Special Report

Musicians With the Most Emotionally Diverse Songs

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“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast. To soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.” It’s an old saying (sometimes attributed to William Shakespeare but actually written by William Congreve), but it holds true. Music can make us happy when we’re sad, sad when we’re happy, nostalgic about the past, or excited about the future. It can inspire us to work out or help us relax, speed up our heartbeat or lull us to sleep. 

There’s music for every mood and every occasion, and it’s not always by different artists. Some musicians are known for their versatility of subject matter and approach, not only embracing different genres but also spanning a vast emotional range over the course of their careers. 

Based on a paper published as a part of a conference on artificial and computational intelligence held in Brazil, 24/7 Tempo has determined the musicians with the most emotionally diverse output since the middle of the last century. We used data categorizing songs by themes such as sadness, movement/places, and family/spiritual to reveal the probability that two random songs in an artist’s catalog will be thematically distinct. (Here is the most popular song every year since 1970.) 

Click here to see the musicians with the most diverse output
Click here to read our detailed methodology

Our findings might come as a surprise to some people. The list is dominated by musicians who haven’t been in the charts for decades. Some of the names might not even be known to Gen Z listeners. The top five are B.B. King, Perry Como, Nina Simone, J.J. Cale, and Ella Fitzgerald, all of them deceased. (Here are 35 musicians with legendarily long careers.)

It’s interesting to speculate why there are almost no contemporary artists on our list. One reason, of course, is that the longer musicians have been performing, the more time they have to experiment with different styles. Another reason may be the segmentation of taste due to the recent proliferation of satellite radio and streaming services – which may discourage musicians and their audiences alike from venturing outside their comfort zones.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

25. Linda Ronstadt
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 83.7%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 34
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 406 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Different Drum (No. 13 for 1 week)

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Source: Ethan Miller / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

24. Alabama
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 83.7%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 11
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 148 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Love In The First Degree (No. 15 for 2 weeks)

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

23. Waylon Jennings
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 83.8%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 6
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 36 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Luckenbach, Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love) (No. 25 for 2 weeks)

Source: Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

22. George Jones
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 83.9%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 6
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 18 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: White Lightning (No. 73 for 2 weeks)

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Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

21. David Bowie
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 84.0%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 27
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 302 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Let’s Dance (No. 1 for 1 week)

20. Bobby Darin
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 84.2%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 40
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 333 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Mack The Knife (No. 1 for 9 weeks)

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Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

19. Chuck Berry
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 84.4%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 19
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 157 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: My Ding-A-Ling (No. 1 for 2 weeks)

Source: David Redfern / Redferns via Getty Images

18. Ray Charles
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 84.5%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 73
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 530 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: I Can’t Stop Loving You (No. 1 for 5 weeks)

Source: Evening Standard / Getty Images

17. Thin Lizzy
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.4%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 2
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 25 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: The Boys Are Back In Town (No. 12 for 1 week)

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Source: Warner Bros. / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

16. The Kinks
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.4%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 22
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 217 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Come Dancing (No. 6 for 2 weeks)

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

15. The Who
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.4%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 26
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 231 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: I Can See For Miles (No. 9 for 2 weeks)

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Source: William Lovelace / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

14. Louis Armstrong
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.6%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 5
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 50 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Hello, Dolly! (No. 1 for 1 week)

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

13. Gordon Lightfoot
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.6%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 11
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 123 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Sundown (No. 1 for 1 week)

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

12. Dinah Washington
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.6%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 21
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 142 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: What A Diff’rence A Day Makes (No. 8 for 2 weeks)

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Source: Jason Merritt/TERM / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

11. Al Green
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.7%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 19
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 228 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Let’s Stay Together (No. 1 for 1 week)

10. Joe Cocker
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 85.8%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 19
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 191 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Up Where We Belong (No. 1 for 3 weeks)

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Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

9. The Byrds
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 86.0%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 16
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 102 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season) (No. 1 for 3 weeks)

Source: Clive Limpkin / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

8. The Beach Boys
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 86.2%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 55
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 550 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Kokomo (From”Cocktail” ) (No. 1 for 1 week)

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

7. The Doobie Brothers
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 86.4%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 27
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 280 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: What A Fool Believes (No. 1 for 1 week)

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Source: BIPS / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

6. The Beatles
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 86.5%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 69
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 608 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: The Long And Winding Road/For You Blue (No. 1 for 2 weeks)

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

5. Ella Fitzgerald
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 86.6%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 3
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 22 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Mack The Knife (No. 27 for 1 week)

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Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

4. J.J. Cale
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 86.9%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 4
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 36 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: Crazy Mama (No. 22 for 2 weeks)

Source: David Redfern / Redferns via Getty Images

3. Nina Simone
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 86.9%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 6
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 35 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: I Loves You, Porgy (No. 18 for 1 week)

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2. Perry Como
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 87.6%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 22
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 173 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: It’s Impossible (No. 10 for 1 week)

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Source: Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

1. B.B. King
> Probability two random songs in catalog will be thematically distinct: 88.8%
> Billboard Hot 100 hits: 32
> Time on the Hot 100 chart: 207 weeks
> Biggest Hot 100 hit: The Thrill Is Gone (No. 15 for 2 weeks)

Methodology

To determine the musicians with the most diverse output in terms of subject matter and/or emotional approach, 24/7 Tempo reviewed data on the sentiment in popular songs appearing in “Temporal Analysis and Visualisation of Music,”  a paper presented in October 2020 at the Brazilian Computing Society’s 17th National Meeting On Artificial and Computational Intelligence in Rio Grande, Brazil. The dataset categorizes 28,000 songs released between 1950 and 2019 in seven genres (rock, reggae, jazz,blues, hip hop, country, and pop). 

The songs were analyzed across 15 thematic categories – “sadness,” “world/life,” “romantic,” “violence,” “communication,” “light/visual perception,” “obscene,” “feelings,” “night/time,” “movement/places,” “family/spirituality,” “girls,” “dating,” “family/spiritual,” and “shake the audience” – based on their lyrics, acousticness, danceability, loudness, instrumentalness, valence (a song’s musical positiveness from happy to sad or depressed), and energy. For our list, artists were ranked based on the probability that two of their songs, picked at random, would be in different thematic categories.  

Only artists with at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100 were included for consideration. Data on Hot 100 performance came from Billboard. An artist’s biggest Hot 100 hit was determined using an inverse point system wherein a week at No. 1 on the chart is worth 100 points, a week at No. 2 worth 99 points, and so on, until at a week at No. 100, which is worth one point. All data is current as of January 2022.

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