It’s not by accident that when you ask musicians how they started, you’ll often hear of an artist’s first cover band. Where there are undoubtedly complex emotions a young person wants to express, often times it doesn’t get more pure than when they are singing someone else’s words. That’s why that even when a songwriter finds some success on their own, cover songs will still creep their way into recordings and performances. Heard songs still have their effect, and sometimes the best way to spread a love of music is to reinterpret a beloved piece for a new audience.
Funny enough, often times a musician’s covered songs can eclipse their own work in popularity. Take Pearl Jam, a band that is without a doubt best known for their own grunge rock, but found their best charting moment in a charity cover of Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss”. Whitney Houston remains one of the most iconic voices in the history of pop, but her own mega hits have to compete against an ubiquitous version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”. Even guitar god Jimi Hendrix, who had no trouble penning rock and roll classics by his lonesome, was iconized by his Bob Dylan cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, becoming a significant moment in rock ‘n’ roll history.
But what happens when a cover song becomes the defining moment of a career? For some, like The Ataris, it could wind up being the only musical legacy you leave behind outside of core fans. For others, like The Fugees, it can be an anomaly, an asterisk next to an otherwise tremendous recording career that featured far more artistic heights than the song that most people know. The following 10 artists never could quite shake the cover song that became their signature, and for better or worse, their recording life became defined by it.
Alien Ant Farm
Remember Alien Ant Farm? Believe it or not, they’ve been around since 1996, and in that time, the California nu metal rockers have released five studio albums, two EPs, seven singles, one live album, one compilation album, and several music videos. All of that pales by comparison, however, to their one-time popular cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”. The juggernaut hit appeared on their 2001 sophomore effort, Anthology, and wouldn’t you know, it’s the band’s sole successful album to date, having been certified Platinum in the United States. And while you could point out that album’s other single, “Movies”, which actually survived on the charts longer than “Smooth Criminal” albeit at a lower number, it never became as ubiquitous. Which is kind of a shame, seeing how that song is remarkably stronger than their irritating take on the King of Pop’s inimitable Bad single. In the end, their cover will forever live on in cinematic history as part of Universal blockbuster, American Pie 2.
Better Than the Original?
“Red Red Wine”
It’s hard to say which of UB40’s two No. 1 hits they are better known for, but it doesn’t really matter for the purpose of this list. Both are covers. Within the reggae community, the English band are surely more than the sum of their biggest crossovers, but for the rest of us, it’s their renditions of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” and Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that made the group a staple of backyard barbecues. The former was their first brush with success, actually covering a cover of Diamond by Tony Tribe, resulting in a breakthrough for the band that easily eclipsed the original in popularity. The latter could never ask to do the same, as Elvis’ original is a stone-cold classic, but again turned their sunny reinterpretation skills into a success. The song’s release as part of the Sliver soundtrack certainly helped the situation, with a music video featuring actress-of-the-moment Sharon Stone.
Better Than the Original? Yes and no. “Red Red Wine” has become the definitive version of the song and, for many, likely the only one that people know exist. For the latter, it could even be argued that it’s not even the best cover version, as Spiritualized make the tune a major part of their landmark album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. And when up against a signature tune from one of music’s defining voices, the pina colada interpretation doesn’t stand a chance.
“I’m A Believer”
If we’re honest with ourselves, we can accept that there has always been a very thin, blurry line between art and commerce. Whether we’re talking the boy bands of the ‘90s, the latest Disney teen idol, or The Beatles all showing up for Ed Sullivan in matching suits and mop-tops, the fact remains that industry people are always pulling strings to assure cash registers keep ringing. In the case of The Monkees, Americans Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith and Brit Davy Jones were cast in a sitcom as a young band trying to get a break in showbiz. The irony is that while the television Monkees could never quite grasp musical stardom (not even close), their real-life counterparts became a global sensation, shifting more than 75 million records and, at their prime, outselling The Beatles and The Stones combined.
Given their origin, it’s not surprising then that most of The Monkees’ material was either written for them or cover songs. In the case of their most-enduring hit, “I’m a Believer”, they borrowed it from a young solo artist named Neil Diamond. The single went gold in a mere two days in late 1966, topped the US charts for seven weeks, and sold 10 million physical copies. What did all of this mean for The Monkees? Well, that depends on which Monkees you’re talking about. For the real Monkees, it meant international fame and a musical calling card for the rest of their lives. For the fictional Monkees, it meant making sure to play the song in the next four episodes of their television series. Oh, to be a fictional band desperately daydreaming of a hit song when you’re actually on top of the charts across the world. Talk about heady times and a meta dilemma.
