There's a ton of music out there. The sheer volume going back hundreds of years is staggering. During this time, there are many songs redone, remixed, recut and rerecorded that it only adds to the confusion. Within this massive library are various songs that have been covered (often more than once) by other musicians. While this list will go down on what some of the best covered songs of all time are, let us not forget the originals that spawned a singer or band to want to do a cover in the first place.
To me, what makes a great cover song isn't so much the faithfulness to the original as it is an artist doing their own take; changing it up enough to where it brings a new sound, meaning or purpose to the song itself. Truthfully, just covering a song and making it sound like the original doesn't do anything but try to get an artist to put out an easy single. There's no creativity and usually, if you're smart, you'll just listen to the original to begin with. So the amount of alteration and "spin" on the original is taken into account, not to mention the success. Also note that sampling and remixes are not included, sorry Hammer.
There are countless covers, but I think the list below are all worth your time. So enjoy the Top 25 Cover Songs.
25: The Isley Brothers
Aw, yeah. Thanks for tunin' in to 104.7 the Cool Wave, all your greatest smooth soul and jazz classics. Up next, we have the laid back sounds of the Isley Brothers, but first some words from our sponsors at Soul Glo. (anybody?) The Brothers took a simple, light acoustic song by Seals and Crofts (a.k.a. the poor man's Simon and Garfunkel) and made it smooth, hip and added electric instruments and a slow beat. The song was also covered in the 1990s by Type O Negative which was interesting in its own right.
Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
One of the Smith's best songs explodes with the extroverted talent of Muse. Gone are the soft guitar and soft beats in favor of distorted guitar. The vocals, though, remain relatively unchanged.
23: Mary J Blige
Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word
Stripping away nearly all accompaniment, Mary J Blige turns an already heartfelt Elton John song into a piece of raw emotion. We have Blige's voice and little to nothing else, and while Elton's piano is missed, Blige's voice is all she or us really need turning a soft ballad into a powerful piece of soul and blues.
22: Van Halen
You Really Got Me
One of the more unappreciated rock bands of their time, The Kinks' first major hit, You Really Got Me, became a staple of Van Halen's setlist and rock radio in the late 70s. You Really Got Me was one of the first hits of the 1960s completely based on power cords, which is a perfect fit for various hard rock and heavy metal bands. Van Halen had the addition of Diamond Dave as well, the biggest change between the two versions, which added a lot of fun and personality to the tune and seemed a natural fit.
Devo is unapologetically New Wave with their rendition of one of the greatest rock songs to ever be written, Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. While not as successful or renowned as the original, it's a unique take on a classic. Flower pot hats not included.
20: The Doors
Back Door Man
The Doors were already rooted deep in the sound of rhythm and blues, with a slight homage to southern rock and country. Jim Morrison's passion and vocal performance a perfect fit, and one of their biggest hits in the late 60s was already a blues classic. Manzarek's keyboard playing is what sells the whole thing, though.
19: Green Day
Working Class Hero
About the only good thing American Idol gave us was this version of Working Class Hero thanks to Green Day (why they were on American Idol is another discussion). Working Class Hero became really popular really fast thanks to that performance. The song, only found on the John Lennon tribute album (which has quite a few quality covers, I might add) that was also a charity album for Darfur. It even earned the band a Grammy nomination, and deservedly so by starting in similar fashion to Lennon's original but slowly building to a rockin' finale.
18: Marilyn Manson
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
There's probably no bigger alteration of a song on this list than Marilyn Manson's take of the Eurythmics hit song, Sweet Dreams. Instead of the synth-heavy 1980s pop hit, we have a heavy dark industrial sound like grinding gears in an old abandoned warehouse. This is the song that put Manson on the map, and is as evil of a song as I think one person could make (and it wasn't even his).
17: Pet Shop Boys
Always On my Mind
Elvis Presley has probably had more songs covered than just about anyone. The electronica dance-duo (and gay icons) Pet Shop Boys, put one of the King's later hits through the ringer in 1987 for the anniversary of Elvis's death. The result was probably their biggest hit and a unique take on the soft-rock ballad.
16: Social Distortion
Ring of Fire
One of the best punk bands from the 1980s didn't really find mainstream success until the early 1990s with their third album which had their biggest hits. One of those was a cover song by a little singer/songwriter named Johnny Cash, whom Social D was a big fan of (and country influence can be heard in their songs, similar to Cash's style). By the time Social Distortion did their version, the song had already been covered over 20 times, and has since been covered another 30. Social D's, though, remains the most popular and the best.
Now seemingly on repeat on every classic rock station in the world, Love Hurts is one of those covers that nobody really knows is a cover. Focusing more on guitar and emotive singing (as well as good ole Scottish awesomeness), Nazareth would never find another hit as big as this one cover by the Everly Brothers, whose original is about as vanilla of a rock song as you can get and barely recongnizable as the same tune.
14: Soft Cell
I'm not sure what a "tainted love" is, but I have a feeling lots of shots and suppositories are involved after a visit with your doctor. An early 60s motown hit, Soft Cell repackaged it into one of the most popular songs of the 1980s with the expected 80s instruments and use of synthesizer.
13: Manfred Mann's Earth Band
Blinded by the Light
It's all about the keyboard. That has to be Manfred Mann's philosophy, kinda like how Christopher Walken's Bruce Dickenson was all about the cowbell. Just that slight addition changes the song entirely, and I think for the better, turning it into a number one hit. The original is distinctly The Boss, this is not.
12: Gary Jules
The classic Tears for Fears tune was altered in nearly every aspect for Gary Jule's cover. The tempo was slowed, the music stripped down to merely a piano, and a subdued yet melodic Gary Jules offers his voice to a rather depressing and melon collie tune. Mad World's popularity grew even more with the inclusion of it for the film Donnie Darko (and used memorably within that film) and even became a #1 single in the UK.
11: The Beatles
Twist and Shout
In one take, the Beatles cover of an already Isley Brothers hit was faithful yet at the same time a departure and most now consider the Beatles debut album single the definitive version. Why? It's rough, underproduced and raw. Lennon's voice reaches a balance of melodic and strained. While technically a cover of a cover (the original being the Top Notes) the Isley Brothers rendition was great it its own right, changing the rhythem and style and setting the solid foundation. The Beatles, though, were the Beatles and took it to the next level.
10: Sinead O'Conner
Nothing Compares 2 U
Originally written by Prince for the band The Family (of which Prince was a part of), Nothing Compares 2 U was a song intended to be a love ballad to singer/actress Susannah Melvoin (the other singer of The Family). The cover by Sinead O'Conner, though, turns it into a song about heartache that can be relevant to anyone. It's much more somber despite the similar pitch and rhythm, the biggest change being the removal of the synthesizer and concentrating far more on the vocal ability of the singer with subdued strings and piano.
9: Cowboy Junkies
Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground considers this the best version of his song, so that's saying a lot. Based on a rare version of the original, the Cowboy Junkies melodic and ballad like approach creates an entirely new aura for the song. Not to mention the singer now being a female fits perfectly with this new approach. While never quite reaching the notoriety they had with the hit, their version is often considered the best - even surpassing the original for some.
8: Talking Heads
Take me To the River
A little-known gospel classic by Al Green, the Talking Heads altered nearly everything about the song. The tempo, the sound, the vocal pitch all got the New Wave treatment and as a result got a top 40 hit out of it. David Byrne's epileptic-like singing is an odd contrast to the soulful and melodic background singers, yet it works.
7: Guns N Roses
Knockin' On Heaven's Door
The wailing of Axel Rose along alters everything about this song. The original by Bob Dylan, and written for a western film, was everything you expect from a bluesy folk piece. Steel guitar, simple strumming and a steady beat. Not for Guns N Roses, however, which implemented chord variations and pitch changes. It keeps the simple chords but alters it to finger picking - eventually this all leads to one hell of a guitar solo from Slash. Try and not sing along to what is now one of the classic rock ballads.
6: Red Hot Chili Peppers
The funkiness of Stevie Wonder was a perfect fit for an up and coming band from southern California. The Red Hot Chili Peppers put more focus on the bass hook and guitar strumming while retaining the basic metric rhythm and vocal pitch. The alterations with the instrument changes the whole focus and makes the song sound more upbeat and relentless than the rather laid back Wonder original.
5: Johnny Cash
Released by Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails, Hurt originally came out in 1994 on the Downward Spiral album, but was never officially released on a single until later. In 2002, as one of his final songs, Johnny Cash's interpretation turned it from an dissonant industrial music centerpiece to an acoustic guitar song of depression and desperation, as though sung by someone who knew they were going to die and were full of regrets. Johnny Cash passed away less than a year later.
4: Janis Joplin
Me and Bobby McGee
One of the most covered songs even in 1971 when Joplin gave it a go, Me and Bobby McGee was originally a story of a woman (Bobby) and written by Kris Kristofferson. Joplin changed a couple of small pieces of lyrics and suddenly, Bobby became a man. With it she brought her raw sound and scratchy voice, changing the song entirely and, as it turns out, for the better.
3: The Clash
I Fought the Law
Originally a simple tune by the post-Buddy Holly band, The Crickets, The Clash turned it on its head with harder electric guitar, faster drumming and created an anthem for Punk Rock that still sounds amazing to this day. The song itself has been covered numerous times (even before The Clash tired their hand) but none captured the visceral riffs of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer or the hard pounding of, well, whoever the drummer was that week. I think it was Terry Chimes.
2: Jimi Hendrix
All Along the Watchtower
The original folk/blues rendition by Bob Dylan was good. Acoustic guitar, bass and drums with a harmonica. That's it. Then Jimi came in and said "Wait a minute...I got an idea." What he gave us was really one of the best damn songs of all time. Do I really need to justify it? It was a pet project for Hendrix, who had problems with fellow musicians and producers on getting it done how he wanted, and the effort was worth it as it comes in at number two.
1: Aretha Franklin
In may be a cliche, but who hasn't, at some point in their lives, even accidentally hear the vocal perfection of Aretha Franklin, passion and all, blaring some Respect? The original by my man Otis Redding was great in its own right, but Aretha took it to a whole new level with deep sense of pain and hurt and a "don't mess with me" attitude behind it all. It is as 180 from the original as you can get, not merely in sound, but in intention. Otis wrote the song about a woman respecting her man, Aretha's cover turned into a no-nonsense song about respecting your woman.
*Author's note. While not a remix, but not quite a cover, Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love was removed.