50 Cover Songs Way Better Than the Original

In fact, you probably thought these were the original.

50 Cover Songs Way Better Than the Original

In fact, you probably thought these were the original.

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When you hear the lyrics, “I fought the law and the law won,” which artist comes to mind?

If you’re musically inclined, a certain English punk-rock band likely pops into your head. Or what about the crunchy guitar riffs and raw power of “American Woman?” That particular permanently be-spectacled rock star is instantly recognizable. What about “Somewhere Over the Rainbow?” Strummed ukulele chords and the crooning vocals of a Hawaiian pop star. See: I don’t even have to mention the musicians behind these tunes. They’re (both the songs and the rockers) recognized the world over.

Well, get this: none of them are original works.

Yes, when it comes to music, first is not always best. Often, the original rendition is merely the first draft, a starting-gun inspiration for other singers and songwriters to take a good song and make it great. Herein, you’ll find 50 such examples. So listen on, and see how many you knew were covers. And for more great music, check out Every Song of the Summer for the Past 50 Years.

1
“All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (originally by Bob Dylan)

Jimi Hendrix’s rowdier, louder, and punchier electrified version of Bob Dylan’s classic song, released in 1968, blew even the original songwriter away. “It overwhelmed me,” Dylan said later, in a 1995 interview, about hearing Hendrix’s cover for the first time. And for more great music trivia, see the 30 Funniest Lines From Country Songs.

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2
“American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz (originally by The Guess Who)

In 1970, Canadian rock band The Guess Who burned up the pop charts with hits like “American Woman,” which they claimed was a love letter to the women of their own country. Lenny Kravitz’s powerful, updated version won for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1999 and the original re-emerged in the smash film Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

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3
“Angel From Montgomery” by Bonnie Raitt (originally by John Prine)

Raitt’s heartfelt rendition of a middle-aged woman trying to escape her circumstances became one her most important recordings, expressing lost love, regret, and longing.

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4
“Because the Night” by Bruce Springsteen (originally by Patti Smith)

Bruce Springsteen co-wrote the song with Patti Smith, a hit single from her 1978 album Easter. He changed the lyrics for his version from what he described as just another love song into a coarse, introspective journey in search of truth.

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5
“Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (originally by Bruce Springsteen)

The first song, and single, from his seminal 1973 album, Greetings from Asbury Park, “Blinded by the Light” never made the charts until Manfred Mann’s Earth Band released their take in 1976. It would be Springsteen’s only songwriting credit to hit the top spot, despite its mangled lyrics, which were widely misunderstood in Mann’s remake. “Cut loose like a deuce,” (a reference to deuce coupe hot rods) was changed and misheard as “wrapped up like douche.” Springsteen later mused that it was Manfred Mann’s allusion to a feminine hygiene product that popularized the song.

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6
“Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley (originally by Carl Perkins)

Like many of Elvis Presley’s early chart-busters, his wasn’t the first, but they were the best. Carl Perkins, a fellow Sun Records artist, got the idea for the song after witnessing a dancer become upset with someone for scuffing up his new shoes. Considered one of the first rockabilly songs, it would later be covered by Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and others. RCA asked Elvis to record “Blue Suede Shoes” while the Perkins release was still hot, but they delayed the cover version that Elvis considered a tribute to his friend, Perkins, until the original started to fade from the charts.

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7
“Cocaine” by Eric Clapton (originally by JJ Cale)

Eric Clapton insisted that, though his 1977 hit sounded like a love song to an illicit substance, it was actually a cleverly disguised anti-drug message. Sure. The B-side to the single “Tulsa Time” became one his signature hits, and one of several JJ Cale songs he recorded—including monster hit “After Midnight”—during that substance-soaked era. And for more fun tunes, don’t miss these 40 Most Hilarious Song Titles.

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8
“Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin (originally by Jake Holmes)

American singer-songwriter Jake Holmes debuted “Dazed and Confused,” a song about a breakup, in 1967. It was soon copied by the British group The Yardbirds, which became The New Yardbirds with the addition of session guitarist Jimmy Page. Page appropriated the tune further with his follow-up band, Led Zeppelin, bending it to his will, one of only three he recorded using a violin bow on his guitar. Holmes later cited copyright infringement in 2012, though the case was dismissed when a settlement between parties was reached out of court. Speaking of albums, check out our list of the The 8 Best Albums of All-Time.

