Every so often, cover songs come along that are so incredible they shine with a vibrance of their own. These are the 20 best covers of all time.
Only the bravest artists take on the monstrosity of an undertaking that is the ‘cover’. The best covers must be the perfect amount of interpretation and tribute, but on the other hand, the worst can make for a catastrophic failure. Much like the movie remake, it’s near impossible to top an original.
In principle though, it’s a beautiful concept. It’s a testament to the malleability of good songwriting and how artists are able to speak to each other through emotional expression, conversing across oceans and even lifetimes.
Sometimes, it even works. These are the 20 best covers of all time.
1. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
Quite often referred to as the king of covers, almost anything Jeff Buckley touches turns to gold. The man is all class and an undeniably pure artist. Throughout time his legacy has swollen and grown as his music continues to speak to people decades after the release of Grace.
His incredible cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is as near to a masterpiece as anything can be, as Buckley discovered a way to get inside the song to deliver it with a tortured pain that Cohen never could, making it the best cover of all time. Plus, it ends with Jeff’s famous 22-second note which has stunned vocalists for years to come.
For some of Jeff’s other untouchable covers that stand the test of time, check out:
2. All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Another example of the perfect blend of interpretation and tribute, All Along The Watchtower was Dylan’s gift to Hendrix and Hendrix’s gift to the world. The fact is Jimi recorded plenty of killer covers in his time, including B.B. King’s Let The Good Times Roll and Tim Rose’s Hey Joe.
Since his first performance of the song in 1974, Bob Dylan has performed the Jimi Hendrix version more than 2250 times and has been quoted saying that it is Jimi’s song. Check out one of the best covers of all time below.
3. Hurt – Johnny Cash
Another tear-jerker, Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails’ tune Hurt and immediately immortalised it. The incredible clip was filmed just three months before June Carter’s death and seven months before Johnny’s. Their frailty is evident in the clip, which contains powerful religious images cut with archival footage of their youth and budding romance.
I can cry just thinking about it – that’s just about as powerful as a song can be.
4. Song To The Siren – This Mortal Coil
This magnificent cover of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren is made all the more poignant with a bit of context about vocalist Elizabeth Fraser. Fraser is also the singer in the Cocteau Twins and shared an intense romantic relationship with Tim’s son Jeff Buckley.
That’s right, there are intergenerational webs of artistry being spun here. The two singers became deeply infatuated with each other’s voices and once again, emotion produced music. Fraser and Buckley recorded a passionate duet together called All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun, written by Jeff. Though it was never officially released, it is definitely worth a listen and deeply personal to Fraser. Witness a voice from another world below:
5. The Man Who Sold The World – Nirvana
Famously recorded at their last ever performance, everyone at MTV Unplugged was shocked when Nirvana pulled out a deep cut from David Bowie’s third album. Another great example of how wide-reaching tastes leads to great music. In fact, it even led Nirvana fans to tell Bowie that it was cool that he covered one of Kurt’s songs. Whoops!
All in all, this is the perfect case and point of why the Seattle grunge rockers have reached such a deified, legendary status.
6. Respect – Aretha Franklin
When Otis Redding originally recorded Respect in 1965 it wasn’t necessarily overlooked, but it certainly didn’t achieve its full power.
Two years later said power was unlocked when a rising R&B singer named Aretha Franklin turned it into an untouchable, irrepressible feminist anthem and one of the best covers of all time.
7. With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker
From the most iconic music festival of all time came a lot of iconic performances, but there was no cover more enduring than Joe Cocker’s closing Beatles rendition from Woodstock in 1969. The man exudes soul, dripping off every note.
The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band song was put into a soul-rock context by Joe and to this day there has never quite been a better Beatles rendition.
8. I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
When Whitney Houston took it up, Dolly Parton had already taken I Will Always Love You to number one on the charts twice – once upon its 1974 release and again with a new version in 1982. That’s pretty unstoppable territory, but it didn’t phase Houston.
Whitney’s magnificent remake was the perfect vehicle for her unparalleled vocals and immaculate sense of drama, besting Dolly Parton by topping every chart that existed and becoming the best-selling single by a woman of all time.
9. Jolene – The White Stripes
Jack White at the height of his power was a terrifying, unstoppable force. His tortured vocals and angered passion felt like it was tearing out of his chest with every line. Moreover, Jack has the ability to create sounds from his guitar so bizarre and unique they could scare a woolly mammoth into charging.
