The Top 100 Cover Songs

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Top 100 Cover Songs

At the dawn of the modern music industry, music publishers and record labels sought wide exposure not for artists but for individual songs, hoping many performers would purchase their companies’ sheet music. As radio, the phonograph, and musicians’ talent expanded, the practice of artists recording previously-performed songs grew more predatory. To wit: If a traveling A&R guy heard a particularly affecting hymnal, evergreen standard or new ballad, they might ask their label to buy rights to the song and get it in front of someone on their roster. This new performance could at least ride the original’s coattails at the register, often sounding very much alike. At best it could be transformative, lifting both artist and label into the spotlight. But musicians and fans demanded ever-increasing originality as rock came to dominate the market, so albums full of other people’s words fell by the wayside. Once a common way to have music cover more territory, so-called “cover songs” are now largely novelties or tributes.

Across four top-10 lists in 2014, Treble made a deep dive into how modern covers albums explored past artists and songs. Comprehensive as it was, we left open the question of what might be the world’s greatest individual covers. With the recent hullabaloo involving Weezer fandom and the schlock wizardry of Toto’s greatest hits, the timing seemed right for something resembling a definitive ranking of such songs. In most cases here we stuck with a narrow definition of eligibility: someone’s song performed wholly by someone else (who did not write the song) and officially released on an authorized audio recording after the original performer officially released it. We also limited musicians to one performance slot each in our countdown, although you may notice certain original artists, sources, and songs showing up multiple times—a testament to their timelessness and versatility.

Even without considering some big names you might otherwise expect to find here, live bootlegs, radio-show one-offs, parodies and YouTube home-studio clips, we still managed to wade through and vote on hundreds of well-known and obscure covers. You can hear almost all of those in the embedded Spotify playlist. From gender-switched contexts and wild reinterpretations to faithful renditions and star-powered exposure, descriptions of our 100 essential cover songs—and links to their originals—follow below. Let the debate begin.

top 100 cover songs Frank Sinatra100. Frank Sinatra, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1956)

Originally released in Born to Dance, 1936

Originally conceived as an opening credits number for the musical film Born to Dance, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” would later become a signature song for Frank Sinatra. Penned by the prolifically talented Cole Porter, the track earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Song in 1936, and would go on to become a top ten hit for the Four Seasons some 30 years later. But it’s Sinatra’s version that remains supreme. Recording for the cover reportedly took 22 takes to perfect, and it shows. The track’s big-band swing influence generates an unparalleled warmth and familiarity, and it’s become a Sinatra staple since its release. – Patrick Pilch

creepy cover songs Coil99. Coil, “Tainted Love” (1985)

Originally released by Gloria Jones, 1964

Gloria Jones’ cult Northern Soul single “Tainted Love” has lived many lives since its original release, and even appears on this here list twice in radically different forms. Four years after Soft Cell made the song into a New Wave smash, Coil’s John Balance and Peter Christopherson rearranged it into a stark, painful dirge, interpreted as such to reflect the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, complete with an artfully dark video at that. All the fun is sapped from the song and in its place anguish and mourning. But though it might not be obvious at first glance, Coil’s version is connected to Soft Cell’s: In the Museum of Modern Art-exhibited video, Marc Almond makes an ominous cameo as a kind of leather-jacketed angel of death. – Jeff Terich

The B-52s - The B-52s98. The B-52’s, “Downtown” (1979)

Originally released by Petula Clark, 1964

Petula Clark’s ‘64 original “Downtown” has been long overused in movies and TV for cognition-dissonant soundtrack purposes—here, listen to this happy music while we show footage of a plane crash! It’s ironic! The B-52’s, however, did retro absurdity first and they did it better. Their cover removes all semblance of ‘60s idealism from the track, replacing it with their signature cowbell and call-and-response squeals, and dissolves into the irreverent chaos for which they are best known. The best and only way to close their self-titled album. – Paula Chew

top 100 cover songs Chaka Khan97. Chaka Khan, “I Feel for You” (1985)

Originally released by Prince, 1979

Three dominant strains of ‘80s pop-R&B were slim Prince-style grooves, original hip-hop and Jam-and-Lewis big-beat drama. For Chaka Khan’s cover of “I Feel for You,” producer Arif Mardin lifted Prince’s 1979 original from the first of those and made it a sort of hybrid of the next two, with a Melle Mel rap and a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. It vaulted out of stereo speakers in dizzy delight. – Paul Pearson

top 100 cover songs The Shins96. The Shins, “We Will Become Silhouettes” (2003)

Originally released by The Postal Service, 2003

In the way that only James Mercer can, The Postal Service’s originally ethereal pop tune becomes folk-ified through The Shins frontman’s upbeat, chipper cooings, as featured in a b-side to The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” along with another cover by Iron & Wine. While the original is pop in the electronic sense, The Shins’ rendition is significantly more uplifting, cheerful and cheeky. While The Postal Service’s Ben Gibbard sticks to stacked octaves, Mercer’s version is awash in summery, rich harmonies.  – Virginia Croft

top 100 cover songs Karen O95. Karen O/Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, “Immigrant Song” (2011)

Originally released by Led Zeppelin, 1970

Say what you will about David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but its unrelenting bleakness is a perfect fit for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack work, which excels at creating ambient washes of dread. It’s an aesthetic so well-realized that it can support a reimagining of a track as iconic as Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which is here revamped into something more angular and visceral than the original. And with the current scarcity of new Yeah Yeah Yeahs music, it’s always nice to be reminded that Karen O is an absolute powerhouse. – Sam Prickett

top 100 cover songs Urge Overkill94. Urge Overkill, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (1992)

Originally released by Neil Diamond, 1967

One of the steamy songs that immediately stood out from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, this was originally recorded for Urge Overkill’s 1992 EP Stull. Neil Diamond’s original has more of a sunny California feel, where the rasp of Eddie Roeser’s voice suggests the grit of a spaghetti western, so it’s no surprise that music snob Tarantino would choose it for his epic film. Roeser had to fight for notes that came much easier to Diamond, but in the end it paid off and added more raw emotion. – Wil Lewellyn

top 100 cover songs Rolling Stones93. The Rolling Stones, “Time Is On My Side” (1964)

Originally released by Kai Winding, 1963

This R&B standard, no victim of time itself, has endured many incarnations. Originally written by Jerry Ragovoy under the name Norman Meade, it was first performed by trombonist Kai Winding and then fleshed out by Irma Thomas with additional lyrics replacing the trombone melody. By the time The Rolling Stones got to it, all they had to do was add their signature swagger, since Mick Jagger always had an innate sense of soul in his vocals. – Wil Lewellyn

top 100 cover songs Anthrax92. Anthrax, “Got the Time” (1990)

Originally released by Joe Jackson, 1979

On 1990’s Persistence of Time, Anthrax took a punk-ish song composed by a British pop-rock songwriter and removed the “ish,” giving Joe Jackson’s minor 1979 hit some much-needed oomph. Jackson was quick to point out that the Anthrax version was slower than how JJ’s band played it live, but he appreciated the exposure and royalties. The American audience was not so picky, though, and “Got the Time” was seen as a highlight on the Anthrax album. – Chad Gorn

top 100 cover songs Jenny Lewis91. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins ft. M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Ben Gibbard, “Handle with Care” (2006)

Originally released by Traveling Wilburys, 1988

Jenny Lewis has the right friends to cover a Traveling Wilburys song. If one were to choose modern indie-rock names to stand in for the likes of George Harrison (RIP), Roy Orbison (RIP), Tom Petty (RIP), Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne (#HideDylanAndLynneNow), one could not do much better than Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard, M. Ward and Lewis herself. The end result from 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat is a sped-up, snarky, but otherwise faithful rendition of a simple classic from the late ‘80s. – Chad Gorn

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View Comments (15)
  • Congratulations to this compilation. It’s one of the best list that has been made ever. Thank you for posting it. We love covers and we have a blog in Portuguese called “1001 Covers” ( We have never thought Sloop John B is actually an adaptation of traditional song. Thanks again!

  • Are you serious? Willy Nelson’s Georgia on My Mind over Ray Charles
    version? Yeah Right

    Speaking of Ray Charles, in 1962 he made an album called “Modern Sounds
    of Country Music” This album was a masterpiece and should be part of
    anyone that knows and loves music’s collection.

    From that album was Ray’s cover of the Don Gibson song “I Can’t Stop
    Loving You.” Ray’s arrangement of that tune, which was the
    flip side of Gibson’s hit “Oh Lonesome Me” stood atop the Pop, R&B
    and Country Chart’s for most of the Summer of 1962, and was the
    #2 song on the Billboard Chart for that entire year.

    That’s why they called Ray “The Genius”. He took a tune and totally
    transformed it into something better and made it his own way
    before Buckley, Hendrix and Cash did, and it reached a wider
    array of audiences than them. He did it first and better than anyone.

