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10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals

Johnny Cash, Anthony Kiedis, Dave Grohl
Scott Gries / Mike Copolla / Theo Wargo, Getty Images

Cover songs have been popular in the world of rock ‘n’ roll since, well, the beginning of the world rock ‘n’ roll. Originally, cover songs often carried a negative connotation — they were seen as a less talented and successful act “stealing” the superior work of the composer to make a quick buck — but these days, they are typically recognized as one artist paying homage to another in a show of admiration. Either way, cover versions occasionally turn out to be more popular than and/or artistically superior to the originals. It’s not common, but the following are 10 songs that, despite great original versions, work better as covers. (Actually, make that nine great originals … you’ll see what me mean.)


10

Red Hot Chili Peppers, 'Higher Ground'

Original Artist: Stevie Wonder
 
 

Maybe it's wrong to say the Chili Peppers did a better job performing 'Higher Ground' than the living legend who wrote it. But often times, these sorts of preferences are determined by which version one hears first, and being Gen-Xers, we happened upon Anthony Kiedis & co.'s 'Mother's Milk' rendition well before the original. In fact, it wasn't until many years later that we discovered Stevie Wonder's take, which is slightly slower but no less funky. It's a close call, but we'll go with the Peppers on this one.

 
9

The White Stripes, 'Jolene'

Original Artist: Dolly Parton
 
 

Sorry, Dolly fans. Parton certainly turns in a lovely version of her own song, which appeared on the 1974 disc of the same name, but we're partial to the White Stripes' cover, which first turned up as the B-side to their 2000 single of 'Hello Operator,' off the album 'De Stijl,' and was later released as a single in its own right in live form on 'Under Blackpool Lights.' Both covers find the Stripes doing a pretty straight-up version of the original, albeit with a slightly harder and punkier approach. Really, you can't go wrong with any of them.

 
8

Frente, 'Bizarre Love Triangle'

Original Artist: New Order
 
 

Aussie '90s alt-rock act Frente take New Order's dance-floor hit and turn it on its ear with a mellow acoustic rendition that's downright beautiful. The two versions couldn't be any more different: New Order's original, which appeared on their 1986 album 'Bsotherhood,' was a synth-driven hit that landed in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart, while Frente's stripped-down take -- which features little more than sparse acoustic guitar finger picking and singer Angie Hart's yearning vocals -- hit the Top 10 of the Modern Rock tally and even managed to cross over to No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100.

 
7

The Ramones: 'California Sun'

Original Artist: Joe Jones
 
 

Credited to Henry Glover and Morris Levy and originally recorded by the 35-year-old New Orleans-born singer-songwriter Joe Jones, 'California Sun' has been covered by numerous acts over the years -- everyone from Dick Dale and Brian Wilson to the Replacements and '60s frat rockers the Rivieras, who recorded the highest-charting and best-known version in 1964. But it was the Ramones that injected the tune with a previously absent punk energy, as it appeared on both their 'Leave Home' album and in their classic 1979 film 'Rock 'n' Roll High School.'

 
6

Jane's Addiction, 'Rock & Roll'

Original Artist: The Velvet Underground
 
 

Here's another that's sure to be controversial. Few bands in the history of rock 'n' roll are considered more influential than the Velvet Underground, so how perfect is it for them to pass a song titled 'Rock & Roll' down through several generations to one of the most classic and original bands of '90s alternative rock? The Velvet's original appeared on the album 'Loaded' -- recorded by a John Cale-less version of the band that's hardly the classic lineup -- while the JA stab was from their self-titled 1987 debut, a live album that arrived early in their career, before the band revealed their less-appealing idiosyncrasies. Make sense?

 
5

The Clash, 'I Fought the Law'

Original Artist: The Bobby Fuller Four
 
 

Written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets, 'I Fought the Law' was popularized by the Bobby Fuller Four, whose 1966 version is itself considered a classic. (It ranked No. 177 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.) Placing the Clash cover above Fuller's on this list shows just how legendary their version has become. The Clash cut theirs, which appeared on the American edition of their self-titled debut album, after hearing Fuller's on a jukebox in a California recording studio. They stuck close to the original structure, adding a welcome dash of U.K. punk aggression.

 
4

Dave Grohl, 'With Arms Wide Open'

Original Artist: Creed
 
 

If this list measures how much better a cover songs is than the original, Dave Grohl's version of this Creed mega-hit should be No. 1. Even with Grohl's annoying vocal guffaws, we like the Foo Fighters frontman's shortened run-through a million times more than what, sadly, is one of the biggest rock hits of the '00s. But hey, maybe that's just us.

 
3

Jeff Buckley, 'Hallelujah'

Original Artist: Leonard Cohen
 
 

Canadian minstrel-poet Leonard Cohen first released this on his 'Various Positions' album in 1984, and the tune has since been covered by more than 200 artists in a variety of languages. The Velvet Underground's John Cale turned in a slightly different take that was the first to gain broader notice, but it was Jeff Buckley's soaring and angelic cover -- based on Cale's version and featured on Buckley's much-loved 'Grace' album -- that has since become known as the definitive version.

 
2

Nirvana, 'Love Buzz'

Original Artist: Shocking Blue
 
 

Nirvana's covers of David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold the World' and Leadbelly's 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' from the band's 'MTV Unplugged' live album perhaps are better known, but it's this up-tempo, fuzzed-out take on Dutch rock act the Shocking Blue's 'Love Buzz' that makes our list, the reason being that it's remarkably close to Nirvana's early sound. 'Love Buzz' was initially released as Nirvana's first-ever single in 1988 as part of the Sub Pop Singles Club, and it later appeared with a slightly different mix on their 1989 debut album, 'Bleach.'

 
1

Johnny Cash, 'Hurt'

Original Artist: Nine Inch Nails
 
 

The country legend takes on one of the darkest, most depressing songs in a Nine Inch Nails catalog full of doom and gloom, and wouldn't you know it, he turns in an equally harrowing cover. Johnny Cash surprised the music world when he redid 'Hurt' -- a standout track on NIN's double-album magnum opus 'The Downward Spiral' -- as an acoustic ballad for his 'American IV: The Man Comes Around' covers set. As even Reznor admits, the Man In Black made the song his own. "It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song ... It felt invasive," Reznor once said. "Cash brings a certain darkness to the song. It's melancholy and spooky."

 

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