Before diving straight in with a list of imitation as a source of glorious flattery, we must first consider what qualifies for such a list. For the purposes of this article a cover song is a song that has been released by one artist, and then covered by a different artist. Songs written by one artist, specifically for another, don’t count, so no Sinead O’ Connor or Mott The Hoople.
Samples don’t count. Cover versions featuring the original artist also don’t count so no Walk This Way. I have also made an executive decision not to include anything released by the record labels Motown or Stax as they were all covering each other so much and so well that it could be a separate list.
10. Radiohead – Nobody Does It Better
Original Artist: Carly Simon
Where Can I Find It? Only on streaming sites or bootlegs.
Thom Yorke described Carly Simon’s classic as ‘the sexiest song ever written’ before playing the song live back in 1995. That rhymes Marge and you know it rhymes! Carly Simon’s original is a highly produced, lust drunk anthem but Radiohead add a harder, sleazier edge that makes an already good song a lot more fun. Also, it is thrilling just to hear Johnny Greenwood ripping into his guitar as he rarely has the opportunity to do so any more.
‘Nobody Does It Better’ was originally a Bond theme from The Spy Who Loved Me. Just last year Radiohead recorded the song ‘Spectre’ with the intention of it appearing in the Bond film of the same name so Yorke is obviously a Bond fan.
9. They Might Be Giants – Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
Original Artist: The Four Lads
Where Can I Find It? On TMBG’s first album Flood, released in 1990.
A song about the 1930 renaming of a Turkish city is a typically odd choice for 90’s favourites They Might Be Giants. Admittedly, TMBG’s experimental style grates over the length of a full album but when they get it right, they produced some of the catchiest and fun music of their era.
One remit for a band attempting a good cover version is that they imprint their own sound and style onto the song being covered. In this respect, They Might Be Giants absolutely succeed with their take on ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’. Their fast paced, jaunty cover of The Four Lads 1953 single turns an average novelty song into an exciting, vibrant slice of pop punk fun.
8. Muse – Feeling Good
Original Artist: Cy Grant (made famous by Nina Simone)
Where Can I Find It? On Muse’s brilliant second album Origin of Symmetry.
Originally released as a double A-Side with ‘Hyper Music’, Muse’s take on ‘Feeling Good’ was perhaps the moment that the band first endeared themselves to the record buying public. Their first album Showbiz had been dismissed as a Radiohead pastiche but Origin of Symmetry would start the band on the road to super stardom and ‘Feeling Good’ was the jewel in the crown.
Taking Nina Simone’s beautiful, ethereal recording and turning it into an operatic rock juggernaut was a stroke of genius from Matt Bellamy and co, and it is still thrilling to see the band play it live complete with megaphone.
7. The Housemartins – Caravan of Love
Original Artist: Isley Jasper Isley (formerly The Isley Brothers)
Where Can I Find It? On The Housemartins compilation album Now That’s What I Call Quite Good.
When discussing the greatest singers in British music, Paul Heaton is often overlooked. Despite huge chart success with both The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, Heaton is still underrated as a singer, as anyone who has seen him sing ‘Let Love Speak Up Itself’ will attest to.
The a cappella version of ‘Caravan of Love’ is another example of Heaton’s vocal dexterity and unique delivery. It is a song that it is impossible not to sing along to and also one of the best covers to hit number 1 in the UK charts.
6. Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
Original Artist: Leonard Cohen
Where Can I Find It? Track 6 on Buckley’s seminal debut album Grace.
Hallelujah has unfortunately been ruined in recent years by a slew of cover versions ranging from offensive to downright disgusting. Both Cohen’s original version and Buckley’s superior cover deserve better.
Cohen’s original version had close to 80 verses and he struggled to unlock the songs potential. Indeed it was John Cale’s cover that inspired Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and close to 300 others to record their own version. It is Buckley who made the song his own though with a haunting and vulnerable vocal delivery. Heart wrenching.
5. The Beatles – Twist And Shout
Original Artist: The Top Notes
Where Can I Find It? Alongside a bunch of other cover songs on The Beatles first album Please Please Me.
As was common at the time, The Beatles inaugural album heavily featured recordings of other artists’ songs. Only one has endured however, to become one of the Fab Four’s most beloved and famous songs. John Lennon’s rasping, impassioned vocal delivery is undoubtedly one of his best, especially when taking into account that it was recorded in one take.
Immortalized by Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, ‘Twist And Shout’ is without a doubt one of the finest examples of the art of the cover version. Exciting, fresh and perfect, even almost 55 years later.
4. Nirvana – Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
Original Artist: Traditional but often associated with Lead Belly
Where Can I Find It? Closing off Nirvana’s masterpiece Unplugged In New York.
Recorded just months before Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide, Unplugged In New York finds the Seattle band at their peak. Not as chaotic and visceral as some of their other gigs, but just as heartfelt and passionate, and ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ is perhaps the highlight of the entire set. Hearing Cobain’s voice crack as he struggles to hit the high notes is an enduring snap shot of one of the most influential bands ever.
Nirvana actually recorded loads of great covers but this one is their best.
3. Johnny Cash – Hurt
Original Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Where Can I Find It? On the fourth in the ‘American’ anthology series recorded with Rick Rubin.
Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nails are not two artists you would ordinarily associate with each other but Cash covered artists as disparate as Soundgarden and Tom Waits in the latter part of his career. Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’ is made all the more poignant by the emotive video and also the fact that within 7 months, both Cash and his wife June Carter had tragically passed away.
‘Hurt’ is one of the most powerful songs ever recorded, cover version or otherwise, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails now considers Cash’s version to be the definitive one.
2. Jimi Hendrix – All Along The Watchtower
Original Artist: Bob Dylan
Where Can I Find It? On the third and final album produced by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland.
‘All Along The Watchtower’ is perhaps the finest example of the cover version eclipsing the original song. There is nothing wrong with Dylan’s original but stripped of Hendrix’s incendiary guitar playing it sounds neutered in comparison.
Like Kurt Cobain after him, Jimi Hendrix loved a cover and he always brought his own inimitable style to the party but ‘All Along The Watchtower’ would be his most thrilling and memorable cover version.
1. The Futureheads – Hounds of Love
Original Artist: Kate Bush
Where Can I Find It? Track 14 on The Futureheads eponymous debut album. Surely the best track 14 ever?
OH-oh-oh OH-oh-oh OH-oh-oh OH-oh-oh. That a cappella intro is all I need to hear to find myself grinning like an idiot and shuffling toward the dance floor, normally with my shirt halfway over my head. There is no greater moment, no greater expression of joy than when everything kicks in on The Futureheads glorious vision of ‘Hounds of Love’. Over ten years later and it is still one of my all time favourite songs.
The Futureheads cover of ‘Hounds of Love’ is about as good as music can possibly be. If I could take one song with me to a desert island, it would be this one, and I would spend my time bouncing between the coconut trees like it was the first time I’d ever heard it.
Placebo – Running Up That Hill
Noel Gallagher – To Be Someone
Bruce Springsteen – Jersey Girl
Weezer – Unbreak My Heart
Foo Fighters – Baker Street
Ryan Adams – Wonderwall
Manic Street Preachers – Umbrella
Pearl Jam – Last Kiss
We Are Scientists – Be My Baby
Kasabian – Runaway