It's always rare when an artist covers a song and makes it totally their own. Great covers aren't just rehashed versions of the originals with different voices, they're reimagined tributes. The best covers convince you that the artist covering the song might as well have written it.
To illustrate what I mean, here's five cover songs that actually improved upon the originals.
1. Johnny Cash - "Hurt"
"Hurt" is inseparable from Johnny Cash's legacy. It's how he's remembered now. And yet, he didn't even write it. Cash transformed the Nine Inch Nails
song, originally about a young man contemplating suicide, into a heartbreaking final message from a man at the end of his life. It's one of the most chilling moments in music history, and the music video is even more haunting. When it ends with that one final shot of Cash's hands on the piano, and old footage of him in a studio with the lights going down, it's clear that he knew he was on his way out. The fact that he chose this as his goodbye is telling of how fond he was of the original NIN song, and to hear one of the most legendary musicians of all time sing "if I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself - I would find a way," is tragically beautiful.
2. Gary Jules - "Mad World"
Speaking of heartbreaking covers, Gary Jules's version of the Tears for Fears
classic, "Mad World," is crushingly gorgeous. His slower, more somber-sounding cover better captures the sadness and depression of the song's lyrics. The line, "the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had," sounds much more suited to this version. Nowadays, most people know this song from the appearance of Jules's cover in the classic trippy film Donnie Darko,
an inclusion that made total sense given how cerebral and dissonant it is. Jules's cover will convince you that this is how "Mad World" was always meant to sound.
3. Jeff Buckley - "Hallelujah"
It's telling of how great Jeff Buckley
's cover of the Leonard Cohen classic is that it's also his most famous song. "Hallelujah" has been covered endlessly, but Buckley's version is easily the most beautifully sung rendition out of them all. He put so much emotion in his performance, and it's clear how much he connected with the lyrics. It's honestly as if he wrote them. He was born to sing "Hallelujah."
4. Jimi Hendrix - "All Along the Watchtower"
If Bob Dylan
's "All Along the Watchtower" was spare, instrumentally speaking, Hendrix's version was an explosion of noise and virtuosic guitar playing. His cover captures the epic feeling of Dylan's haunting lyrics. When the song ends with him singing "two riders were approaching/ the wind began to howl," followed by his incredible solo, it seems fitting that the greatest guitarist of all time would choose to cover a song as chillingly written as "All Along the Watchtower."
5. Nirvana - "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"
It's kind of incredible that one of Kurt Cobain's most audibly and visually emotional performances was for a song he didn't even write. The Lead Belly classic, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," is forever attached to the memory of Kurt Cobain. When Nirvana
ended their famous MTV Unplugged session with this incredible performance, everybody was understandably gobsmacked. Cobain practically screams his larynx out at the end of the song, giving it everything he has. It's obvious how much the song meant to him. Plus, the arrangement around him is suitably epic. Kurt Cobain may have been the star of the show here, but the band's new instrumentation on "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" is what brings it all home.