Oct 052020

Go back to the beginning

Caroline Now! The Music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys

It’s hard to say who would enjoy Caroline Now! more: those who love every note the Beach Boys ever recorded, who would hear lesser-known songs of theirs done great justice, or those who only knew the hits and discovered how strong the Boys’ back catalog really is. Neither group was likely to be familiar with most of the performers on the album, which turned out to be a dual blessing – the artists could be discovered by the curious, while serving as a remarkable frame for the glorious art of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. – Patrick Robbins

Best cover: Eric Matthews, “Lonely Sea”
Worst cover: Radio Sweethearts, “Honkin’ Down the Highway”

Chicago Plays The Stones

In December 2015, The Rolling Stones entered the studio and recorded an album of classic Chicago blues songs made famous by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter. Coincidentally, in Chicago itself, plans were already underway to record a blues tribute to The Stones, based on the idea of how their songs might have been interpreted by the blues legends of the ’50s. While the majority of said blues icons had passed on, their places would be filled by the cream of the contemporary Chicago blues scene, under the direction of producer Larry Skoller.

Despite being proficient in a number of different musical styles, the Stones are, at their core, a blues band. This might explain why the songs chosen for this album fit so comfortably into the blues idiom – even songs like “Miss You” or “Beast of Burden,” which couldn’t be less bluesy in their original versions. The biggest triumph is Buddy Guy’s searing take on “Heartbreaker”; other tracks, like Lianne Faine’s “Gimme Shelter” are less successful, but still make for an enjoyable listen. When it  comes to Chicago blues and The Stones, it’s very hard to go wrong. – Tim Edgeworth

Best cover: Buddy Guy feat. Mick Jagger, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”
Worst cover: Carlos Johnson, “Out of Control”

Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy

Tragedy can make for great mulch. After Mark Mulcahy lost his wife, his colleagues rallied around him to make an album that served as both tribute and benefit. Ciao My Shining Star succeeded greatly on both counts, especially the former. Mulcahy’s songs may not have been known by the general public, but other artists knew them and leapt at the chance to perform them. This is one of the rare tribute albums where you can feel the way it benefits while you listen to it. Ciao‘s impetus is hugely regretful, but you come away from it believing Mulcahy would have gotten a tribute album sooner or later, and that he deserved its tributes all the way. – Patrick Robbins

Best cover: Thom Yorke, “All for the Best”
Worst cover: Rocket from the Tombs, “In Pursuit of Your Happiness”

Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young For Charity

This compilation of, yes, women artists covering Neil Young (with the non-woman John Doe dueting with Jill Sobule) was released in 2008 to benefit Casting For Recovery, whose mission is to enhance the quality of life of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with the therapeutic sport of fly fishing. Young’s career has spanned numerous genres, and the artists who participated here similarly come from the worlds of country, folk, and various flavors of rock. The album is strong across all of it 21 tracks, and if there could be any criticism of the collection, it’s that the covers, despite their gender switch, don’t take too many liberties from the originals. – Jordan Becker

Best cover: Jill Sobule with John Doe, “Down By The River”
Worst cover: Cindy Wheeler, “Old Man”

Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles

Common Thread was overseen in part by the Eagles’ co-leader Don Henley. The concept, first dreamt up by tribute album superproducer Ralph Sall, was both exceptionally clever and completely on the nose: popular contemporary country artists would cover Eagles songs, celebrating the band’s undeniable roots in the genre as well as their influence on its contemporary poppier sound. It is by some markers the most successful tribute album of all-time, going triple platinum in the U.S. despite having only one of the six singles released from it land in the Top 30 (in the country charts that is; none made a dent in the pop charts).

Even more than its sales success, Common Thread‘s main claim to fame is that it inadvertently ended up reuniting the Eagles. Travis Tritt asked the members of the long broken-up band to appear in his video for “Take it Easy.” That got the band to talking again and subsequently led to their reforming, recording, getting back on the road, and freezing hell over.

