The 20 best cover versions of all time, ranked

18 September 2020, 13:05

Cover versions
Picture: YouTube/Parlophone

By Tom Eames

Cover versions can be a delicate task. Do you simply copy a song or make it totally your own?

Every artist has attempted a cover version of some kind during their career, and we've picked the times where they arguably improved up on the original:

  1. Eva Cassidy - 'Songbird'

    Originally by: Fleetwood Mac

    Eva Cassidy covered many songs throughout her far too short life and career, but arguably her greatest was this beautiful version of an already-brilliant Fleetwood Mac song.

    While Christine McVie's original is also fantastic, Eva's version has even more subtle beauty, and is made all the more poignant by her life ending too soon.

  2. Eric Clapton - 'I Shot the Sheriff'

    Originally by: Bob Marley

    Bob Marley and the Wailers first released this reggae classic in 1973, and tells the point of view of a narrator who admits to having killed the corrupt local sheriff, but is also falsely accused of having killed the deputy.

    A year later, Eric released a rock-tinged cover version, and it became an even bigger hit than the original.

  3. Run DMC - 'Walk This Way'

    Originally by: Aerosmith

    Run DMC found the perfect way to bring hip-hop into the mainstream, by doing an early form of the mash-up and teaming up with rock legends Aerosmith.

    An inspired cover version updating the track with hip-hop beats and rap verses, it was the ultimate way to bring rock and rap together.

  4. Stevie Wonder - 'We Can Work It Out'

    Originally by: The Beatles

    In the mid-to-late 1960s, pretty much every artist tried to cover The Beatles, but not many could claim to have bettered them at their own game.

    Stevie did just that with an inspired soulful cover of 'We Can Work It Out', getting a Grammy nomination in the process.

  5. Take That - 'Could It Be Magic'

    Originally by: Barry Manilow

    Imagine the idea of getting boyband Take That to record of pop-dance version of a Barry Manilow piano ballad.

    Somehow, it worked brilliantly.

  6. Tina Turner - 'Proud Mary'

    Originally by: Creedence Clearwater Revival

    Creedence Clearwater Revival first recorded this as a rock song in 1969, but it is arguably better known for Tina's cover versions.

    In 1970, she first covered with with her husband Ike, transforming it into a funk soul rocker. She later re-recorded it for the 1993 movie What's Love Got to do With It, and it has become one of her signature songs.

  7. Joe Cocker - 'With a Little Help from My Friends'

    Originally by: The Beatles

    It's not often that someone can cover The Beatles and actually improve on them, but that's what Joe Cocker did with this previously jaunty track sung by Ringo Starr.

    Cocker transformed it into an incredibly powerful soul anthem, immortalised by his perfect performance at Woodstock in 1969.

  8. Gary Jules & Michael Andrews - 'Mad World'

    Originally by: Tears for Fears

    The original Tears for Fears track was a truly brilliant dark synthpop tune, but Gary and Michael's haunting take on it 20 years later was a masterstroke.

    Recorded for the Donnie Darko soundtrack and later a UK Christmas number one, this was arguably the song that inspired countless piano covers used in adverts and movie trailers ever since.

  9. Cyndi Lauper - 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun'

    Originally by: Robert Hazard

    Amazingly, this song was originally written from the male perspective about women in the bedroom by Robert Hazard in 1979.

    Four years later, Cyndi's version carried a totally different feminist attitude, portraying that all women really wanted was to have the same experience that men could have. It went on to become one of the biggest hits of the 1980s.

  10. The Isley Brothers - 'Summer Breeze'

    Originally by: Seals and Crofts

    Seals and Crofts' original version of this summer anthem was a brilliant folk number, but The Isley Brothers made it their own.

    They transformed it into a funky soul anthem, with one of the best guitar licks ever recorded.

  11. Harry Nilsson - 'Without You'

    Originally by: Badfinger

    Harry Nilsson first heard this Badfinger ballad at a party, and once realised it wasn't The Beatles, he decided to cover it.