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9
“Can’t Get Used to Losing You” by The English Beat (originally by Andy Williams)

Andy Williams’ 1962 hit was reborn reggae-style by The Beat on the 1980 album I Just Can’t Stop It at the height of Jamaican musical influence in the United Kingdom. Released as a single three years on, it became their highest charting record. Beat frontman Dave Wakeling’s father loved the original, and as it happened, the song was a perfect fit for the ska treatment. “The bass line translated into a reggae feel effortlessly,” said Wakeling. “The pizzicato strings became guitar skanks, and the melody floated over the top.”

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10
“Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill (originally by Neil
Diamond)

Director Quentin Tarantino is credited with re-energizing this remake by indie rock legends Urge Overkill, when he deployed it on the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, awakening a whole new fan base for the song. According to Tarantino, it’s “even better” than Neil Diamond’s original.

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11
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper (originally by Robert Hazard)

Who hasn’t delighted to this power-pop ditty? As of this writing, more than 30 artists have covered this iconic number, but none come close to Lauper’s take, which exploded on radio and MTV in 1983. The song, first performed by a little-known Robert Hazard in ’79, but it took maverick thinker Cyndi Lauper to do it justice.

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12
“Gloria” by Patti Smith (originally by Van Morrison/Them)

Smith’s guttural voice, smoldering and dangerous, unfolds with the words “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” (an excerpt from “Oath,” an early poem disavowing her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing ), and steadily builds tempo like a locomotive, transforming the garage band classic into a full-on punk explosion.

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13
“Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley (originally by Leonard Cohen)

Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” is the most memorable rendition of this beloved song, to the chagrin of Leonard Cohen loyalists. Buckley’s song is a secular take on Cohen’s hymnal, imbued with sexual tension and longing, reflecting on the fleeting nature of life, a sentiment made even more poignant by the singer’s untimely death-by-drowning on June 4, 1997, well before the song was later released posthumously in 2008. It would become the singer’s first number one Billboard chart-topper.

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14
“Higher Ground” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers (originally by Stevie Wonder)

It’s hard to believe anyone could best the legendary Stevie Wonder, but The Red Hot Chili Peppers’s “Higher Ground” may well have topped one of 1973’s biggest hits. It would become the Chili Peppers’ first single with their new guitarist John Frusciante, and scored the group’s first Grammy nomination (1991—Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group). The song presaged their seven-times Platinum-selling, critically-acclaimed album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which is widely considered the band’s best work.

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15
“Hurt” by Johnny Cash (originally by Nine Inch Nails)

In the twilight of a legendary career, Johnny Cash would record one of his most memorable songs, produced by super-producer Rick Rubin. Cash is transcendent as he makes Trent Reznor’s dark, mournful, lyrics into his own, as if delivered from the grave. Cash passed away within seven months of the tune’s recording.

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16
“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by Devo (originally by Rolling Stones)

The ultimate ironic twist on a song about alienation and sexual frustration, delivered by New Wave impresario Mark Mothersbaugh, who likely understood those sentiments intimately. Recorded in 1977 with genius producer Brian Eno at the helm, it was cleared for release by Mick Jagger himself.

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17
“I Fought the Law” by The Clash (originally by Bobby Fuller Four)

The song was originally penned by Sonny Curtis of The Crickets, Holly’s replacement following his untimely demise. Covered by Hank Williams, Jr., The Dead Kennedys, and others—including the Bobby Fuller Four in 1965—The Clash version, their first single in the U.S., became a punk anthem and put the band on the map stateside.

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18
“I Love Rock N RolI” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (originally by The Arrows)

Joan Jett’s signature number was first recorded by a little-known English band, The Arrows. Jett, a master at covering other’s songs—including “Crimson and Clover,” “Love is All Around,” “You Don’t Own Me,” “Do You Want to Touch Me,” and “Love Stinks”—made “I Love Rock ’n Roll” her definitive statement, which went platinum after commanding the top of the charts for seven weeks in 1981.

