BBC God Only Knows

What Makes The Perfect Cover Version? We Used Science To Find Out…

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The BBC have launched a vote to find the nation’s favourite cover song, with the 50 song shortlist picked by BBC DJs and music experts (you can also see what the public think by searching #GreatestCovers on Twitter).

We’ve already cast our vote, but the contest got us thinking: what makes a good cover version? Would it be possible to take those 50 songs and devise a formula for the perfect cover song?

We took a look at the BBC’s shortlist and considered 4 elements:

  • The time gap between the original and the cover
  • Whether or not the cover is a different genre from the original
  • The gender of the original and cover vocalists – different or the same?
  • Whether the original was well-known or obscure

And wouldn’t you know it? We’ve only gone and stumbled on the formula for THE PERFECT COVER SONG! Read on to find out what it is!


How old should the song you cover be?

12 years (or 11.96, to be more specific)! That’s average length of time that the covers on the BBC’s list were recorded after the original.

There is a lot of variation though. 24% of the songs on the list were released less than 5 years after the original, including 5 that were released just a year later: Hey Joe and All Along The Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix, With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker, Heartbeats by Jose Gonzalez, and Valerie by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse.

Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks has the longest gap between original and cover (44 years), while Labrinth’s Express Yourself comes 2nd with a gap of 41 years!

So, if you’re planning to record a cover, start by looking at this list of songs released in 2002!


Should you change the genre of the song?

Yes! 34 of the songs in the list are a different genre to the original (68%), while just 16 are the same (32%).

Before you run off and composing a freeform jazz cover of Wrecking Ball, however, bear in mind that most of the songs don’t make huge changes – keep it to a popular genre (punk is about as abrasive as the songs on the list get).


Should you record a song by originally sung by the opposite sex?

Now, this one is quite difficult. The statistical answer is a resounding NO, with 34 of the songs covered by a singer of the same sex as the original vocalist.

However, of the songs released post-2000, covers of songs originally sung by the opposite sex are MORE popular. There are 7 post-2000 covers by opposite sex vocalists on the list (including Make You Feel My Love by Adele, Run by Leona Lewis and Feeling Good by Muse) while there are just 4 same sex vocalist covers.

The answer depends on what you put more faith into: statistics or trends?


Should you record a well-known or obscure song?

For the purposes of this post, a ‘well-known’ song is anything that charted in the top 40 singles, or appeared in a top 20 album in the US or the UK.

Based on those criteria, you should definitely cover a well-known song. 38 of the songs on the list (a whopping 78%) qualify as well known!

Of the 12 that weren’t well known, most were recorded a couple of years after the original was written: Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’ Connor, I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye, and Heartbeats by Jose Gonzalez all being good examples.


Add a little something special

Unfortunately, there’s no exact formula with music, and the odd artist manages to stumble on something special that elevates their song above the original. For example, Aretha Franklin introduced the R.E.S.P.E.C.T section into her cover of Respect (as well as the ‘sock it to me’ line) and made the song her own.

It works in the opposite direction too. Jeff Buckley and Johnny Cash stripped back Hallelujah and Hurt respectively and ended up creating the definitive versions of both.


So, what makes the perfect cover song?

Based on our ultra-scientific research into the BBC’s shortlist, here is our formula for the perfect cover song:

  • Record it 12 years after the original
  • Change the genre
  • Cover a vocalist of the same sex (unless you’re recording after 2000!)
  • Pick a well-known song
  • Add something special (you’ll figure it out, we’re sure…)

So, if you’re in a punk band, cover a pop smash from 2002 and wait for the money to roll in! Here’s a suggestion: