50 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals

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50 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals

There are some songs that you don’t truly appreciate until another artist takes it on and makes it their own. Oftentimes the newer version draws out the original’s complexities in a way you never would have noticed before. Or maybe the first version is equally compelling, but the cover artist reimagined it with such grandeur that many don’t even realize that it’s a new take on an old song. Whether converting dance bangers to melancholic ballads or pop hits to garage-rock anthems, sometimes a complete 180 is exactly what a track was missing.

50. Thou, “Something in the Way” (Nirvana)

By now, Baton Rouge heavyweights Thou are old hands at translating Kurt Cobain’s misery into the language of crushing, nihilistic doom, but their take on “Something in the Way” is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. The original version of this song is already quiet, hesitant, and raw, and Thou’s version starts out along that muted path, shuddering into the void before abruptly slamming into a wall of cruelly distorted noise. When Bryan Funck wraps his acerbic vocal chords around Cobain’s lonesome lament and his fellows chime in as a ghostly chorus, the effect is absolutely explosive. —Kim Kelly

49. Daughter, “Get Lucky” (Daft Punk)

Of the many treatments given Daft Punk’s ubiquitous 2013 single, this cover by U.K. alt poppers Daughter, may be the sexiest. Elena Tonra’s reverb-bathed vocals swim in a delicate swirl of cinematic synths, processed guitars and bare percussion. It’s a completely different atmosphere, but just as hypnotic. Here it feels more as though we’re underwater—a spare bass thump here, shoegaze flourishes there, and Tonra’s floating voice everywhere. By the time all that ambient sensuality builds to its crescendo, the carefree hook-up anthem has taken on a gorgeous, urgent melancholy. The mark of success here is that, despite the absence of Nile Rodgers’ inimitably rhythmic hook, the cover works on its own terms. Gone is the summer heat from this dance jam—instead, we get moody, autumnal, downright cool make-out music. —Amanda Schurr

48. Bettye LaVette, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (Sinead O’Connor)

A veteran soul/R&B singer-songwriter of intermittent solo and group success since the early 1960s, Bettye LaVette flew mostly under the radar until 2005, when her covers album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise garnered rave reviews from everyone from Elvis Costello to Bonnie Raitt. It’s an inspired collection of songs penned by contemporary female artists (Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann), whose title references Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream,” another funky cover LaVette makes entirely her own. She leads off the record with this breathy, smoldering take on the a cappella title track of Sinead O’Connor’s second, breakthrough album and, in just over two minutes—O’Connor’s original ran a languorous almost six—sets the tone for a defiant soundtrack of survival and rebirth. As lilting as was O’Connor’s delivery, LaVette mines a guttural, hard-won conviction that only six decades on earth could evoke. Preach. —Amanda Schurr

47. Cloud Rat, “The Needle and the Damage Done” (Neil Young)

The original version of this desperate ode to the ravages of heroin is a hard listen in its own right. When Detroit grindcore collective Cloud Rat sink their claws into it, Neil Young’s quavering tenor is replaced by Madison’s haunting whisper-turned-hopeless-roar. The lyrics stick in her throat until they rupture, the words brutally clear amidst the speaker-busting din of crusty grind. Cloud Rat’s version of “The Needle and the Damage Done” is tense, lightless, and unwaveringly bleak; the howling chaos and sheer darkness of their approach underlines the true horrors of heroin addiction. —Kim Kelly

46. Leviathan, “My War” (Black Flag)

Black Flag  and black metal go hand-in-hand here, channeling one another’s mutual hatred for mankind and lo-fi scraping to deliver this unholy gem. Rollins’ mistrustful howls rattle in Wrest’s own corroded throat, echoing over weaponized blast beats and the original’s deceptively simple and familiar main riff. Here, “You say that you’re my friend but you’re one of them!” comes across as the paranoid ranting of a Bedlamite rather than a rallying cry for disaffected youth. —Kim Kelly

45. Johnny Cash, “Personal Jesus” (Depeche Mode)

To truly understand the greatness of Johnny Cash’s version of “Personal Jesus,” you have to be pretty familiar with Depeche Mode’s 1990 original—which isn’t too shabby itself. All thumping darkness, it explores sexual power dynamics to a clubby yet menacing beat. Cash’s 2002 cover managed to turn the whole thing on its head with a mere shift in tone and a subdued honky-tonk vibe. Whether this was at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin or Cash’s doing, it’s revelatory: Jesus himself, Cash tells us, is your personal Jesus. “Pick up the receiver/ I’ll make you a believer,” Cash sings, and the essence is that prayer is your direct—and accessible—line to salvation. Anyone fluent in Cash’s own infamous personal troubles knows that his steadfast faith got him through, and there’s a plainspoken sincerity in Cash’s working of the lyric “Reach out/Touch faith” that makes Dave Gahan’s vocals in the original seem forced and preening. They’re a perfect yin and yang to each other, but the profundity of Cash’s cover is on a different level entirely. —Sara Bir