    How a can you have a Top 100 Cover list without Ray Charles?
    Your panel put a lot of time and effort into this list, but missed
    the boat by omitting Brother Ray.

    Speaking of cover songs. Another gem by Don Gibson “Sweet Dreams”
    lent itself well as a cover. First by the great Patsy Cline, then the guitar
    Instrumental by Roy Buchanon from “The Departed.” And if you
    really are a conniseur of great covers check out the R &B version
    by Mighty Sam McClain. That’s 3 diverse great covers of one tune.

    Nobody is a bigger Beatles fan than me, and from everything I’ve read
    “Yesterday” is the most covered song by the most artists of all time.
    With that said I never heard 3 versions as diverse and great as the
    above mentioned versions of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams”.

    You guys are good, but you got a long ways to go to be great.

    • I’m surprised they didn’t put maxwells version of Kate bush’s song a woman’s work. Instead they put running up that hill by Kate Bush covered by placebo. I also thought the same thing about not putting Ray Charles version up. Another cover that’s awesome is Leone Russell’s a song for you just about everyone’s covered it Ray Charles, Michael buble, R. Kell, willie Nelson etc etc. But the best cover of that song is Donny Hathaway blows it out the water. But yea this list is a little suspect if you ask me.

  • Adding to my previous reply, I want to suggest some really (IMO) good covers that deserve a place amongst the 100 best ones…
    My way (Frank Sinatra covering the Claude Francois song)
    Beyond the sea (Bobby Darin covering the Charles Trenet song)
    I got rhythm (the Gene Kelly version, after the original one in Girl Crazy)
    Gloria (the Doors cover of the THEM song)
    Only you (covered by Yazoo)
    Satisfaction (covered by Cat Power)
    Sea of love (covered by Cat Power)
    Big in Japan (covered by Ane Brun)
    Stand by me (covered by Florence and the machine)
    Caruso (the Lucio Dalla song covered by Sabina Sciubba)
    Llorando (Crying by Roy Orbison, covered by Rebekka Del Rio)
    Thank you (the Led Zeppelin song, covered by Lizz Wright)
    50 ways to leave your lover (covered by Tok Tok Tok)
    In a manner of speaking (covered by Nouvelle Vague)
    Everybody hurts (covered by The Corrs)
    I will survive (covered by the Puppini sisters)
    Because the night (covered by 10,000 maniacs)
    Piece of my heart (covered by Janis Joplin, but also by Beverley Knight)
    Me and Bobby McGee (covered by Janis Joplin)
    Tainted love (covered by Imelda May)
    You’re the one that I want (covered by Beautiful South)
    Don’t you worry ’bout a thing (covered by Incognito)
    Crazy (covered by Alanis Morissette)
    I got you babe (covered by UB40 and Chrissie Hynde)
    Spirit in the Sky (covered by Doctor and the medics)
    To love somebody (covered by Janis Joplin but also Lizz Wright)
    Oye como va (covered by Santana)
    Video killed the radio star (covered by the Buggles)
    Let’s stick toghether (covered by Brian Ferry)
    You can leave your hat on (covered by Joe Cocker)
    Suzie Q (covered by Greedence Clearwater Revival)
    California Dreamin’ (covered by Mamas and Papas)
    One step beyond (covered by Madness)
    It must be love (covered my Madness)
    Yeh yeh (covered by Matt Bianco)
    Superstition (covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan)
    She (Charles Aznavour song covered by Elvis Costello)

    And here is a playlist of songs that were made known by their cover versions, in their original version:

    Have fun !

  • Not true about I Heard It Through The Grapevine. The Miracles recorded the first version & Gaye the first cover. He pleaded with Berry Gordy to release it as a single but Gordy instead had Glady’s Knight & The Pips record it and release it as the first commercially available recording of the song

  • I don’t see the Fairy Godmother’s cover of “Holding Out for a Hero” from Shrek 2 and I’m kind of dissapointed.

  • Just glad Pet Shop Boys not on that list . I’ve seen it ranked no.1 on some lists , which is a crime in my eyes . Totally ruined a passionate love song , and turned it into an emotionless dirge . You know the song I mean .

  • I’m frankly shocked that absolutely no top lists have Elton John’s cover of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on it. It’s a cover that Lennon himself said was better than the original. Was a top ten hit in the UK, and #1 in the US. Why is it so overlooked?

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