Oct 052020

Go back to the beginning

Abbasalutely: A Flying Nun Tribute to the Music of Abba

This 1995 tribute to the Swedish pop legends is composed of indie-rock covers by various bands under the New Zealand label Flying Nun Records. This compilation sustains a thread of the almost chaotic guitar-pop sound for which the label became known, bringing some grit to ABBA’s otherwise pristine pop sound. 

This works particularly well on Garageland’s “Dancing Queen,” where the original’s instantly recognizable piano is overshadowed by a grungy guitar line. Sometimes this is exchanged for a more acoustic sound, such as on Cloth’s “Waterloo,” which reaffirms the track as a sing-around-the-campfire favorite. But it’s Loves Ugly Children’s “Honey, Honey” which fully embodies the punkish attitude of Flying Nun, pulling ABBA into an entirely new realm.

Across 14 tracks, this album pulls from all across ABBA’s discography to showcase more heartfelt moments (Bike’s “My Love, My Life”) and playful folky moments (The Magick Heads’ “When I Kissed the Teacher”), showing the versatility of the Flying Nun sound and offering one island’s interpretation of the band which made such a mark in pop music. – Sabrina Caires

Best cover: Loves Ugly Children, “Honey, Honey”
Worst cover: Martin and the Moondogs, “Tropical Loveland” [not streaming]

Adios Amigo: A Tribute To Arthur Alexander

A tribute to who? Well, actually you have heard his music, if indirectly, especially if you fall into prime Boomer territory, growing up with an ear to ’60s radio. The Beatles covered “Anna.” The Stones covered “You Better Move On.”

This has to be one of the most authentic of tributes. One can easily imagine any of these performers practicing these very same songs, pre-fame, in their bedrooms and garages, wishing, hoping, dreaming. The affection is palpable as the bevy of musicians parade their versions and honor his influence. I don’t doubt for a moment the presence of dusty Arthur Alexander 45s on their shelves at home. So we get Elvis Costello and Robert Plant, each known as hugely knowledgeable music fans. We get Roger McGuinn and John Prine, fountains of US musical wisdom and tradition. Add in Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, and Black Francis, and you can tell which itches are being scratched here.

But it isn’t only his acolytes featured here, there being also contributions from peers: Gary US Bonds and, most touchingly of all, Donnie Fritts. Alexander actually wrote the title song with Fritts, who appears in a glorious duet of that song with Dan Penn, another ’60s writing peer. Beyond that,  I haven’t even begun to touch on the individual performances, but take it from me: they are a near-uniform delight. OK, the presence of Zucchero, a seemingly compulsory addition to all tribute records of the 1990s, raises an eyebrow now, but let that exception prove the rule of excellence. – Seuras Og

Best cover: Marshall Crenshaw, “I’d Do It All Over Again”
Worst cover: Zucchero, “From Now On”

And I’ll Scratch Yours

And I’ll Scratch Yours, from 2013, is a different kind of tribute album; the featured artist, Peter Gabriel, organized it himself. He didn’t pull it off quite as planned, though. He’d hoped all the (still-living) artists he’d covered on his Scratch My Back album of 2010 would return the compliment. But Radiohead, David Bowie, and Neil Young held back.

Nevertheless, And I’ll Scratch Yours is chock-full of very big acts delivering fresh and surprising versions of Gabriel’s penetrating songs. Indie-folk supremo Bon Iver, notably, responded to Gabriel’s intense version of “Flume” with an especially moving and ethereal “Come Talk to Me.” Elbow delivered a beautifully sung “Mercy Street” (with Guy Garvey’s vocals clearly in debt to the man himself), and Randy Newman was perfectly suited to the satirical So number “Big Time,” really going to town on those money-obsessed high-flyers of the ’80s. The darker stuff impresses here, too, with Joseph Arthur, Brian Eno, and Lou Reed leading Gabriel to deeply creepy places he could never have imagined. – Adam Mason

Best cover: Bon Iver, “Come Talk to Me”
Worst cover: Feist, “Don’t Give Up”

AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex

Hal Willner never made a bad tribute album, but his newest, released last month after years of work – and, tragically, after Willner’s death from COVID-19 complications this spring – is among his best.

When I interviewed him last year for my aforementioned book, he discussed how Marc Bolan’s reputation as a rocker often overshadows his songwriting. On AngelHeader Hipster, Willner corrects the record, combining Willner regulars like Lucinda Williams and Nick Cave with newcomers from Father John Misty to Kesha. U2 and Elton John bring some New Orleans horns to “Get It On (Bang a Gong),” while Peaches takes “Solid Gold, Easy Action” to a nightmarish rave. – Ray Padgett

Best cover: Nick Cave, “Cosmic Dancer”
Worst cover: Gavin Friday, “The Leopards”

Backed in Black: A Tribute to AC/DC

The danger of a complete genre shift on a tribute album is that you might lose the thing that made the source material great. AC/DC’s Back in Black is in your face, loud, and brash, but an all-female acoustic tribute album makes it clear those aren’t the qualities that give these songs staying power. They’re still catchy as hell, even when you take the gain down to 0.

