Songwriters don’t usually anticipate that a cover of any of their songs will be better than the original. But artists have been successfully reimagining existing tunes forever.
You might be surprised to discover that one of your favorite songs is actually a cover. Some musicians have a knack for making a previously-recorded song from another artist sound like their own original.
We’re looking at seven great cover songs that put the originals to shame.
Let’s jump in!
What Are Cover Songs?
Artists are often inspired to put their own creative twist on existing works. When this happens in the music industry, the result is a cover song.
Covers might be created for many reasons. Sometimes an artist simply loves a song and wants to pay tribute to the original performer. Other times, a band may re-record a popular tune they know will be a hit.
Musicians may also release cover songs that modernize the original and bring it up to date. In the 1960s and 70s, covers were exceedingly popular. And while styles have changed since then, there are more songs to re-do than ever before.
Then we have cover bands and tribute acts. These groups don’t play original music at all. Instead, they only perform renditions of another band’s original works. Examples include Lez Zeppelin and Bohemian Queen. We’ll let you make one guess about the groups they cover.
Artists have to be careful when recording cover songs. They can find themselves in legal trouble for their performance if a particular piece is copyright-protected.
7 Cover Songs That Are Better Than the Original
Some of these cover songs might surprise you. While the original versions might not be terrible, the cover artists certainly produced better versions of the songs.
#1 I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
Original Artist: Dolly Parton
About the Song: Dolly Parton wrote and recorded the original song I Will Always Love You in 1973. This heartfelt country track paid tribute to Parton’s mentor and business partner, Porter Wagoner, when she decided to pursue a solo career.
I Will Always Love You was a hit for Parton. But Whitney Houston found even greater success with her 1992 soul cover of the song, winning two Grammy Awards for her version.
Dolly Parton almost wrecked her car when she first heard Houston’s rendition. It blew her away. Parton said, “The effect that it had on the whole world was amazing…It’s been one of the biggest songs ever.”
#2 All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Original Artist: Bob Dylan
About the Song: Bob Dylan wrote All Along the Watchtower while recovering from a motorcycle accident in 1967.
He delivered the Biblically inspired lyrics in his trademark folk-rock style. The song tells the tale of a joker and a thief, both discontent with their stations in life.
Jimi Hendrix heard the song and, within six months, recorded his own psychedelic version.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience launched All Along the Watchtower into classic rock fame. Trippy and electrified, this version appealed to a whole new generation.
Dylan said he was overwhelmed when he heard the cover. He couldn’t help but appreciate Hendrix’s ability to find something special within the song to take it to the next level.
It sounds to us like Bob Dylan agrees; Jimi Hendrix’s cover song is just better.
#3 Hurt – Johnny Cash
Original Artist: Nine Inch Nails
About the Song: Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor wrote Hurt in 1994. The song was moderately successful and was nominated for a Grammy.
However, Johnny Cash’s version is undeniably one of the most moving cover songs of all time.
The music video for the cover features an aging Cash picking at his acoustic guitar. His gruff, melodic voice and toned-down instrumentals offer a chilling air of honesty and sadness.
Reznor’s lyrics referenced addiction and depression, leading many to theorize that the track was a suicide note of sorts. But Cash’s version seems to tell the story of an older man watching the best days of his life slip through his fingers.
Although Reznor was hesitant to allow Cash to cover the song, he later agreed that Cash’s version was even better than the original.
#4 Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin
Original Artist: Kris Kristofferson
About the Song: Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster wrote Me and Bobby McGee in the late 1960s. The song paints a picture of two drifters wandering the country together and later parting ways.
Roger Miller originally performed the folksy tune. But Janis Joplin’s reimagining took the world by storm.
Joplin recorded her soulful, folksy cover shortly before her untimely death in 1970. Kristofferson has said that after he listened to her rendition, he spent hours walking the streets of Los Angeles in tears.
His song about love and loss took on an even more personal meaning. While other artists recorded versions of Me and Bobby McGee, Kristofferson was never able to separate the song from Joplin.
#5 Woodstock – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
Original Artist: Joni Mitchell
About the Song: Joni Mitchell wrote Woodstock about the famous 1969 music festival. She was heartbroken that she couldn’t attend, instead watching footage from a hotel room in New York City.
The lyrics evoke imagery of a sacred place inhabited by the children of God. Mitchell idealized the event, imagining the religious experience she’d missed out on.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young performed for the second time publically at Woodstock. Mitchell’s then-boyfriend, Graham Nash, claimed she’d captured the essence of the epic festival better than anyone there.
The band later recorded an upbeat, lively version of Woodstock that breathed new life into the original.
#6 Respect – Aretha Franklin
Original Artist: Otis Redding
About the Song: Aretha Franklin’s cover of Respect is one of the most celebrated songs of its time. Otis Redding wrote and recorded the original song. The lyrics speak of a man who’ll do anything for his love as long as she shows him respect.
Franklin turned the song on its head by adding a chorus and reversing the gender roles. As a result, her version became an anthem of female empowerment.
Powerful, soulful, and lively, this cover song is irrefutably better than the original. In 2021, 54 years after Franklin released her version, it was named #1 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
#7 I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll – Joan Jett
Original Artist: The Arrows
About the Song: I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll was initially performed by the British rock band The Arrows. But it was Joan Jett’s version that would become an official rock anthem.
Jett heard The Arrows perform the song on their weekly television show. She quickly covered the song with two members of the Sex Pistols. A few years later, she rerecorded the song with the Blackhearts, resulting in the hit we know and love today.
The cover song spent seven weeks in the Hot 100s #1 spot. In comparison, The Arrows’ original version didn’t hold a candle to Jett’s interpretation.
Covers Bring New Life to Older Songs
Some cover versions of songs are better than others. And then there are covers that blow the original version out of the water. While many of us still rock out to the originals, others may vibe with the cover songs.
Did we miss one of your favorite cover songs that you think is better than the original? Let us know about it in the comments below.
Wednesday 15th of March 2023
Blinded By The Light - Manfred Mann's Earth Band's version is SOOOO much better than Bruce Springsteen's.
Monday 13th of March 2023
Sounds of Silence. Originally by Simon and Garfunkel, the cover by Disturbed is hands-down better!
Monday 13th of March 2023
@Alan, damn right! I love both versions. But Disturbed just Nails it!
Monday 13th of March 2023
You forgot Dolly and Kenny’s version of the BG’s original.