- 1. "Fast Car" by Jonas Blue
- 2. "Somebody I Used to Know" by WOTE
- 3. "Valerie" by Amy Winehouse
- 4. "Hurt" by Johnny Cash
- 5. "Smooth Criminal" by Alien Ant Farm
- 6. "Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley
- 7. "Always Love You" by Whitney Houston
- 8. "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell
- 9. "Girls Just Wanna" by Cyndi Lauper
- 10. "Respect" by Aretha Franklin
- 11. "The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix
- 12. "Twist and Shout" by The Beatles
As a songwriter, it's flattering to hear someone else covering your music. But for the band performing the cover, it's not just about mimicry; it's about transformation and reinterpretation. The most memorable covers dig deep into the essence of the original, reassembling it in interesting and challenging new ways.
Any song can be covered. We've gone into depth in other articles, helping tribute bands and cover bands with lists of the 100 best songs to cover. These lists include rock covers and acoustic hits, as well as 100 easy guitar riffs and more. But occasionally, famous artists breakaway from their originals and also perform covers, resurrecting old hits onto modern song charts.
Some famous cover songs, such as Anthrax and Public Enemy's collaboration on "Bring the Noise," attempt to flip genres, powerfully transforming hip-hop into head-banging heavy metal. But a truly impactful cover digs deeper than just genre-blending, and enters the realm of creativity, sometimes even eclipsing the popular appeal of the original while still coexisting with it. From Calum Scott breathing new life into Robyn's single "Dancing On My Own" to Cyndi Lauper's hit rendition of Robert Hazard's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," the famous cover songs in this article have stood the test of time. They showcase artists who have masterfully reinvigorated old, and sometimes forgotten, songs into new and innovative popular hits.
1. "Fast Car"
by Jonas Blue in 2015
Originally by Tracy Chapman in 1988
In 1988, Tracy Chapman released her debut single "Fast Car," a folk-rock narrative wrapped in simplicity and soulfulness. As one of the most notable acoustic songs of all time, it easily made our top 10 list of the best acoustic songs to cover. At a time when glam rock and synth-pop dominated the airwaves, Chapman's poignant storytelling, accompanied by her acoustic guitar, stood out like a lighthouse on a foggy night. With its relatable lyrics that touched on social issues and a deep yearning for a better life, "Fast Car" struck a chord with the public. It received critical acclaim, skyrocketing Chapman into stardom and earning her several Grammy nominations. The song became an emblem of the time—a somber reflection on the struggles faced by many Americans during the late '80s, amid economic hardships and social changes.
Fast forward to 2015, and the UK-based DJ Jonas Blue teamed up with singer Dakota to reimagine "Fast Car" for a new generation. Released in a digital era where streaming services and viral hits have redefined success, this tropical house version swapped Chapman's introspective tone for a high-energy dance vibe. Yet, the song's essence remained untouched. Jonas Blue's skillful sampling and Dakota's soulful vocals revitalized the classic without robbing it of its original sentiment. This famous cover song shot up the charts, becoming a summer anthem and receiving multiple platinum certifications. What's noteworthy is how it appealed to an audience who might have never heard Chapman's original, thereby rejuvenating a timeless narrative in a contemporary package.
2. "Somebody That I Used to Know"
by Walk Off The Earth in 2012
Originally by Gotye in 2011
In 2011, Belgian-Australian singer Gotye released "Somebody That I Used to Know," a song that became an instant global phenomenon. With its intricate xylophone notes and haunting vocals from Gotye and Kimbra, the original song captivated millions. At a time when electronic dance music was taking the world by storm, this indie-pop ballad stood out for its melancholy and emotional vulnerability. The song became a chart-topping hit, won multiple awards, and was ubiquitous on radio and streaming platforms.
