A Brief History Of Covers In The Hottest 100
Like a Versions now take up roughly 30 percent of all covers in the history of the Hottest 100. So is triple j beginning to eat its own tail?
The 28 previous winners of the annual triple j Hottest 100 are, on paper, all considerably different.
The number-ones run the gauntlet of solo artists, duos, full bands, duets; rock, pop, hip-hop, folk. Hell, it’s even been won by a stand-up comedian. What tied every winner together, however, is the fact that these were all songs that were written by the artists themselves — from ‘Asshole’ to ‘Heat Waves’, all could widely be classified as original compositions, even if they contain interpolations or samples.
This weekend, that changed. One of the top front-runners to take out the entire countdown was The Wiggles’ jaunty take on Tame Impala’s 2012 single ‘Elephant’, which the band recorded for triple j’s Like a Version as part of their celebration of the group’s 30th anniversary. The skivvied veterans ended up going the distance, marking not only the first time that a cover has ever ascended beyond number five but also the first time a cover has taken out the countdown entirely. The elephant is well and truly in the room.
It was, however, far from the first cover song to make its way into the countdown. Since it was first rebranded as a yearly time capsule circa 1993, the Hottest 100 has seen its fair share of different versions take to its chart — over 100 of them, in fact. With the 2021 countdown now in the rear-view, we’re going to take a closer look underneath the covers. From reverent recreations to radical reinventions, here’s a brief history of the Hottest 100 from a reworked perspective.
The ‘Standard Setter’ Cover
Let’s start by looking at the game-changer: the version that becomes so popular, it either equals the original or surpasses it entirely. A few of these have managed to take out single-digit spots in Hottest 100s of the past — Spiderbait’s all-guns-blazing take on the blues standard ‘Black Betty’ (#5, 2004), as well as Björk’s brief dalliance with the mainstream via her nymph-like rendition of big-band number ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (#5, 1995).
There were also smash-hit covers some would rather leave in the past — Alien Ant Farm’s shouty nu-metal take on ‘Smooth Criminal’ (#6, 2001) certainly comes to mind.
Elsewhere in the countdown’s history, Christine Anu’s cover of Warumpi Band’s ‘My Island Home’ (#47, 1995) has long since taken the mantle as both her signature song and the definitive version of the Indigenous classic. The Pet Shop Boys, meanwhile, are responsible for arguably the gayest song in Hottest 100 history (at least, on par with ‘MONTERO’) with their camp-as-camp-can-be version of the Village People’s ‘Go West’ (#18, 1993). Elsewhere, the one and only William Shatner turned in a surreal take on Pulp’s ‘Common People’ (#22, 2004) that charted even higher than the original (#38, 1995).
There’s also tracks plucked from complete obscurity, where most don’t actually know it’s a cover — that’d be Tom Jones’ ‘If I Only Knew’ (#9, 1994), James Blake’s ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ (#92, 2011) and The White Stripes’ ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’ (#93, 2003).
Lastly, who could forget the Fugees’ era-defining version of ‘Killing Me Softly’? (#35, 1996). One time!
The ‘I Approve This Message’ Cover
Here’s one getting in on a technicality — a cover where the artist originally responsible for the song is also featured. Though it’s not an overtly prominent type of cover song throughout the Hottest 100, we have to give it some credence given that the very first song in the very first annual countdown was a cover of this type: veteran Irish singer (and recent anti-lockdown fiend) Van Morrison updated ‘Gloria’ by his old band Them, duetting with the late, great John Lee Hooker on a smoky blues jam rendition (#100, 1993).
The Herd would later rope in Redgum’s John Schumann for guest vocals on the studio version of ‘I Was Only 19’ (#18, 2005), which initially gained traction on the station’s new segment Like a Version — more on that later. There are also two quasi-inclusions, given they technically didn’t take part but are credited as featured artists: Sir Rod Stewart crooning on A$AP Rocky’s ‘Everyday’ (#80, 2015) via Python Lee Jackson’s ‘In a Broken Dream’, and Colin Hay having ‘Down Under’ transmogrified by drum and bass producer Luude (#65, 2021).
Everyone’s favourite uncle Paul Kelly, meanwhile, has had this niche cover happen no less than three separate times. Over the decades, PK was on hand to make sure that Christine Anu, A.B. Original and Ziggy Ramo took good care of his ‘Last Train’ (#61, 1993), ‘Dumb Things’ (#45, 2016) and ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ (#99, 2021). Spoiler alert: They very much did.
