10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals
It’s hard to believe that anyone can perform a Bob Dylan song better than Bob Dylan. But two cuts on our list of 10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals were written by the master singer-songwriter and then made even better by someone else. But Dylan is not alone here. Rock legends like David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac also saw songs they took the time to write, record and hammer into their distinctive styles get bested by other artists. It’s a tricky thing to take someone else’s song and then make it completely your own — to the point where most people forget about the original versions altogether. Here are 10 times that happened.
Bob Dylan’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is pretty good — in fact, it’s the anchor of his 1967 album ‘John Wesley Harding.’ But it plays as almost a dusty blues on the singer-songwriter’s back-to-basics LP. Jimi Hendrix completely re-imagines the song as a cosmic psychedelic freak-out and turns in one of his all-time best performances — tougher, sharper and stranger than the original. Hendrix stole ‘All Along the Watchtower’ from Dylan less than a year after it came out and took total possession of it.
There’s not a whole lot of difference between Fleetwood Mac’s original 1968 version of ‘Black Magic Woman’ and Santana’s hit cover from two years later, other than the latter comes by the song’s Latin groove more naturally. Both feature smoky lead vocals and searing guitar work (Peter Green supplies both on the Mac version; future Journey member Gregg Rolie sings the Santana remake, while the band’s namesake provides the guitar solo), but the more well-known Santana take sizzles where Mac’s merely simmers.
Bruce Springsteen’s original version of ‘Blinded by the Light,’ which opens his 1973 debut album ‘Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,’ isn’t terrible. But like the rest of the LP, it’s stripped-down Springsteen with minimal backing supporting the best of his earliest songs — basically it’s a collection of demos showcasing his still-blooming songwriting. Three years later Manfred Mann’s Earth Band turned it into a soaring rock epic and took it to No. 1 — something Springsteen has never done with any song on his own.
Like most of the cuts on our list of 10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals, we really like Tom Waits’ original version of ‘Downtown Train,’ which is found on 1985’s ‘Rain Dogs,’ one of his best albums (bonus points: Keith Richards plays guitar on the LP). But Waits’ five-shots-of-whiskey-and-two-packs-of-smokes voice is a bit harsh for the warm sentiment in one of his most sentimental songs. Stewart, no stranger to raspy-voiced singing, delivered a warmer version of ‘Downtown Train’ four years later and had a Top 3 hit with it.
We’re almost hesitant to include Joan Jett’s version of ‘I Love Rock ‘N Roll’ on our list of 10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals because hardly anyone has heard the original, especially in the U.S. The song was written and recorded by the London-based band the Arrows in 1975. Jett resurrected it for her second album in 1982, not only titling the LP after the track but also taking it to No. 1 for a whopping seven weeks. It’s become her signature song.
David Bowie was just getting started when he wrote and recorded ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ in 1970. He was still a year away from ‘Hunky Dory,’ which would reinvent and establish him as one of the decade’s top artists. On ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ however, he sounds lost and scattered. Nirvana, on the other hand, bring a sharp and focused reading of the song from their live album ‘MTV Unplugged in New York,’ finding depth we never knew was there.
Like a lot of songs people sang back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ was written by Kris Kroitofferson, who was a hell of a songwriter but not much of a singer. That’s why so many of his best-known songs were made famous by other artists. The best and biggest was Janis Joplin’s definitive version of his road narrative ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ which was released on her posthumous album ‘Pearl,’ and went straight to No. 1.
Like ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (see elsewhere on our list of 10 Cover Songs Better Than the Originals), there’s nothing wrong with Bob Dylan’s original version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ But his sprawling five-and-a-half-minute acoustic take of the song sounds somewhat bloated next to the Byrds’ compact two-and-a-half-minute electric cover, which launched both their career and the folk-rock movement, reaching No. 1 just a few months after Dylan unveiled it.
Badfinger wrote ‘Without You’ for their second album, 1970’s ‘No Dice,’ where it followed their monster hit ‘No Matter What’ at the end of side one (and sorta got lost). A year later, Nilsson — a terrific singer-songwriter whose biggest hits were covers of other people’s songs — recorded the definitive version of the song (sorry, Mariah) for his best album, ‘Nilsson Schmilsson,’ taking it to No. 1 for four weeks.
Joni Mitchell didn’t make it to the three-day hippie fest in 1969, but her boyfriend Graham Nash did, and it was his recollections that formed the basis of ‘Woodstock,’ which she wrote and released as a single not too long after the fact. But her stripped-down and mournful take doesn’t sound too much like a celebration. Leave that to her man’s group, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which recorded it as an electrified jam. Much better and way more joyous.