The Empress of the Blues: A Tribute to Bessie Smith
As I discussed in my book, the world of tribute albums leans very male and very white. Lord knows that problem in the music industry stretches far beyond the tribute world, but you’d hope a format based on celebrating deserving artists would look farther beyond the typical classic-rock canon.
So kudos to Jim Sampas of the great tribute label Reimagine Music for honoring someone every bit as deserving as your Springsteen or Nirvana: Bessie Smith. Double kudos for featuring entirely women on the album, without using that fact as the marketing gimmick many other tributes do. You’d never know it from the title, or even from the tracklist (turns out the “Tim” in indie-pop duo Tim & Adam is female).
The album succeeds on more than just principle too, paying homage to Smith’s great music without trying to recreate the sound of 1920s blues. Americana looms large, but one song veers punk (Haley Bonar, “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair”) while another takes its cues from electronic music (Hanne Hukkelberg’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”). All in all, it sounds modern, taking an artist too often put in a time capsule and making her songs feel fresh. – Ray Padgett
Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon
In a world of lame puns and half-assed song references, Enjoy Every Sandwich stands out as perhaps the only genuinely moving tribute album title in existence. The reference, as Zevon fans will know, is to Zevon’s final David Letterman interview. Zevon had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and knew he only had months to live. Letterman asked him what he’d learned in this experience. His advice: “Enjoy every sandwich.”
Enjoy Every Sandwich came out in October 2004, just over a year after Zevon’s passing. Longtime friends from Jackson Browne to Billy Bob Thornton turn up, as do more famous admirers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The covers largely lean towards the reverent, which feels appropriate given the context, but the Pixies rip the throat out of “Ain’t That Pretty At All.” Nothing tops Jill Sobule’s fingerpicked “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” though, made doubly heartbreaking by the tragic context. – Ray Padgett
Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates The Grateful Dead, Volumes 1 & 2
Someone here having already mentioned above the need for more reggae and the Dead – okay, it was me – well, here is a real feast. No half-hearted anonymous studio concoction, either; this features real heavy hitters of the genre, from Toots Hibbert to Gregory Isaacs, Wailing Souls to the Congos, with Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths to add some female flair. Rather than just adding a touch of bluebeat to the originals, these are full-blooded immersions in Jamaican music, the vocals giving no truck to a more rock ‘n’ roll tradition, exemplified in opener (to Volume 2), um, “Truckin’,” the idiosyncratic vocal interplay of the Wailing Souls true to themselves, the backing vocals a masterclass in themselves. From there it just gets better and better.
You might think the Grateful Dead were never imbued with such a lively pop sensibility, but actually, yes they were. Dig under the Bay Area vibe and the beauty was there, hidden from first hearing. This sheen generally works to the song’s advantage here, in no small part to the involvement of the rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar across several tracks. Small print devotees may note that Merl Saunders, keyboard buddy of Jerry Garcia, pops up on several tracks. – Seuras Og
For the Masses
It still seems unlikely that the great and the good of US alt-rock should assemble to pay tribute to British synth-poppers Depeche Mode. Yet the members of God Lives Underwater who put For the Masses together in 1998 knew exactly what they were doing. Chief organizer David Reilly, particularly, recognized that Martin Gore’s songs of disaffection, angst, and self-destruction struck a chord with the 1990s generation of punk-influenced guitar distortionists.
Result: Deftones and Smashing Pumpkins stole the show with a menacing “To Have and To Hold” and a bluesy “Never Let Me Down,” respectively; Veruca Salt delivered a strikingly intimate version of “Somebody”; and God Lives Underwater themselves contributed a gloriously pulsating version of “Fly on the Windscreen” (complete with catchy refrain “death is everywhere”). Gatecrashers to the Stateside party, The Cure and Rammstein also provided distinctive renditions, the latter’s goth-metal version of “Stripped” being something to behold indeed. – Adam Mason
Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in 1979 caught a lot of people by surprise – so much so that that the songs themselves weren’t given a chance. While this has been rectified somewhat by the release of the Trouble No More boxset in 2018, it’s still the case that his three religious albums are some of the most overlooked in his vast discography. “This was Bob Dylan’s ultimate rebellion, and it took much more courage than strapping on an electric guitar,” said Jerry Gaskill, producer of Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, to Businesswire in 2006.
If you close your eyes while listening to this album, it’s easy to imagine that you’re sitting in church watching each performer take the stage. The fast numbers (Sounds of Blackness’s “Saved,” Mighty Clouds of Joy’s “Solid Rock”) make you want to get up and dance, while the slower songs (Dottie Peeples’ “I Believe in You,” Rance Allen’s “When He Returns”) send you drifting into quiet reflection. The icing on the cake is a cameo appearance from Bob himself, who shows up at the end of the album to sing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” with Mavis Staples. – Tim Edgeworth
I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen
Look, I just wrote a whole book about this album, so you could say I’m biased. Then again, there’s a reason I picked this particular example to frame my broader tribute-album story. For one, it has had as much impact on music history as any tribute album ever. It’s a long and winding story (worthy of a book, you might say…), but you wouldn’t know the song “Hallelujah” without it.
