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Be It Resolved: These Covers Are Better Than the Originals

I’m a big fan of cover versions, especially the cases where the remake is better than the original. Here is my totally subjective list of ten covers that I believe eclipsed the originals.

  1. All Along the Watchtower/Jimi Hendrix

Let’s face it: Jimi kicked Zimmy’s ass when he made “Watchtower” his own. Let’s compare, starting with Dylan.

 

2.Take Me to the River/Talking Heads

There’s a languid feel to how the Heads recorded the Rev Al Green classic which also fuses with a weird artsy tension that was never imagined for the original.

 

3.Tainted Love/Soft Cell

Mark Almond and David Ball were both big fans of English Northern Soul records, which prompted them to electropop the Gloria Jones single. Fun fact: Ed Cobb wrote the song in 15 minutes in 1964.

 

4.Brand New Cadillac/The Clash

The Clash didn’t even know producer Guy Stevens had tape running when they warmed up with this Vince Taylor song during the first hours of the London Calling sessions. Despite the fact that the band plays faster and faster throughout the song–something that they normally would hate–Stevens insisted that their live-off-the-floor version was perfect. It made the album.

 

5.Woodstock/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

I remember hearing the Joni Mitchel original for the first time and thinking “This is the same song?”

 

6.This Flight Tonight/Nazareth

Another Joni track that lent itself to being rocked up.\

 

7.Twist and Shout/The Beatles

The Beatles had a little extra time left in the session for their first album, so they dashed off their version of this Isley Brother song. Because Lennon had been singing for more than three hours already, his voice is extra-ragged on this recording.

 

8.Hurt/Johnny Cash

There’s nothing wrong with Trent’s Nine Inch Nails version, but Johnny Cash’s rendition really brought on the pain.

 

9.Sweet Jane/Cowboy Junkies

The Junkies’ genius was de-rocking the Velvet Underground’s original.

 

10.Emma/Sisters of Mercy

Hot Chocolate wrote the song and had the hit, but it took the Sisters of Mercy to bring this suicide ballad to life–so to speak.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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48 thoughts on “Be It Resolved: These Covers Are Better Than the Originals

  • I’ll vote for Blinded by the Light (Manfred Mann) as better than the original. Though the original Bruce version is pretty awesome too.

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  • I agree with all of Allan’s choices, however don’t try some of the not so good covers:
    Metallica cover of the old Irish folk tune rocked by Thin Lizzy “whiskey in the Jar”.

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    • Interesting call. We could do a whole list on traditional songs that have been brought up to date. What else would we include?

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      • Speaking of Metallica, I’d go with their Turn the Page over Bob Seger.

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      • Sorry, as a second reply…the Dropkick Murphy’s do a number of older tunes and personally, I think they’re excellent.

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  • I consider Husker Du’s cover of Eight Miles High better than the original by The Byrds.

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  • I love covers, must the closeted “bar band” old guy in me…

    Best cover ever…Jeff Buckley, HALLELUJAH….enough said…

    BUT, if you’re in a rockin’ kinda mood, gotta love:
    The Atari’s, “Boys of Summer” or “I Remember you”
    Grinspoon, “Don’t Change
    Sugarcult, I Melt with you…

    and for pure silliness, “Country Roads” by Me First and the Gimme Gimme’s

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    • Forever Young, Youth Group

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  • I have to respectfully disagree with your claim that Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” is better than the original. Cash’s version is amazing and he brought another layer of meaning to the lyrics by performing it, as he did, at the end of his life. However, the instrumentation in NIN’s original is more in keeping with the song’s meaning and the desperation of Rezor’s performance is, for me, more impact-full than the quiet resignation of Cash’s version. Also, I’ve always wondered why Johnny Cash changed the lyric from “you are someone else” to the far less meaningful but more literal “you are somewhere else”. It’s almost as though he didn’t feel his audience could handle the more abstract original lyric. I absolutely agree with all of your other pics.

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    • I could not agree more. I feel like I’m in the minority on this one so it’s nice to see someone agree with my point of view. I also felt that Cash turned the original from a song of angst and agony to a cowboy hurtin’ song.

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  • Alan, BEFs albums were all covers, and some songs were amazing.

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  • i would suggest Aerosmith’s live version of Come Together as being better than the Beatles. Also, the live version of Sweet Jane on RocknRoll Animal gives the Cowboy Junkies a better run for their money that the VU version.

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  • Spirit actually did a cover of one of their own songs (I Got A Line On You) and markedly improved it, IMHO.

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  • “Talking Back to the Night” – Joe Cocker
    “The Man Who Sold the World” – Nirvana

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    • I almost included Nirvana’s Bowie cover in this list/

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  • Tesco Vees cover of Blue Oyster Cults “Hot Rails to Hell” best cover ever! Honorary mention for Metallicas cover of “whisky in a jar” not better but rockin…

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  • Pretty much in agreement with Mr. Cross here. I’s also add Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from my Friends” to the list, specifically the version from Woodstock. It’s rare that someone does a Beatles song better than the original, but he *owns* that song.

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    • I would also add that Joe Cocker’s cover of Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” is just as good. I call Joe Cocker “the Sinatra of Classic rock “, because he pulled off so many good covers.

