks to a cover by the British synth-pop duo Soft Cell. Per The Guardian, the band's synth player Dave Ball first heard Jones' version from northern soul parties held in his hometown of Blackpool, England, while singer Marc Almond was an admirer of Jones after seeing her perform with glam rockers T-Rex. Looking to smooth out their strange anti-consumerist meanderings with a couple of cover versions, they settled on "Tainted Love." Little did they know the song would go to No. 1 in 17 countries and become an all-time synth-pop party classic.

Black Magic Woman

In 1968 and in one of their earliest incarnations – and long before the chart-topping success of "Rumours" – Fleetwood Mac was looking for a hit, and thanks to a song written by founder member Peter Green, they got a modest one: "Black Magic Woman," a blues-rock workout which climbed to No. 37 on the U.K. album charts, and which remained a staple of Fleetwood Mac live performances long after Green's departure from the band, per Rolling Stone.

Santana put a notable spin on the original, infusing it with Latin rhythms and a new climactic ending thanks to a switch in the final bars to "Gypsy Queen," an instrumental track written by Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó, per NPR. The song was a huge hit for the band, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and staying on the charts for a total of 13 weeks, while "Abraxas," the LP from which it was taken, spent six weeks at the top of the album charts and was later inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.

In 1998, both Santana and Fleetwood Mac were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. With members of both bands attending the ceremony, Fleetwood Mac founder member Peter Green joined Santana on stage for a celebratory rendition of "Black Magic Woman," an era-defining song that was a meaningful hit for both bands (per Rolling Stone).

It's Oh So Quiet

"It's Oh So Quiet" was Icelandic singer Bjork's biggest hit to date when it was released to great acclaim in 1994, hitting No. 4 in the U.K. in 1995, where it sold more than 400,000 copies (per Official Charts). The song is playful, unpredictable, and strange – all hallmarks of Bjork's discography. But in fact, the song is a cover, of an equally playful novelty song released by the American singer Betty Hutton way back in 1951.

By drawing an even greater contrast between both the sonic textures and tempo of the song's two parts, Bjork's version manages to inject the song with even more manic energy, which is then topped by the incredible range she demonstrates vocally, switching between sweetly seductive whispers and genuinely earsplitting screams. The song provided a safe entry point to her sophomore album "Post," which, as a departure from her generally accessible debut, opened with grinding electronica in the form of "Army of Me" (via All Music), and, according to The Guardian, made Bjork a household name around the world.

The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)

The pop music industry of the mid-1960s had something of the Wild West about it when it came to the cutthroat business of supplying hot young singers with new potential hit songs, as the recording history of the song "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)," originally written by The Four Seasons' songwriting duo Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe. According to udiscovermusic, the pair originally envisioned the song in the hands of another duo, The Righteous Brothers. However, it was claimed by The Four Seasons' Frankie Valli, who at the time was casting around for a suitable song to release as a solo debut.

Though his performance on the song is admirable, the release was not a success. Per the same source, its writers later speculated that the Four Seasons' record label may have limited distribution of the song to scupper Valli's solo efforts and keep him tied to the group. Within the space of a few months, the song adopted by The Walker Brothers, whose version arguably eclipsed Valli's original in terms of its soaring power, and, as it turned out, its commercial performance.

As a disappointed Gaudio later described: "The Walker Brothers released it with a similar arrangement, but a faster tempo, and that was No. 1 in England. I thought it was fabulous, but I preferred it at our tempo" (via udiscovermusic). The single also performed well in the U.S., hitting a respectable No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 to become an enduring Walker Brothers classic, which in turn has been covered by countless artists since.

Mr. Pharmacist

The mercurial Mancunian Mark E. Smith of the longrunning art-punk group The Fall was, throughout his 40-year career, a hugely prolific songwriter, with hundreds of songwriting credits to his name across a sprawling discography. But he was also something of a magpie when it came to covering other artists, with inspiration often coming from unexpected sources. As noted by Brooklyn Vegan, Smith had a penchant for delivering skewed versions of classic soul, disco, and country tunes such as Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music" and Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love," while elsewhere he delved into obscure garage and rockabilly to uncover gems that suited The Fall's template perfectly.

One of these was The Fall's much-loved version of "Mr. Pharmacist," a cover of the generally unknown 1966 single by The Other Half, which Smith's group included on their 1986 album "Bend Sinister." Brooklyn Vegan argues that Smith's caustic delivery ramps up the energy in the latter version, while Smith himself seemed unusually happy with how the song fit his group's overall aesthetic; The Guardian notes that the song bucked The Fall's policy during live shows to perform predominantly new music, by remaining a regular fixture of their setlists right up until Smith's final live appearances in 2017.