Surpassing Greatness: The Best Cover Songs of All Time
Beginning in the 1950s, songs that were written by a studio artist would be given to many different singers. This was done to see who could make the most popular song. There was much less individual ownership of a song. Plus, popular opinion would eventually rule on who had performed the most compelling version.
Although there are many celebrated cover songs out there now — Ryan Adam’s covers of Taylor Swift’s album 1989 comes to mind — there is an equal number of well-known songs that are so associated with the current artist that we don’t even realize they’re covers of an earlier artist’s work. Today, we’re going to talk about songs that truly surpassed greatness to be considered some of the best cover songs of all time.
Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”
Leonard Cohen is one of the foremost lyricists of the 20th century. Born in Montreal, Canada, Cohen has been writing music since he was a young man. While he started out as an author, Cohen only really made money as a musician. His song “Hallelujah” was written and recorded in 1984, although the studio version and the song he sang on the tour were often lyrically different.
Since then, there have been over 300 recorded covers of “Hallelujah”. The most famous one is by Jeff Buckley, a young singer-songwriter who died at the age of 30. “Hallelujah” was recorded for his only complete album, Grace.
Jimi Hendrix “All Along the Watchtower”
Jimi Hendrix is known for his absolute mastery of the electric guitar. His version of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, where he used his guitar and amplifier to create a landscape of war under the anthem, is one of the defining moments of the 1960s.
Another great accomplishment for Hendrix was takingBob Dylan’s folk song “All Along the Watchtower” and turning it into a rock and roll anthem, complete with guitar riffs that were unique to his style. Hendrix recorded several Dylan covers, but this one is by far the most famous.
Aretha Franklin “Respect”
It takes a lot of work for an artist to cover a song so well that people forget who recorded the original. Aretha Franklin’s blazing “Respect” is one of her most famous songs. However, it was actually written and recorded by Otis Redding and released two years before Aretha recorded her famous version.
In the original, Redding sings it from the perspective of a man trying to get a woman back. On the flip side, Franklin sings it as a proud, confident woman’s declaration of power. She added the chorus and the back-up singers to make this one of the most famous R&B songs of the era.
Whitney Houston “I Will Always Love You”
Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” will go down in history as the best-selling single by a woman in the history of music.
Recorded by Houston for the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, the song was an instant hit. The song broke records as it hit the top three of the Billboard Hot 100 for the second time. The first time it hit the top of the charts was when Dolly Parton first recorded it in 1973.
This beautiful song manages to perfectly suit the vocal stylings of both Parton and Houston, whose individual versions both sound unique to their own style.
Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse “Valerie”
Recorded after her major album Back to Black, “Valerie” remains one of Amy Winehouse’s most beautiful songs to date. It gives us some insight into what her career could have looked like if her life hadn’t passed away at 27.
Winehouse recorded a version of The Zutons’ song “Valerie” for Mark Ronson’s album Version in 2007. As a promotion for the album, Winehouse sang the song live on radio and TV shows. Due to these live performances, it became immediately associated with her name.
Janis Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee”
Another member of the “27 Club” is Janis Joplin, whose professional career only lasted around eight years before she died at 27.
One of Joplin’s most famous songs is her version of “Me and Bobby McGee”, which was first recorded by Southern singer Roger Miller. Joplin’s cover was released after her death in 1970. Since then, it has become indelibly associated with her legacy.
Johnny Cash “Hurt”
One of the very last songs Johnny Cash recorded is a poignant cover of the Nine Inch Nail’s song “Hurt”. He had just been diagnosed with a terminal neurodegenerative disease and been given no more than 18 months to live. Despite that, Cash decided to keep recording.
Cash died in 2003. However, before he passed away, he recorded his last two albums. One of which, American IV: The Man Comes Around, featured “Hurt”. The song, which many people believe references addiction and depression, was made even more poignant by Cash recording it as a music video in the rubble of his former home.
The Fugees “Killing Me Softly with His Song”
The Fugees are one of the most versatile, interesting bands of the last 50 years. Nowhere does their musicality show itself more plainly than in their cover of the Roberta Flack song “Killing Me Softly with His Song”.
“Killing Me Softly with His Song” is a poignant ballad that was originally written in 1971. The Fugees’ version features the soft yet powerful vocals of Lauryn Hill, layered with a beat from another song as well as unique elements like a synth sitar and drum-loop track. It shows how adept they are at sampling and layering music to make a track all their own.
Otis Redding “Stand by Me”
Another popular song for cover artists is “Stand by Me”, which was written in 1961 by Ben E. King, Mike Stoller, and Jerry Lieber. The song was originally based on spirituality with lyrics inspired by psalms.
There have been over 400 recorded covers of this song. However, the most famous was by Otis Redding. He didn’t change much about the song but brought his raw, powerful vocals to the mix. Redding’s version is much more intimate than the original, which turns it into a personal plea.
The Clash “I Fought the Law”
As one of the first 1970s punk bands in Britain, The Clash has been indelibly connected with the song “I Fought the Law”. Even though it was originally written 10 years earlier and recorded by an American rock and roll band The Bobby Fuller Four.
The original song is bright, happy, and completely devoid of any intensity or emotion. After hearing it on a jukebox in an American recording studio, The Clash made it their own by adding plenty of intensity. The song was used as a bonus track on the American release of their LP The Clash. From there, it quickly became a massive hit and has been a staple of their concert sets for decades.
Soft Cell “Tainted Love”
When it was originally recorded in 1964, “Tainted Love” was a major flop. It was the B-side of a record released by American singer Gloria Jones. After that record did so poorly, the song’s writer Ed Cobb tried to give it to another band, but no one wanted it.
A few years later, a British DJ found a copy of the song while visiting the United States. The DJ took it back to the UK and played it in clubs around the country. Synth-vocal duo Soft Cell heard the song in a club, taped it, and made their own version.
Ike and Tina Turner “Proud Mary”
It’s rare when artists manage to put their own spin on a song that’s actually successful. It’s another thing entirely when the cover version makes the original song seem better, more than just the sum of its parts.
“Proud Mary” was originally written by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival and recorded by them in 1969. Ike and Tina Turner covered the song in 1970 on their album Workin’ Together.
Their song started off much like the CCR version — slow with a strumming guitar and soulful vocals. Then, Tina took it off in a whole new direction, supported by backing gospel-style vocals by the Ikettes. Now, it’s one of her most famous tracks.