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19
“I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow (originally by The Strangeloves)

With an infectious Bo Diddley shuffle and primal beat, “I Want Candy” is pure pop-punk confection. Sprung from the fertile mind of Malcolm McLaren, creator of the Sex Pistols, the reimagined ’60s bubblegum classic was reborn with singer Annabella Lwin, who was only 15 when the hit spun into heavy rotation on MTV.

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20
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston (originally by Dolly Parton)

Recorded for  The Bodyguard, one of 1992’s biggest films, Whitney Houston’s epic vocals made Dolly Parton’s already beautiful song the best-selling single by a female singer ever. And for more great song trivia, check out the 30 Funniest Jokes in Popular Songs.

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21
“Jolene” by The White Stripes (originally by Dolly Parton)

Rolling Stone named The White Stripes cover of Parton’s timeless, aching “Jolene” one of the greatest remakes ever. Jack White, singing from the feminine perspective without a trace of irony, brings down the house in his epic rendition of one of the most revered country stars.

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22
“Killing Me Softly” by The Fugees (originally by Roberta Flack)

While Roberta Flack’s original is flawless, Lauryn Hill gives this classic ’70s ballad new life with her creamy vocals and reggae-imbued soul. The Fugees’ hit number 2 on the U.S. charts in 1996 and their rendition became the top-selling single that year in the United Kingdom.

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23
“La Vie En Rose” by Grace Jones (originally by Edith Piaf)

Jamaican singer Grace Jones’ hard-edged, urban sound was one of the coolest acts in ’77. With her adaptation of Édith Piaf’s signature song (from way back in 1945), Jones displayed her softer, jazzy side, making “La Vie En Rose” (Life in Pink) an international hit all over again.

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24
“Let’s Spend the Night Together” by David Bowie (originally by The Rolling Stones)

While The Stones’ naughty, playful little number was a provocation to prude’s everywhere in 1967, David Bowie’s shinier, raunchier glam rendition arrived from the future, infused with gender-bending sexual bravado.

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25
“Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen (written by Richard Berry, originally performed by Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers)

The brilliant, raw, incoherent, three-chord, one-hit wonder, “Louie Louie” is among the most improbable hits ever, overcoming odds that would have snuffed out lesser tunes in their crib. The raucous, jangly Kingsmen recorded the number in under an hour in less than ideal circumstances. And when it was over the band unanimously agreed it was awful. Despite influential Boston DJ Arnie Ginsburg pronouncing it the very worst record of the week, it became a sensation, rising to number two on the national charts, where it remained in the Top 40 for 13 weeks. Indiana promptly banned it following an outraged parents’ complaint to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, which launched a two-year FBI investigation. The Feds made countless attempts at deciphering the lyrics, convinced the song was communicating in obscene code to teen subversives. Rolling Stone, in 2007, would name “Louie Louie” the fourth most influential recording of all time.

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26
“I Shot the Sheriff” by Eric Clapton (originally by Bob Marley and The Wailers)

Bob Marley’s masterpiece is faithfully reproduced on Clapton’s monumental 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard, though it lands a bigger punch. The song was one of several examples of reggae’s growing influence in British and American rock and pop, from 1968’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles to Led Zeppelin’s D’yer Mak’er in 1973’s groundbreaking album Houses of the Holy. It would become Clapton’s only number one hit.

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27
“MacArthur Park” by Donna Summer (originally by Richard Harris) 

Repurposing some of the most beguiling lyrics ever, about an expiring love affair, producer Giorgio Moroder—the Father of Disco—inspires the extraordinarily gifted Donna Summer to multi-million platinum status in September of 1978.

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28
“Mad World” by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews (originally by Tears for Fears)

The original, the first big hit by English New Wave duo Tears for Fears, was written as a response to Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film.” Re-imagined by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews twenty years later, it became a brooding, down-tempo piano ballad for the 2001 cult classic film Donnie Darko.

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29
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin (originally by Kris Kristofferson)

The song crystalizes the melancholy and wanderlust of its era, weaving the tale of young drifters hitch-hiking across America. Janis Joplin’s searing execution gave it wings to become the anthem for a generation. Recorded only days before her death at 27, this American classic was released posthumously on her 1971 album, Pearl.

