Some of the most famous songs in music history are cover versions – whether it’s The Beatles doing Motown hits, Elvis tackling R&B tunes or just about everyone covering Bob Dylan songs. In honor of the artists who didn’t write the songs, but recorded legendary versions of them, Gibson.com is counting down the Top 50 Cover Songs of All Time.
Gibson.com recently enlisted its editors, writers and you, the readers, to vote for the greatest cover songs ever released. After announcing #50-41, #40-31, #30-21 and #20-11, we’re ready to reveal the Top 10 Cover Songs of All Time – with the original artist, or, in some cases, the most famous previous artist in parentheses.
10. “Respect,” Aretha Franklin (Otis Redding)
Otis Redding wrote “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” and recorded it initially in 1965, but Aretha Franklin took control of the track forever thereafter with her defining cover, which was recorded on Valentine’s Day 1967. “Respect” earned her a #1 hit (her first, to boot), two Grammy Awards the following year and, more importantly, inaugurated the Memphis-born singer as the Queen of Soul. In Redding’s version of the song, he begged for recognition from his lady. Franklin turned it around, singing from her gut with a gospel-charged sound as a woman who desired nothing more than her dignity and, yes, respect. “Respect” became an anthem for the feminist movement and remains one of the truly seminal compositions in pop music history. Listening decades later, there’s no mistaking the passion inside of Franklin’s delivery, and her message is clear: You want respect? Earn it. –Anne Erickson
9. “You Really Got Me,” Van Halen (The Kinks)
Van Halen’s cover of this Kinks classic was the first thing that most of the rock world ever heard of VH. The year was 1978 and the song’s pairing with “Eruption” on the band’s self-titled album of that year was one of the most devastating one-two punches ever delivered by four dudes from Pasadena. Opening with Eddie’s legendary “brown sound” (augmented by washes of reverb on the opposite side of the stereo spectrum), the guitar was right in your face, the energy was cranked up to burning point, and David Lee Roth’s sassy delivery made fans momentarily forget all about The Kinks’ version, much to Dave Davies’ later chagrin. The guitar solo has it all: syrupy phaser tones, two-handed tapping, wide bends and a cool toggle-switch stutter effect, all topped off with a killer pick slide. The breakdown after the solo would set the stage for future classics like “Mean Streets” and “Panama,” and the closing legato and hint of feedback made you hold your breath just in case there was more coming. – Peter Hodgson
8. “The House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals (Traditional)
When The Animals got the call to open for Chuck Berry on his 1964 U.K. tour, they needed something to help them stand out on the bill. Eric Burdon reached back to an old standard he’d first heard by English folk artist, Johnny Handle – though its history dates back to the early 20th Century, at least. With Alan Price’s pulsating Vox Continental organ, Hilton Valentine’s relentless, arpeggiated guitar and most importantly, Burdon’s own guttural howl, The Animals took the song to hell and back. By the time they got around to recording it, “House” went straight to #1. Sin and misery never sounded so good. – Michael Wright
7. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” The Byrds (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan wrote this surreal masterpiece, and the song was originally released on his fifth album Bringing it All Back Home in March 1965. But before that, a new Los Angeles band, The Jets, had been played an acetate demo of the song, provided by their manager. With a Bealtle-y beat, the song sounded pretty good and once the band changed their name to The Byrds, the song was selected as their debut single. Of the original Byrds, only Roger McGuinn played on the track, but his 12-string intro gives a near perfect jingle jangle musical soundtrack to Dylan’s surreal vision. Not only did the song start a new folk-rock movement but the Byrds’ version broke Dylan to the masses. – Andrew Vaughan
6. “Hallelujah,” Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen crafted “Hallelujah” in 1983, but Jeff Buckley made it ring as a masterpiece 11 years after. Buckley’s wavy, tender vocal lines and delicate delivery tell the story: This was a talent of a singer and player, anxious to make his own mark (aside from his father, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley’s influence), stripping down the noisy exterior to show his deep, soulful side with soft electric guitar playing and achingly sensual vocals. During his famous early stints at the New York club Sin-é, Buckley used to make the ladies swoon with his wraith-like version of this Cohen prayer, and the song lived on after his untimely death in 1997, via his retrospective live album, Mystery White Boy, where Buckley turns “Hallelujah” into a version of the Smiths’ “I Know it’s Over.” ”Hallelujah” remains one of the most moving songs sung by a performer who passed away before having time to fully voice his talent. –Anne Erickson
