20 Cover Songs That Are Better Than the Originals
Good artists copy, great artists steal.
It’s been said that the second mouse gets the cheese, and this has often been true in popular music. Like leftovers, certain songs are just better the second time around — when they’ve been taken into the right hands. The better-known and revered the original recording, the bigger the risk in reworking it: indeed, some of the most successful covers are of songs that didn’t quite break through the first time.
But that doesn’t mean that legends are untouchable: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Al Green have all had some of their recordings successfully reinterpreted, and made our (deeply subjective) list of 2- cover songs that are even better than the original.
Fugees — “Killing Me Softly” (Originally by Roberta Flack)
The Fugees’ 1993 cover of Roberta Flack’s 1973 Killing Me Softly (famously written for “American Pie” crooner Don McLean) took the weepy tune up a notch: Lauryn Hill’s husky vocals echo Flack’s, but the more uptempo update added rich harmonies and hip hop beats, making it a radio and club favorite.
Bangles — “Hazy Shade of Winter” (Originally by Simon & Garfunkel) The Bangles cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” makes the 1966 original sound almost anemic. The Bangles chose the song as their contribution to the Less Than Zero soundtrack, adding heavy guitar riffs and an intense drumline to capture the hysterical desperation of drug-fueled eighties excess.
Dr. Dog — “Heart it Races” (Originally by Architecture of Helinski)
Dr. Dog took an odd song from a little-known trip-hop band and gave it a soulful, indie-rock feel with an extra level of bass, hand-clapping and vocal loops. It’s almost impossible to get tired of listening to it.
Richard Thompson — “Oops I Did It Again” (Originally by Britney Spears)
Thompson’s stripped-down version of Britney Spears’ breakout hit may seem like it was intended to be ironic, but if you listen closely, it’s a respectful interpretation of a song that he said he genuinely liked (and knows the rest of us do, too.)
St. Vincent —”Tango Til They’re Sore” (Originally by Tom Waits)
A die-hard Tom Waits fan might not rank St. Vincent’s bare cover of “Tango Til They’re Sore”above his original, but we can’t get enough. The sometimes over-the-top art-rockstress proves that a little goes a very long way.
Guns N’ Roses — “Live & Let Die” (Originally by Wings)
The Guns N’ Roses covers of Wings’ anthem “Live & Let Die” is wisely true to the damn good original, but with a gritty, menacing edge.
Ryan Adams — “Out of the Woods” (Originally by Taylor Swift)
There’s been a lot of discussion over the merits of Ryan Adams’ 1989 cover album: Did he elevate mediocre Taylor Swift songs for a more sophisticated audience? Or did he just highlight what was already sophisticated about them in the first place? His cover of “Out of the Woods” doesn’t solve that question entirely, but it sure does make you hear the song differently.
Cigarettes After Sex — “Keep On Loving You” (Originally by REO Speedwagon)
This one is simple: A sappy soft rock jam made super cool by a Brooklyn indie pop band.
Faith No More — “Easy Like Sunday Morning” (Originally by The Commodores)
Faith No More turned a pleasant but forgettable Commodores song into a hard-driving anthem of nineties angst.
Arrested Development — “Everyday People” (Originally by Sly & The Family Stone)
Arrested Development didn’t reinvent the wheel with their cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s great 1969 original; they just added more layers to the composition and sounded like they were having just a bit more fun.
Lorde — “Swingin’ Party” (Originally by The Replacements)
Good Lorde: The Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party” was a lovely tune to begin with, but once she got her hands on it, Lorde made it sound like it was written for her.
UB40 — “Red Red Wine” (Originally by Neil Diamond)
All Neil Diamond’s plaintive (whiny, even) 1968 sad-sack ballad needed was a reggae beat and a slightly more upbeat tempo. Now we want to dance instead of down our misery in two buck Chuck.
Talking Heads — “Take Me To the River” (Originally by Al Green)
I don’t know why I love this cover like I do. There’s not a damn thing wrong with Al Green’s original, but the Talking Heads worked their magic to make this song even better.
Amy Winehouse — “Valerie” (Originally by The Zutons)
Winehouse’s version of “Valerie” might make you think the original was decades old, but nope: The British indie-rock band The Zutons recorded it in 2006, and Winehouse capitalized on the the jazzier elements of the song while making the rest all her own.
Nico — “These Days” (Originally by Jackson Browne)
Putting aside the fact (ok, rumors) that both Nico and Jackson Browne are allegedly terrible people, Nico absolutely destroyed Jackson Browne’s sweet little coffee shop tune, by speeding up the guitarwork, adding a string section, and of course, that VOICE.
Ciccone Youth — “Into the Groovy” (Originally by Madonna)
Ciccone Youth, a side project of Sonic Youth, took one of Madonna’s most stupidly annoying songs (there are plenty!) and made it cool. Bonus points for changing the title!
Seu Jorge — “Life on Mars” (Originally by David Bowie)
David Bowie has been covered a lot, but Seu Jorge is the only artist who ever truly reinvented one of his originals — by recording “Life on Mars” in Portuguese. Remember this from The Life Aquatic? It’s glorious.
Beck — “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” (Originally by Bob Dylan)
Some folks songs are even better as rock songs: Beck’s deeply respectful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” is proof of this.
Bats for Lashes — “I’m on Fire” (Originally by Bruce Springsteen)
Maybe it’s controversial to suggest that a female-fronted indie rock cover of Springsteen’s classic “I’m On Fire” can even touch the Boss, but have you heard it? Bats for Lashes completely reconstructed this oft-covered song, bringing in a celestaphone for a particularly transportive effect.
Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins — “Handle With Care” (Originally by The Traveling Wilburys)
Jenny Lewis proved she was a genius for even thinking of covering the only hit of this late-eighties supergroup, but she managed to make it even better with tighter vocals and harmonies. (h/t to Coner Oberst, Ben Gibbard, and M. Ward!)
Photos by Al Levine / Getty Images