44. Metallica, “Whiskey in the Jar” (Thin Lizzy)

Perhaps Metallica’s version isn’t better, but it’s epic in the listening pleasure it has to offer. “Whiskey in the Jar” isn’t by Thin Lizzy; an Irish folk song as old as the hills, its been recorded by artists from The Dubliners to Peter, Paul & Mary, and its origins predate recorded music itself. But it’s pretty clear that Metallica’s 1998 cover is an ode to Thin Lizzy’s hit 1972 single. James Hetfield chews up the words and spits them out as if they were savory gristle: “As I was goinnnn o-VAH! / The Cork and Kerry moun-TAINZZZ!” It’s borderline camp, and it’s tempting to venture that Metallica’s doing a little parody of themselves. Whatever the case, it’s awesome fun. —Sara Bir

43. Al Green, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” (The Bee Gees)

Just as Talking Heads did with Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” so too did the soul singer do with a sad ballad by the brothers Gibb: taking the raw material of the original song and transforming it into something far more moving and searing. The key to his success is in the arrangement. Working with longtime collaborator Willie Mitchell, Green pours on the soul with haunting strings—who doesn’t love that moment when they try to match the feeling of a light wind just after he sings, “I can still feel the breeze”?— a roiling organ line, and perfectly utilized background singers. Through it all, Green sounds like he’s on his last legs, near defeat but with that small sliver of hope in his soul that’s keeping him crawling forward. —Robert Ham

42. The Shins, “We Will Become Silhouettes” (The Postal Service)

When The Shins decided to take “We Will Become Silhouettes” and folk-ify it, they were taking a considerable risk. It paid off, though, as this quirky, acoustic-rock version has gained popularity comparable to the original. The prominent vocal harmonies The Shins pull off in their rendition are far more interesting than the “bah-bahs” and “doo-doos” The Postal Service opted for. —Trevor Courneen

41. The English Beat, “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” (Andy Williams)

While many of their 2-Tone Records contemporaries like The Specials and Madness took pains to cover classic ska sides to establish their bona fides, The English Beat took a different tack, embracing easy listening schmaltz with the same fervor as the reggae artists that inspired them. Hence, the group was able to take a 1963 hit by crooner Andy Williams, tease out the romantic sentiments at its core, and turn it into something more slinky and spirited. It helps that the source material was created by the great songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and that their arrangement is so spare and open that it could be easily adapted for a rocksteady beat and Dave Wakeling’s blue-eyed soul vocalizing. —Robert Ham

40. Beck, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” (Bob Dylan)

The blues have come a long way from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Beck’s fuzzed-out interpretation of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” The chord progressions and harmonica are still there, but it’s been broken down and reassembled, and the results have even more muscle, more swagger and more soul than the original. Plus it was recorded for a good cause as part of the impressive War Child presents Heroes album. —Josh Jackson

39. Hole, “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” (The Crystals)

It is a rare but beautiful thing when a cover can right a song in history. The Crystals’ devastating ballad “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” was controversial upon its release in 1962, for narrating the inner justifications of a victim of domestic violence. Though it was gorgeously produced, and almost dirge-like in its pace, there was something that didn’t feel quite right about it to audiences. Perhaps it’s that the violence of the lyrics didn’t match the angelic quality of the vocals. When Hole covered “He Hit Me” for their 1995 MTV Unplugged recording, it was nothing short of a triumph. From Courtney Love’s loud, snarling lips, backed with grunge guitars and mostly female musicians, the song transformed into the subversive indictment of male violence it was meant to be. You realize, watching them, that Hole could have written the song. They certainly own it in that moment. —Liz Galvao

38. Cat Power, “I Found A Reason,” (Velvet Underground)

Found on the band’s 1970 album Loaded, the Velvet Underground original is a stately ballad, influenced by Lou Reed’s adoration of ‘50s doo-wop and dreamy Phil Spector productions, complete with a spoken word lament/plea to a lover. Chan Marshall’s version, by contrast, is of a piece with most of the material she recorded for her 2000 Covers Record. Beyond the lyrics, all the musical signifiers have been removed in place of a quiet piano line, her aching vocals, and an emphasis on the line, “You better run to me.” Through Marshall’s eyes, it’s a line of near desperation and almost defeat, a last chance call to some distant figure in the place of Reed’s pure romance. —Robert Ham

37. Lissie, “Pursuit of Happiness” (Kid Cudi)

The Kid Cudi original is also highly recommended, but this one’s notable because on paper, it should be terrible. Non-hip hop covers of hip-hop songs generally are cringeworthy, but Lissie goes for broke here, emoting hard and imploring us to tell us what we know about night terrors (nothin’). This rendition never feels gimmicky and fits right in with the rest of Lissie’s own work. —Bonnie Stiernberg

36. Björk, “It’s Oh So Quiet” (Betty Hutton)

The soft/loud theatrics of this song make it perfectly suited to Bjork, and while Betty Hutton’s 1951 original goes big as well, the Icelandic singer goes even bigger. Shrieks and throaty growls complement the song’s brassy choruses, and “It’s Oh So Quiet” remains her highest-charting single to date. —Bonnie Stiernberg

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