5. “Crossroads,” Cream (Robert Johnson)
Johnson’s landmark recordings of the late 1930s were only released as an album in 1961, as King of the Delta Blues Singers, so, in some ways, Cream were covering a “contemporary” song. Unlike The Rolling Stones’ later cover of “Love In Vain,” Cream totally reworked the tortured moan of Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” into an electrifying rave-up. It’s regularly voted one of Clapton’s greatest moments, yet EC remains bemused. He’s said, “I’ve always had that held up as ‘one of the great landmarks of guitar playing.’ But most of that solo is on the wrong beat. Instead of playing on the two and the four, I’m playing on the one and the three and thinking, ‘That’s the off beat.’… it’s wrong!” Clapton is technically correct, but kinetic energy wins the day. Cream’s “Crossroads” chaotically captures the British blues explosion of the late 1960s that fired Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and others into legend status. And notably, when Clapton released his Me and Mr. Johnson covers album in 2004, “Cross Road Blues” was absent. Perhaps Clapton always knew he couldn’t out-cut the Cream. – Michael Leonard
4. “I Fought the Law,” The Clash (The Crickets, Bobby Fuller Four)
Sonny Curtis penned this as a pleasant, bounce-along track for the post-Buddy Holly Crickets. Bobby Fuller had a go at it, but the song never truly came to life until 1977 when socially aware British punks The Clash lashed their own frantic venom and spite onto this rudimentarily tune and came up with a ballroom blitz of a song. From Mick Jones’ spiteful guitar intro to Joe Strummer’s peerless vocal intensity, this is a song re-born. Who said crime doesn’t pay? – Andrew Vaughan
3. “Hurt,” Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails)
Trent Reznor’s original version of “Hurt,” a song he wrote and included on Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album The Downward Spiral, was already a dark and depressing masterpiece. It was already perfect. Then along comes the Man in Black, nearing the very end of the final chapter of his storied life, with his own highly personal interpretation of “Hurt,” and in the words of Reznor, himself, Johnny Cash made the song his own. At first, Reznor was flattered when he heard that Cash wanted to cover the song, but he was also a bit hesitant, fearing it might come off as a bit of a gimmick. Reznor’s fears were instantly assuaged after his first viewing of the video Cash made for the song. “I pop the video in, and wow…” Reznor told Alternative Press. “Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend because that song isn’t mine anymore.” – Sean Patrick Dooley
2. “Twist and Shout,” The Beatles (The Top Notes, The Isley Brothers)
The Top Notes were the first to record this song (then called “Shake It Up, Baby” and produced by Phil Spector). The Isley Brothers were the first to have a hit with it (in 1962). But for many fans, “Twist and Shout” has been a Beatles song ever since the Fab Four recorded and released their version in 1963. The story behind the song is famous: producer George Martin saved it for last on that particular day of recording, when John Lennon was battling a sore throat. With nothing left on the docket, Lennon was able to really let it rip – and the band followed right behind their screaming leader. They tried a second take, but Lennon had given everything he had on the first – making “Twist and Shout” one of those magical one-take wonders. The song ended up being their only cover single to go gold and hit the Top 10 (it was held back from the #1 spot by another Beatles song) in the U.S. – Bryan Wawzenek
1. “All Along the Watchtower,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Bob Dylan)
The ultimate accomplishment for a cover artist is to take a song and, through his own interpretation and arrangement, make it something unique and truly his own. Perhaps no artist has ever done this on the scale of (and with the sizzle of) Jimi Hendrix’s fiery take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” To take on Dylan would be too intimidating a prospect for most artists, but Hendrix grabbed the John Wesley Harding track and ran with it, firing off one of the most melodic yet biting solos of his career along the way. The ultimate testament of Hendrix’s greatness came on subsequent Dylan tours when he began to cover Hendrix’s version. In a later interview, Dylan said: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” – Michael Wright
Votes for the Top 50 Covers of All Time were included from Michael Wright, Bryan Wawzenek, Andrew Vaughan, Sean Patrick Dooley, Cesar Acevedo, Paul Burch, Arlen Roth, Ted Drozdowski, Russell Hall, Peter Hodgson, Anne Erickson, Michael Leonard, Paolo Bassotti and the Gibson.com Readers Poll.