Sometimes, a good song becomes great in the capable hands of a fellow musician. However, a good cover doesn’t just happen. It has to take a new angle, musical direction, or mood to truly stick.
Lucky for listeners, there are a lot of outstanding cover songs out there. They combine to form a certain collective element of respect within the music industry — a tip of the cap from artist to artist. Sometimes they honor a musician who’s passed, other times they simply acknowledge greatness by way of a new voice.
Here are some of the best cover songs.
Leonard Cohen wrote the original and Jeff Buckley took it to new heights with his incredible vocal range. Buckley’s voice is its own powerful instrument, covering all octaves and able to pull off any distant note with ease. The short-lived singer-songwriter was always at his best with just a guitar and mic, as this track and the remarkable Live at Sin-é record reveal.
Dylan mostly penned the original, with some help from Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. The latter band really put its stamp on the song, some 25 years after it was originally written. It’s become something of a folk-rock anthem, great for open roads or last call at the bar (when bars come back, which they will). A little country, a little bluegrass, a little Americana-rock, the freewheeling song is a summertime hoedown waiting to happen.
Whitney’s most famous song is also the best to get owned by on the karaoke stage. Originally written by fellow musical legend Dolly Parton, the track became pop royalty in 1992 as that song from The Bodyguard. It demonstrates Houston’s incredible stage presence and unrivaled ability to hold a note. The song spent 14 weeks atop the Billboard charts, making it one of the most successful singles of all time.
Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan flexes his softer side with this excellent Fleetwood Mac cover. It’s hard to top Steve Nicks on the mic, but Corgan does well, treating the emotive track to some strings and soft-rock balladry. It’s a gorgeous and perhaps unexpected track from a band known to destroy amplifiers with its raw, grunge-y might.
Sometimes, a great cover becomes great because it’s something different entirely. Such is the case with this Bob Dylan song, which guitar god Jimi Hendrix completely makes his own. Fit with blistering guitar work, galloping rhythms, and busy drumming, it’s a robust rock ‘n’ roll classic. Dylan’s version was solid to begin with, but Hendrix plugged it in, turned it up to volume eleven, and set it gloriously ablaze.
Frank Ocean can do it all, from soulful bedroom pop to Stevie Wonder-esque funk. Here, the musician takes on an oldie but a goodie in Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.” Originally sung by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the track has been passed around quite a bit since. Ocean’s version is delicate and sweeping, with neatly-layered vocals and a hushed keyboard.
Kurt Cobain would be just 53 years old if he were still with us. The Nirvana leader is sorely missed but lives on through his own dynamic work as well as creative covers like this one. It’s a David Bowie song, for those who don’t know, from the late great’s eponymous third studio LP. Nirvana gives it some rasp and edge, despite it being stripped down for the band’s famous MTV Unplugged in New York set (and album). For those who think this legendary Seattle act was just about volume and angst, this deft cover proves otherwise.
An Al Green song from the start, “Take Me to the River” was given the fun treatment in 1978 thanks to David Byrne and his band the Talking Heads. So much more than the song the Big Mouth Billy Bass toy sings, this track sways to a memorable bass line and Byrne’s energetic antics. It’s not easy to convert soul to new wave, but the Talking Heads do so here effortlessly.
Aretha practically owns this track as it has become synonymous with her iconic stature. In reality, it’s an Otis Redding joint, written in 1965. Franklin took it on two years later and immediately immortalized it. One of music’s greatest soul singers to have ever graced the earth, Franklin makes a good song required listening for all music fans. There’s a fantastic horn section, spot-on background singing, and a grooving bass line but it’s Franklin’s powerhouse vocals that run the show.
A change of language can inject greatness to a classic track. Here, Brazilian Seu Jorge adapts the David Bowie hit to Portuguese and his trusty guitar (in fact, he does so to much of the Bowie catalog, per the brilliant Life Aquatic soundtrack). It’s a bouncy, acoustic riff on the song, polished by the complex inflections of one of the prettiest languages on the planet.
Sometimes it takes a classical pianist to demonstrate just how great your music is. Christopher O’Riley does just that with his intricate and twinkling take on the vintage Radiohead song. O’Riley admits to being a huge Radiohead fan and you can feel it in his moving work. It’s a reminder that Radiohead translates cleanly to a wide array of genres and very much belongs in the canon of great music.
Seems like at some point, everybody has a Miley Cyrus moment. Mine came late on but when it did, it hit hard. With “Say Hello to Heaven,” the pop star belts one of the greatest supergroup numbers of all time, one that’s not at all easy to cover. The original features a vocal god in Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who has one of the most recognizable voices in all of music. Cyrus more than matches their intensity and delivery with this impassioned cover, which came as a tribute performance in the wake of the late Cornell’s passing in 2017.
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