Better Than the Original? Ah, yeah. Props to Diamond for the tune, but Dolenz and The Monkees turn this into the youthful, emphatic love-at-first-sight anthem that we all know and love. Don’t fret too badly for ol’ Neil, though. He went on to have a hit or two of his own.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery, as they say, so it’s only natural that New Order would be covered. The Manchester outfit, which came to fruition after the untimely death of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, helped pioneer the New Wave movement, and so, it’s not particularly revelatory that an industrial rock band like Orgy would make a name for themselves with a cover. What the band probably didn’t expect — despite the writings of every music critic at the time — is that they would be known as The Band That Covered “Blue Monday” for the rest of their careers.
Well, that’s what you get when a cover’s your breakthrough hit (their rendition appeared on their 1998 debut, Candyass, mind you), and that the rest of your sound is a poor man’s Nine Inch Nails. To their credit, the cover helped turn on a whole new generation to New Order, and became a pseudo anthem for the cyberpunk movement, which was further popularized with the success of 1999’s The Matrix. Then again, it also started an annoying trend of gloomy ’80s covers that became exhausting all too fast. Jesus Christ, the late ’90s was such a miserable time for music.
Better Than the Original? New Order’s “Blue Monday” is the most successful 12″ single of all time, and its popularity has ceased to wane, which is why you’re guaranteed to hear it in just about every dance club across the world. So, no, it’s not better. Nothing ever will be. Having said that, it’s a wonderful rendition for those who prefer their music to sound like it’s wearing a trench coat at all times.
“Nothing Compares 2 U”
Sinéad O’Connor has never needed to struggle for attention since emerging on the music scene in 1986 as a solo artist. The whole bald-woman look all but guarantees you’ll get at least a couple extra glances. But appearances and an unusual (at least in America) first name aside, O’Connor’s artistic talents and personal convictions have been more than enough to earn her both the spotlight and the hot seat. Her brutally earnest ’87 debut, The Lion and the Cobra, went gold and began a string of platinum-selling records throughout the ’90s. Away from the recording studio, she’s caused controversies by tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, criticizing Miley Cyrus in an open letter on Twitter, and alleging that she and Prince actually exchanged punches at Paisley Park.
But for all her amazing music and controversial moments, O’Connor will always be best known for her career-defining hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a Prince cover recorded for her groundbreaking 1990 album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The original version sat buried on the lone album by The Family, a one-off funk band that Prince had created as an additional creative outlet. But once in O’Connor’s hands, the forgotten track found its true power, topping charts across the world, ending 1990 as the third-highest-selling single of the year, and inspiring an emotionally devastating video that all but swept the MTV Video Music Awards that year. O’Connor is by no means a one-hit wonder and has written and recorded dozens of powerful songs, but when it comes to her legacy, nothing compares to “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
Better Than the Original? God, yes. While The Family’s take on this song about an abandoned lover feels like a mere sketch, O’Connor’s rendition, which she turned into a reflection about her mother who had died five years earlier in an auto accident, absolutely soars and goes down as one of the most emotionally devastating ballads of all time. Apologies, but there’s just no comparison.
It might be sacrilegious in some circles to lump Jeff Buckley into this category, but the last 20 years have seen the gospel of his “Hallelujah” cover spread far and wide. It’s a song that was seemingly made to be covered, as more than 800 hundred recorded and live versions exist in the wake of Leonard Cohen’s 1984 original. Hell, when you consider the amount of people that have seen Shrek, Rufus Wainwright’s cover might be the most well-known version of the song. Still, it’s the version from Jeff Buckley’s lone studio album, Grace, that has the ability to move mountains.
From its use in media like The West Wing to its ubiquity on critic’s lists of best-ever recordings, Buckley’s somber and sensual “Hallelujah” showcases the majesty of Buckley’s voice. For Cohen, it took a choir to take the song home. But Buckley, modeling his after the John Cale, his warbling tenor managed to stand just as tall as Cohen’s poetry. It might not be fair that this is Buckley’s best known moment, as he died of an accidental drowning just three years after its release. But as far as covers go, “Hallelujah” veers toward the angelic, giving Buckley the chance to showcase himself in ways that his own revered songwriting never quite matched.
Better Than the Original? Yes. That’s not taking away from Cohen’s composition and recording, both of which are artistic triumphs. It’s just that Buckley’s is that good, enough so that it could be mentioned among the all-time great music recordings and hold its own.
Everyone knows “Tainted Love”, even Beldar Conehead. What they don’t know, however, is that it’s a cover. “No way!” “How can this be?” “Who would do such a thing?” Yes, it’s true, Soft Cell’s biggest and most iconic hit dates all the way back to 1964, when singer Gloria Jones recorded the little ditty with writer Ed Cobb as a B-side to her 1965 flop of a single, “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home”. It took time, but her rendition would eventually make its way into the UK’s Northern Soul club scene of the early ’70s, thanks to British club DJ Richard Searling.
That’s where Soft Cell found the song, slowing it down considerably and essentially making it their own. Listening to the two tracks side by side, the similarities are quite obvious — let’s be real, it’s not exactly the most complicated beat, people — but there’s an inherent menace to Soft Cell’s rendition that subverts the track. It’s also the perfect subject matter for the New Wave genre, a stylish anthem about bruised love, the kind that would get fans of the genre on the dance floor, even during times of duress. You know, because that was the point.
Better Than the Original? Laws yes! As producer Mike Thorne explained, “…when Soft Cell performed the song I heard a very novel sound and a very nice voice,” and that’s apparent from the first few bars of the song. It’s so strange and so surreal, and that mythic quality has kept the song alive in pop culture for decades. Look no further than the way it’s been popularized in films and television shows, most recently by Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and FX’s The Americans. The latter use is arguably the strongest visual medium yet for the song.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
This one’s not easily identifiable as a cover, as its original writer Alan Merrill and his band The Arrows didn’t quite make as much of a lasting impact as the song’s covering artist, Joan Jett. Granted, Jett wasn’t always known for “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Her early band, The Runaways, made more of an impact after their existence than during it (except for in Japan), with the US particularly late to recognize the group’s charm. Still, it was that band that gave Jett a solo career, and eventually a shot with her new band, The Blackhearts.
But it wasn’t until the bar-room romp of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” took the charts by storm, spending seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, that Jett became a household name. And even with a string of hits to follow, it was her covering an ode to her genre that became her truly transcendent moment. It’s hard to say whether the sturdy, anthemic structure of the song is to thank for its success of if it is more how Jett sells it, but regardless, marrying the leather-jacket attitude of Jett with the shout-along tune made her a star.
Better Than the Original? Definitely. While there isn’t a huge difference in the two recordings, Jett proves to be the X-factor in being able to sell the song. For “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” to really work, it needs to come from an artist that believes they are a star. Jett was already a relative success at that point, and her swagger makes the cover an all-time moment.
VH1 owes everything to Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”. Alongside Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” and Madonna’s “Frozen”, the song was one of a handful of alternative hits that the network recycled over and over again in the late ’90s — and for good reason. It’s a beautiful, emotional, and life affirming single, one that clearly comes from the heart of its singer. Sadly, those words aren’t hers; in fact, her rendition of “Torn” is the third of its kind. You see, the song actually belongs to Scott Cutler, Anne Preven and Phil Thornalley, and it would be recorded first by Danish singer Lis Sørensen in 1993. Confused yet? It gets better. Two years later, Preven and Cutler would record the song with their own alternative rock band, Ednaswap.
Because Thornalley is also a producer and he worked with Imbruglia on her debut album, 1997’s Left of the Middle, the song eventually became hers. By comparison, Imbruglia’s version sits comfortably somewhere in the middle of the two previous recordings. The pacing and instrumentation is similar to Sørensen’s “Brændt”, but it’s aesthetically more in line with Ednaswap’s “Torn”. It’s basically Goldilocks — you know, “just right” — and part of that power boils down to Imbruglia’s vocal performance, but also to Thornalley’s dazzling production, who proves here that three times truly is the charm. Since then, Imbruglia’s found plenty of success, but nothing has come close to “Torn”. Not even her appearance in 2003’s Johnny English.
Better Than the Original?
“With a Little Help from My Friends”
There’s no shame in covering songs, of course. Likely, every first jam session in history among new bandmates began by playing songs that the entire band already knew or could learn quickly. All of our favorite artists either use covers to switch up their live sets, pay tribute to another artist, or even turn out a whole album’s worth of material. In many cases, bands have jump-started their careers using cover songs. Take a look at the writing credits for The Beatles’ or Stones’ debuts sometime. So, the fact that Joe Cocker tried to start his career with the help of The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” — not to mention Jimmy Page on guitar — and flopped hardly seems shocking. What does make his story unique is that he would soon find his career-defining song on The Beatles’ most celebrated record and give that song a wild second life that nobody could’ve ever predicted.
More than 50 acts have covered “With a Little Help from My Friends”, and many have charted successfully with their renditions, but Cocker’s version is the only one that became a true phenomena all its own. Not only did Cocker’s cover — slowed down with an extended jam intro and the singer’s spasmodic, volcanic delivery — dominate the charts and shift units, but his performance at Woodstock — forever documented on film — became symbolic of the Summer of Love and the ’60s as a whole, a fact evidenced nearly 20 years later when hit ABC series The Wonder Years, set in the ’60s, chose the cover as its theme. Cocker’s electric, wild-man performance of the song became so ubiquitous in pop culture that even Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi couldn’t resist doing his endearing impression of Cocker’s freak-out version. What began as Cocker looking to Lennon-McCartney for a little help turned into a performance piece that he carried with him right up until his passing in 2014.
Better Than the Original? How do you even begin to compare versions as different and beloved as these? The plucky original fits perfectly into arguably the greatest concept album (and album) of all time. The cover takes that perfect original and turns it into a one-man revival. Actually, why don’t we just let Sir Paul himself cast the deciding ballot for us: “[Cocker’s version] was mind-blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful to him for doing that.” Okay, far be it from us to argue with a Beatle. This one goes to Joe with Macca’s blessing.