This list invites debate. Come to think of it, many of our lists do. Such is the nature of an inherently subjective form of journalism. But we're right this time.
Songs are made to be remade, sung along to, and played back. We connect with songs because they resonate with our own biological tuning forks—and every now and again, the impact ends up improving upon the original.
There are some classics on this list—how could we leave off Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower," which Bob Dylan himself considers "the" version? But there are new arrivals too—SZA and Rihanna have proved the art of the cover is alive and well in recent years. Here are 17 covers that are better than the original.
Mark Ronson & Amy Winehouse - "Valerie" (The Zutons Cover)
Recorded in the wake of Winehouse's monumental Back to Black, "Valerie" was originally intended to appear on the deluxe version of that album. It went on producer Ronson's Version instead, serving as the third single. The Zutons' version had only been released a year earlier, but when Amy's version dropped in 2007, it spent 19 straight weeks in the U.K. singles Top 20 chart. Eerily, she doesn't appear in the video, but "Valerie" is proof that Amy's voice will last forever.
The Fugees - "Killing Me Softly With His Song" (Lori Lieberman Cover)
Lori Lieberman's '70s classic got the facelift of a lifetime when The Fugees included "Killing Me Softly With His Song" on The Score. Lauryn Hill's voice is nothing short of divine, the production is punchy and just moody enough not to undercut the song's original message—even Wyclef's subtle ad-libs fit perfectly in this new arrangement. It's a tough draw for Lieberman, who was also outshone by Roberta Flack's cover (which was released the year after the original, and topped the charts at the time). But the words are still hers, even if Lauryn's voice is the one we'll always turn to.
Lykke Li - "Silver Springs" (Fleetwood Mac Cover)
We've been big fans of Lykke Li for years, and her new singles have us excited for more. They also prompted us to revisit her rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Silver Springs." The brooding, stormy feel that Lykke Li brings to the song replaces Stevie Nick's morose heart-break, and although both are sorrow-filled, the echoing update haunts our dreams. The line, "You'll never get away from the sound of the woman that loved you," doesn't feel like an empty threat anymore but a very powerful promise.
Johnny Cash - "Hurt" (Nine Inch Nails Cover)
It has been almost universally agreed that this is one of the best covers ever. When Trent Reznor penned this song he was probably feeling pretty depressed, but Johnny Cash puts the original version in sharp contrast with a spare, acoustic version. There's something timeless about The Man in Black's voice, fraught with emotion and twisted by the years. His experiences seem deeper and more transcendent than ours, and yet they're captivating in a way that feels personal.
Justin Vernon - "I Can't Make You Love Me" (Bonnie Raitt Cover)
Justin Vernon is very good at sounding like the saddest man on Earth. Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" is one of the saddest songs ever written. When the former sang the latter in 2011, the song took on new life—it's just Justin and a piano, wringing out some heartbreaking realizations still relevant 20 years after they were penned.
Rage Against the Machine - "How I Could Just Kill A Man" (Cypress Hill Cover)
Back in rap-rock's heyday, Rage Against the Machine was one of music's most exciting and successful acts. They did it by keeping people shocked and moshing, and this cover of Cypress Hill's "How Could I Just Kill A Man," originally released in 1991, is case in point. Rage's version came nine years later, adding Zack De La Rocha's searing vocals and Tom Morello's huge guitar. It takes things to an appropriately savage level—a song about killing somebody in such casual detail demands rage, and Rage provided it.
SZA - "twoAM" (PartyNextDoor Cover)
SZA had an amazing 2017, but before Ctrl became her calling card, TDE's First Lady made a habit of recording cover songs that were better than the original. PartyNextDoor played the victim in the run-up to Ctrl when SZA flipped "Come and See Me" into "twoAM," trading moody Drake vibes for something that felt really real. Her ascendance was just beginning, but SZA already had the tools to leave us in a puddle of tears.
José Gonzalez - "Heartbeats" (The Knife Cover)
Jose Gonzalez's stripped-down acoustic version of The Knife's ubiquitous breakout hit allows the lyrics to take the forefront, and the crux of the song—one night of thrilling anxiety, passion, and consummation—appears as those moments often do: in slow motion. It's an absolutely devastating interpolation of the track that strips away everything except for a voice and guitar, letting the words speak for themselves.
Aretha Franklin - "Respect" (Otis Redding Cover)
Sometimes a cover is so good that, for all intents and purposes, it becomes the covering artist's song. Aretha Franklin's version of Otis Redding's 1965 release "Respect" only came out two years later, but it became a hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Singles Chart.
