Cover songs, like movie remakes, are often derided and considered inferior works when compared to original versions, however there are a plethora of exceptions with some even exceeding the originals. Now, not all of these are better than the originals, however they come bloody close, with some even coming up trumps. The best covers are usually the ones that you never realised where covers until you read a list like this. So, here we go…
- Mr. Bojangles by Nina Simone (Original: Jerry Jeff Walker)
Nina Simone was an incredible artist who managed to pack more soul into her voice than they dan pack commuters on a Japanese underground train. This song is iconic, what with it being recorded by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Robbie Williams; however, Nina Simone turns it into golden work of art. She takes the well-known song and wraps her vocals around it; she exudes heart and the song is elevated because of her version.
“I knew a man Bojangles
And he’d dance for you
In worn out shoes,
With silver hair, a ragged shirt
And baggy pants.
He would do the old soft shoe.”
- Respect by Aretha Franklin (Original: Otis Redding)
This was what I was talking about when a good cover makes you believe it’s the original. This is one of the few times when a cover is unarguably better than the original. Aretha’s ‘Respect’ has become an absolute classic of soul music. She took the original and added the R.E.S.P.E.C.T aspect of the song which turned it into one helluva powerhouse of a feminist anthem.
- Twist and Shout by The Beatles (Original: The Top Notes)
The Beatles doing a cover? Never! Well, yes, actually, they did a small number of covers in their time, particularly their early days and this specific one has become so synonymous with the band that most people have never heard of original song or group that first recorded it. John’s screaming vocals announced to the world that there were new kids on the block … and the world was never going to be the same again.
- Make You Feel My Love by Adele (Original: Bob Dylan)
This is the first of three Bob Dylan covers on the list (I actually had to cut out Guns N Roses’ version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and George Harrison’s ‘If Not For You’, so there were almost five!), and that’s not just because I adore him, it’s also because Bob has a way of writing such universally captivating songs, that anyone can pick them up; put their own spin on it, and have a classic on their hands. Adele’s version of the late-era Dylan song, ‘Make You Feel My Love’ is heart-wrenchingly gorgeous and she did such an incredible job with it that you could almost imagine that she wrote it herself.
“When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case,
I would offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love.”
-Make You Feel My Love
- Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds (Original: Bob Dylan)
And here we have the second Dylan classic. Bob Dylan owes as much to The Byrds as he does to Joan Baez getting him up in front of all those large audiences back in the early days. At the beginning of his career, Bob was gathering a lot of followers and there was a great deal of attention being paid to him, however he was still rather underground. This all changed when The Byrds took Bob’s poetic masterpiece and gave it a psychedelia 60s vibe that become a world-wide mega-hit that also had the effect of bringing Dylan’s songs to the very forefront of popular entertainment … where he has remained for 50 years.
“Though I know the evenin’s empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazed me, I’m branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet,
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.”
-Mr Tambourine Man
- I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston (Original: Dolly Parton)
I personally prefer the Dolly Parton version as it’s more touching and melodic, however there is no doubting that Whitney’s version is one incredible display of vocal talent. This song has cemented her reputation as quite possibly the greatest vocalist to ever walk the Earth. The song is entirely natural in her arms and like the Adele song earlier, it feels like it could have been hers right from the word go. If you’ve never heard the Dolly Parton version, though, check it out as it’s delightful.
- Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor (Original: Prince)
If you can sit through the video to this song without shedding a tear, then you are a cold-hearted bastard. Sinead O’Connor literally makes this song her bitch and you’re left thinking at the end of it ‘Prince who?’ I still believe that there is a mistake somewhere and that this was actually written by O’Connor as it’s truly perfection. This is another on the very short list of songs that are indisputably better than their originals.
- Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley (Original: Leonard Cohen)
This is a tricky one as the original is also incredible, however I genuinely think that Buckley does edge out Cohen. I’ve spoken before about how truly haunting this song is, especially when sung by Buckley. His soft melodic voice has the power to constrict your windpipe and make you feel … things ... shudder … Clocking in at over six minutes, this version never starts to drag and you’d be quite happy if it went on till the sun burned up the last of its fuel and destroyed the solar system … Maybe not quite that far, but you get my gist.
“Your faith was strong but you needed proof,
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.”
- Hurt by Johnny Cash (Original: Nine Inch Nails)
There is slight disagreement in the Mugwump office as James feels this should be number one … I’m almost inclined to agree with him, however you’ll see why it’s not sitting pretty at numbero uno in a second. Towards the end of his life, Johnny Cash teamed up with producing legend Rick Rubin to record six new albums that featured some original Cash track, some updated versions of his old classics, and a handful of cover songs. It’s these cover songs that really shine, including U2’s ‘One’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’, Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’, Neil Diamond’s ‘Solitary Man’, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’. Invariably, all of the covers are better than the originals, however the reigning king is Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Hurt’. I strongly believe that Cash’s version is one of the greatest songs ever recorded and makes the original look a bit embarrassing. Cash recorded the song weeks before he died which gave the entire track a whole new, elevated meaning. Couple this with a chilling video that juxtaposed Cash in his young days with that of his current and frail form and it’s one big recipe for a tear-jerking send-off to one of the greatest performers this world will ever see … maybe it should have been number one after all …
- All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix (Original: Bob Dylan)
I’m sure anyone who knew even a little bit about music would have realised that this was going to be number one (especially considering my very vocal love of Bobby D). I believe that this version is the second greatest rock song ever recorded (just behind ‘Stairway to Heaven’) and Jimi’s version has become so iconic that even Bob says he feels like the one doing the cover when he plays the song live. Jimi breathed such life into the track that it’s almost difficult listening to Dylan’s original as you know what heights the song can reach. Hendrix idolised Dylan and this is the greatest love letter to a hero ever recorded in music.
Would you have liked to see Soft Cell or the Pet Shop Boys on the list (well you’re clearly on the wrong blog)? If so, let me know on Twitter @MugwumpBlog