Rolling Stones live in Sweden, 1965
(Credit: Bent Rej)

From Aretha Franklin to Jimi Hendrix: 10 cover songs that are better than the originals

When an artist is making their way in the world, usually the first songs they’ll take on are those of their favourite artist or band. It’s a natural progression which helps singers and songwriters find their voice. But sometimes, after this formation is completed, returned to give one of their favourite songs a makeover.

Rarely do these songs have the same punch as the original, after all, it’s hard to express somebody else’s story as intently as they did. However, sometimes they can get it right and make an old song sound like something fresh and new, they can offer a new perspective or a brand new plan of attack.

When those moments do present themselves it feels like something sacred to cherish, so we thought we’d do just that and bring you 10 of the best examples of when covers are better than the originals.

Cover songs that are better than the originals:

10. ‘Respect’ – Aretha Franklin

Let’s start with one of those “I thought that was her song” choices. Aretha Franklin will always be attached to this song. Originally an Otis Redding number, the track was flipped on its head when Franklin stood up to take on this song, and so much more with it. Aretha went at this cover like anything else in her life: full throttle and completely committed.

Her powerful vocal and the unwavering pursuit of rhythm left this song not only on top of the charts, not only did it gain her the first of her 18 Grammys but with Aretha’s ferocity, it became an impassioned anthem for the feminist and civil rights movements. It would go on to not only define Franklin but a generation.

9. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ – Joe Cocker

The Fab Four’s song ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was that assistance. The Beatles may well have provided Joe Cocker with the ammunition, but that still left the incredible vocalist to provide the arsenal with which to deliver the earth-shattering and definitive performance of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.

The song started out life being composed by John Lennon as a song for Ringo Starr but would go on to be a defining anthem of the counterculture movement as it looked to rid the world of aggressive capitalism and fascism. A movement The Beatles weren’t ever really a part of.

Instead, it would be the Sheffield born legend, Joe Cocker, that would take the stage at Woodstock and belt out the festival’s untold anthem. It’s simply magic.

8. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ – The Byrds

Of course, originally written by the mercurial Bob Dylan, his iconic track found little traction when he first released it. It would take The Byrds’ perfect cover to really put it on the map. If there’s one moment which signifies Dylan ascendancy from folk act to international star, it was when he “went electric” and plugged in his acoustic guitar. It was a moment undoubtedly buoyed by The Byrds cover of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.

Dylan had put the song down in 1965 as part of his Bringing It All Back Home session and The Byrds had managed to grab a hold of an early copy. Listening to the acetate, the group were convinced it was perfect for their debut album and, of course, it was.

The Byrds’ version of the song is nothing short of magnificent and arguably one of the most important releases of Dylan’s career. It’s success put The Byrds on the map, enlivened a folk scene on the West Coast and encouraged Dylan to plug into the amps that summer at the Newport Folk Festival.

7. ‘I Fought The Law’ – The Clash

They may well be the only band that matters, but The Clash have never been afraid to dip their hand into the murky waters of music’s past and drag out a gem by the scruff of the neck. Having also covered songs like ‘Police & Thieves’ alongside their natural affinity with reggae and dub, this cover was a perfect fit.

Originally recorded by Sonny Curtis and then popularised the Bobby Fuller Four, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon take this track to a brand new, far more rebellious place with their cover of ‘I Fought The Law’. Strummer’s vocal, in particular, seems made for the song.

The Clash were in the middle of recording Give ‘Em Enough Rope when they stumbled upon the record in the jukebox of Automatt studios and instantly fell in love with it. Since then it’s become a fantastic piece of their iconography.

6. ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ – Janis Joplin

Originally recorded by Roger Miller in 1969, Janis Joplin took this song and turned it into a powerhouse performance only she could match. It was something well within Joplin’s capabilities, in fact, she did it with almost every song she ever sang.

Truly, there could have been a top 10 list of Janis Joplin’s best covers, ‘Cry Baby’ was a strong contender for this spot. However, it is the gravity of this recording which puts it over the edge for us. Recorded only a few days before her tragic death in 1970 for her posthumous album Pearl this cover of the Kris Kristofferson-penned song, is simply stunning.

It’s a remarkable song and not only shows off Joplin’s incredible pipes but also her musical understanding, something which is rarely matched. Joplin gave herself to music and the performance entirely, and it shows in this searing cover.

5. ‘Jolene’ – The White Stripes

Jack White may now be as close as the rock world gets to a music mogul, with countless projects through music with The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and his solo work, not forgetting being the head of Third Man Records. But he started in rather more humble beginnings in the club circuit around his hometown of Detroit.

