Best Song Covers of All Time
Covers are a long-standing tradition in music. For decades, some bands have made their careers exclusively churning out the hits of artists like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or ABBA, while others simply cover a song to expose an undervalued track or artist. Whatever the reason, many covers turn out terribly, as a disguise for a lack of originality.
But then there are those that equal the original or, even in some cases, prove superior. A case can be made for any of these worthwhile cover gems:
Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”
The Hawaiian ukulele player was an exceptional talent whose virtuoso ukulele abilities matched his beautiful soaring voice, which featured an emotional quiver that routinely sent chills up listeners’ spines. Since his death in 1997, Kamakawiwoʻole’s cover of “Over the Rainbow” has attained cult status. Why? Just listen to it. A single ukulele progression accompanies his wordless vocals, before he kicks in with the infamous “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high” line. The way he says words like “lullaby” and “true” at the end of each verse, with an elongated passion, will bring even the most stoic listeners to their knees. His cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” is just as majestic. Death took Kamakawiwoʻole at an early age, but his beautiful songs live on.
Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”
Another supremely gifted songwriter whose life was taken away at an early age, Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a breathtaking experience that shows off Buckley’s entire repertoire. His dazzling guitar skills are louder and more immediate on efforts like “So Real”, but the Cohen cover shows his emotional depth as good as anything. Similar to Kamakawiwoʻole above, Buckley’s voice is spine-tingling goodness that ranges from the deep and somber repetition of the track’s title to a quivering high-pitched ascension during the ethereal verses. Buckley wasn’t the first to cover the track. He modeled his cover after John Cale’s 1992 interpretation, another great take, but it’s hard to argue that there is a better version than Buckley’s. Even as hordes of artists continue to cover the track, no one will ever near the intimacy and passion of Buckley’s.
Johnny Cash – “Hurt”
You’d expect Nine Inch Nails to be covering a legend like Johnny Cash, but for “Hurt” it was the other way around. NIN’s original starts out sparse and acoustic, much like Cash’s, before arriving at distortion and pulsating bass. Trent Reznor’s voice creaks along there, as opposed to Cash’s deep and mournful lead, which even Reznor has admitted is superior in some ways. “[I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore,” Reznor said upon the cover’s release. Cash, as a country legend, turned “Hurt” into a ballad of his own, with keys help leading a gorgeous build-up that concludes with Cash, and no musical accompaniment, stating “I would find a way.” The track was on American IV: The Man Comes Around, which also included notable covers of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and The Beatles’ “In My Life”. Cash simply continued to prove he could do it all. The song’s chills became even more pronounced when he passed away a year later.
Pet Shop Boys – “Always on My Mind”, “Go West”, “Somewhere”
Synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys have gained a cult following for their original tracks, which range everywhere from the seductively witty and slower-paced “Rent” and “Being Boring” to dance floor-ready bursts of energy like “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” and “Integral”. But their cover versions have brought them massive success as well, bringing old favorites like Elvis’ “Always on My Mind”, Village People’s “Go West”, and West Side Story’s “Somewhere” to a new generation of audiences. Considering that the originals are far from the thumping electronics of Pet Shop Boys, the sleek and modern interpretations were welcomed as creative interpretations. The charts agreed. “Somewhere” reached #9 on the UK Singles chart, “Go West” made it to #15, and “Always on My Mind” hit the #1 spot.
Gary Jules – “Mad World”
Unlike the original version of several covers, Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” was massively success upon its release. Reaching #3 on the UK Singles chart, there was little reason to think a cover version would somehow supersede it, especially a whopping 20 years later. Gary Jules and Michael Andrews gave the track a sparse, piano-led ballad facelift for the film Donnie Darko in 2001. It was a stark contrast to Tears for Fears’ stomping synths and percussion, as Jules rode with a minimalist composure. A popular music video by the acclaimed Michel Gondry only enhanced the hype.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “All Along the Watchtower”
Hendrix made this track such a staple that some may be surprised it’s a cover, much less one of a Bob Dylan track. The track originally appeared on Dylan’s eighth full-length, John Wesley Harding, in 1967, but Hendrix was quick to scoop it up just a few months later after being handed a tape of it. After some grueling studio efforts to complete it, the finished version didn’t appear almost a year later, until the band’s Electric Ladyland album. The wait was worth it though. The opening guitar riff became one of the most famous of all time, with Hendrix’s opening line becoming just as renowned. “‘There must be some kind of way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief.” The guitar solo in the middle of the track showed Hendrix’s untouchable skills, solidifying the cover’s elite place in rock ‘n’ roll history.