In 2012, Canadian band Walk Off The Earth took a unique approach to covering this song. They uploaded a YouTube video where all five band members played a single guitar simultaneously, giving a creative twist to an already complex piece. Their version was released during the rise of viral music videos, benefiting from the social media culture that was becoming increasingly important for song promotion. The video went viral, accumulating millions of views in a short period. While Gotye's version had a moody, atmospheric quality, Walk Off The Earth's cover was buoyant and playful, showing how the same lyrics could evoke different emotions depending on the arrangement. The famous cover song earned them television appearances and significantly boosted their career, showing the transformative power of a well-executed cover in the digital age.
by Amy Winehouse in 2007
Originally by The Zutons in 2006
The Zutons, an indie rock band from Liverpool, introduced "Valerie" in 2006. The original song, marked by its vibrant horn section and gritty guitar work, was a respectable hit in the UK. At the time, indie rock was still a potent force, co-existing with the surge of hip-hop and R&B. The Zutons offered a different texture to the music scene, blending rock elements with a touch of jazz and blues.
A year later, Amy Winehouse and producer Mark Ronson put their spin on "Valerie," transforming it into a soulful, retro-sounding jam that would outshine its predecessor. Released during an era of musical nostalgia, where the classic sounds of soul and R&B were making a resurgence, Winehouse's version was perfectly timed. Her husky voice and emotionally nuanced delivery gave the song a whole new layer of depth. The famous cover song became one of Winehouse's signature songs, and to many, it's the definitive version. It was a commercial and critical success, charting in various countries and becoming a staple in pop culture, appearing in movies, TV shows, and endless playlists. The cover stands as a lasting testament to Winehouse's immense talent and her ability to take a song and truly make it her own.
by Johnny Cash in 2002
Originally by Nine Inch Nails in 1995
Johnny Cash's famous cover song of Nine Inch Nails' haunting ballad, "Hurt," is a testament to the transformative power of music. Cash's weathered voice and emotive delivery breathe new life into this deeply introspective song. The cover, released shortly before his death, resonated with audiences worldwide and became one of the most memorable performances of his career.
Cash's rendition of "Hurt" captures the pain and vulnerability expressed in the original version, but adds an extra layer of depth and melancholy. The accompanying music video, which features Cash reflecting on his own life and mortality, further amplifies the emotional impact of the song. As a result, Cash's version has become an enduring symbol of his artistic legacy and a poignant reminder of the human condition.
5. "Smooth Criminal"
by Alien Ant Farm in 2001
Originally by Michael Jackson in 1987
Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal," released in 1987, is a testament to the King of Pop's ability to blend elements of funk, pop, and rock into an irresistible sonic experience. During the late '80s, Jackson was the epitome of mainstream pop, setting the standard for future generations of artists. "Smooth Criminal" was a commercial success, noted for its intricate choreography and distinctive bassline.
In 2001, rock band Alien Ant Farm brought their unique touch to "Smooth Criminal," incorporating aggressive guitar riffs and a fast-paced tempo. The unexpected hit became one of the most famous cover songs of the early-2000s, even receiving approval from Jackson himself. The early 2000s were marked by a surge in nu-metal and punk rock, making Alien Ant Farm's version timely and well-received. It gained widespread radio play and peaked high on various charts, showing that a great song could transcend genres and time periods.
by Jeff Buckley in 1994
Originally by Leonard Cohen in 1984
Jeff Buckley's ethereal rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is one of the most mesmerizing famous cover songs that has captivated listeners since its release. Buckley's haunting vocals and delicate guitar playing create an intensely emotional experience that is both intimate and otherworldly.
Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" introduced the song to a wider audience and has since become the definitive version for many. The raw vulnerability he brings to the lyrics, combined with the song's poetic beauty, makes for a truly unforgettable performance. Buckley's cover solidified "Hallelujah" as one of the most beloved and frequently covered songs of all time.
7. "I Will Always Love You"
by Whitney Houston in 1992
Originally by Dolly Parton in 1974
Whitney Houston's soaring rendition of Dolly Parton's heartfelt ballad, "I Will Always Love You," is one of the most powerful and famous cover song of all time. Houston's incredible vocal range and emotional delivery turned this already beautiful song into an unforgettable anthem of love and loss.
Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You" made an indelible mark on pop culture. It became the signature song of her career and was featured in the blockbuster film "The Bodyguard." Houston's rendition showcased her exceptional vocal abilities and added a new level of intensity to the heartfelt lyrics. It remains one of the best-selling singles of all time and solidified Houston's status as one of the greatest vocalists in music history.
