The Top 100 Cover Songs

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Top 100 Cover Songs

top 100 cover songs Blondie10. Blondie, “Hanging on the Telephone” (1978)

Originally released by The Nerves, 1976

Usually a cover will pay some sort of tribute to a much higher musical entity as homage to a hero, an influence, a personal favorite, or the like. In Blondie’s case, Parallel Lines’ classic cover of “Hangin on the Telephone” unearthed power pop’s best kept secret in 1978: The Nerves. With the original recorded just two years prior, the short-lived Los Angeles trio would accidentally pen Blondie’s striking opener to their seminal release, unintentionally setting the stage for one of the best covers of all time. While the original remained mostly unheard on an eight-minute EP released in 1976, Blondie’s cover stays true, properly maintaining the raw vitality of the original. But Debbie Harry and friends bolster the radio-ready track with enlightened pop sensibility, igniting a version preference debate that is sure to last forever. – Patrick Pilch


top 100 cover songs Elvis Costello9. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” (Columbia, 1978)

Originally released by Brinsley Schwarz, 1974

One of Elvis Costello’s most defining early songs was slipped in at the end of the American release of his third album, Armed Forces, and it’s a curious epilogue. After a series of quarrelsome songs using militarism and bureaucracy to depict relationships in chaos, Costello’s aggressive closer angrily defied everything he’d just sung in a heartening call for a cease-fire. The lyric wasn’t as thick with detail as his other songs—and that’s probably because, as many are still surprised to find out, Costello didn’t write it. His producer Nick Lowe penned “Peace, Love, and Understanding” for Brinsley Schwarz, the pub-rock band that informed a lot more New Wave and punk music than they get credit for. Costello maintained the jangly drive of the original recording, if not its thick three-part harmony, and sang it with a bit more snap than Lowe’s sympathetic drawl. There’s one discordant note about the Brinsley Schwarz version: Even though he wonders why people laugh at basic human decency, there is no question that Lowe’s spoken interlude—“We must have peace/More peace and love/It’s just for the children/Of the NEW generation!”—has more than a little tongue stuffed in cheek. – Paul Pearson


top 100 cover songs Jimi Hendrix8. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “All Along the Watchtower” (1968)

Originally released by Bob Dylan, 1967

When a song becomes this ubiquitous it is nearly impossible to track its lineage. Bob Dylan penned the original, interweaving it with religious allegory, and through some force of nature it fell into the hands of Hendrix. Years later the exact route it took from Bob to Jimi became a point of debate. Ask his girlfriend and she’ll tell you he bought the album that housed the track like everyone else, his publicist says Dylan gave him an early copy. Nowadays it hardly matters. Hendrix’s version became a soundtrack for the chaos of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a protest anthem to the Vietnam War, or a showcase for Hendrix’s obsessive overdubbing guitar genius. Writing about such a worshiped treasure of rock ’n’ roll 50 years after its release can feel like a futile effort. Dylan said it best: “It overwhelmed me, really.” – Wesley Whitacre


top 100 cover songs Soft Cell7. Soft Cell, “Tainted Love” (1981)

Originally released by Gloria Jones, 1964

Long before it became the soundtrack to an infamous vine, Soft Cell picked up the song featuring “dun dun” from Gloria Jones, who had recorded the Ed Cobb track in 1964. Soft Cell’s rendition went on to become the best-selling single of 1981 in the UK, and eventually entered the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1982 at number 90. The vocal track was Marc Almond’s first take, and the synth-pop hit was recorded in a day and a half. Before its official release, Soft Cell performed the song in their live set, choosing it over Frankie Valli’s “The Night.” – Virginia Croft


6-tmbg-big6. They Might Be Giants, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (1990)

Originally released by The Four Lads, 1953

Songwriters Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon wrote “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” on the 500th anniversary of the fall of that Turkish capital city. The Four Lads came down from Canada and made it into a hit in 1953, and it found its way into our cultural lexicography as one of those songs that you knew you knew, but didn’t know where you knew it from. They Might Be Giants reinvigorated it by playing it about 50 percent faster and adding John Linnell’s signature accordion, and it fit perfectly on their breakthrough 1990 album, Flood. John Flansburgh’s unmistakable baritone in the breakdown and the lyric “People just liked it better that way” are nods to the original recording, but anyone born after 1980 associates “Istanbul” with these college-rock pioneers. – Chad Gorn


top 100 cover songs Sinead O'Connor5. Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)

