A Highly Scientific Census of Cover Songs That Are More Famous Than Their Originals

An exactingly technical and yet somehow no-particular-order analysis of cover songs that have surpassed their originals in fame, and/or I just like the cover better.

Oct 24, 2011 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment



"Hallelujah" (Jeff Buckley covering Leonard Cohen)

Best quality of original: No matter what Leonard Cohen himself is doing, his voice is drinking whiskey, wearing a fedora, and sexing a lady up old-school.
Best quality of cover: Buckley cobbled together lyrics from Cohen's different versions of the song, ending up with poetry darker, sadder, and more heartfelt than the studio version.
Worst quality of both: Overrepresentation at open mics, and in general amongst douchey faux-sensitive guitar guys. If “Wayne's World” were made today, the sign would say “No Hallelujah.”
 

"Nothing Compares 2 U" (Sinead O'Connor covering Prince)

Best quality of original: I mean, Prince! He's a suitcase-sized sex bomb.
Best quality of cover: You can basically hear Sinead's heart breaking.
Worst quality of both: Guys! It's spelled “you”!
 


All Along the Watchtower (Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan)

Best quality of original: Sounds like it's being sung by a drunken bee.
Best quality of cover: Hendrix is really feeling it, with the thief and the beggar and the wind and the howling. He is THERE, man. Also, he plays guitar like Jimi Hendrix, which doesn’t hurt.
Worst quality of both: Embarrassing literalism of song being used in embarrassingly literal “Watchmen” movie.
 

"Hurt" (Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails)

Best quality of original: Speaks directly to the goth teenager smoking a clove inside your soul.
Best quality of cover: Johnny Cash manages to make the world's most emo anthem seem significant.
Worst quality of both: Oh, for the love of god, stop moping and study for your PSATs.
 


"Love Rollercoaster" (Red Hot Chili Peppers covering the Ohio Players)

Best quality of original: Comes with its own urban legend! There’s a high-pitched scream in the background of the track that’s said to be the sound of a person being maimed or murdered in the studio. (It isn’t.)
Best quality of cover: Is in “Beavis and Butt-Head” movie. Also, has kazoos.
Worst quality of both: So you’re saying love... is like a roller coaster? I’m not sure I can handle this level of metaphorical subtlety.
 

Mad World (Gary Jules covering Tears for Fears)

Best quality of original: Tears for Fears' borderline Dr. Demento-ish goof-synth brings you right back to the 80s, assuming that's a place you want to go.
Best quality of cover: You're weeping now just hearing it in your head.
Worst quality of both: The tragedy of the 20 years this song spent not reaching its full potential.
 

"Respect" (Aretha Franklin covering Otis Redding)

Best quality of original: Makes you want to do a cooler dance than you are capable of.
Best quality of cover: Oh, come on, Aretha owns this song. If someone asks you who sings “Respect” and you don't say “Aretha Franklin,” you are probably Otis Redding's great-nephew.
Worst quality of both: None.
 

"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" (They Might Be Giants covering the Four Lads)

Best quality of original: If the Four Lads didn't wear vests and straw boaters and strut around in unison, please don't tell me.
Best quality of cover: If you don't already know, then you were never the weird kid with the brainiac books and the giant glasses and the uncool shoes, and I can't even talk to you.
Worst quality of both: If you don't already know, you are still that kid, so let me tell you right now: You'll be fine. It gets better.
 

"Live And Let Die" (Guns 'n' Roses covering Wings)

Best quality of original: It is, if nothing else, sincere. So sincere. Also, it was written for a James Bond film, which marginally makes up for Paul McCartney's hair at this time.
Best quality of cover: Believability. Paul McCartney would not just let you die. Axl Rose would. Plus all G'n'R songs are outrageously fun to sing along to.
Worst quality of both: Is ridiculous.
 

"Whip My Hair" (Jimmy Fallon as Neil Young, with Bruce Springsteen as Bruce Springsteen, covering Willow Smith)

Best quality of original: Led to cover.
Best quality of cover: Perfect encapsulation of the Baudrillardian ouroboros of meta-parody that characterizes the modern age.
Worst quality of both: The fact that the cover, which is genius, is relatively obscure (I broke the rules for this one), while the original has sold over a million digital copies.