Aretha's version was an important cultural moment, too. By changing a few lines and adding the iconic "R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me," section, she made the song a demand for respect by an empowered woman. It went on to earn her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for "Best Rhythm & Blues Recording" and "Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female"
Rihanna - "Same Ol' Mistakes" (Tame Impala Cover)
In what may be this list's most controversial take, Rihanna edges out Tame Impala's Kevin Parker for her rendition of "Same Ol' Mistakes." It's a win by technicality—Rihanna left Parker's exquisite soundscape intact, his lyrics unaltered, and at certain points, she even sounds like the Australian frontman. But the fact that Rihanna would cover a Tame Impala song in the first place is pretty cool. And her voice is a little better. So while we still love you, Kevin, Rihanna is the first "Same Ol' Mistakes" we're playing.
Chris Cornell - "Nothing Compares 2 U" (Prince Cover)
The untimely passing of Chris Cornell left a hole in our musical hearts. He left behind a massive musical catalog thanks to his work with Audioslave and Soundgarden, but some of Cornell's most moving work came from other people's songs. His take on Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U"—instrumentation stripped away, voice left bare except for an acoustic guitar—is still one of our favorites. It's tough to do justice to another legend's song, but Cornell managed it here.
Nirvana - "The Man Who Sold The World" (David Bowie Cover)
This is one of those songs that unsuspecting '90s babies might think is originally by Kurt Cobain. His drawling take on the song feels so natural that it does seem like something that would emerge from Nirvana's original discography.
But the truth is, David Bowie's third studio album of the same name is a cornerstone in the glam-rock foundation. And it's a very good song. But Bowie was busy experimenting with new sounds, instruments, and vocal effects, and the result is a busy, hyperactive cut. Kurt's, in turn, is a minimal, mopey slice of nihilism. He means everything he's singing, and the fact that he does it live makes te accomplishment all the more impressive.
Jimi Hendrix - "All Along the Watchtower" (Bob Dylan Cover)
The reason we know that this cover is better than the original is because Bob Dylan himself said it is. According to Bob, Jimi Hendrix heard things in the world that none of us could hear. Here are Bob Dylan's comments on when he first heard the cover:
"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. I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this and ever since he died I've been doing it that way... Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way."
James Blake - "Limit To Your Love" (Feist Cover)
Though the Feist version of this melancholic folk ballad has plenty of passion and pain, it's not quite as visceral as the way James Blake plays with the contrast in "Limit To Your Love." He absolutely rips into the piano, voice vacillating between skating across thin ice and diving in head-first—there's something about this cover that feels like a first dance and a last dance all at once.
Whitney Houston - "I Will Always Love You" (Dolly Parton Cover)
Dolly Parton is a legend in her own right. And her original version, released in 1974, was no slouch—it topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart twice.
But we're talking about one of the most epic vocal performances in the history of sound. Houston's version was recorded for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, and went on to hold the record for the best-selling single by a woman in music history. And unofficially, that key change is one of the most reliably goosebump-inducing music moments to ever exist.
Childish Gambino - "So Into You" (Tamia Cover)
Does he hit all the notes. No. But Childish Gambino brought double the emotion to his cover of Tamia's "So Into You." The original is a '90s R&B bop that, while excellent, had a lot going on—especially when Fabolous added a verse in 2002. But Donald goes in the other direction, relying on exquisite, understated performances from his band and a natural falsetto to carry the day. The arrangement of this version is really what separates it from the original. Key changes and a shrewd drop give the song a narrative, and Gambino makes this a story worth hearing.
Jeff Buckley - "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen Cover)
Leonard Cohen: fantastic poet, decent singer. Jeff Buckley: decent poet, fantastic singer. Buckley singing Cohen's words was a revelation—the original "Hallelujah" is a beautiful song, but Cohen's morose baritone just doesn't fit with the deeply emotional lyrics. Buckley grabbed hold of them and didn't let go, adding his own masterful guitar flourishes for a little extra spice.