The White Stripes’ stunning tribute to Dolly Parton – the second of her songs on this list – put the tune in a completely new context and lent it new emotional charge. Shortly put, if you think Miley Cyrus does the best cover of Jolene, you would be dead wrong.
10. Valerie – Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse
Mark Ronson’s reputation as a hitmaker was cemented when he pulled an obscure Zutons song from 2006, enlisted the newly-famous Amy Winehouse on vocals, and transformed the track into one of her most recognisable hits.
Five years later the world would tragically lose Winehouse, but her music – covers and originals alike – hasn’t diminished in the slightest. A potent reminder of one of the world’s great voices, cut short with so much left to give.
11. Forever Dolphin Love – King Krule
Connan Mockasin’s Forever Dolphin Love is already an extremely strange and difficult song to cover. However, when Archy Marshall of King Krule put his signature wails, grunts, and jazz flair on it you have a near-flawless cover on your hands.
While extremely current and perhaps a divisive choice, this immaculate one-off cover is what good music is all about earning it a spot on this list. Plus we’ve all gotta get our heads out of the ’70s every now and then.
12. A Case Of You – James Blake
Just like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell has long been revered as one of the world’s strongest songwriters, shaping complex ideas into verses that are astoundingly simple and completely arresting. Her songs have been covered by everyone from Sufjan Stevens (Free Man In Paris) to Björk (The Boho Dance), but one, in particular, stands out above the rest.
Released on James Blake’s self-titled debut album in 2011, his version of A Case Of You is simply put, gorgeous. A regular feature of his live shows, you can count on hearing a pin drop whenever Blake begins singing this cover.
13. Bulls On Parade – Denzel Curry
Part of triple j’s Like A Version program which invites artists to perform a cover of their choosing, Denzel Curry’s take on Rage Against The Machine’s anti-hate anthem Bulls On Parade is one of the most energetic live performances ever captured on video.
A handing of the baton from one of the last generation’s most potent political forces to one of this generation’s most powerful voices in hip-hop, this cover will go down in history.
14. Mad World – Gary Jules and Michael Andrews
Almost 20 years after it was written, Mad World achieved the illuminating success it deserved when Michael Andrews and Gary Jules covered it for the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko. The sombre piano ballad closes out the film’s final three minutes with an incredibly powerful scene depicting angst, alienation, and anguish.
15. You’ve Got The Love – Florence + The Machine
Another one to put in the ‘I didn’t know that was a cover’ pile: Florence + The Machine’s chart-smashing 2009 banger You’ve Got The Love. The song was originally written and released in 1986 by The Source and Candi Station, with an ever-so-slightly different title (You Got The Love).
Another notable cover of the track came by way of Regina Spector, who sang a version for her 2009 album Colour Me Free! – just two months before Florence’s version was released.
16. Feeling Good – Muse
An old-school Broadway and Blues standard turned chart-topping hit on multiple occasions, Feeling Good (or Feelin’ Good) is one of those rare songs which has lived multiple lifetimes.
17. Take Me Home, Country Roads – Whitney feat. Waxahatchee
When a song turns into a bit of a meme, it takes a truly spectacular version to remind the world just how damn good that original composition was.
John Denver’s 1971 love letter to West Virginia may be the bane of every road trip playlist or half the internet’s country music memes, but Whitney’s 2020 version featuring the spine-tingling vocals of Waxahatchee jogs the memory plenty. Take Me Home, Country Roads was a perfectly written song.
18. Johnny & Mary – Todd Terje feat. Bryan Ferry
Bryan Ferry, god damn, you’ve still got it. A somewhat out-of-place track on one of the greatest nu-disco albums since the century turned, Johnny & Mary from Todd Terje’s debut LP It’s Album Time is moody perfection.
Originally recorded and released by Robert Palmer, it first appeared on his 1980 album Clues.
19. Moon River – Frank Ocean
Written by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, the first time Moon River graced the ears of the masses came by way of Audrey Hepburn, who performed the song herself in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Frank Ocean released a version as a standalone single in 2018, stopping the press for the sheer emotional force he managed to pack into the runtime.
20. Lady Marmalade – Christina Aguilera, P!nk, Lil’ Kim, Mýa
A record destined to smash charts, the 2001 version of Lady Marmalade grabbed four of the world’s biggest pop stars and combined their powers for a cover that went down in history. It was recorded for Moulin Rouge! – the award-winning Baz Lurhmann film that was released in 2001.
Lady Marmalade has been through a number of popular iterations – by Labelle in 1974 and by All Saints in 1998 – yet nobody has touched it since Christina and the girls took it on and smashed it. It’s a tough version to beat.