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30
“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor (originally by Prince)

“Nothing Compares 2 U,” a monster hit for the Irish chanteuse, is perhaps the ultimate breakup song. Written by Prince for one of his side projects, O’Connor delivers an emotional performance that is impossible to resist. Just try to hold back the tears.

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31
“Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (originally by Judy Garland)

Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, with only his voice and his ukulele, redefined a beloved classic.

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32
“Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner (originally by Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Tina Turner lays it down from the very start: “We never, ever do nothin’ nice and easy. We always do it nice. And rough.” Then she proceeds to rip it to shreds. Ike and Tina’s earth-shaker is a song so seared into our collective consciousness that it taps into a primal urge to get up and dance.

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33
“Red Red Wine” by UB40 (originally by Neil Diamond)

UB40, left-wing political activists from Birmingham, England, took their name from a form used to claim unemployment benefits in the United Kingdom, “Unemployment Benefit Form 40.” Their reggaed-up cover of Diamond’s somber acoustic ballad is an ode to drinking as a way to forget your romantic woes. Diamond stated that it is one of his favorite covers of his songs, and frequently performed it using the UB40 reggae arrangement.

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34
“Respect” by Aretha Franklin (originally by Otis Redding)

“Respect” is a landmark clarion call for feminism that still resonates today. By contrast, Otis Redding’s 1965 original ballad, which featured Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes on keyboards and piano, was a plea from a man desperate to keep his woman. The song marked Franklin’s breakout as a major force in pop music thanks to the foresight of legendary producer Jerry Wexler, who, after many lackluster recordings, brought Aretha back to her gospel roots.

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35
“Ring of Fire” by Wall of Voodoo (originally by Johnny Cash)

The iconic song “Ring of Fire” invites stylistic interpretation, though none as memorable as this acerbic, industrial punk-rock, synthesizer-driven spaghetti western. Wall of Voodoo’s retelling of Cash’s lyrics describes a literal descent into hell. Might there be an alternative meaning? Vivian Cash, the singer’s first wife, claims that “Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female part body part.”

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36
“Sea of Love” by The Honeydrippers (originally by Phil Philips)

Former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant crooned a faithful rendition of this 1950s R&B classic with his band The Honeydrippers, comprised of an all-star lineup of musicians, including former Yardbirds Page and Jeff Beck. “Sea of Love” would become Plant’s best-selling single in the post-Zep era. As a renowned disciple of the American music canon, Plant would later join bluegrass-country singer and fiddler Allison Krauss on the five-time Grammy-winning platinum album Raising Sand.

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37
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Tori Amos (originally by Nirvana)

T0ri Amos defanged Nirvana’s signature anthem, rendering its gnashing, tortured disaffection into a tender but desperate plea, stripped of all accompaniment but her piano. Asked about Amos’s cover, Nirvan frontman Kurt Cobain would sneer that it was “a great breakfast cereal version.”

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38
“Sweet Jane” by Cowboy Junkies (originally by The Velvet Underground)

The Cowboy Junkies best-loved track springs from their seminal album, The Trinity Session, recorded in one day around a single microphone in a Toronto church. Singer Margo Timmins delivers a dreamy, drowsy take on Lou Reed’s 1969 classic.

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39
“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell (originally by Gloria Jones)

As members of the Second British Invasion of the 1980s, Soft Cell resurrected a forgotten Motown hit first recorded in the ’60s by Gloria Jones, girlfriend of pop sensation Marc Bolan (aka T. Rex). Rising to number one in 17 countries, and as high as number eight in America, its dark, conspiratorial tone about escaping a toxic relationship struck a chord with legions of listeners. The single’s B-side interpreted another Motown classic, “Where Did Our Love Go,” by The Supremes.

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40
“Take Me To The River” by Talking Heads (originally by Al Green)

In the liner notes on their 2004 compilation, Best of Talking Heads, David Byrne writes thate ‘Take Me To The River’ is “a song that combines teenage lust with baptism.” Co-produced by Eno, the track reached only number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979, though it established this thoroughly original band as a powerhouse in pop music. At the time of its release, there were at least three other covers of Al Green’s classic: one by Foghat, one by Bryan Ferry, and one by Levon Helm, but none resonated like the Heads’ version, which supersedes even the original in notoriety.