Originally released by The Family, 1985

Determined to make the 1980s purple, on radio and screen Prince spun a web of musical relationships throughout and beyond Paisley Park. For all of their talent a lot of these acts seemed transparent and self-serving, with Prince-selected players performing work he wrote or produced: Morris Day and the Time, Apollonia, Vanity 6, Sheila E., you get the gist. Especially lost in this sputtering hit factory were a band called The Family, featuring members of The Time and relatives of other Paisley associates. Their 1985 album of synthesized R&B was particularly directionless even for Prince material, and ultimately forgettable. Yet one of the eight people who heard it turned out to be Sinead O’Connor, who loved its left-of-center ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U.” With expectations sky-high after The Lion and the Cobra, she worked with producers Nellee Hooper (Soul II Soul, Massive Attack) and Chris Birkett (Talking Heads, Mel Brooks) to reconfigure it for her second album. The song was created for a beloved housekeeper who had died in Prince’s youth; O’Connor performed it thinking of her late mother. The final arrangement merged her expressive voice with spare, dirge-like synthetics, but the master stroke came later in John Maybury’s directorial decisions for its music video. He focused on a static closeup of O’Connor’s face, and her genuine tears near the end of the clip confirm that The Family missed the point just pining for an old girlfriend. Grief can inform great art, but sometimes it takes a different artist to actually make it. – Adam Blyweiss


top 100 cover songs Marvin Gaye4. Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968)

Originally released by Gladys Knight & the Pips, 1967

The story goes that Marvin didn’t even want to record this song. Gladys Knight had a top-ten hit with it the year before, and it would’ve been reasonable for him to worry that his version wouldn’t break through. But from the moment that Earl Van Dyke’s organ kicks in, it’s clear that there was no stopping this train, a vehicle for one of Marvin’s greatest vocal performances. Every jump to falsetto is perfectly executed, every run rendered crisply and smoothly by his unmistakably warm, religious tenor. There was no way this song wouldn’t work. Because no one sang soul like Marvin. No one ever will. – Ben Dickerson


top 100 cover songs Talking Heads3. Talking Heads, “Take Me to the River” (1978)

Originally released by Al Green, 1974

The thing that makes this cover great is its idiosyncrasy. Talking Heads eliminate the youthful horns of Al Green’s original “Take Me to the River” in favor of off-kilter keyboard strokes, wavy guitar riffs, and what sounds like the occasional plink of a xylophone. The opening drum beat kicks off a cheeky sensibility, projecting the notion that what’s to come will be less of an emotional jaunt than its earlier renditions. The result of their efforts is a well-crafted blend of soul and pop that indeed moves like the winding of a river and finishes with a slight dizziness left by the crush of distortion. – Paula Chew


top 100 cover songs Johnny Cash2. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (2002)

Originally released by Nine Inch Nails, 1994

A good cover provides a new context, changing its sound or arrangement to reveal something new in a familiar song. A great cover gives an existing song entirely new meaning. In the ‘90s, Johnny Cash, working with famed producer Rick Rubin after a bit of a career slowdown in the prior decade, found inspiration in the songs of contemporary artists such as Danzig (another Rubin collaborator) and Beck. And that continued up through his final recordings, with his haunting reinterpretation of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” as the final single he released before he died in 2003. On the surface, it’s a fairly simple, acoustic performance of the industrial ballad, but the context is turned upside-down, with Trent Reznor’s cry of isolation and depression read by Cash as a meditation on aging and mortality: “Everyone I know goes away in the end.” The video, directed by Mark Romanek, depicts relics of time gone by and the symbolism inherent in a decaying House of Cash museum. When Reznor was initially approached about the song, he was skeptical about the idea. Once he heard the final product, he remarked, “That song isn’t mine anymore.” – Jeff Terich


1-buckley-big1. Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (1994)

Originally released by Leonard Cohen, 1984

Bob Dylan performed this now-classic song from Leonard Cohen in 1988; John Cale was first to record a cover of it in 1991. Jeff Buckley’s is one of at least 300 known covers of “Hallelujah” since Cohen debuted it on his 1984 album Various Positions. What Buckley brought to the table to set his version apart was his unmistakable voice, effortlessly displaying raw vulnerability. Plenty of takes among those hundreds contain or approach some of Buckley’s qualities; I’m a fan of k.d. lang’s version, for example, yet her very controlled alto croon is no match for Buckley’s sublime, emotive tenor. More melancholy than even Cohen’s matter-of-fact delivery, it’s full of reflective tenderness. When heard in the context of the soulful vocal bombast that comprises the bulk of Buckley’s Grace LP this performance is more sedate, with none of his more Robert Plant-like falsetto explosions. With “Hallelujah,” we get a very intimate, introspective portrait. Where most breakup songs point a finger and feel sorry for themselves, this is a wiser inventory of the dynamic between two people and the power play that held a seductive lure, yet also became their undoing. It’s number one on our list because rather than play off of Cohen’s original, Buckley made the song his own in a way that conveys emotional honesty that resonates with the listener. There is never a note that Buckley sings where I don’t believe him. – Wil Lewellyn


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View Comments (14)
  • 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” (https://www.1001covers.com.br). 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:
    https://open.spotify.com/user/ilianna1968/playlist/1tPKceB51kdKggU0TzHQoo?si=fEHYX9X8Q3arWrMB2iF-Hw

    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

  • 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 .

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