10 Original Songs Better Than Their More Famous Covers

Who sang it better: The original (Otis Redding) or the cover artists (Black Crowes)?
Who sang it better: The original (Otis Redding) or the cover artists (Black Crowes)?
Otis Redding: Volt Records via Wikimedia Commons; Chris Robinson: Flickr/Paul Hudson

Cover songs are great and all, but sometimes the original is still best.

The popularity of certain cover songs is well-documented. Joan Jett’s 1982 "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" isn’t just better than the English band Arrows’ mid-'70s original — it kicks its ass, steals its wallet and makes out with its girlfriend. In similar fashion, Ike and Tina Turner set gospel-sex fire to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary," and Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” took Leonard Cohen’s lyrically rich prototype to breathtaking vocal peaks.

Hence the abundance of “covers better than the originals” lists online. But what about the many instances where the reverse is true? Sometimes — as Cat Stevens wrote and P. P. Arnold sang — the first cut is the deepest. Here are 10 originals arguably better than their more famous cover versions.

“Take Me to the River” (Al Green/Talking Heads)

If Al Green sung you an eviction notice, you'd probably ask for an encore. The guy has a truly heavenly voice, giving his 1974 original “Take Me to the River” sanctified lift, which producer Willie Mitchell heightened with an ebullient, Memphis Horns-goosed arrangement. Talking Heads’ 1978 rendition boasts an undeniable beat and some appealing Hammond organ filigree. Still, quirky Talking Heads singer David Byrne would probably be the first to tell you that Green’s “Take Me to the River” is tops.

"Venus" (Shocking Blue/Bananarama)

A paean to the titular Roman goddess of love, “Venus” has been a number one U.S. single for two groups, 16 years apart: Dutch band Shocking Blue in 1970 and English girl-group Bananarama in 1986. The latter version is brash, mid-'80s mall-pop. The former is hypnotic and more enduring folk-rock, with Shocking Blue singer Mariska Veres oozing Grace Slick-like cool.

“Hard to Handle” (Otis Redding/The Black Crowes)

Hard-rock guitars and singer Chris Robinson’s impressive bellbottom-blues vocals helped make The Black Crowes’ 1990 version of “Hard to Handle” a No. 1 rock single. Recording engineer Brendan O’Brien (later an A-list producer for artists like Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam) played the memorable guitar solo. Heavy MTV airplay of the "Hard to Handle" music video — depicting Robinson sauntering across stages, hotel rooms and train tracks — pushed the Crowes' debut LP Shake Your Monkey Maker to multi-platinum sales. But Otis Redding’s slinky original — produced by guitarist Steve Cropper and released in 1968, a year after the singer's death — is superior, with a funkier, more laid-back R&B groove and more timeless production.

"Mony Mony" (Tommy James and the Shondells/Billy Idol)

When eventual punk-pop badass Billy Idol got laid for the first time, “Mony Mony” was the song playing in the background. Years later Idol snarled his 1987 live cover of this Tommy James and the Shondells’ 1968 raver to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. (The peroxide-haired singer previously cut a studio version of the track in 1981.) Idol’s arena-scorching live version, propelled by supersonic Steve Stevens guitar heroics, is toothier. Still, Tommy James’ “Mony Mony” — so named because while taking a break from writing the song, James happened to glimpse at the Mutual of New York Building’s M.O.N.Y. sign — gets the overall edge for its garage-y aesthetics, day-glow keyboards and love-bead-shaking tom-tom rhythm.

"Sometimes She Forgets" (Steve Earle/Travis Tritt)

Travis Tritt’s calypso-tinged take on "Sometimes She Forgets" became a top 10 1995 hit for the dramatically coifed ’90s country hitmaker. It also pales compared to Nashville outlaw Steve Earle’s original, released a few months earlier. Tritt sang earnestly and effectively on his Eagles-esque redo. But the reedy, hard-living vocals on Earle’s mandolin-dappled acoustic version leave no doubt that the guy singing this version is the same guy who wrote it.

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