For many, the idea of a cover song couldn’t be more washed out and generic. Fans won’t want to believe that a cover can be better than the original. However, music that has the ability to be appreciated and replicated by other artists and turned into something transcendent is what makes a song great. “But what about..” is also commonly followed when talking about cover songs. There’s something about this topic that seems to get fans fired up. It might be because the original song is thought to be diminished by another artist, it might be because our current culture seems to appreciate a sense of nostalgia and a stale, over saturated market of reboots and covers more than original work. Maybe people simply like to argue and cover songs create a topic of conversation. Regardless, everyone has a few well-known songs in mind that have been transformed into something equally great.
This is a short list and I realize there are other songs worthy of making it on. The list is subjective, so no I didn’t forget any songs. I’m aware of Nine Inch Nails’ rendition of “Dead Souls” by Joy Division—but it in terms of this list, it doesn’t beat the original. The same goes for Metallica’s cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Higher Ground” cover. Yes the covers are great, but slapping a new title on the song doesn’t change the fact they were already impeccable tunes. Apply the same logic for White Stripes cover of “Jolene” and The Kinks’ hit “You Really Got Me” covered by Van Halen on their debut album. A list of top cover songs can truly go on and on. All the songs I just mentioned are certainly worthy, but I wanted to select a few that all have something different to offer in terms of a great cover.
- Jane’s Addiction, “Rock & Roll”
Original Artist: The Velvet Underground
I wanted to put this song on the list simply because it could be one of discussion. Velvet Underground is proven to be one of the most impactful groups in all of rock. That’s what makes this cover work. The fact that their influential song was appreciated and passed down over the years to be picked up by one of the most original and influential bands of the 80s and 90s alt rock scene just fits. It’s something different; it’s not your average cover. In fact, nothing about Jane’s Addiction is average, which is why their cover is great. They match the emotion of the original song and still incorporate the sound and emotion known in their own work. This cover helped bring attention to the group early in their career, and helped bring attention once again to a classic rock group.
- The Clash, “I Fought the Law”
Original Artist: The Bobby Fuller Four
“I Fought the Law” became a classic punk anthem when it was released on the American version of The Clash’s self-titled debut album. The song was originally written by Sonny Curtis in 1960, but was later popularized and broke out as a classic song of the decade when the Bobby Fuller Four released a version of the song in 1966. For this song to top the original speaks volumes to how well-known their cover has become. The Clash stayed true to the structure of the original piece but still made it their own. They threw in the splash of vigorous force and British aggression that was widely known in the UK punk scene. “I Fought the Law” started as a much calmer song, but thanks to Joe Strummer’s fresh vocals and Mick Jones’ ample guitar playing it became an undeniably classic punk tune for The Clash.
- Jimi Hendrix, “All Along The Watchtower”
Original Artist: Bob Dylan
This might not be the most original choice, but it has to be on the list. Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower” has become the true version of the song—the one that always comes up whenever the song is mentioned. Usually covers come years later as a way to honor the original artist; however, Bob Dylan’s original version was released just six weeks before Hendrix’s cover. A pioneer of eccentric guitar playing and a God on the ax, Jimi Hendrix elevated Dylan’s sound and lyrics and lengthened the song with his own shrieking riffs to make it unique. Hendrix was able to enhance the melody in a way that listeners could hum and sing along to just as much as his actual vocals. Almost 50 years after its release, “All Along The Watchtower” can still be viewed as an iconic song. Even though the original song was performed by another legendary artist in Dylan, Hendrix took the song and was still able to reinvent and reinvigorate it in such a unique way.
- Johnny Cash, “Hurt”
Original Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Johnny Cash was no stranger to covers toward the end of his career, but when his cover of “Hurt” first came out, many fans weren’t aware who it was at first. The fact that the aging country star could take on one of Nine Inch Nails most dark and desolate songs is still remarkable. The original song feels dejected and melancholy, and Cash’s performance captures an equal, if not a greater, emotional tone that is both dark and somewhat unnerving. Johnny Cash caught the music world off guard when he covered “Hurt” as an acoustic ballad on his final album American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, and because of his cover this song no longer belongs to Trent Reznor or Nine Inch Nails. Cash was able to completely take over the song and cover it in a way that was undeniably meaningful. The cover isn’t just looked at as an homage to Cash’s life, but as a reminder of how powerful music is as an art form and a form of identity. It’s a cover that seemed to come from a bleak and desperate place, but turned out to be a genuinely pure song that brought people together.
- Nirvana, “Love Buzz”
Original Artist: Shocking Blue
When people think of Nirvana covers they automatically gravitate towards their cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” Meat Puppets “Lake of Fire,” or Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Oddly enough all three songs are featured on the band’s MTV Unplugged live album. However, I wanted to look at a song that most probably don’t know isn’t original to Nirvana. It’s a song that is certainly overlooked compared to the band’s most popular hits. It’s the aggressive, piercing cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” that made my list. This is one of those songs that shouldn’t be compared to the original because it came out in such a different era of music. It should be looked at as its own song and what it did for the development of Nirvana’s sound. One reason I love this cover is how much it relates to Nirvana’s early sound. The song was initially released as part of the Sub Pop Singles Club, and the following year “Love Buzz” went on to be featured on their 1989 debut album, Bleach. This first album was their most raw. The powerful sound and pure, emotional storytelling stand out the most on this album. There was no media or pop culture influence, it was simply real music. As a listener, you can feel just how substantial the sound was at that time. The sound isn’t sugar-coated and nothing is washed out. It’s this cover of “Love Buzz” and all 13 tracks of Bleach that I hear when I think of Nirvana in their truest form.