In a musical sense, at least, the charity album is usually a pretty underwhelming affair — while the idea of releasing music to raise money for a good cause is a laudable one, a lot of charity records end up as hand-wringingly sappy affairs involving a) all-star bands that are less than the sum of their parts and/or b) Bono. Happily, though, this isn’t always the case. With the release of the Blonde Redhead-curated We Are the Works in Progress compilation this week on February 6 — a 13-track collection of unreleased tracks that the band are putting out via their own label to raise money for Japanese earthquake relief — we thought we’d take a look at some other charity records, old and new, that are totally worth investing in. As ever, let us know (nicely) if we’ve missed anything.
We Are the Works in Progress (2012)
We’d be pretty excited about this compilation even if it weren’t for a good cause — the killer inclusion is a new song from Karin Dreijer Andersson (even if it’s basically an outtake from the Red Riding Hood soundtrack), but there’s also songs by John Maus, Deerhunter, Liars plus Blonde Redhead, Four Tet, and, intriguingly, Pantha Du Prince doing a song called “Bird on a Wire.” Surely it’s not the Leonard Cohen song… is it?
Dark Was the Night (2009)
The grandaddy of recent charity albums, this double-CD extravaganza was put together by The National’s Dessner brothers, and as with We are the Works in Progress, it’s a pretty amazing compilation in its own right — the fact that it was raising money for AIDS research was just the icing on the cake. The sprawling tracklist encompasses everything from Sharon Jones covering Shuggie Otis to unreleased tracks from Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, although our favorite is Beach House doing Queen’s “Play the Game” (which was originally a bonus iTunes-only track). Also, we’re still cursing ourselves for missing the Dark Was the Night concert at Radio City Music Hall in 2009.
For Nihon (2011)
We Are the Works in Progress isn’t the only excellent compilation to have arisen as a result of the awful earthquake in Japan last year. Curated by Keith “Helios” Kenniff and his wife, Unseen Records’ For Nihon compilation was a 38-track extravaganza of experimental ambient music, featuring contributions from Kenniff himself, along with genre luminaries like Alva Noto, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ulrich Schnauss, Rafael Anton Irisarri, and about a bazillion others we’re not ashamed to admit that we’ve never heard of. It also came with a pretty snazzy website.
The original Sweet Relief — an album that was conceived in 1993 to raise money for singer/songwriter Victoria Williams after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — was also a worthy record, but since we’re judging purely on musical merit here, we’ll go with its successor, which was released three years to raise money for Vic Chesnutt. The record consisted of a variety of artists — including R.E.M., Sparklehorse, and Chestnutt’s longtime friend Kristin Hersh — covering the singer’s work. It also included an unexpected collaboration between Joe Henry and his sister-in-law, one Madonna Ciccone.
War Child: The Help Album (1995)
War Child albums have been hit-and-miss affairs over the years, mixing moments of inspiration with moments of dull mainstreamness. The first album in the series set the pattern, but its tracklist fell far more on the right side of the equation — there was Manic Street Preachers covering “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (their first recording after Richey Edwards’ disappearance), along with a new version of The Stone Roses’ “Love Spreads,” Radiohead’s “Lucky” (later to appear, of course, on OK Computer), a rare post-1992 appearance from the KLF, and Suede covering Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding.” There was also Noel Gallagher and various dad-rock mates (including Paul McCartney) pretending to be The Beatles, but hey, you can’t win ’em all.
Seven Swans Reimagined (2011)
A bunch of alterna-folk types recreating a Sufjan Stevens record? Honestly, it doesn’t really get much more indie than this. And it was all for a good cause — the proceeds of this album went toward breast cancer research.
It’s a Cool Cool Christmas (2000)
This turn-of-the-millenium indie affair managed to buck not one but two music industry trends by being both a good charity album and a good Christmas album. It featured a decent cross-section of bands who you might expect to find on free NME and Melody Maker CDs at the time, with artists from both sides of the Atlantic covering a selection of Christmas songs. It aimed to raise money for The Big Issue, the homeless charity magazine founded in England and now published in various countries around the world.
The Lord’s Taverners Charity Album (1965)
Good luck finding a copy of this, but we thought we’d include it anyway because of the fact that it was almost certainly the first rock ‘n’ roll charity album. It was released in 1965 to raise money for the Lord’s Taverners, a UK-based organization that promotes sports (especially cricket) among disadvantaged youth, and featured an exclusive track from a group of young up-and-comers called The Rolling Stones, along with songs by The Zombies, Tom Jones, and a bunch of other largely forgotten UK artists. The album was eventually released in the US as a straight-up compilation called England’s Greatest Hitmakers, with all the charity branding removed.
DRC Music — Kinshasa One Two (2011)
Damon Albarn’s latest Africa-centric project was one of the overlooked highlights of last year. The DRC Music idea involved sending Albarn and a team of producers (including Dan the Automator, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, and various others) to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work with a series of local musicians and make a record to raise money for Oxfam. The resultant album was made in five days, and is way better than you’d think it has any right to be.
No Alternative (1993)
This was the prototype for “alternative” charity albums, setting out the mixture-of-unreleased-tracks-and-occasionally-whacky-cover-versions template that’d be used for innumerable albums that came after. No Alternative was made to benefit the same Red Hot Organization AIDS charity that’d be responsible, nearly two decades later, for Dark Was the Night. The tracklist is a rollcall of Gen X alternative types, and as such is a mixed bag, but on the whole there’s enough goodness here to justify the investment — there’s rarities from heavyweights like The Breeders, Sonic Youth, and Soundgarden, and an unexpected New Zealand influence with tracks from Straightjacket Fits and The Verlaines. The real gold, however, is the “secret” unreleased Nirvana track (“Sappy”) that nestles right at the end of the album — until it was included on rarities box set With the Lights Out in 2004, this was the only place you could find the song, making No Alternative a pretty sought-after item for Nirvana completists.