Top 10 Covers Better Than the Original

My previous post, featuring a song penned by Bob Dylan, but popularized by George Harrison, got me thinking about cover songs. I’m usually an advocate for authenticity and will be the first to say there’s nothing like the original, but every now and then a fantastic cover comes along that almost surpasses the original. I’ve compiled a top 10 of those songs. What’s my criteria? The cover has to be so powerful it overshadows any previous version or bluntly replace the original in most people’s minds.

 1. All Along the Watchtower – The Jimi Hendrix ,1968 (Bob Dylan, 1967)

Hendrix puts the proper musical intensity to Dylan’s poignant lyrics. The fit is so perfect that even Dylan prefers it: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.

2. Respect- Aretha Franklin, 1967 (Otis Redding, 1965)

Otis Redding may have written the song, but Aretha clearly OWNS it! Her recording was slightly different. The original version had no bridge, so über producer Jerry Wexler blended a King Curtis tenor-sax solo with the studio band playing the chord changes from Sam and Dave’s When Something Is Wrong with My Baby. But the real kick is Aretha’s addition of  “sock it to me” and the spelling out of the title. Wexler reported Otis’ reaction to Aretha’s version: “He looked at me with a big grin and said, ‘That girl done stole my song.'”

3. Trapped -Bruce Springsteen, 2003 (Jimmy Cliff)

song also available on the “Essential “compilation

The first time I heard this song was on the bonus disc of The Essential Springsteen compilation in 2003 and was completely blown away. Those opening chords and lyrics “Well it seems like I’m caught up in your trap again” sent chills up and down my spine. Living in the Internet age, I googled the song for more info and found out it was a cover of a Reggae song. Cliff’s original is good, but Springsteen sings it with so much intensity and emotion I can’t bear to it any other way.  Sorry Jimmy.

4. Hurt – Johnny Cash, 2002 (Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

Released seven moths prior to Cash’s death, Hurt is considered by many to be The Man in Black’s epitaph. His version and the accompanying video are hauntingly beautiful. Trent Reznor was flattered Cash wanted to cover his song, but was worried that the idea sounded a bit too gimmicky. His fears were removed  however, once he saw the music video. “I pop the video in, and wow…Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore…”

5. Jersey Girl -Bruce Springsteen, 1981 (Tom Waits, 1980)

 It’s been said that Waits out-Bruced Bruce with Jersey Girl. Waits wrote this Drifters-type ballad  for his wife-to-be, who had been living in New Jersey. It can be found on his fantastic 1980 Heartattack and Vine album. Bruce Springsteen adopted the song the following year by performing it during the encores of a special homecoming stand at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey and the song quickly became a fan favourite. Bruce made slight lyrical changes like replacing the Waits line about “whores on 8th Ave” with “the girls out on the avenue“, and added the verse about taking “that little brat of yours and dropping her off at your mom’s.” Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Waits original, but the way Bruce does it is simply heavenly. I had the pleasure of witnessing it live in New Jersey on a hot summer night after nearly 3 hours of pure Bruce magic. Epic!

6. Hallelujah- Jeff Buckley, 1994 (Leonard Cohen, 1984)

Leonard Cohen is one of the most talented songwriters of all time and he proves it on this song. Hallelujah originally appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions, which his record label didn’t think was good enough! In 1991, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale performed its first cover: a stripped-down piano version for the Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. It is in fact that version Jeff Buckley used as the basis for his 1994 incredibly moving cover. Buckley’s recording introduced the song to a whole new generation and after his tragic death in 1997 the song slowly started to become recognized as a classic. There are now over 181 recorded versions of the song!

7. Don’t Play That Song -Aretha Franklin, 1970 (Ben E. King, 1962)

The Ben E. King version is brilliant, but Aretha’s is simply extraordinary. You can feel the heartbreak with every verse. That lady can sing the phonebook and it would still sound phenomenal, especially if she has Jerry Wexler in the production studio! Her snappy take on the tune sold more than a million copies, held down the R&B top spot for three weeks, and made it to number 11 on the pop charts.

8.  I Just Don’t Know What to Do – The White Stripes, 2003 (Tommy Hunt, 1962)

I originally thought this was a Dusty Springfield song, little did I know that even hers was a cover! Either way, The White Stripes just kill it on their version, which almost sounds like a Zeppelin song! Jack White’s bluesy guitar and vocals are simply spectacular! The Sofia Coppola directed video featuring a pole dancing Kate Moss is also pretty wicked. Props go out to Burt Bacharach and Hal David for writing such a great song that clearly stands the test of time.

9.  The Man Who Sold the World -Nirvana, 1994  (David Bowie, 1970)

Nirvana not only covered David Bowie’s song, but they introduced it to millions of fans who had no idea it was Bowie cover when they performed it on their MTV Unplugged set. From that moment on the song pretty much became a Nirvana track.  When Bowie revived the song on his 1995 tour, many of the young fans in the audience assumed he was doing a special Nirvana tribute!

10. Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) -Jerry Garcia Band, 1990 (Bob Dylan, 1978)

Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia had much appreciation for one another. Garcia said of Dylan: “He gave rock ‘n’ roll the thing I’d wished it had when I was a kid — respectability, some authority. He took it out of the realm of ignorant guys banging away on electric instruments and put it somewhere else altogether.” And after Garcia’s passing in 1995, Dylan said, “There’s no way to measure his greatness as a person or player. He really has no equal. There’s no way to convey the loss. It just digs down really deep.” Garcia is definitely one of the best interpreters of Dylan’s lyrics and he proves it on this chillingly beautiful track, which features a guitar solo so amazing it makes me want to cry! More evidence of Garcia’s perfect execution of Dylan’s repertoire can be found on the compilation album Garcia Plays Dylan (18 Dylan covers recorded live between 1973 and 1995).


5 thoughts on “Top 10 Covers Better Than the Original

  1. What’s fun with top 10 lists is that anybody can add their grain of salt. Personally, I would add to this great list “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” written for Nina Simone, who first recorded it in 1964, but is better known for The Animals version of 1965.

  2. …and one more for the road.
    In 1961, a young 21 year old Phil Spector recorded a new group of R&B from Philadelphia called the Top Notes. The song, published by Atlantic Records, was called “Twist and Shout”. Of course hardly anybody remember that version, thanks to those four lads from Liverpool who included it on their debut album “Please Please Me” in March of 1963.

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