10 Rock Cover Songs That Are Better Than The Originals

Having a well known artist cover a popular song by another artist is a hit or miss proposition. If the artist stays too faithful to the original it can sound like karaoke. The best rock cover songs pay respect to the original song with the artist making the song uniquely their own. Here are 10 cover songs that are as good or better than the originals.

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Johnny Cash - "Hurt"

Trent Reznor and Johnny Cash 2002
Trent Reznor and Johnny Cash 2002. Photos: Trent Reznor: Scott Gries-Getty Images. Johhny Cash: R. Diamond-WireImage.

In 2002, Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" for the album American Recordings: The Man Comes Around. In the song's video a 71-year-old Cash is clearly frail and depicted with decaying images of his long closed House of Cash Museum in Nashville to heartwrenching effect. Cash's Mark Romanek directed "Hurt" video won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Video after Cash's passing in 2003. Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor described seeing Cash's "Hurt" video for the first time: "Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore... It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone... that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure."

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Jimi Hendrix - "All Along the Watchtower"

Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix. Photo: Val Wilmer-Redferns-Getty Images.

Jimi Hendrix gained confidence in his singing voice by listening to Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde album repeatedly. Hendrix was such a Dylan fan that he emulated Dylan's hairdo and although Hendrix couldn't read music he kept a Bob Dylan's songbook with him constantly for lyrical inspiration. Hendrix made Dylan a fan of his when The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded their classic electric version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." Dylan wrote in the liner notes of his 1985 Biograph album: "I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this [...Watchtower] and ever since he died I've been doing it that way... Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way."

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Nirvana - "The Man Who Sold The World"

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain. Photo: Kevin Mazur-Wire Image-Getty Images

For Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged in New York performance Kurt Cobain miffed the show's producers by playing only two Nirvana hits, six Nirvana album tracks, and six obscure cover songs, including an iconic version of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World." In Kurt Cobain's journals he ranked Bowie's 1970 The Man Who Sold The World at #45 in his top 50 albums of all time. Bowie commented on Nirvana's cover: "I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work" and that "it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest." But Bowie expressed annoyance at some audience members who were unaware that he wrote the song when he played it live: "kids that come up afterwards and say, 'It's cool you're doing a Nirvana song.' And I think, 'F--- you, you little tosser!'"

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Jeff Buckley - "Hallelujah"

Jeff Buckley. Photo: Mick Hutson-Redferns-Getty Images.

On Jeff Buckley's 1994 album Grace, he Buckley covered Leonard Cohen's little known 1984 song "Hallelujah." Buckley's version was inspired by John Cale's 1991 cover. Buckley's acclaimed version of "Hallelujah" wasn't released as a single until 2007. "Hallelujah" has now been covered by over 300 artists in various languages. In 2004, Buckley's version was ranked #259 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list and the single has sold over 1,000,000 copies in the U.S. alone. 

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Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Higher Ground"

Red Hot Chili Peppers 1990
Red Hot Chili Peppers 1990. Photo: Michael Linssen-Redferns-Getty Images

Red Hot Chili Peppers' first major hit "Higher Ground" from 1989's Mother's Milk album is a rocked out version of the 1973 Stevie Wonder No. 1 R&B hit song that most rock fans, including myself, had never heard of before. The Chili Peppers' first single with then-new guitarist John Frusciante sent them into heavy MTV rotation, helped them pick up their first Grammy nomination for 1991's Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, and set the stage for their 1991's 7 times Platinum selling Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. 

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Foo Fighters - "Darling Nikki"

Dave Grohl 1998. Photo: Martyn Goodacre-Hulton Archive-Getty Images.

In 2003 Foo Fighters recorded a cover of Prince and the Revolution's controversial 1984 Purple Rain album track "Darling Nikki," which was included as a B-side for their single "Have It All".  Foo Fighters version of "Darling Nikki" reached No. 15 on the Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart despite never being officially released as a single. Ironically, Prince returned the favor by playing part of Foo Fighters' hit "Best of You" during his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show.

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Faith No More - "Easy"

Faith No More. Promo Photo: Dustin Rabin

Faith No More's cover of the Commodores 1977 No. 1 R&B hit "Easy" was included on the re-released version of the band's 1992 Angel Dust album. Although the song was not on the original album, it was included as a B-side on the original sessions. Faith No More's cover was released in various versions with the titles "I'm Easy," "I'm Easy (Cooler Version)," and "Easy." The song was released as the band's final Angel Dust single and became their last single to crack Billboard's Hot 100 chart reaching No. 58.   

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Tool - "No Quarter"

Tool. Official promo photo

Tool covered Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" for their limited edition 2000 Salival box set. The song was originally slated for the Howard Stern's Private Parts movie soundtrack but Tool decided to leave it off the album leading to criticism from Stern. Tool's epic version clocks in at 11 minutes, 12 seconds making it over 4 minutes longer than Led Zeppelin's 1973 original.

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The Smashing Pumpkins - "Landslide"

Smashing Pumpkins. Photo: Burak Cingi-Redferns-Getty Images

The Smashing Pumpkins 1994 acoustic cover of Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks penned song "Landslide" appeared as a B-side to "Disarm" and later on their 1995 Pisces Iscariot compilation album. The song became a hit reaching #3 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Stevie Nicks told fans during a 1998 online chat with SonicNet: "There's nothing more pleasing to a songwriter than [someone else] doing one of their songs. ['Landslide'] also led me to being friends with Billy [Corgan] and the possibility that we'll work together."

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Nine Inch Nails - "Dead Souls"

Trent Reznor
Trent Reznor. Photo: Frank Micelotta-Getty Images.

Nine Inch Nails' recorded a version of Joy Division's 1979 song "Dead Souls" for the 1994 movie The Crow soundtrack. The song was also included on second disc of the 2004 Nine Inch Nails 10th anniversary The Downward Spiral Deluxe Edition. In commentary for The Crow DVD producer and musical supervisor Jeff Most stated that Nine Inch Nails were originally supposed to perform in the film but decided against it. The song has been played regularly by Nine Inch Nails in concert. 

Quote References:

(1.) Trent Reznor: Alternative Press. September 2004. (3.) David Bowie: 1st quotes - St Thomas, Kurt and Smith, Troy. Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects. St Martin's Griffin (2004). pp. 191. 2nd quote - Gundersen, Edna (14 September 1995), "Cover Story: Bowie, Beyond Fame and Fashion", USA Today.