Ranking Musician Tribute Songs from Best to Worst

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We were intrigued to hear that Patti Smith’s new record Banga contains a track called “This Is the Girl,” which is apparently a tribute to none other than Amy Winehouse. We haven’t heard the song yet — if you have, do feel free to let us know in the comments whether it’s any good or not — but either way, it’s the latest in a music industry tradition: that of musicians writing songs for their deceased counterparts. Of course, some such songs are more successful than others — and so, here’s a selection that spans the spectrum of good to bad. Guess which end “I’ll Be Missing You” comes at!

Stevie Wonder — “Sir Duke”

If you look up “exuberant” in an online dictionary, you may well find a link to the above video, Stevie Wonder’s joyous tribute to Duke Ellington — who died two years before this song was released — and the other “pioneers that time will not allow us to forget.” You can feel it all over, people.

Ben Folds — “Late”

We’re not particularly big fans of Ben Folds, but this tribute to his former touring partner Elliott Smith is simple, beautiful, and touching — it reflects on the time the two spent together, and the fact that Folds never got the chance to say the things to his friend that he wished he could have done. Perhaps the saddest part is the observation during the song’s chorus that “It’s been too late/ For a long time.”

Bone Thugs-n-Harmony — “Tha Crossroads”

The video’s a bit silly, but this is proof that hip-hop tribute songs don’t have to be risible saccharine schmaltz fests like, oh, a certain song about the Notorious B.I.G. that you will find toward the end of this list (OK, at the very end). It’s about the late Eazy-E of N.W.A., who was something of a mentor to the group, signing them to his label at the beginning of their career.

Sonic Youth — “Tunic (Song for Karen)”

A strange combination of the disturbing and the whimsical, parts of this tribute to Karen Carpenter read frighteningly like Manic Street Preachers’ harrowing anorexia/bulimia epic “4st 7lb” (“I feel like I’m disappearing/ Getting smaller every day/ But I look in the mirror/ I’m bigger in every way”), but for all that its subject matter is grim, there’s something curiously touching about the idea of Karen hanging out on a cloud with Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley. That bit with the skull over Kim Gordon’s face in the video is terrifying, though…

Patti Smith — “About a Boy”

“This Is the Girl” won’t be the first time that Smith’s written about a lost contemporary — this song, from her 1996 comeback album Gone Again, dealt with the suicide of Kurt Cobain. As far as Smith’s lyrics go, “About a Boy” is decidedly understated, and all the better for being so — it describes Cobain as “a boy/ Beyond it all” and ends with the sad observation that the song is “about a boy/ Who will never grow.”

REM — “Let Me In”

As one might expect, Cobain’s suicide inspired a number of songs, including this track from REM’s 1994 record Monster. In a curious quirk, the opening line (“All the stars drip down like butter”) references Smith’s song “Birdland” — itself an elegy of sorts, inspired by Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams — and catalogs Stipe’s ultimately futile attempts to get through to Cobain: “I had a mind to try to stop you/ Let me in/ Let me in/ I’ve got tar on my feet and I can’t see/ All the birds look down and laugh at me/ Clumsy, crawling out of my skin.”

Alice in Chains — “Would?”

Thoroughly depressing listening, to be honest, for the simple fact that it’s a tribute song for a man who died of a heroin overdose — namely Andrew Wood of Seattle proto-grunge act Mother Love Bone — sung by a man who died of a heroin overdose 12 years later. Sigh.

U2 — “Angel of Harlem”

The sentiment was laudable enough — a tribute song for Billie Holiday — but the execution here is more bombastic Sun Studio pastiche than anything else. The lyric’s full of rather contrived jazz-era namedropping, and it also falls into the trap of rather idealizing its subject. Holiday was a complex and often tragic figure — abused and institutionalized as a child, and addicted to heroin from the mid-1940s onwards — but depicting her as an “angel” is ultimately both simplistic and actually somewhat patronizing.

Don McLean — “American Pie”

Before you take to the comment section, yes, we are well aware that this is indeed the most famous tribute song in rock ‘n’ roll history, dealing with the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper in a 1959 plane crash. Thing is, though, you’d never know that from the pseudo-profound nature of this song’s labyrinthine lyric, which was full of nudge-nudge wink-wink references to other musicians of the time (“The jester” is Bob Dylan! “The girl who sang the blues” is Janis Joplin! Wait, no, Joni Mitchell! Because her album was called Blue!) and a whole shitload of weird Christian imagery. And a football game. Um.

Linkin Park — “Tupac and Biggie Tribute”

Yes, this is a Linkin Park song about Tupac and Biggie. Yes, it sounds exactly like you might imagine. And speaking of Biggie, no list of tribute songs, good and bad, would be complete without…

Puff Daddy feat Faith Evans and 112 — “I’ll Be Missing You”

…this! Seriously, we don’t mean to belittle anyone’s bereavement, and we were huge fans of Biggie — but still, surely there must be a better way of mourning the loss of a friend than taking a creepy stalker anthem (of which you have apparently entirely missed the point), dousing it in perilous doses of saccharine, and inflicting it on the world for the next decade, making oodles of cash in the process.