Truly enjoying Common Thread mostly depends on how you feel about the Eagles and the slick sound of ’90s country music. It helps if you genuinely like at least one of the two. But even if you don’t, there is something happening within the album that makes it a worthwhile listening investment. There’s an album within the album that has a clear, distinct and maybe obvious dividing line. Simply put, the album’s best tracks, hands down, are those performed by women artists. 

Lorrie Morgan’s beautiful drawl of voice is a perfect fit for the underrated deep cut “The Sad Cafe.” Morgan sweeps through the song in her handsome lowdown register, eliminating the slight shrillness of the original and absolutely nailing the bridge. Trisha Yearwood offers up another one of her trademark majestic vocals on a warm and laid back “New Kid in Town,” while the criminally underrated Suzy Bogguss sweetly folks up “Take it to the Limit” to fine effect. And though the arrangement on Tanya Tucker’s version of “Already Gone” is pedestrian, it is never less than an absolute joy to hear her letting loose with her raw powerhouse of a voice.

As for the guys, with the exception of Vince Gill’s unspeakably gorgeous tenor on “I Can’t Tell You Why” and John Anderson’s singular, unmatchable voice belting out  “Heartache Tonight,” nothing shines as bright. The rest of the album is occupied primarily by faceless proto bro-country artists, who, like passengers in the back of a flatbed Ford, let the wondrous songs do the heavy lifting. Diamond Rio, Brooks and Dunn, Billy Dean, Little Texas, and Travis Tritt in particular offer up pretty by-the-numbers run-throughs. The only distinction from the Eagles originals is an occasional twang in the vocal line or, in Tritt’s case, some bonus banjo. 

Common Thread is a timepiece, an artifact from when CDs were the most popular way to consume music and, as of this writing, isn’t currently available on streaming services (though of course there are plenty of used CDs to be found!). But it remains a fun and worthy thing thanks to the exceptional contributions of Morgan, Yearwood, Bogguss and Tucker. Go on, girl… – Hope Silverman

Best cover: Lorrie Morgan, “Sad Cafe”
Worst cover: Little Texas, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”

Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story (An Album to Benefit War Child)

Although Brandi Carlile’s self-titled first album was received well, it wasn’t until her second album, The Story, that she made it big. Ten years later, she organized a cover album to celebrate her breakthrough, with the proceeds benefitting charity War Child (which supports children who are victims of war and conflict).

True to Carlile’s eclectic style (somewhere between folk, rock, and country), this album brings together artists from across the musical map. We’ve got Dolly Parton, Adele, Pearl Jam, and the Indigo Girls all in one place. Old Crow Medicine Show’s “My Song” brings a more bluegrass sound. Anderson East adds a little extra soul in “Josephine,” complete with some church organ. The Secret Sisters’ airy vocals make “Losing Heart” sound like a dream or trance.

In the original album’s title track, there is this great moment right before the three-minute mark where Carlile just lets loose. It’s raw, almost a battle cry. “All of these lines across my face / Tell you the story of who I am.” Dolly Parton’s version is a little less rock-and-roll, but we still hear the escalation in feeling. – Sara Stoudt

Best cover: Dolly Parton, “The Story”
Worst cover: Kris Kristofferson, “Turpentine”

Day of the Dead

In 2016, the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner helped produce this sprawling 59-track Grateful Dead tribute album. The album featured a lineup of neo-hipster rock royalty including the Flaming Lips, Jim James, Kurt Vile and the Violators, the War on Drugs, Mumford & Sons and Wilco. Like any Dead show, the extensive track list included Dead originals, songs the Dead covered, solo tunes from Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, and attempts to recreate the band’s freeform jams.

