I have always had a soft spot for a well made cover song. There is something I respect about an artist who can take a well known song and pay homage to the original while still making it their own. There are some legendary covers that have eclipsed the original in terms of quality and public recognition. Aretha Franklin's rendition of Otis Redding's "Respect" is one excellent example, and Jimi Hendrix's version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" is another. For this list I tried to stick to songs that earned more recognition in their original form, thus maintaining the "homage" aspect that I feel is critical to a good cover song.
Zox | Canon | Take Me Home
This peculiar little band released a reggae version of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major as part of their freshman album. Although the wedding circuit has ground away most of my enjoyment of the original song, I still like this fun and fresh rendition.
Type O Negative | Cinnamon Girl | October Rust
It took me a very long time to appreciate this band. In most circumstances I wouldn't consider myself a fan of their dark, gothic-metal sound. The fact that they included a cover song on both October Rust and Slow Deep and Hard made me take a closer look at them and their music, much to my benefit.
Me First and The Gimme Gimmes | Rainbow Connection | Are a Drag
I don't know if it is fair to put a covers-only band on this list, but these guys are really good. Their albums are well themed and fun to listen to, but it is their choice of songs that makes them a top-tier cover band. When punk rock meets The Muppets, magic happens.
Anberlin | Enjoy The Silence | Lost Songs
I like the pop-punk feel that Anberlin does so well. Their version of this oft-covered Depeche Mode hit adds a nice rock feel without making it too dark or heavy.
Authority Zero | Drunken Sailor | 12:34
About ten years ago I heard a really fantastic punk cover of the famous sea chanty "What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor", and since then I have been looking for the band that made it with no luck. Since this album wasn't released until 2007; I doubt this was it. But it is a very good version and is absolutely worth a listen.
Alien Ant Farm | Smooth Criminal | Anthology
I really do believe that there is something about Michael Jackson's music that lends itself well to the rock genre. I offer both this song and Fall Out Boy's cover of Beat It as proof of this hypothesis. But it must suck to be a one-hit-wonder for doing a cover of somebody else's song.
Metallica | Astronomy | Garage Inc.
I'll admit that I had not heard this song until I heard Metallica's version. But the esoteric lyrics and far out references are classic 1970's prog-rock fare typical of Blue Öyster Cult. After hearing the original version of this song, I realized that Will Ferrell truly captured the spirit of the band in the famous "More Cowbell" sketch. I especially like the references to various celestial bodies.
Muse | Feeling Good | Origin of Symmetry
I love the sultry, jazzy feel that the band added the the Nina Simone version. (Itself a cover of a 1965 show tune.) While I am not a fan of Simone's voice, I do enjoy Matt Bellamy's nasal falsetto, especially when paired with Muse's synthetic-alternative sound. The Muse version captures the feel of the original far better than the soulless Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers ad ever will.
Johnny Cash | Hurt | American IV: The Man Comes Around
I almost didn't include this song on the list, because it very nearly eclipsed the original in the same way I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Thanks to the radical difference in genres and audiences between this and the original version, I felt it safe to include this legendary cover by a legendary artist. I love Reznor's reaction to this after seeing the video, "that song isn't mine anymore..." a classy reaction by a phenomenal artist.
Marilyn Manson | Personal Jesus | Lest We Forget: The Best of
Marilyn Manson is unique among artists in the fact that I am more familiar with his covers than with his original works. This song really suits his style, and he didn't add too much to the Depeche Mode original other than increased distortion, but somehow he made it his own. I don't know how to address the fact that there are two D.M. songs on this list except they must produce excellent cover fodder.