In the rock era alone, there have been many, many cover versions recorded and released. From live-only interpretations to deep album cuts, to #1 hits (even the Beatles, who we’ll get back to in a minute, started as a cover band). In some cases, artists’ cover songs are well-known just because the original already proved it to be a sellable commodity. Those results aren’t always the best (that 1988 Peter Frampton “Free Bird” medley that somehow went to #1? No thanks). But the best such versions occur when the artist doing the covering makes the original song their own. Again, there have been countless cover versions done over the years, but focusing mainly on rock, here are ten that we think are among the best, most important, or most memorable.
#10. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin’s signature hit “Respect” is technically a cover song (originally by Otis Redding), but with all the deserved acclaim that that one receives (Rolling Stone recently named it the best song of all time), we decided to give some respect to her overlooked 1986 cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Franklin’s take on the 1968 classic (recorded for the Whoopi Goldberg movie also called Jumpin’ Jack Flash) combines her always-powerful soul vocals with slick ’80s production. Oh, and Stones guitarist Keith Richards plays on the track and appears in the video (so it truly was a gas, gas, gas).
#9. “Jealous Guy” – Roxy Music
Throughout their career, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music would lend their distinct smooth-but-edgy sound to songs by several other artists, from Wilson Pickett to Neil Young. However, not long after the 1980 murder of John Lennon, Roxy added the ex-Beatles’ 1971 solo track “Jealous Guy” to their live sets, giving Lennon’s quiet, confessional tune a more grandiose feel. Though not a hit in the US, Roxy’s live version of “Jealous Guy” became their only #1 hit in the UK and went Top 10 in at least nine other countries.
#8. “The Boys of Summer” – The Ataris
In between stints with the Eagles (who disbanded in 1981 but then reformed in the mid-’90s), drummer and vocalist Don Henley had one of his biggest hits in 1984 with the synth-heavy sentimental journey “The Boys of Summer.” In 2003 Anderson, Indiana band the Ataris garnered their only notable moment in the spotlight with their pop-punk take on the song, which went Top 20 in the US. Their version is also noteworthy for updating Henley’s lyric about “a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” to “a Black Flag sticker” (ironically, enough time has gone by so that such a luxury car driven by an adult could now be sporting an Ataris sticker).
#7. “Kiss” – The Art of Noise Featuring Tom Jones
The Art of Noise was an ’80s synth-pop collective who utilized an eclectic array of guest stars on their records, ranging from rock guitar pioneer Duane Eddy to cyber character Max Headroom. For their 1988 cover of Prince’s “Kiss” (a #1 hit for the original artist just two years earlier), they recruited Tom Jones, the Welsh crooner best known for his lounge-y ’60s hits “It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New Pussycat?” While the whole thing definitely smacked of gimmickry, the track went Top Five in the UK and even helped Jones enjoy a minor comeback over the next few years.
#6. “I Shot the Sheriff” – Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton’s stature as the UK’s greatest guitarist was pretty much already set in stone by the time he launched a solo career in the early ’70s. In 1974 he would have the biggest hit of his career with “I Shot the Sheriff”, a cover of a song written and released just a year earlier by top reggae artist Bob Marley. Though Clapton’s version was a bit more accessible to a mass audience (as illustrated by the fact that it went to #1 in the US and Top 10 in at least eight other countries), it retained the reggae beat and helped to introduce the Jamaican music genre to a mainstream audience (all of which is made even more ironic and confounding by the racist comments made publically by Clapton in 1976 which have recently re-surfaced).
#5. “The Man Who Sold the World” – Nirvana
In 1993 Nirvana performed on the popular music show MTV Unplugged, and what was supposed to have been just another stop in the band’s triumphant journey instead ended up as a bittersweet swan song after Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide the following year. Among the many highlights of the heartfelt stripped-down performance was a cover of David Bowie’s 1970 song “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie would never reveal the true meaning of the lyrics (and the possibility of any such closure died with him in 2016), but now it’s almost too easy to understand why Cobain identified with lyrics like “For years and years I roamed… // I must have died alone // A long, long time ago.”
#4. “Blinded by the Light” – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
Bruce Springsteen became a major music star in the mid-’70s thanks to his Born to Run album, but before that, his work had proved to be just a bit too rough around the edges for a mass audience. One of his earlier songs got a second life in 1977 when British artist Manfred Mann’s Earth Band recorded a more slick and polished version of Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light.” Although the cover went to #1 in the US, the song has since probably become more closely identified with the original artist (even being used as the title of a 2019 movie about a young Springsteen fan).
#3. “Hurt” – Johnny Cash
In 1994 industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails went (as many hard rock bands eventually do) the ballad route, with “Hurt”, possibly the ’90s ultimate ode to self-loathing and self-doubt. On paper, a cover by Johnny Cash probably seemed like a joke – in the vein of Pat Boone’s 1997 heavy metal covers albums – which a veteran musician of Cash’s importance surely didn’t deserve to be the brunt of. However, on his 2002 acoustic version of “Hurt”, Cash and his trademark style make the song their own, and the acclaimed track ended up as a late-career triumph for the Man in Black, who died the following year (today if one were to search Johnny Cash on Spotify, “Hurt” is the first track that comes up).
#2. “Twist and Shout” – The Beatles
Early in their career, the Beatles recorded various songs by other artists, but far and away the most successful and endearing has been their cover of “Twist and Shout” (actually originally recorded by a group called the Top Notes but then best known for the Isley Brothers’ version, which went Top 20 in the US). The Fab Four’s version not only went to #2 in the US in 1964 but charted again in 1986 (peaking at #23) when it was featured in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It remains one of the most popular and most-played songs from their early days (not bad for a song that was originally just one of many meant to capitalize on a short-lived dance craze).
#1. “All Along the Watchtower” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Rock’s ultimate guitar god James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix was, like many members of his generation, a devotee of the songwriting genius of Bob Dylan. Along with his power trio the Experience (himself, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell), Hendrix would create one of his most lasting moments with his 1968 take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, where he turned the mostly acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica original (released only the previous year) into an all-out bombastic rock assault, accentuating the lyrics to reflect on the chaos which was engulfing the times (“There’s too much confusion // I can’t get no relief”). Though often noted for becoming Hendrix’s only US Top 40 hit, “All Along the Watchtower” has come to mean so much more than that since it was originally released.