10 cover versions that are way more popular than the originals (according to Spotify)

A montage of photos of Jimi Hendrix, Ace Frehley, James Hetfield and Kurt Cobain
(Image credit: David Redfern/Fin Costello/Redferns/Michael Kovac/Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

There’s an art to covering other people’s songs. Sometimes the reimagined version takes on a life of its own and occasionally it outsells or even eclipses the original. This is not a list making subjective calls on the artistic merits of cover versions versus the originals. Instead, here are 10 times the cover song became more popular than the original – at least in the modern streaming era. Stats on Spotify as of November 2023 were used for comparison.

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Nirvana - The Man Who Sold The World (1994)

The haunting title track of David Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold The World, was never released as a single – it was a Top 10 Bowie-produced cover by Scottish singer Lulu that first thrust the song into the mainstream. It was Nirvana’s version though, recorded live on their MTV Unplugged session, that captured the dark resonance of the original. “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work,” Bowie said in an interview.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - I Love Rock ’N Roll (1981)

The Arrows were a London-based glam rock band who enjoyed their own TV series in the 1970s before fading into obscurity. They left behind this artefact however, which was unearthed by Joan Jett and became a huge global hit, topping the charts in the US, Australia and half a dozen other territories and hitting No.4 in the UK.

Jimi Hendrix Experience - All Along The Watchtower (1968)

We could almost have written a list of rock covers of Bob Dylan songs that became more well-known than the originals. The likes of Guns N’ Roses (Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door), The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man) and even My Chemical Romance (Desolation Row) have released versions that outperform the Dylan originals, at least on Spotify. It’s Jimi Hendrix’s distorted version of All Along The Watchtower that really took on its own life though. Dylan once wrote: "I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this and ever since he died I've been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way.”

Guns N’ Roses – Live And Let Die (1991)

Written by Paul and Linda McCartney for the James Bond film of the same name, Live And Let Die was a genuinely huge hit for Wings. Guns N’ Roses covered the song during the sessions for their Use Your Illusion double albums at the start of the 90s. In streaming stats they gave the other fella hell, with the cover sitting on 216 million streams compared to Wings’ still impressive 144 million.

The Clash - I Fought The Law (1978)

I Fought The Law was first recorded by The Crickets after Buddy Holly’s death, but it was a 1965 cover by the Bobby Fuller Four that first made it a hit – and was the version that The Clash’s Joe Strummer and Mick Jones first heard playing on a jukebox. They turned it into an anthem of punk rebellion (also later reworked by the Dead Kennedys) and incorporated a toilet into their recording, hitting the pipes of a urinal with a hammer to emulate the sound of clanking chains.

Ace Frehley - New York Groove (1978)

The Kiss members’ late 70s solo albums were a patchy collection with guitarist Ace Frehley’s being the pick of the bunch and the only one to generate a hit single in New York Groove, originally recorded by British glam rock band Hello in 1975. “It didn’t feel like I was getting one over on the other guys in Kiss, it’s just something that happened,” Frehley told Classic Rock. “I never really listened to the other three solo records, although I did put Gene’s on once. When I heard his version of When You Wish Upon A Star I had to pull it off the turntable.”

Motley Crue – Smokin’ In The Boys Room (1985)

The original 1973 version of Smokin’ In The Boys Room by Brownsville Station was actually a bigger hit than Mötley Crüe’s cover, hitting Number 3 in the US and Canada and breaking the Top 30 in the UK. In the streaming era, not so much as da Crue have racked up a creditable 58 million-plus compared to the original’s 7.8 million streams.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Higher Ground (1989)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ second first hit was a punked up cover of Stevie Wonder’s funk classic Higher Ground. In a recent interview on The Howard Stern Show, Chilis drummer Chad Smith recounted meeting Wonder and a friend asking what he thought of the cover. “I liked the publishing cheques,” the soul legend deadpanned.

Joe Cocker - With a Little Help From My Friends (1969)

Sheffield belter Joe Cocker completely reworked With a Little Help from My Friends, turning the jaunty Beatles album track – sung by Ringo Starr on the original – into a slower, grittier soul standard. Cocker got a little help on his recording from the likes of Jimmy Page and Procol Harum's BJ Wilson and it propelled him to near instant stardom. On Cocker’s death, Paul McCartney said the cover was “just mind blowing”, adding that he had “totally turned the song into a soul anthem”.

Metallica - Whiskey In The Jar (1998)

We know, we know, Thin Lizzy didn’t write this Irish trad song or even record it first. There were numerous versions including takes by The Highwaymen and The Dubliners, but Thin Lizzy’s became the standard and the version that Metallica clearly took inspiration from. Many would say the Irish rockers’ 1972 recording remains the definitive version but in terms of streaming alone Metallica very much have the advantage with 396 million streams compared to Lizzy’s 86 million.

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer