So you think you can do better? 15 cover versions we think are better than the originals
Cover versions are a tightrope: get it right and it's the highest compliment you can pay an artist, but get it wrong and you risk incurring the wrath of their loyal army of fans.
So what makes a great cover version? Does 'original' always mean 'best'? We went trawling through the back catalogues to see if we could find 15 cover versions that put the originals in the shade. Here's what we came up with...
Before Alexandra Burke’s version of this Leonard Cohen song swept to No.1 on a wave of talent show publicity there was this beautiful reworking from Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album, Grace. Stripped back to just a guitar and Buckley’s uniquely mournful vocals, it’s a delicate yet dynamic rendition that introduced a new generation to Cohen’s work.
Featuring on their debut, Bleach, Nirvana’s cover of Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’ is one of the highlights of the album, with Kurt Cobain’s rasping vocals and chaotic – but brilliant – lead guitar style adding a Seattle-style twist to a great song my a much underrated band.
Incredible Bongo Band
One the most covered songs ever, the original was not in fact by The Shadows or Bert Weedon, as many seem to believe, but a London-born songwriter named Jerry Lordan. Out of all the versions though, we think this is the best and it had a huge influence on the Hip-Hop scene in the 1980s thanks to DJ’s like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash.
All Along The Watchtower
Jimi’s psychedelic take on this Bob Dylan classic adds a whole new dimension thanks to the guitarist’s legendary fretboard dexterity, and even Dylan himself commented in the liner notes for his Biograph box set: "I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this and ever since he died I've being doing it that way.... Strange though how when I sing it I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way." High praise indeed.
Scala & Kolacny Brothers
The song that launched Radiohead’s careers, the original is pretty hard to beat, but this haunting rendition by the Scala Choir and the Kolacny brothers came to prominence when it featured in the trailer for The Social Network, and it’s one of many beautiful choral takes on modern classics that this Belgian choir specialises in. We also recommend you check out their versions of U2’s ‘With or Without You’ and Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’.
One of a number of cover versions recorded in the twilight of Johnny Cash’s career with Rick Rubin as part of his American series of albums, this particular song was given extra poignancy by its accompanying video, featuring flashbacks of Cash in his younger days as well as a touching appearance from his wife, June Carter Cash, who died a mere three months later. Raw, powerful and utterly heart-wrenching.
I’m A Believer
Always one to confound expectations, Robert Wyatt made his name as drummer and founding member of prog-rock legends Soft Machine before tragically falling from a fourth floor window, paralysing him from the waist down. It took some time to adapt his drumming style, but in the meantime he dropped this cover of a song by the Monkees, and there’s something about the honesty of his singing voice that makes this version so charming.
(I Can't Get Me No) Satisfaction
One of the more radical reworkings on this list, the Ohio four-piece did away with almost everything but the lyrics, turning this Stones classic into a stuttering, shuffling post-punk anthem. The new version was such a departure the band were initially worried they wouldn’t get approval from Mick Jagger, but talking to Scottish newspaper The Daily Record in 2010, founder and keyboardist Gerald Casale said: "We stuck our cassette into this big boom box and pressed play. Jagger sat in total silence staring straight ahead. We thought, 'God, he hates it'. But then, he jumped up out of his chair and started dancing wildly in front of the fireplace. Dancing just like Mick Jagger. I thought: Oh shit, he loves it!”
Caravan of Love
Originally recorded by Isley Brothers spin-off Isley-Jasper-Isley in 1985, The Housemartins’ version released a year later is an a capella version that gave the Hull band their one and only UK No.1. Paul Heaton’s voice is outstanding, as are the backing vocals, which feature a young Norman Cook. It’s unique and quite brilliant.
Girl (You’ll Be A Woman Soon)
Featured on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, this song is quite different from Urge Overkill’s usual modus operandi of thrashy, punk-influenced power-pop, but their version of this Neil Diamond classic is right on the money, and really should have been the catalyst for success. Sadly, it seemed to have the opposite effect, with their following album Exit The Dragon becoming a massive flop for the band and their last before being dropped from their label, Geffen.
Sea of Love
First recorded by Marty Wilde with legendary producer Joe Meek, Cat Power’s version appeared on her Covers Record, as well as the soundtrack to 2007 film Juno. Power’s cover is stripped back to just voice and (we think) autoharp, adding more intimacy and vulnerability than the original version.
Ode to Billie Joe
Sinead O’ Connor’s version of Bobby Gentry’s country ballad was a late inclusion on 1994’s Help album for the charity War Child. Just as the compilation was being finalised, a courier showed up with the tape – lucky he got there when he did, because this haunting, stripped back rendition is genuinely beautiful, with a real ‘shiver down the spine’ moment at the end of the third verse.
Killing Me Softly
Featuring on Fugees’ massive breakthrough album The Score, Wyclef’s sparse production and Lauren Hill’s incredible vocal performance bring this Roberta Flack song right up to date, scoring a huge hit for Fugees in the process. Aside from Hill’s voice, it’s all about that sitar sample…
So well established is Aretha Franklin’s version of this Otis Redding song that most people think of hers as the original version, and somehow the lyrics work better from a female perspective as it proves a powerful message for women’s rights. Otis is certainly no slouch in the singing department, but Aretha’s voice is a perfect match for this song. Sock it to me…
Ok, this one’s controversial, we know…and don’t get us wrong, we do love Pink Floyd, but Scissor Sisters’ disco-infused take on ‘Comfortably Numb’ works incredibly well and turns a rock classic into a dancefloor smash, complete with falsetto vocals and bubbling synths. Given that the original is taken from same album as the disco-inspired 'Another Brick In The Wall', the idea of a disco version of the song isn’t too far-fetched, and we think it’s brilliant.