By providing swirling, crazed vocals and thrashing his guitar like nobody else had done before, the band were gaining traction. In the video below, back in 2001, he was still honing his unholy wail with the Stripes—those unstoppable red and white juggernauts—by covering some country and western classics.

In 2001, where the footage and perhaps their best performance of the song comes from, The White Stripes were beginning to gain traction. White’s ability to create weird and wonderful noises capable of bringing down a house in a single note set the scene alight. To then couple that with the songwriting skill shown on tracks like ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ and ‘Hotel Yorba’, showed that this band understood and delivered the storytelling that is reserved for timeless artists. They had the power and they had the poetry.

Somehow there’s no better way to show this than on the band’s beautiful cover of Dolly Parton’s heartwrenching classic ‘Jolene’. It’s a cover which would become a part of the band’s live set and offer a glimpse of White’s love affair with Americana and country music.

4. ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ – Nirvana

There’s not much better than listening to David Bowie’s classic ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, unless, of course, Nirvana’s unplugged version is available. While we’re massive fans of the Starman, it’s hard to argue that this cover isn’t better than the original. With time to digest the song Kurt Cobain’s reimagination of it, and the thoughts expressed within it, are engrossing.

Don’t get us wrong, we also love Lulu’s version, but it’s hard to fight against this one and the connection Cobain shares with it. The song’s eponymous album was ranked as number 45 of Kurt’s favourite albums of all time, and it’s clear he shares an affinity with the track. Later, the song and the session became an integral part of the band’s output in those last months before Cobain’s sudden death, forming a large part of their rotation on MTV.

Bowie said of Nirvana’s cover: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.” The Starman, ever the lover of any art, added: “It was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”

Though Bowie did admit that people thinking that the song is Nirvana’s own does annoy him a little: “Kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!’”

3. ‘Hallelujah’ – Jeff Buckley

Before we go on about the fragility and tenderness of Jeff Buckley’s vocal performance on Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece ‘Hallelujah’, we must first pay respects to John Cale. The Velvet Underground founder took Cohen’s original sprawling song and turned it into something people could actually enjoy. After that, Buckley took the song into the Heavens.

‘Hallelujah’ has an ability, unlike many other songs, that can stop someone dead in their tracks. To hold them there until the final notes of the achingly beautiful song play out. But when the late Jeff Buckley is singing those notes the power of the track rings out for far longer.

Featured on his only full-length record, Grace, the track has become a folkloric moment in music history. However, when Buckley performed the song live it became a whole new entity. It’s not just the singing that moves Buckley’s performance, it is his guitar playing, which ranges on the virtuoso, as he delicately picks and manipulates the strings toward an ethereal journey.

It’s a simply stunning moment where music, as powerful as it is, controls the room and the silences the worries and fears, for a brief moment holding you, suspended in the air, and captivated within the notes.

2. ‘Hurt’ – Johnny Cash

Undoubtedly one of the greatest cover of all time, Johnny Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’ was originally a worry for Reznor. Speaking with Music Radar he said: “I’d been friends with Rick Rubin for several years. He called me to ask how I’d feel if Johnny Cash covered Hurt. I said I’d be very flattered but was given no indication it would actually be recorded.

“Two weeks went by. Then I got a CD in the post. I listened to it and it was very strange. It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. I’d known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive.”

But as soon as Reznor saw the poignant video, things had changed: “It really, really made sense and I thought what a powerful piece of art. I never got to meet Johnny but I’m happy I contributed the way I did. It felt like a warm hug. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. I have goosebumps right now thinking about it.”

The video saw Cash sitting in the museum ‘The House of Cash’ singing the reflective song while clips of his past are flashed on the screen. It sees the legendary performer standing in front of his audience for one final time.

1. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ – Jimi Hendrix

It simply had to be. When Bob Dylan claims your version of his song is the ultimate one, the definitive rendition of the number, then you know you did something right. Hendrix did absolutely everything right on this one.

Dylan said of Hendrix’s version: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”

Written in 1967, the song has had a fair few renditions from famous faces over the years. Whether it’s from Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam, the smoother than smooth tones of Bryan Ferry, the salt of the earth Neil Young, or even the Irish pop-rock poster boys U2, but none hold a candle to Jimi’s. While those bands all tried to match Dylan’s effort from ’67, Jimi ingested the track, digested it, and threw it up in a Technicolor dream.

It’s quite literally perfect. If you think otherwise then we suggest you take it up with Bob.

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