The ‘This Is Just A Tribute’ Cover
The humble tribute album had a big comeback in 2021 — the likes of Metallica, Gang of Four and The Velvet Underground were just some of the acts that had entire compilations dedicated to their legacies and classic albums. Prior to this, however, cuts from various tribute albums have been a surprisingly consistent part of the Hottest 100.
Dating all the way back to 1994, strange bedfellows The Cure and PM Dawn both scored slots with Jimi Hendrix covers from the tribute album Stone Free: ‘Purple Haze’ (#88, 1994) and ‘You Got Me Floatin’ (#75, 1994), respectively. The following year, one of the most Aussie concoctions ever happened when Yothu Yindi took on AC/DC’s ‘Jailbreak’ for the “alternative tribute” album Fuse Box (#87, 1995). At the end of the decade, Rammstein would unexpectedly pay homage to Depeche Mode with a slow, industrial version of ‘Stripped’ (#90, 1999) from the tribute album For the Masses.
Perhaps the people that benefited the most in the Hottest 100 from tribute albums, however, are the Finn brothers. With the release of both She Will Have Her Way and He Will Have His Way, the siblings found themselves endeared to a new generation — be it Little Birdy’s rocking take on ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ (#96, 2005) or Missy Higgins’ tender reworking of ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ (#47, 2005).
The most successful of these came with the song that, up until very recently, was in a four-way tie for highest-charting cover in Hottest 100 history: Boy & Bear’s goosebumps-inducing cover of Crowded House’s ‘Fall At Your Feet’ (#5, 2010). Over a decade on, it remains one of the band’s most popular and beloved moments and it maintains a constant presence in their top five on Spotify. You can’t do much better with a tribute than that.
The ‘…Wait, What?’ Cover
As nice as it is to hear faithful, by-the-books covers of songs we all know and love, there’s something incredibly arresting about an artist going completely rogue with their cover version — doing it just because they can.
Of course, it’s a very divisive move. Traditionalists, for instance, were infuriated by the Scissor Sisters taking Pink Floyd’s seminal ballad ‘Comfortably Numb’ onto the dancefloor (#92, 2004). Just for the record, though: it’s perfect, and fuck the haters. While we’re on the topic of radical 2004 covers: if Gal Gadot’s reworking of ‘Imagine’ taught us anything as a society, it’s that we took A Perfect Circle’s minor-chord dirge version (#88, 2004) entirely for granted. We didn’t know how good we had it.
Other drastically reworked covers didn’t hold up to much scrutiny, including Frank Bennett’s thankfully long-forgotten lounge version of ‘Creep’ (#95, 1996), N-Trance’s obnoxious Eurodance hammering of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ (#64, 1995), and Ministry’s inexplicable game plan of “let’s turn Bob Dylan industrial” with ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (#74, 1996). Others, however, have only improved with age — see The White Stripes’ snarling garage-rock rendition of ‘Jolene’ (#10, 2004) from the Under Blackpool Lights live DVD.
New Order, interestingly, have found themselves on the receiving end of genre-hopping covers in the Hottest 100 twice. One is a tender acoustic version of ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ from Frente (#56, 1994); the other a gothy nu-metal swing at ‘Blue Monday’ care of one-hit wonders Orgy (#86, 1999). We’ll leave it up to you to determine which one still sounds good.
The ‘This Song Is So Popular It Got Voted In Twice’ Cover
Sometimes, the voting public just become utterly obsessed with a particular song, to the point that both it and a cover make it into the same Hottest 100. A unique prospect, but one that’s occurred a few times throughout the countdown’s history.
Its first known instance was Jebediah’s emo breakup anthem ‘Harpoon’ (#7, 1998) — which also got an angsty reworking from tour-mates Something for Kate, deemed strong enough to score a spot a few hours earlier (#85, 1998).
Six years later, Franz Ferdinand cleaned up with ‘Take Me Out’ (#1, 2004) — a song so massive that even Scissor Sisters’ B-side cover charted (#44, 2004). A truly inescapable song if there ever was one.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of Daft Punk’s comeback phenomena ‘Get Lucky’ (#3, 2013). Listeners truly couldn’t get enough of the Pharrell-lead banger, which meant that when Perth indie kids San Cisco took a run at it they more or less guaranteed themselves a seat at the same table (#39, 2013).
