Only the bravest artists take on the monstrosity of an undertaking that is the ‘cover’. It must be the perfect amount of interpretation and tribute and is almost always a catastrophic failure. Much like the movie remake it’s near impossible to top an original.
In principal 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.
Every so often a cover comes along that is so incredible it shines with a vigour and vibrance of its own. These are the 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 25 years 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:
Van Morrison – The Way Young Lovers Do
Bob Dylan – Just Like A Woman
Bob Dylan – Mama You’ve Been On My Mind
The Smiths – I Know It’s Over
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
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. Jimi also recorded some 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 and it contains various powerful religious imagery cut with archival footage of their youth and budding romance.
I can cry just thinking about it and 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’s intergenerational webs of artistry being spun here as 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 on 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 it’s 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 Cockers closing Beatles rendition from Woodstock in 1969. The man exudes soul, dripping off every note.
The Sgt. Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club Band song was put into a soul-rock context by Joe and to this day there has never been a better Beatles rendition.
8. I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
When Whitney Houston took it up, Dolly Parton had 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 Paton 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 an 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 make noises from his guitar so weird 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. 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.