The idea for this post came to me when I was listening to Johnny Cash’s rendition of Hurt, and it has been so much fun to research and write. There are so many covers of songs that I discovered that I previously was unaware of. Some were terrible, but so many were well done, it was hard to narrow them down to just 10. In fact, after I wrote this, I remembered Willie and Lukas Nelson’s cover of Just Breathe by Pearl Jam and had to revisit the list. As you will see, by then I was committed to all my choices, resulting in my top 11 favourite song covers. It also became apparent while I was writing this post, that there are songs I wasn’t aware were covers; Blondie’s The Tide is High and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love just to name a couple.
Not surprisingly, Pink and Lady Gaga have done some amazing covers that were at least as good as the originals, but the two of them would fill the entire list. What was surprising to me though, Guns and Roses and Marilyn Manson covers! Guns and Roses are great at doing covers, I loved every one I listened to. And Marilyn Manson, wow, I had no idea he did such good covers, but watching the videos were so disturbing to me I couldn’t put them on my list. My kids won’t agree with me but The White Stripes really aren’t so good at covers. I tried my best to give Jack and Meg a chance. Aurora, I also tried to find a Twenty-One Pilots cover I liked, sorry, not one.
The other thing I learned, which I suppose I already knew, is I love when musicians do covers and make the song their own. Just replicating the original doesn’t cut it for me.
Yes, I do expect a lot of disagreement on some of my choices. My number one choice, for example, is people I’ve discussed this with won’t agree, but c’est la vie, I can’t change it if I love it.
1. Sound of Silence - Disturbed - original by Simon and Garfunkel
I know many Simon and Garfunkel fans don’t agree, and, despite that, when we get together, I always put it on our playlist. David Draiman’s voice makes the song so emotional and the way the band slowed the song down really works. The adapted video, made in the spring of 2020 when the world was trying to figure out how to deal with Covid, was so powerful.
2. Hurt – Johnny Cash - original by Nine Inch Nails
Johnny Cash just does this song so well. It’s like he has experienced the pain. When he sings Hurt it sounds like it was written for him to sing. Rick Rubin knew what he was doing when he had Cash sing this song. Cash and Rubin did some other good covers together, but this one beats them all.
3. Ol’ 55 – Sarah MacLachlan - original by Tom Waits
This was the cover that started me liking covers. The first time I heard this I had a hard time figuring out what the original song was. Sarah slowed it down and then with her fantastic voice made it her own.
4. Hey, That’s No Way to Say Good Bye – Roberta Flack - original by Lenard Cohen
Okay, I love Cohen’s voice so it surprised me (and probably anyone who knows my music taste) when I liked this version better than the original. As Leonard aged his voice appealed to me more and more and, with that change, I started to like his version a bit better. However, by then Roberta’s version was my favourite.
5. Just Breath – Willie and Lukas Nelson – original by Pearl Jam
My sister put me on to this cover years ago, she’s a big Willie fan, but I’m not. However, I just love this version of the song and it is so nice that he and his son did the song together. I would have liked to have heard Adam and Leonard Cohen do a song together.
6. Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Lorde - original by Tears for Fears
Wow! She just made the song her own. Her voice and the tempo she set it to just amazed me. I need to listen to more of her songs.
7. I Love Rock 'n' Roll - Joan Jett and the Blackhearts - originally by The Arrows
This is one of the ones I didn’t know was a cover but I have always loved this version of the song. Joan Jett’s raspy voice just makes it sound so good.
8. Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin - original by Kris Kristofferson
9. Red Red Wine by UB40 - originally by Neil Diamond
What, this song is by Neil Diamond?! This is the only Neil Diamond song I like better when someone else sings it, and possibly because I hadn’t heard Neil’s version until I was making up this list.
10.Live and Let Die – Guns and Roses – original by Paul McCartney
I know, I know, I’m angering a lot of Beatles fans, but Guns and Roses make it their own and I love that. Honestly, I think Guns and Roses should do an album of covers, I’d buy it. I am going to have to listen to some more of their covers and, given I’m not a huge fan, I am happily surprised by this.
11.Taken by the Trees – Sweet Child of Mine – original by Guns and Roses
Yes, it’s number 11. I specifically went looking for who sang this version of Sweet Child of Mine so I am leaving it on the list. Though I might concede that it is just as good as Guns and Roses version. I love both versions but as I’ve said before I love it when musicians make a song their own. Taken by the Trees has done this very well.
While researching this I also found a lot of remakes that do not compare to the originals so I’m including a short list. Anyone who knows me will expect my number one choice and, again, I know many of you will likely disagree with me.
1. Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen
There are so many attempts at covering this song but Leonard’s is always the best version. His voice just works. So many people tell me they like Leonard’s songs sung by someone else. Not me! His voice as he aged (probably due to the cigarettes) just sounds so gravelly and I love that sound.
As an aside, I was listening to a podcast by Malcom Gladwell where he discussed how many verses Leonard wrote to this song – 80! Therefore, when you listen to Leonard’s version there are different words than the newer covers.
2. Clouds by Joni Mitchell
3. You Really Got Me by The Kinks
Many hard rock or metal bands have tried and come close too the Kinks, but they haven’t beat them yet.
4. Proud Mary – Credence Clearwater Revival
Fogerty just sings it the best. No one compares. In fact, I will say trying to cover a CCR song better than CCR is a difficult task.
5. Pumped up Kicks by Foster the People
Sorry, Usher you don’t hold a candle to Foster the People. Mark Foster’s voice makes the song.
6. These Boots were Made for Walking – Nancy Sinatra
There are so many attempts to cover this song, but Nancy does it best. I can’t even imagine Pink or Lady Gaga singing it as well.
Writing this post, I realized how many good covers there are out there. If I spent another week researching the topic, I am sure the list would change. However, I think it would be pretty hard for anyone to sway me on my top choice of Disturbed’s Sound of Silence and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. These have been ensconced in my mind since the first time I heard them.
I’d love to hear your favourite covers. There is much more for me to explore on the topic.
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