With that being said, San Cisco’s inclusion in the countdown was not solely symptomatic of Australia going goo-goo for the French robots once again. Its inclusion, in fact, is a perfect segue to…
The Like A Version Cover — AKA ‘The Snake Eating Its Tail’
When Ben Folds cheekily crammed some hapless interns into the studio to bang on cardboard boxes while he bashed out The Postal Service’s ‘Such Great Heights’ on prepared piano (#70, 2006), he couldn’t have possibly predicted he’d inadvertently be at the start of arguably the biggest transformation the Hottest 100 has ever undertaken.
Like A Version covers started gaining popularity as the 2000s went on, including Regina Spektor’s beloved revival of Beatles obscurity ‘Real Love’ (#29, 2007). It wasn’t until the start of the 2010s, however, that things really started impacting the countdown.
Since 2011, when Owl Eyes’ LAV of ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ (#28, 2011) charted even higher than the original (#32, 2010), there has been at least one Like a Version in the countdown every single year. In fact, Like a Versions now take up roughly 30 percent of covers in the history of the Hottest 100. The record for the most LAVs in one countdown is currently tied at four apiece for 2016 and 2019, both of which featured top-10 placements from the segment: DMA’s doing ‘Believe’ (#6, 2016) and Denzel Curry’s belligerent tear-through of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bulls On Parade’ (#5, 2019).
It could be argued that the continued momentum of the Like a Version has effectively meant the end of the quote-unquote “normal” cover appearing in the Hottest 100. In fact, there were no non-LAV covers that got in the countdown between Meg Mac doing ‘Grandma’s Hands’ by the late Bill Withers (#46, 2014) and Thelma Plum covering 1999’s winner ‘These Days’ by Powderfinger (#92, 2020).
That’s not to say that a “normal” cover is any more or less legitimate than a Like a Version cover, but given that it’s in triple j’s interest to push their most popular segment, and literally no other year-end lists feature these covers — or any covers recorded for a platform (BBC Live Lounge, Spotify Originals et al.), for that matter — there’s certainly an element of an insular, self-serving culture formulating over the last decade and change.
Where things get further complicated is instances of voters simply falling into the habit of voting for Like A Versions which are covers of popular Hottest 100 tracks from the year prior. It began with Matt Corby doing The Black Keys’ ‘Lonely Boy’ (#69, 2012) — the same countdown where Thundamentals got in with Corby’s own ‘Brother’ (#49, 2012) — and it continued up to Bugs tackling Mallrat’s 2019 bronze medallist ‘Charlie’ (#91, 2020). Effectively, it’s the snake eating its tail in terms of music consumption — I like that song, I’m going to vote for it again. Where does one draw the line?
Effectively, it’s the snake eating its tail in terms of music consumption — I like that song, I’m going to vote for it again. Where does one draw the line?
This leads us to The Wiggles winning the 2021 countdown. What to make of Like a Version saturating the market? There’s certainly an argument to be made for these covers taking up valuable real estate — looking at Ocean Alley’s cover of ‘Baby Come Back’ (#16, 2018) and Lime Cordiale’s cover of ‘I Touch Myself’ (#17, 2019), it’s very clearly a vote for the extremely-popular bands themselves and not their extremely-mid Like a Versions.
With that being said, it’s incredibly hard to deny the presence of stuff like Curry’s incendiary ‘Bulls On Parade‘ — which made shock-waves internationally and racked up millions of views across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. It’s easy to see why JJJ’s audience would have considered something like that among the best things they heard that year — especially given the alternative was stuff like ‘Dance Monkey’ (#4, 2019).
When it comes down to it, the look-in-the-mirror question when voting for Like a Versions needs to be this: is this a valid contribution to what will effectively serve as a time capsule of an entire calendar year for a specific demographic? There’s an argument to be made that The Wiggles’ LAV deserved that place, especially considering the joy it brought to a largely locked-down nation and how it effectively served as a reflection of Gen Z’s childhood (The Wiggles) and coming-of-age (Tame Impala).
Besides, people arguing that only a quote-unquote “serious” song should win seem to quickly forget ‘Asshole’ (#1, 1993) and ‘Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)’ (#1, 1998). And are we really going to stand there with a straight face and say that ‘Elephant’ is less deserving than the plain white sauce of ‘Riptide’ (#1, 2013), ‘Hoops’ (#1, 2015) and ‘Confidence’ (#1, 2018)?
Either way, the Big Red Car that is the Hottest 100 will continue rolling on, regardless of the ongoing discourse — ensuring all bases are covered along the way.