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If Leonard Cohen, who passed away Thursday at age 82, had only released one song in his lifetime, “Hallelujah,” his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would still be very deserved. “Hallelujah” has certainly earned him a spot in the Reality Rocks Hall of Fame, since the moody yet majestic ballad is one of the most-covered tunes in TV talent competition history.
Yes, perhaps “Hallelujah” has become the ultimate singing show cliché; even Cohen himself once complained to the Canadian Broadcast Service that too many people had covered it. But there is a good reason why the go-to song was never retired from the American Idol, Voice, and X Factor catalogs, and why so many contestants have signed up to sing it season after season: It’s simply an all-time, timeless classic, so much so that its impact has been only negligibly lessened by the dozens of remakes that have aired on TV over the years.
The interesting irony about Cohen’s composition becoming such a singing show staple was that he didn’t actually possess a Kelly Clarkson-esque voice himself; his sleepy, semi-spoken monotone, though distinctive, sexy, and brimming with character, probably wouldn’t have gotten him a golden ticket on Idol or inspired any chairs to spin around on The Voice. But that’s the enduring beauty of Cohen’s songs, especially “Hallelujah”: Whether performed by a sensitive singer-songwriter or a multi-octave power-diva, they still work.
Anyway, we assume you really care for music (do you?), so here are some of the best talent show performances of “Hallelujah.”
13. Joshua Davis (The Voice, Season 8)
“Hallelujah” is a statement song many contestants choose when trying to prove that they are, as American Idol judge Randy Jackson used to say, “in it to win it.” So this Team Adam underdog tried to win with it on The Voice Season 8 finale. His performance only got him to third place, but it was a respectable effort — especially since, unlike other a couple other singers on his list, Davis kept things simple and didn’t show off or oversing.
12. Carly Rose Sonenclar (The X Factor USA, Season 2)
This preteen prodigy’s version may have been conservative and Celine-like, but she showed off some massive pipes during her powerhouse performance on the X Factor USA finale. Many viewers were shocked that this operatic tour de force wasn’t enough to help Sonenclar edge out Season 2’s eventual winner, thirtysomething country everyman Tate Stevens.
11. Alexandra Burke (The X Factor U.K., Season 5)
Following a game-changing performance of the song by Jason Castro on American Idol (more on that in a bit), Simon Cowell chose “Hallelujah” as The X Factor winner Burke’s coronation song across the pond. The power-vocalist’s Whitney-esque interpretation became the triumphant “Christmas #1” on Britain’s singles chart in 2008 and broke a European sales record set by a previous X Factor U.K. champion, Leona Lewis; it also became the fastest-selling single released by a woman in the U.K. Burke’s “Hallelujah” success also helped Jeff Buckley’s version and Cohen’s original chart in the U.K. at #2 and #36, respectively.
10. Jordan Smith (The Voice, Season 9)
The evangelical belter and future Season 9 winner took Cohen’s classic almost literally to church, complete with a white-clad choir. The unstoppable (and often unsubtle) fan favorite unsurprisingly hit #1 on iTunes the following morning.
9. Lee DeWyze (American Idol, Season 9)
The unassuming paint-salesman-with-a-dream “threw down the gauntlet to try to win the whole thing” and had his “best moment,” according to Randy Jackson, when he belted a rough-edged, raspy, raw “Hallelujah” on the top three night. DeWyze subsequently made it through to the finale over Casey James, and a week later, won the Idol title.
8. Tim Urban (American Idol, Season 9)
Urban was the second Season 9 Idol contestant to take on “Hallelujah,” with a version considerably more stripped-down than DeWyze’s. It was a strategy that worked. Before this, Urban had been a total underdog (he was an alternate candidate, added to the top 24 at the last minute after another contestant was disqualified) and had received mostly harsh critiques. But this tasteful performance showed promise, and it got Urban into the top 12.
7. Jeff Gutt (The X Factor USA, Season 3)
The tattooed Detroit rocker made it to the finale when he dropped to his leather-covered knees and convincingly transformed “Hallelujah” in a bold, Muse-y power ballad.
6. MacKenzie Bourg (American Idol, Season 15)
We’ll probably still hear this song on The Voice for many seasons to come, but sweet troubadour Bourg, a top four finalist on Idol’s final season, had the honor of being the very last person to ever sing “Hallelujah” on American Idol. His rendition was sweet, heartfelt, and charming, and it was the perfect end to an Idol era.
5. Matthew Schuler (The Voice, Season 5)
The Team Xtina pop-soul dynamo’s passionate “Hallelujah” has been widely heralded one of the best Voice performances of all time, by one of the series’ all-time best singers. Schuler’s stunning studio version even hit #40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #38 on the Canadian Hot 100 in November 2013.
4. Josh Krajcik (The X Factor USA, Season 1)
The shaggy, soulful burrito cook of the first much-hyped American season of Simon Cowell’s show performed “Hallelujah” during what was awkwardly billed “Get Me to the Finale Week.” Well, the song did its job. This stellar piano interpretation actually should have clinched the win for Krajcik, one of the finest talent show singers ever (he ultimately placed second). The X Factor USA may be long gone, but this performance still holds up.
3. Jason Castro (American Idol, Season 7)
This really was the “Hallelujah” TV cover that started it all. In 2008, when Castro performed a vulnerable acoustic version on Idol’s top 16 week, judge Simon Cowell noted that the late Jeff Buckley’s 1994 rendition was one of his favorite recordings of all time. This resulted in a huge sales spike for Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” propelling it to the top spot on the iTunes singles chart. The single was later certified platinum, 14 years after its original release and 11 years after Buckley’s death; at the time, this was the biggest digital sales spike for a song performed by an Idol contestant. Cohen’s original and a version by Rufus Wainwright also received sales boosts, and Castro himself appeared briefly in the top spot on iTunes chart (he was removed due to Idol producers not wanting to favor any one contestant; it was a very different world then). Eight years later, Castro’s “Hallelujah” is still considered one of the greatest performances in American Idol history.
2. Karise Eden (The Voice Australia, Season 1)
This fiery, free-spirited phenom channeled Janis Joplin during her bluesy, badass, incredibly fresh and original take on Cohen’s oft-covered song. Eden deservedly won the entire competition, and her “Hallelujah” also made the top five chart and went platinum Down Under.
1. The Voice Cast (The Voice, Season 3)
In December 2012, following a classy move to eschew SNL‘s usual comedic opening skit and instead have a children’s choir dedicate “Silent Night” to the victims of that week’s Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy, NBC opened night one of The Voice Season 3’s finale in a similar but even more moving way. As the top 20 contestants, four coaches, host Carson Daly, and social media correspondent Christina Milian stood on a candlelit stage and movingly sang “Hallelujah,” they held individual cards printed with the names (and, even more devstatingly, the ages) of each of the shooting victims. It was an unusually dark and somber moment for the show’s splashy finale week — but an entirely appropriate, Emmy-worthy one.
Honorable mention: Alex Wong & Allison Holker (So You Think You Can Dance, Season 7)
This didn’t air on a singing show, per se, but Sonya Tayeh’s heartbreakingly gorgeous contemporary number on Idol’s Fox network sister series, set to Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” is still worthy of repeated viewing. This was magic.