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  • Cat’s in the Cradle by Ugly Kid Joe, was one of my favourite cover songs ever. Something that could’ve easily been ruined, was beautifully intensified. It isn’t a well known cover, and it’s by a forgotten band that wasn’t taken very seriously, but it is an incredibly well-done tribute to Harry Chapin’s original classic.

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  • Thank bloody jebus you didn’t put No Doubt’s cover of Talk Talk in there. That shit is a crime against humanity.

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  • “Better” my ass. Different from the originals, yes. More popular than the originals? Sure. But better? No way.

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  • Pearl Jam – Last Kiss

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  • Hi Alan. I don’t envy the task you had in choosing only one Johnny Cash cover, especially from all those on Rick Rubin’s “American Label”. Hurt is quintessential. But then there’s all those other killer versions like Rusty Cage, I Won’t Back Down, One, Personal Jesus. I can’t imagine the honour in hearing the news that Cash was about to cover one of your songs, only to quickly feel the fear that you’d KNOW that his version would be better than your own!

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  • Babe I’m Gonna Leave You- Led Zeppelin got the song from Joan Baez live album. Eventually a woman named Anne Bredon was found to be the original songwriter.
    Zep’s arrangement goes to a different place than Baez’ version.

    Speaking of hard rockers covering folksingers, Judas Priest did a great cover of Baez’ Diamonds and Rust. Of course there is the Jeff Beck Group’s cover of Tim Rose’s Morning Dew from Beck’s album Truth in 1968. I actally prefer it over the blues covers on that album.

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  • Joe Strummer’s cover of “Redemption Song”. Like Johnny Cash, Joe brings the pain.

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  • I haven’t heard “Emma,” but I agree with the other nine. I’d add Mike Ness’s cover of “Don’t Think Twice,” the Red House Painters’ “Silly Love Songs,” and Marilyn Manson’s “Down in the Park.” (I hate Manson’s music, but their transformation of this song is as epic as can be.) Also, a forgotten Vancouver band called Windwalker did a life-altering version of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.”

    Also, boo-urns to Aerosmith doing “Come Together.” That version doesn’t come within 1000 miles of the Beatles’ original.

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  • Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” over the Prince version.

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  • Couldn’t disagree with any of the songs on the list.

    Here are two others:

    – Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World” is better than the original by Tears for Fears.

    – Alien Ant Farm (yeah, I know…) did a better job with “Smooth Criminal” than did Michael Jackson.

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  • Seen comments both for and against Metallica’s “Whiskey in the Jar”, I’m indifferent to that one, but Turn the Page from same Garage cover album is great.

    Maybe not top 10, but Foo’s – Band on the Run, Tool – No Quarter worth checking out.

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  • Great list. Janis – Me and Bobbie, Cocker – With a little Help

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  • Might be sacrilege, but I think Catherine Wheels cover of Spirit of Radio is better than Rush’s original.

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  • Alexisonfire’s cover of Midnight Oil’s The Dead Heart is spot on. The original is kinda corny sounding to me, the AOF version seems to have way more emotion. Another cool cover is Queens of the Stone Age’s version of Never Say Never which the original was done by Romeo Void. The QOTSA version is the B side of Feel Good Hit of the Summer.

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  • Aretha’s Respect was an Otis Redding cover that became the definitive version. Same for Santana’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s Black Magic Woman.

    I’d also add almost all of Joe Cocker’s covers…The Letter, Little Help From My Friends, Feelin’ Alright…all improvements on the originals.

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  • Spirit in the Sky by Doctor and the Medics better than the Norman Greenbaum original

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  • In the liner notes for biograph (1985), Bob Dylan admits how he and The Band played All Along the Watchmaker is a tribute to Hendrix.
    I prefer Tori Amos’ record of Famous Blue Raincoat over Cohen’s.
    Foo Fighters recorded Ace Frehley’s Ozone for a b-side.
    Gotta add The Who Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and Summertime Blues.
    There’s only one version of Me and Bobby McGee for me and that’s Janis Joplin’s.
    I didn’t know To Love Somebody was Bee Gees song until I read the credits on Blue Rodeo’s Greatest Hits.

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    • *watchtower (argh autocorrect)

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  • I’ve always thought The Headstones’ version of Tweeter and the Monkey Man was light years better than the Wilbury’s version.

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  • Thats not Dylan doing “Watchtower ” .

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  • That’s not Dylan singing “Watchtower ” !

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  • It sounds like a Jamaican singing . Ziggy ?Peter Tosh?
    It’s not Bob.

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  • “Going Down To Liverpool” by the Bangles, over the original Katrina & The Waves.

    “This Wheel’s On Fire” by Siouxie & The Banshees over the original Dylan version. I also prefer her version of “The Passenger” over Iggy’s.

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  • And I have to admit I prefer The Diodes version of “Red Rubber Ball” over the original by The Cyrkle. The song was written by Paul Simon.

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  • Foo Fighters do some great covers including Baker Street and Darling Nikki.

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  • Diamonds and Rust originally by Joan Baez (as far as I know)

    Judas Priest fixed that one up… lol

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  • Phish do multiple covers which certainly put their spin on the original. Better?… depends on the cover and the original artist but certainly good. “Dear Prudence” as an example. Moe. also does a cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” which when done live is excellent. Again, I would not say better or worse, just different. Another couple to consider – Reel Big Fish with their take on A-Ha’s “Take On Me” and Gov’t Mules rendition of ZZ Tops “Jesus just left Chicago”.

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