Chairlift - "Party" (Beyoncé Cover)
I can say authoritatively that there's no such thing as Heaven because Caroline Polachek is here on Earth with us. Far be it from me to conjecture that anyone is better than Beyoncé at anything ever (other than maybe "not being Beyoncé," which she could actually probably still do a pretty good job of because she can do anything), Caroline and her breathy croon are absolutely DRENCHED in swagoo. Homegirl has to be followed around with a mop and a janitor's bucket to clean up all that swagoo she leaves in her wake. Plus, shouts out to Kool AD for rhyming "I'm Lenny Kravitz" with "I'm Lenny Kravitz," and also for reminding us about Lenny Kravitz. —Sasha Hecht
Youth Lagoon - "Goodbye Again" (John Denver Cover)
Since his music is informed by eletcronic sampling and feels very high-tech, it's easy to forget that Trevor Powers, the boy behind Youth Lagoon, is from the fairly rural city of Boise, Idaho. With that context in mind, his cover of John Denver's "Goodbye Again" makes perfect sense. In all honesty, his voice might not be as soothing or warm as John's, but the intricacies he adds on production end of things really enhance the standard folksy tune—and hearing this song from the perspective a 24-year-old who continually tours the country makes it feel more poignant. —Caitlin White
The White Stripes - "Jolene" (Dolly Parton Cover)
One of the most compelling things about Dolly Parton's "Jolene" is its lyrical content. This is a song by a spurned lover, but it's not directed at the partner who wronged, nor is the musical equivalent of licking one's wounds. Rather, it's an achingly vulnerable look at an interaction we rarely ever get to see: the one between the rebuffed and the new paramour.
Now, I'm probably one of only a handful of people who feel "mediumly" about the "illustrious, iconic Jack White," but when I listen to this cover, I sort of "get it." Jack takes a song on the brink and pushes it over the edge. It takes a strong man to desperately wail, explicitly begging to someone not to take his man, "even though [she] can."—Oh, and Jack? Thanks for not doing that weirdly defensive, totally unnecessary thing some musicians do where they swap gender identifiers so it doesn't sound like they're singing love songs about someone of the same sex (God forbid). —Sasha Hecht
The Weeknd - "Dirty Diana" (Michael Jackson Cover)
Yes, there is a version of a Michael Jackson song that is better than the Michael Jackson version. There, I said it.
While I have nothing against Michael Jackson, The Weeknd's cover makes me want to sex a person, while MJ's original makes me want to want to sex a person. Listening to the Michael's "Dirty Diana" kind of makes me feel like that scene in American Horror Story: Asylum where Dr. Thredson tries conversion therapy on Lana and… well, I don't want to spoil it for you, but what I'm trying to say is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it like touching a penis. —Sasha Hecht
Sondre Lerche - "Bluish" (Animal Collective Cover)
Animal Collective is a band that is mostly known for its forays into sonic flurries of sound, sometimes so stormy that the listener loses the message of the song amidst all the commotion. But behind these curtains of chaos are lurking some really tender love songs, especially on Merriwether Post Pavillion's "Bluish." Luckily, Norwegian folksinger Sondre Lerche noticed that this song is one of the most simple celebrations of every day love that we've seen within the last century. Although I'm normally a fan of Animal Collective's antics, this song just sounds better stripped down with a simple melody to match its endearing message. —Caitlin White
CocoRosie - "Turn Me On" (Kevin Lyttle Cover)
This song has no right to sound this good. I mean, Kevin Lyttle wrote this "club banger" (ick, sorry) with the sole intention that it would inspire people to put babies all up in one another. And yet somehow, CocoRosie throw a harp and freak folk vocalist wearing a Yankee cap and your mom's nightgown into the mix and, all of a sudden, you get a painfully sexy slow-burner that completely wipes the original from you memory. How does that make sense? HOW?
Also, shouts out to Rachel Maddow on beatbox duty. — Sasha Hecht
Kurt Vile - "Downbound Train" (Bruce Springsteen Cover)
Both Kurt Vile and Bruce Springsteen are east coast boys with a penchant for guitar solos and poetic lyrics and without music both could've ended up with the godawful fate of actually working at a car wash, the depressing career that the narrator of this song bemoans. But the most terrifying thing about this song, in both versions, is the fall from grace. For a while it seemed like Springsteen was the only one who had a voice raspy enough to really convey the desperation of an American nightmare, but somehow Vile's slower, lower drawl reaches a fever pitch on this cover that actually rivals the intensity of the original. Not only are his vocals on par but his guitar solos are too—and that's what makes this cover truly phenomenal.— Caitlin White
Angus and Julia Stone - "Say it Right" (Nelly Furtado Cover)
I'm not going to lie; I have little-more than a Wikipedia-page-skim's-worth of knowledge of Angus and Julia Stone. Apparently, they're a super popular brother-sister duo from Australia, but who really knows what the hell those people are up to when they're not boxing with kangaroos or putting multiple shrimps on various barbies?