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41
“The Man Who Sold The World” by Nirvana (originally by David Bowie)

Nirvana’s haunting, introspective cover track made a surprise (and only) appearance on MTV’s Unplugged 1993 live session in New York. The song—which Bowie described is about a need to find out who you really are—finds new resonance coming from deep within Cobain’s soul. Bowie said at the time “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work,” and that “it was a good, straightforward rendition and sounded somehow very honest.”

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42
“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles (originally by The Isley Brothers)

Shortly before The Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney commented that, despite all their genre-bending experimentation, they were fundamentally a “really good rock ’n roll band.” Like Elvis and The Rolling Stones, The Beatles honed their chops grinding out covers of pioneering Black American artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and The Isley Brothers. A chart-topping 1964 hit, “Twist and Shout,” was recorded in a single take, with John Lennon suffering a bad cold, which accounts for the song’s wonderfully raspy delivery. And for more from last century, don’t miss these 100 Slang Terms From the 20th Century That No One Uses Anymore.

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43
“Valerie” by Amy Winehouse (originally by The Zutons)

Amy Winehouse was unable to make it to the set for the taping of her video for “Valerie.” So producer Mark Ronson instead chose three women to stand-in, all at the same time. While it worked brilliantly, her absence is haunting. The Zutons song comes into its own with Winehouse’s distinctive vocals.

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44
“Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C. (originally by Aerosmith)

This truly groundbreaking collaboration launched Aerosmith’s comeback and set the stage for the continuing dominance of rap in the pop music world. Run-D.M.C. fuses rock and rap with this cover, recording it with the actual band instead of simply sampling the original. It became the first hip-hop song to break the Billboard top five.

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45
“We Can Work It Out” by Stevie Wonder (originally by The Beatles)

This beautiful song as performed by The Beatles was a plea for reconciliation, expressed with passion—though little hope. Conversely, Wonder’s rousing funk version, from his 1970 masterwork, Signed, Sealed & Delivered, is all about desire and promise. Wonder performed the song for McCartney’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony in 1990.

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46
“Whiskey in a Jar” by Metallica (originally recorded by Thin Lizzy)

Metallica takes an old Irish folk song, earnestly recorded by Dublin’s Thin Lizzie in 1972, and shreds it to bits, in their raucous, borderline camp version.

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47
“With A Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker (originally by The Beatles)

Joe Cocker’s combustible performance at Woodstock elevated Ringo Star’s sweet little ditty to the anthem of a generation. A BBC poll ranked it the seventh best cover song of all time.

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48
“Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (originally by Joni Mitchell)

Joni Mitchell wrote “Woodstock” in a moment of spiritual reflection, considering the Woodstock gathering a biblical fishes-and-loaves story of optimism. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young run with that idea, conjuring up a celebratory, electrified jam, woven together with the band’s mellifluous harmonies to create yet another iconic soundtrack of a generation.

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49
“You Really Got Me” by Van Halen (originally by The Kinks)

To Van Halen’s dismay, Warner Brothers chose to debut a cover song to herald the arrival of its new mega-group. Awesome as The Kink’s original was—the tune was a defining moment of the British Invasion—it instantly became eclipsed by this thundering, new, over-the-top sensation. At the time of the Van Halen release, The Kinks were touring America to promote their album Low Budget. Kinks frontman Dave Davies was steamed as he recalls: “Some kid came up to me after one of the gigs and said, “‘I like your cover of Van Halen’s ‘You Really Got Me.’”

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50
“You’re No Good” by Linda Ronstadt (originally by Dee Dee Warwick)

One of the most prolific hit-makers of the 1970s, 11-time Grammy winner Linda Ronstadt gives this someone-done-me-wrong song a sinister edge as she weaves through her many moods, supported by Motown-like backup vocals. Many have recorded Dee Dee Warwick’s poppy jingle, but none come close to Ronstadt’s, a number one chart-topper in February 1975.

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