Bullet list first: My first choices, not a comprehensive list:
- “Across the Universe” (Lennon-McCartney) as done by Rufus Wainwright.
- “Superman” (The Clique) as done by R.E.M. on Lifes Rich Pageant.
- “The Dutchman” (Michael Peter Smith) as done by Steve Goodman — Michael plays it in concert pretty much as Steve recorded it, nowadays.
- But “City of New Orleans” (Steve Goodman) as done by Arlo Guthrie.
- “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (The Band) as done by Joan Baez.
I read many other people’s lists already. There are three tunes that keep popping up. You can probably guess them, so I won’t mention them here.*
A lot of respondents picked modern-day versions of songs that are 20-40 years old. A good example of this (that I haven’t seen mentioned) is Smashmouth’s cover of “I’m a Believer” from the Shrek soundtrack, which the Monkees had a hit with and Neil Diamond penned. Smashmouth didn’t do much to the song’s arrangement, but being almost 40 years newer meant the instruments (more electric guitars) and production (louder/compressed) were different. It’s a more modern sound, style-wise, and I kind of discount that as a reason the cover version is “better.” It’s not quite the same category as Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin remaking “Hurt” in such a radically different yet hauntingly effective way.
Postscript: Special mention is made of an instrumental version of “Across the Universe” by the classical guitarist Göran Söllscher on his recording Here, There + Everywhere. No singing, but the song has a great tune, and it’s so well played on an 11-stringed guitar (which has several lower strings than the standard guitar, and it resonates, like, forever).
* But I did mention one at the end of the next ‘graph.