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, for instance, in 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018, featuring some of the greatest actors and singers of their generation – including Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, and Lady Gaga.
Songs are often remade far more often than even the most often rebooted movie. “A cover version of a song is a version of it recorded by a singer or band who did not originally perform the song,” according to the Collins Dictionary – and there are countless examples of cover songs, some of which have been revived by new artists for decades. “Unchained Melody” was originally recorded for the soundtrack of a B movie called “Unchained,” by baritone Todd Duncan – one of the first African-Americans to perform with a major opera company – and has gone on to become one of the most often covered songs of all time. There are more than 1,500 versions of it. And the interpretation by the Righteous Brothers is the best cover song of all time. (Here’s a list of the most covered songs in music history.)
Musicians often 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 included it in 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. (These are the absolute best 50 songs in history.)
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 was calculated. whereby 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. 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.)
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