Since its the "Summer of Lists" on the web, I had the Earvolution writers sit down and make a list of their favorite cover songs by popular artists.
David Schultz summed up the task this way:
The secret to a good cover song is to not imitate or replicate the original. Whenever an artist attempts that, the result is usually a tepid copy of an already established tune. A good cover song comes from using the original as a framework and investing it with that singer's set of unique strengths. The goal should be to interpret and re-invent, not slavishly reproduce.
Here are a few of mine (Jeff Davidson):
U2: Springsteen's, My Hometown. Recorded live in Dublin at Croke Park in June of 1985. The song appears on a bootleg of covers by U2 I was lucky enough to find some years ago at a record store on South Street in Philadelphia. There's a very nice version of "Help" on there and if you listen very carefully to the version of "Stand by Me" recorded in 1987 at Philly's JFK stadium you can here me in the crowd. Ok, so you can't here me, but I was one of the 100,000+ there that night when Bruce came out on stage and Bono uttered the now infamous "is he a local boy or something?" as the crowd went nuts when the Boss walked out.
Bonnie Raitt: Talking Heads, Burnin' Down the House. Bonnie gets it done on a great two-disc live set called "Road Tested" and has a killer version of this song. As a bonus, there's a nice cover of Angel From Montgomery as well with Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby (vocals & accordion), Bryan Adams and Kim Wilson joining in.
Johnny Cash "Hurt" (Trent Reznor) Cash's rendition is haunting and the video of Cash's stoic rendition really brings home the song's emotion. Its one of the best videos of all time.
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
Original Artist: Soft Cell Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)
Cover Artist: David Gray White Ladder (2001)
The music of synth-pop 80's band Soft Cell and popular Welsh singer-songwriter David Gray has absolutely nothing in common- save for this song, which appears as the last track on Gray's White Ladder. Gray masterfully subs acoustic guitars for the grating synth and musical soulmate Clune adds tasteful brush-stroked drumming and background vocals in place of the hollow, sterile drums and sixteenth note bass drone of the Soft Cell original. Gray understands the point of recording a cover track: he truly makes the song his own. The airy, mellow arrangement seamlessly fits into the rest of the album rather than serving as a space-filling afterthought. The only indication that this song is not another of Gray's own soulful acoustic offerings is the fact that the lyrics were not included in the CD booklet. Ironically, the song that enabled Soft Cell’s international rise to fame - Tainted Love - is also a cover. It was first recorded in 1964 by Gloria Jones, who later became a back-up singer for T-Rex.