The originals all fit together both in musical and lyrical themes in a way that is matched here. There’s a cohesiveness to this tribute because most of the songs follow a similar pattern: open with lots of low-end acoustic bass notes that substitute for the power chords, add intricate guitar work to spice it up, and crisp solo vocals on the verse that are filled out with interesting harmonies in the chorus.

The songs that stand out most are the lesser-known tracks that don’t have to compete with the nostalgia of classic rock radio. “Let Me Put My Love Into You” by Erin Alder, for example, could slip under the radar as an original composition. Alder’s voice soars while the guitar serves as a simple counterpoint, but the guitar gets more interesting during the pre-chorus and there’s a pretty cool blues solo. Don’t plan to headbang to these tracks, but do expect to catch yourself nodding along to the solid groove throughout. – Mike Misch

Best cover: Erin Alden, “Let Me Put My Love Into You”
Worst cover: Jessica Will, “For Those About to Rock”

Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska

If you are one of the no small few who feel Nebraska to be peak Bruce, this is a no-brainer and you will own it already. But, given the quality of artists here present, it would do entirely well as a standalone sampler of class acts, even for the Bruce-averse. If I wasn’t ensnared by the likes of Chrissie Hynde, Aimee Mann, Los Lobos and only Johnny bloody Cash, the presence of Dar Williams and Ben Harper, then only on the periphery of my listening, added to my must-have feeling when this came out twenty years ago. Others like Hank Williams III and Ani DiFranco I knew only by name; after hearing their contributions. I took a far greater interest in their work.

With the arrangements providing nuanced perspective on the bleakness of the originals, most adding with their embellishment, the respect for the original material shines through. Hell, Deana Carter even allows me to like the only (for me) clunker on the original, the obtrusively electric “State Trooper,” with a subtler take on events. It is fascinating how a female voice transforms the work of many a great American male songwriter; even someone as blue-collar macho as Springsteen finds women transmitting unheard beauties in both his words and his music.

Another delight is how the album also includes three songs not included on the original Nebraska, works in progress that didn’t make the cut. This alone is near worth the investment and, for me, suddenly cast my lingering prejudice around the Mavericks into touch, Raul Malo’s “My Father’s House” topping even Johnny Cash’s “I’m On Fire.” – Seuras Og

Best cover: Dar Williams, “Highway Patrolman”
Worst cover: Crooked Fingers, “Mansion on the Hill”

Beat The Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson

Not everybody adores Richard Thompson, a fact I find strange to report. It seems to be his voice that most fall foul of; others find his guitar stretching toward uneasy listening, as he traverses the myriad possibilities beyond any usual rock convention. However, even these strange folk will admit to a grudging, if wary admiration for RT’s songwriting. Thankfully, his admirers include a stellar range of his peers, many of whom group here to, literally, sing his praises, in the second of the two such albums now made in his honor. If the first, The World Is A Wonderful Place, was a more low key affair, mainly from a folkie Anglocentric field, this brings out way bigger guns: R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, and tribute album staples Los Lobos. Plus a second line from spiky then-youngsters X, Bob Mould, and Dinosaur Jr. Add in some gravitas courtesy the Blind Boys of Alabama and you have a well-nigh perfect record.

Both the disparate electric and acoustic sides of Thompson are well represented, but it is the unexpected mix of musicians that most intrigues. The style and genre of the material shifts all over the shop, yet maintains an overall cohesiveness for all that, keeping up interest rather than losing attention. Avid fans of any of the acts involved, let alone of Thompson himself, will not have expected such diversity in one place, away perhaps from usual comfort zones. June Tabor, the doyenne of an austere English folk tradition, is backed by a combo featuring both James Burton and David Lindley. David Byrne, the edgy Talking Head turned glitzy ethno-polymath, pairs with a pair of Elvis sidemen, the Presley bassist Jerry Scheff and the Costello drummer Pete Thomas. Will Beat the Retreat send the Thompson-phobes back to think again and to try the originals once more? Probably not, but it’s still an acquisition to cherish. – Seuras Og

Best cover: R.E.M., “Wall of Death”
Worst cover: Dinosaur Jr, “I Misunderstood”

The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young

In the history of tribute albums, The Bridge stakes its claim as one of the most important. Not only was it early enough in tribute history that Rolling Stone had it as a lead review (paired with Neil Young’s comeback Freedom), it also pioneered the “it’s for charity” angle, benefitting The Bridge School.

