Cover Songs that are as Good as or Better than the Original Versions

I gritted my teeth this morning and listened to about 30 seconds of Uncle Kracker butchering Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" before deciding that turning off my radio was better than listening to an aural abomination of this magnitude (yes, I know that the then 63-year-old Gray had a cameo in the song, but this cover is still awful).

I decided to spend some time focusing on the metaphorical glass being half-full: that is, to think of cover songs that matched or exceeded the original versions in quality.

Listed below are some of my favorite cover songs and the reasons why I think they stand out as exemplary covers. Feel free to chime in with your votes for excellent covers or to dispute my choices. You can also offer examples of really lousy covers for consideration, as I plan to do a followup to this post with the world's worst covers.

  • The Who, "Summertime Blues" (originally recorded by Eddie Cochran). The original version is catchy and melodic, and I still crank Eddie Cochran on the rare occasion that I hear his version on the radio. The Who, however, elevate this song to a completely different universe, and the Live at Leeds version would blow holes in your speakers even without Townshend's Marshall stacks.

  • Elvis Costello, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?" (originally recorded by Nick Lowe and Brinsley Schwarz). The music in original song is not all that different from Elvis Costello's version, but the difference between the laid-back, wry vocals of Nick Lowe and the impassioned ferocity of an angry Elvis Costello is like that between Donovan and Howlin' Wolf. I still get goosebumps when I hear Elvis blast out the final chorus.

  • Jimi Hendrix, "All Along The Watchtower" (originally recorded by Bob Dylan). Admittedly I was about 30 years old before I listened to the Dylan version, so my assessment should be viewed within this context. Still, the version by Hendrix borders on the mystical, given the fact that Jimi was light years ahead of his contemporaries in technique and sound.

  • The Byrds, "Mr. Tambourine Man" (originally recorded by Bob Dylan). Once again Dylan gets the short end of the musical stick, and his understated, almost scornful rendition of the song falls short of the soaring majesty of the lead vocals of Roger McGuinn and those astonishingly beautiful Byrds harmonies.

  • Muse, "House of the Rising Sun" (a traditional folk song made famous by The Animals). I have to admit I was dubious about this cover, as vintage Eric Burdon makes for powerful music, but the Muse version of the song is creepy, bombastic, and surprisingly effective in its raw gut-level emotions.

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival, "I Put a Spell on You" (originally recorded by Screamin' Jay Hawkins). The version by Screamin' Jay Hawkins is quite influential in its horror-show-meets-rock-and-roll ethos, and no doubt future theatrical fright-rockers like Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne owe a debt of gratitude to Jay. CCR's version, though, strips away the campy ghoulishness in favor of a gut-wrenching performance that sounds like a demented stalker, and in this way it might be more frightening than the original. Besides, John Fogerty's blistering, soulful guitar solos far outpace the rather workmanlike musicianship of the original.

  • Led Zeppelin, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" (traditional folk song originally recorded by Joan Baez). Yes, Joan Baez is a folk legend, and her version of the song has a certain beauty of its own, but the desperate pathos created by Robert Plant's vocals separates the two songs. Add to this Jimmy Page's blend of acoustic and electric guitar work and you wind up with a version far superior to the original.

  • Rage Against The Machine, "Kick Out the Jams" (originally recorded by the MC5). There is probably one band on the entire planet with the moxie and attitude who could do justice to the epic MC5 signature song, and luckily for us RATM was up to the task. Like the original, the Rage version is best experienced live, as in this YouTube clip of RATM covering the "Kick Out the Jams."

  • Talking Heads, "Take Me To The River" (originally recorded by Al Green). Now, don't get me wrong: I am a huge Al Green fan, and the Reverend Al's soulful tenor can make even ho-hum songs come alive. Yet David Byrne and the Talking Heads created a cover version that sounds equally endearing and psychotic, and they turned this tune into one of their own signature songs.