    It was a brilliant move, as it gave him a career-defining hit, and one of the best love songs of all time.

  12. Adele - 'Make You Feel My Love'

    Originally by: Bob Dylan

    You'd be forgiven for having never heard of Bob Dylan's raspy original of this ballad before Adele's cover became a massive hit in 2009.

    Her version was so good, that it arguably started the ball rolling on her becoming one of, if not the, biggest popstar on the planet.

  13. Jeff Buckley - 'Hallelujah'

    Originally by: Leonard Cohen

    Leonard Cohen first released this song in 1984, and while you can't discount its excellence, it doesn't quite have the beauty of Jeff Buckley's version.

    Buckley was himself inspired by a cover by John Cale three years earlier. It has since been covered by many other artists, including a Christmas number one for Alexandra Burke in 2008 (with Buckley coming second that year after a fan campaign).

  14. Sinead O'Connor - 'Nothing Compares 2 U'

    Read more: The Story of... 'Nothing Compares 2 U'

    Originally by: Prince

    Prince wrote this song for his group The Family in 1985, and his version wasn't released properly until after his death.

    It was Sinéad O'Connor's manager, Fachtna O'Kelly, who came up with the idea for Irish star O'Connor to cover the song, and the rest is history.

  15. Soft Cell - 'Tainted Love'

    Originally by: Gloria Jones

    We all may know and love Soft Cell's huge 1981 synthpop classic, but this song was originally a Northern Soul anthem by Gloria Jones in 1964.

    Marc Almond's group slowed down the tempo, brought in the synths, and it became hugely more famous and popular than the original.

  16. Johnny Cash - 'Hurt'

    Originally by: Nine Inch Nails

    Originally an industrial metal track by Nine Inch Nails in 1995, it was covered in 2002 by Johnny Cash, a year before his death.

    Its accompanying video, featuring images from Cash’s life and directed by NIN collaborator Mark Romanek, won several awards. Reznor became a fan of Cash’s version once he saw the music video: “Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… wow. I felt like I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”

  17. Marvin Gaye - 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine'

    Originally by: The Miracles

    This song had hung around Motown for a while, with both The Miracles and Gladys Knight recording versions before Marvin Gaye gave it a whirl.

    Not convinced at first, Berry Gordy finally allowed Marvin to released his version as a single, and it became his signature song.

  18. Aretha Franklin - 'Respect'

    Originally by: Otis Redding

    Aretha made this song her own so much, that it's easy to totally forget she didn't record it first.

    Redding's version was a call from a desperate man who will give his woman anything she wants, as long as he gets his respect when he brings money home.

    However, Aretha's version was a from a strong, confident woman, who knows that she has everything her man wants, and demands his "respect". She also added the 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T' chorus.

  19. Whitney Houston - 'I Will Always Love You'

    The Story of... 'I Will Always Love You'

    Originally by: Dolly Parton

    Country legend Dolly Parton wrote the song in 1973, for her one-time partner and mentor Porter Wagoner, from whom she was separating professionally after seven years.

    In 1992, Whitney Houston recorded a new arrangement of the song, for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, her film debut. It became one of the biggest hits of the 1990s.

    Dolly later said: "The way she took that simple song of mine and made it such a mighty thing, it almost became her song. Some writers say, 'Ooh, I hate the way they've done that to my song or that version wasn't what I had in mind.' I just think it's wonderful that people can take a song and do it so many different ways."

  20. Pet Shop Boys - 'Always On My Mind'

    Originally by: Elvis Presley

    Elvis and Willie Nelson had already scored hits with brilliant versions of this lovesick ballad, but the Pet Shop Boys did something truly inspiring in 1987.

    Recorded for an Elvis tribute TV special 10 years after his death, the PSB's dance-pop version still sounds amazing today, and is what a cover version is all about.

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