There are a lot of good things going on here. For one, Angus Stone recalls a severely-depressed Jason Segel after a particularly rough breakup. (You thought I was going to say Moses, didn't you?) (But yeah, he definitely looks like Moses.) Secondly, Julia hushed, nearly callow vocals are reminiscent of those by CocoRosie's Bianca, except when it comes to Stone, you don't have to make the case for "freak folk." But probably the most important reason why this cover is great is that it made me check up on what Nelly Furtado has been doing with her time lately, which is apparently releasing an album named after a Jack Nicholson movie. (No, not Mars Attacks!, but close.) —Sasha Hecht
Feist & Ben Gibbard - "Train Song" (Vashti Bunyan Cover)
The National-produced charity project Dark Was the Night was an indie amalgam that delivered many gems to adoring fans, including sought-after rarities like a collaboration between the Dirty Projectors and demi-god David Byrne, along with brand new music from buzzy acts like Bon Iver and Arcade Fire. However, the duet between Feist and Ben Gibbard of the Death Cab For Cutie/The Postal Service emo-cred might be the best thing to come off this double disc set. Originally the song is by the singer Vashti Bunyan, an English artist with a cult-following who has been called the "Godmother of Freak Folk," but the ethereal voices of Leslie and Ben would overwhelm any other version of this song on earth. This track could singlehandely reduce a cynic to a weeping romantic. —Caitlin White
Austra - "None of Dem" (Robyn Cover)
This is one of those covers that makes you say, "Oh, of COURSE their version would sound like this." Luckily, Austra rules, so I'll allow it. Katie Stelmanis and co. turn this dark club lurcher into a wailing clamor. It's almost crushingly bemoaning, but I guess that's what you can expect from a goth pop cover of a song about hating everything. —Sasha Hecht
Wilco - "I Love My Label" (Nick Lowe Cover)
Originally penned by Nick Lowe to celebrate the United Artists label, Wilco's take on the track feels even more meaningful given their early struggles with labels—Reprise Records initially refused to release the band's breakout record Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. Although the two version aren't much different from each other, Tweedy's voice certainly seems to lend more irony to the track than Lowe's did. Nick sang the song long before the DIY scene erupted and before the idea that record executives were hurting more than they helped had really emerged. Regardless, as the bonus track on their 2012 album The Whole Love, it's a nice reminder of the band's ability to perform practically any track and make it feel like their own. —Caitlin White
Ariel Pink - "Baby" (Donnie & Joe Emerson Cover)
For a white guy art-rocker with pink hair, Ariel Pink handles this little soul-infused ballad with surprising adeptness. Ditching his signature pastiche of sampled sounds, guitar noise and off-kilter lyrics, Ariel reigns in his screeching vocals, molding them into a straight-up croon, caressing the "oohs" and the word "baby" with the same TLC that the greats employ. To hear Pink singing like a love-struck innocent feels even more important given the despair that often laces the anthems he's become famous for, if he can reclaim belief in puppy love even for one track, maybe we can too. He willfully discards his worldly-wise background for this cover, which gives it that much more of an impact than Donnie & Joe's wide-eyed original. —Caitlin White
Robin Pecknold - "On a Good Day" (Joanna Newsom Cover)
I'm not going to dwell on this one because I don't really like Fleet Foxes, I don't get along with people who really like Fleet Foxes, and I resent Robin Pecknold for looking so much like Charles Manson and then being so boring. This cover doesn't really add a whole lot to Joanna's original other than an almost embarrassing amount of reverb, but goddamn it if that reverb doesn't sound nice in my earholes. —Sasha Hecht
Frank Ocean - "I Miss You" (Beyoncé Cover)
Okay okay, I know this isn't technically a cover, seeing as Frank Ocean penned the song for the Queen Bey, but for all intents and purposes, just chill out and let me do my thing. Frank's public coming out sparked a reexamination of virtually everything Ocean had ever said or sung in an effort to look for "clues." But his most autobiographically telling tune wasn't actually one that he claimed for himself, it was this devastating unrequited love song that he handed over to Beyoncé (because when Beyoncé wants something, you'd better believe she gets it). If you can get past the hollering ladies in this video, you'll find a live cover dripping with heartache and desperation. This is a man turned inside out… Not to be confused with "turnt." — Sasha Hecht
Father John Misty - "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" (Leonard Cohen Cover)
Father John Misty is the newly minted moniker of J.Tillman, a prolific sound-creator, drummer (previously for Fleet Foxes) and now a lauded folk singer/songwriter. Although some may consider it blasphemous to assert that an artist can cover Leonard Cohen with more aptitude than the man himself, Cohen can tend to get a little monotonous at times. Tillman sings with more breadth and depth, and the addition of organs, piano, slow drums and horns add some much-needed flourishes to the poetry of this track. —Caitlin White
Robyn - "Hyperballad" (Björk cover)
Virtually anything that Robyn does is the best thing in that given category of things.