Among my favorites are Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s quiet, piano-driven take on “If I Had the World to Give,” This Is the Kit’s version of the folk standard “Jack-A-Roe,” and Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby’s gospel-infused rendition of “Black Muddy River.” The National, along with Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear, recorded a stunning recreation of the Dead’s long-form masterpiece “Terrapin Station.” At times, the song is almost indistinguishable from the original. In other moments, like the melodic percussion interlude known as “Terrapin Flyer,” the ensemble arrives at something completely new.

Clocking in at five hours and 26 minutes, the collection naturally has some low points, such as Bob Weir and Wilco’s underwhelming “St. Stephen.” But, to paraphrase Robert Hunter, we would not have forgiven any of the artists if they did not take a chance. – Curtis Zimmermann

Best cover: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “If I Had the World to Give” 
Worst cover: Wilco and Bob Weir, “St. Stephen”

Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., this tribute album strips down the big hits to their simplest form. Acoustic-forward versions of originals with bigger sound like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “No Surrender” bring out a darker tinge to the songs.

Somber lyrics start to jump out where they once were buffered by the rock energy. The title track in the hands of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires mournfully recounts being born in America, contrasting Springsteen’s originally assertive declaration. The deep rumble in the background of Low’s “I’m on Fire” is ominous, and the straightforward but soft vocals emphasize long felt, lovelorn pain over younger, lovesick flames. This tribute album also brings a country sound to the original songs that falls nicely in the “heartland rock” category. Blitzen Trapper’s version of “Working on the Highway” brings the twang and spans the gap between city and country workers. – Sara Stoudt

Best cover: Low, “I’m on Fire”
Worst cover: North Mississippi Allstars, “My Hometown”

Deadicated: Tribute to the Grateful Dead

Having only recently sung my praises of this project here, how can it be sold again so soon? Easy, if returning to a theme of tributes making you like the originals when you didn’t before, just as Brittle Days sold me on Nick Drake. Not everyone is a Deadhead, even those who might want to be, citing the vocals or the sometimes shambolic playing.

This selection provides confident and competent vocals, matched by stellar and striking settings that gild the lily for even the staunchest skeptic. By varying the sounds between swaggering rockist fare and subtler hues, interest is engaged and maintained. Elvis Costello, Dwight Yoakam, and Warren Zevon pick up that swagger, while Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls, and Lyle Lovett shine on the quieter and more reflective songs. From a slightly further left field come Dr John and Burning Spear, the latter providing a potent reggae skank, begging for a wider fleshing out on this sort of material. Of course, ’90s tribute album perennials Cowboy Junkies and Los Lobos – always Los Lobos – appear, each with their seals of authenticity, sufficiently to have you believing the hype and seeking out the source material. There are, it’s true, a couple of duffers, but possibly different duds to different ears. Some people actually like Midnight Oil.

It also has an interesting booklet, with snippets about how and why the individual acts concerned had got to the music of Garcia, Weir and company. Plus, as made in the support of a charity, Rainforest Action Network, it does us all some good. – Seuras Og

Best cover: Lyle Lovett, “Friend of the Devil”
Worst cover: Midnight Oil, “Wharf Rat”

Desperate Times: Songs of the Old 97’s

This 2016 tribute album was instigated by Jeff “Jefe” Neely, the “website guy” for Old 97’s, who decided that it would be a good idea to get other musicians to cover his employer’s songs as a fundraiser for charity: water, whose mission is to “bring clean and safe drinking water to every person in the world.” Many of the artists had toured with Old 97’s at some point in the band’s two-decade-plus career, and a significant number are from Texas, where Old 97’s formed. Not surprisingly, therefore, most of them inhabit a similar Americana/country/rock space as the band they are covering. The contributors, all well-respected artists if not chart-toppers, seem to have embraced the challenge. For the most part, although the covers don’t generally stray too far from the originals, each is distinctive and all are of exceptional quality. – Jordan Becker

Best cover: Kelly Willis: “Rollerskate Skinny”
Worst cover: The Travoltas: “Wish The Worst”

The list continues on Page 4.

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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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