As the icing on the cake, it was a strong collection, with indie artists mixing songs both famous and arcane to great effect. These artists had different sounds, but that was appropriate – so did Neil. – Patrick Robbins

Best cover: Pixies, “Winterlong”
Worst cover: Nikki Sudden & The French Revolution, “Captain Kennedy”

Brittle Days: A Tribute to Nick Drake

A decade and longer ago, ask me about Nick Drake and I would have sent you away with a flea in your ear. Just as the world was belatedly warming to his posthumous legacy, I was backing further away, espousing to dislike his miseryguts guitar and awkward vocals.

However, courtesy my love of covers – and there are lots of Nick Drake covers, this LP being but one example – I began to change my opinion. Now I am a full-blown enthusiast, although secretly fonder sometimes of a well-crafted cover. An early outlier in the Drake heritage empire, contrary to many of the discs featured here, was Brittle Days. This 1992 disc from Imaginary Records, a small UK label that specialized in tributes, features versions largely provided by low-flying indie acts, some almost unique to the project.

That needn’t be the putdown it sounds. Not all the covers work, but the artists give pleasingly alternative approaches to the occasionally dour source material. Styles vary from low-key to lush: the bare piano and haunted spectral vocals of Shelleyann Orphan to the electro Bacharach shimmer of High Llamas, the near-chamber classictronica (before there was such a thing) of the Swinging Swine to the gaunt lo-fi of Tracy Santa (two artists I never heard of before or since). The best-known name is probably that of The Walkabouts, perhaps hired to tip the quotient away from the totally obscure. Whilst their rendition of “Cello Song” is fine, it is below their best, but it was good to see them here. – Seuras Og

Best cover: Clive Gregson, “Northern Sky”
Worst cover: Nikki Sudden & The French Revolution, “Time Has Told Me”

Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs Of John Prine

As we mentioned in our rundown of the best John Prine covers, there are a lot of great versions of Prine tunes. His songwriting is unmatched, for sure, but you can feel the love these artists have for these songs. The theme for most of the artists on this tribute is alt-country. Prine’s music usually gets lumped into folk, but it was never too far from country, so this is a match made in heaven.

Certainly these songs have a similar feel in terms of genre, but the other thread here is that it feels like these songs have been lived in by these musicians. Whether it’s Lambchop’s halting, melancholy delivery or the raucous hootenanny from the Avett Brothers, there’s authenticity in these covers. As we said in the best Prine covers feature, the worst you can expect is still “pretty good,” and that holds true on this album. No swings and misses here. Just pretty good. Not bad. I can’t complain. – Mike Misch

Best cover: The Avett Brothers, “Spanish Pipedream”
Worst cover: Deer Tick, “Unwed Fathers”

The list continues on Page 3.

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  12 Responses to “The 50 Best Tribute Albums Ever”

Comments (12)
  1. Virus 100, for me. Some five-star songs on that one, like Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Sepultura.

    • It’s way too uneven, in my opinion – there’s a bunch of stuff that I just kinda slide past.
      That said, I’ll definitely also agree that some of those tracks are ABSOLUTELY essential. (Dat Evan Johns track, and GOOD GOD YEAH, that Disposable Heroes track is even HARDER now.)

  2. What about Lemme take you to the beach, Zappa goes surfin’

  3. Let us not forget…

    To Cry You A Song – A Collection Of Tull Tales

    Magellan do a storming version of Aqualung and Roy Harper sings Up The ‘Pool

  4. Congrats for this marvelous list. I only miss the tribute to Police made by various Latin Artists entitled Outlandos d America

    Here is link https://www.discogs.com/pt_BR/Various-Outlandos-DAmericas-Tributo-A-Police-A-Tribute-To-The-Police/release/8519675

  5. Jennifer Warnes’ groundbreaking Famous Blue Raincoat is a glaring omission.

  6. Fantastic list, though I still think Eggbert’s MELODY FAIR deserves a spot. WIG IN A BOX is due for a re-release, not least because I need to hear Frank Black’s “Sugar Daddy” again…

  7. Great job, Cover Me team! Thank you! There are some well-worn favorites here, but also many I’d never heard of and am now inspired to track down …

  8. I know it was in the Honorable Mentions list, but I gotta put “Where the Pyramyd Meets the Eye” higher – it’s an all-killer-no-filler collection of tracks.

    (I’m also incredibly fond of “Last Temptation of Elvis”, but I’ll certainly concede that it’s got its fair share of stumbles. But lordy, there’s some great stuff on there, and that Nancy Griffith “Wooden Heart” is just LOVELY.)

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