Like the charity album, the tribute album is fraught with danger — they’re a lovely idea in principle, but often the results are at best underwhelming and at worst hilariously bad. Still, they don’t have to be that way, and with tribute albums in the news a bit of late — there’s Joe Jackson’s Duke Ellington record, which is out this week, along with news of an upcoming Fleetwood Mac tribute, we thought we’d take the opportunity to round up some of the worthiest examples of the genre. Your suggestions are, as ever, more than welcome.
Some of the best tribute albums are those to artists who perhaps aren’t so well known in their own right, perhaps because they tend to be labors of love that only feature musicians who were actually fans of the artist in question. So it was with this 2009 tribute album to oft-overlooked folk singer Kath Bloom, which featured contributions from artists who were genuinely inspired by her work — everyone from folk-scene contemporaries like Devendra Banhart to The Concretes and Scout Niblett. Uniquely, it also came with a second disc that contained the original versions of the songs, making it a particularly good introduction to Bloom’s work.
There seems to be something about tribute albums to relatively obscure folk singers, too, because this 2009 tribute to the late Judee Sill is similarly excellent. Like Loving Takes This Course, it comes across as a genuine labor of love, and involves a fine selection of artists — Frida Hyvönen, Bill Callahan, Ron Sexsmith, Beth Orton and, um, Final Fantasy doing “The Donor.”
There have been several Cure tributes over the years, but we’re particularly partial to this 2009 effort, which features a couple of our favorite artists — Dean & Britta, Tanya Donnelly — along with a fairly eclectic selection of others. It’s on Connecticut label American Laundromat, who seem to specialize in tribute albums (they were also responsible for the Pixies one from a few years back, along with an all-girl Neil Young compilation).
Regular readers will know of our enduring affection for the late, great, and perpetually under-appreciated guitarist Rowland S. Howard, once of the Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls and also the author of two exceptionally fine solo albums. This 2006 tribute was put together by French label Stagger Records, and features contributions from Mick Harvey, The Drones, Nikki Sudden, and plenty of others.
Given that 13th Floor Elevators basically invented psychedelic rock, it’s a surprise that it took as long as it did for a decent tribute album to appear. This 1990 album redressed the balance — it’s a shame it didn’t include Spacemen 3’s version of “Roller Coaster,” though.
Poor Leonard Cohen has endured some awful “tributes” over the years, particularly the dire Tower of Song compilation from 1995, which amongst other things involved Don Henley butchering “Everybody Knows” and Sting assaulting “Sisters of Mercy.” (Cohen himself apparently liked it, which only goes to show that the man is a saint, goddammit.) Happily, this record, released four years earlier, means that there’s at least one decent Cohen tribute on the market. We particularly like Nick Cave’s deconstruction of “Tower of Song.”
There have been a bazillion covers of “Some Velvet Morning” over the years, but much of Lee Hazlewood’s other work remained largely untouched — until this record came along, anyway. Amusingly, the compilation came with liner notes that featured Hazlewood giving his verdict on the interpretations of his work. (Bonus points for the puntastic title, too.)
Includes, amongst other things, Psychic TV doing “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” All true.
All the other records on this list are compilations, but this contains one artist and one artist only — Steve Earle paying tribute to his mentor, the great Townes Van Zandt. There’s probably no one better qualified to take on an album of Van Zandt covers than Earle, and he pulls it off very well indeed — he doesn’t stray far from the originals, but then, he doesn’t have to.
The classic. This album is best known for Sonic Youth’s take on “Superstar” (which Richard Carpenter apparently didn’t like, incidentally), but there’s plenty of other gold on there also — even if there is a Cranberries track to skip over, too.