8. "Tainted Love"
by Soft Cell in 1981
Originally by Gloria Jones in 1964
Gloria Jones first recorded "Tainted Love" in 1964, during an era marked by the dominance of Motown and soul music. The original was a commercial flop but gained some cult status among Northern Soul fans in the UK. Fast-forward to 1981, and the electronic duo Soft Cell transformed this soulful tune into a synth-pop classic. The early '80s saw the rise of electronic music and new wave, genres that capitalized on technological advancements in music production.
Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love" became a massive hit, both commercially and critically, easily ranking it among other famous cover songs. The synthesizers and drum machines gave it a modern edge, while the music video, marked by avant-garde aesthetics, became an MTV staple. The song charted worldwide and remains one of the best-selling British singles.
9. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"
by Cyndi Lauper in 1983
Originally by Robert Hazard in 1979
At the time, pop and rock were the prevalent genres, and Hazard's version did not gain significant traction. Fast forward to 1983, and Cyndi Lauper transformed this relatively obscure song into a feminist anthem. The '80s were a time of great experimentation in music, with genres like new wave and synth-pop rising to prominence.
Cyndi Lauper's rendition quickly became a hit, thanks in part to the burgeoning MTV culture that embraced her quirky style and the song's vibrant music video. Her version elevated the song from a relatively unknown tune to an anthem of female empowerment that resonated with women and girls worldwide. It garnered several award nominations and is often cited as one of the greatest songs of the 20th century.
by Aretha Franklin in 1967
Originally by Otis Redding in 1965
Aretha Franklin's cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" is an iconic anthem that became a symbol of empowerment and a feminist rallying cry. Franklin's powerful vocals and commanding presence took this soulful tune to new heights, creating a timeless classic that continues to inspire generations.
Franklin's rendition of "Respect" injected a new energy into the song, flipping the gender dynamics and infusing it with a sense of female empowerment. The addition of the now-famous "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" spelling chorus further cemented the song's status as a feminist anthem. Franklin's famous cover song not only achieved immense commercial success but also showcased her vocal prowess and established her as the Queen of Soul.
11. "All Along the Watchtower"
by Jimi Hendrix in 1968
Originally by Bob Dylan in 1967
When it comes to famous cover songs, Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "All Along the Watchtower" stands in a league of its own. Originally written and performed by Bob Dylan, the song took on a whole new dimension in the hands of the legendary guitarist. With his signature guitar riffs and electrifying performance, Hendrix transformed this folk-rock ballad into a fiery anthem that resonates to this day.
Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" showcases his immense talent as both a musician and a vocalist. The raw energy he brings to the song, coupled with his distinct guitar playing style, makes it a truly iconic famous cover song. It is no wonder that many consider Hendrix's rendition as the definitive version of the song.
12. "Twist and Shout"
by The Beatles in 1963
Originally by The Isley Brothers in 1962
The Isley Brothers' 1962 hit "Twist and Shout" emerged during a time when R&B and soul were still very distinct from mainstream pop music. The song was a modest hit, capturing the energy of dance crazes and youth culture that characterized the early '60s.
Just a year later, in 1963, The Beatles took this energetic tune and gave it their own spin. At the time, Beatlemania was sweeping the world, and the British Invasion was challenging the norms of American pop and rock music. The Beatles' version of "Twist and Shout" became a monumental hit, encapsulating the spirit of youthful rebellion and freedom. The song's success was further cemented when it was featured in iconic films like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," immortalizing it for future generations. With their famous cover song, The Beatles demonstrated their extraordinary ability to take existing material and make it uniquely their own, contributing to their lasting legacy.
From the Beatles' famous cover song "Twist and Shout" in 1963, to Calum Scott masterfully reimagining Robyn's hit single "Dancing On My Own" 60 years later, these famous cover songs have transcended time, genres, and even cultural preference. They've put new artists on the map while simultaneously paying homage to their influences, and leaving a powerful mark on the music industry.
If you're a tribute or cover band looking for songs to cover, we've got you covered!