“A cover version of a song is a version of it recorded by a singer or band who did not originally perform the song.” — Collins Dictionary
The entertainment industry is full of repeats. This is true across more than one genre. The movie “A Star Is Born” has been made four times, in 1937, 1954, 1976 and 2018. Some of the greatest actors and singers of their generation were in one version or another. These include Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga.
Songs are another genre in which more than one version of a hit gets performed by a number of artists. Some of these songs are decades old. Irving Berlin’s “A White Christmas” has been covered so many times that there is even a list titled 10 Wonderful Versions of “White Christmas.”
Often, musicians will add their own unique spin to songs they cover, in a way making them their own. Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Singer-songwriter Jake Holmes wrote “Dazed and Confused” for an album he released in 1967. The British group The Yardbirds subsequently recorded a different arrangement of the song, and then Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page brought it to his new band, Led Zeppelin, who added new lyrics and added it to their regular repertoire without crediting Holmes. He sued, and the two parties eventually reached a settlement.
The early Rolling Stones anthem “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction” was reworked with significant changes by numerous other artists without incurring legal action. Music critic Robert Christgau described Otis Redding’s version as an “anarchic reading” of the song (Redding claimed not to know the words, so improvised). The new wave band Devo played with the song’s basic rhythm for what has been called their “robo-rock” interpretation. Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power, elided some of the lyrics and turned it into something dreamy, almost soporific.
To pick the best cover song of all time, 24/7 Tempo developed an index measuring audience rating and radio and streaming popularity. Data on average audience ratings of various versions of a song’s performance came from SecondHandSongs, a database tracking originals and cover songs.
In addition, an inverted ranking of a song’s performances on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (wherein a week at position No. 100 is worth one point, a week at position No. 99 two points and so on up to a week at position No. 1 worth 100 points) was calculated using data from Billboard. Both measures were given equal weight. Christmas songs and covers of instrumental songs with added lyrics were not included. (Information on the original artist and songwriters came from SecondHandSongs and other sources.)
The best cover song of all time is “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers, released in 1965. Here are the details:
- Original artist: Todd Duncan (1955)
- Writers: Alex North and Hy Zaret
- SecondHandSongs rating: 4.27 out of five stars
- Billboard Hot 100 peak: Number four for two weeks (57 weeks total)
Click here to see all the best cover songs of all time.
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