It's not easy to make a track destined for the dancefloor sound heartbreakingly emotive, and it definitely isn't easy covering a Björk song, but Robyn does both with poise, mastery, and dressed for what seems to be a live-action version of The Jetsons. Anytime Robyn gets in front of a string section, shit is about to go down. Case in point (http://youtu.be/55KSxfKvWcs).—Sasha Hecht
Bruce Springsteen - "Because the Night" (Patti Smith Cover)
Patti Smith is easily one of the most bad-ass women to take the stage, let alone pen a song that makes you want to go take back the night for love, youth and recklessness. So there's literally only one person on the face of the planet who could give us a better rendition of this song than her—The Boss himself. Despite her passion and killer musicianship, the fact of the matter is that Bruce Springsteen was simply meant to perform any and all songs that scream at the apathy in us until we are overcome with zeal for living again. As far as I can tell that's pretty much what he was put on earth to do, and he does it incredibly well on this song. If it doesn't make you want to go for speeding down an ocean-side highway teetering over a cliff under the stars, then maybe the night doesn't belong to you. —Caitlin White
Jim James & Calexico - "Goin' to Acapulco" (Bob Dylan Cover)
Although I'm Not There—the full-length film about Bob Dylan's life—boasted a whole soundtrack full of Dylan covers, most of them fell disappointingly short of the original. Hey, I'm not hating here, it's difficult to cover Bob—he's equal parts cagey lyricist, country cowboy and torch singer. But the pairing of modern day folk hero Jim James with the Tex-Mex-Americana of Calexico managed to create a sound as varied and full as Dylan's own. Plus, the addition of horns to this song is one of the best decisions that was made in the entire production of I'm Not There overall. — Caitlin White
Dirty Projectors - "Climax" (Usher Cover)
First of all, yes to anything Amber Coffman always.
Secondly, this isn't your typical indie-band-covering-R&B/hip-hop-song-for-lols, haha-it's-funny-cause-they're-white scenario. The Dirty Projectors reinterpretation of "Climax" doesn't make you think, "Look at all this silly fun they're having with something completely atypical for them given their genre and ethnicities! Hah! The rascals…" Dave Longstreth and company earnestly cover Ursher's 2012 comeback ballad the only way they know how: by making it ridiculously complex, creating impossible vocal arrangements, and executing it all perfectly.— Sasha Hecht
Bird and the Bee - "I Can't Go For That" (Hall & Oates Cover)
Did you know that the Bird and the Bee have a whole album that is solely composed of Hall & Oates covers? They do, it's called Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates and it is actually one of the better albums that the band has. There's not even a trace of irony in any the covers, and though "Maneater" and "Kiss on My List" are both standout selections, this one captures the right balance between mindless love, saccharine pop and the inevitable reality that we all have to draw the line somewhere. When the chorus hits, Inara George's voice wafts into a background wisp, almost denying her very denial, a brilliant production technique that Hall & Oates probably wouldn't have gone for. —Caitlin White
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - "White Rabbit" (Jefferson Airplane Cover)
As one of the first bands from the San Francisco experimental rock scene to achieve commercial success, Jefferson Airplane's psychedelia spread across America throughout the '60s and '70s with rapid speed. "White Rabbit" is one of those songs that captured the national psyche at the time, and yet, in many ways the original version feels dated and stuck in those decades. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals manage to encapsualte the original energy of the song while adding an intensity that feels both old and new. —Caitlin White
Bruce Springsteen - "The Weight" (The Band Cover)
Once upon a time, while trolling through the bowels of Reddit's various subreddits, I stumbled across r/happycrowds: a subreddit devoted to—well—happy crowds and the frisson that results from watching 10,000 people get psyched on the same thing at the same time. This video belongs there. What really makes this cover great isn't Bruce; it's the thousands of voices in the Prudential Center coming together in a moment of shared elation. This video will renew your faith in humanity and, if you're not careful, make you feel cheesy as fuck. —Sasha Hecht
Lana Del Rey - "Heart-Shaped Box" (Nirvana Cover)
The best thing about this cover is that we now know that "Heart-Shaped Box" is about Courtney Love's vagina. The worst thing about this cover is that we now know that "Heart-Shaped Box" is about Courtney Love's vagina. No, sorry Lana, the worst thing about this cover is this cover. This cover alone almost proves our whole theory wrong, sometimes covers are just plain AWFUL. —Sasha Hecht