But paring I’m Your Fan down to just “the one where John Cale recorded the ‘Hallelujah’ cover that kicked off the song’s ubiquity” does the overall set a disservice. The producers, two editors of a French music magazine, roped in a bunch of just-becoming-famous (R.E.M., Pixies) and seemed-like-they-might-become-famous (Dead Famous People, The Lilac Time) bands to cover a songwriter who was, at the time, at a career low. Even before “Hallelujah” became big, these younger, hipper bands revived Cohen’s career by introducing his music to a younger generation. Leonard became “cool” again, and remained so for the rest of his life.
When I’m Your Fan first came out in 1991, a reporter for Britain’s Q magazine played the entire album for him, and recorded his comments. Cohen highlighted Pixies’ “I Can’t Forget” – “wow, hear the conviction in that?” – and Ugandan singer Geoffrey Oryema’s “Suzanne” – “When you hear a guy singing a song like this, which you wrote before he was born, it gives you a good feeling.” He called Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ sound-collage cover of “Tower of Song” “weird,” but added that “it’s a really intelligent approach . . . he’s caught the spirit of the song.” Cohen at one point grew choked up with emotion, telling the reporter, “This isn’t a casual moment for me.”
Even years later, he credited I’m Your Fan with saving him from the oldies circuit. In 2009, he thanked the opening band on stage for contributing to this tribute album back when his career “was kind of dying.” As he put it in the I’m Your Fan promo materials, “It’s nice to know your songs have lasted that long, as long as a Volvo, the car that’s supposed to last 30 years,” he wrote. “It’s like you’re up there with other well-made items in the marketplace. To be affirmed in one’s tender years such as I am enjoying is always agreeable.” – Ray Padgett
Best cover: R.E.M., “First We Take Manhattan”
Worst cover: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Tower of Song” (a fascinating approach, but not one that ends up in a particularly listenable recording – I prefer the 33-minute unedited version)
If I Were A Carpenter
One of the odd cultural phenomenoms of the ’70s was the decade’s obsession with teenage life in the ’50s. From films like American Graffiti and Grease to TV shows like Happy Days to Elvis’s Vegas residencies and the risible popularity of Sha Na Na, the ’70s couldn’t get enough of “the good old days.” It’s always the same – once you are out of your teens you tend to get a bit more romantic and appreciative of the older, presumably carefree days of your youth.
So it was perhaps inevitable that the kids and teens born in the ’70s, eventually known as the Gen X-ers, were going to experience a similarly sentimental affection for the pop culture of their youth. Of course, for the first generation truly raised on TV and radio, ’70s pop culture was not as cool, rebellious and stylish as the ’50s, but rather kitschy, tacky and sartorially deafening. But it was theirs. From The Brady Bunch movies and stage shows, to the boldfaced love of Schoolhouse Rock, to the legendary series of Have A Nice Day CD compilations, by the ’90s all the uncool pop culture touchstones of the past now bore the lustrous sheen of sweet nostalgia.
The Carpenters were regarded as the antithesis of cool during their dominating reign of the pop charts in the ’70s (Richard Nixon was a big fan). Their straightforward songs of romantic longing, immaculately arranged by Richard and sung to perfection by sibling Karen, became so ubiquitous that by the end of the decade many had come to be regarded as actual modern-day standards. Still, most young people thought the duo to be certifiably cheesy, especially as their non-threatening appearance and lack of volume attracted the approval and fandom of a particularly uncool demographic of music fans: parents and grandparents. But the tragic circumstances of Karen’s death in 1983 forever altered the world’s perception of The Carpenters. Songs that were previously deemed as corny were suddenly imbued with genuine pathos and sadness, thanks to Karen’s haunting vocal performances within them.
1994’s If I Were A Carpenter was the brainchild of producer Matt Wallace and music journalist Dave Konjoyan. It featured 14 tracks by a wide ranging bunch of (mostly) Gen X alternative-rock artists. It was a perfect storm of a concept, the overarching ’90s angst of alt-rock aligning perfectly with Karen’s heartfelt expressions of desire and pain and Richard’s melodically memorable arrangements.
The track that has gotten the most attention over the years, Sonic Youth’s excellently eerie take on “Superstar” isn’t actually representative of the album’s overall sound. The majority of If I Were… vacillates between faithfully lush balladry and quirky, crunchy pop, all featuring productions that screamingly timestamp the whole endeavor as you know, whatever, ’90s. And it totally works.
The songs by the cool boys (Matthew Sweet, Mark Eitzel and Grant Lee Buffalo) are all wonderfully unabashed valentines, each standing at The Carpenter doorstep bearing a single rose. Even better are the tracks that turn up the volume, namely Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) and Marc Moreland’s “Hurting Each Other” which resembles a glorious metal Ronettes song and Redd Kross’s transformation of “Yesterday Once More” into a sneery, power pop junior high love note. The more faithful (and just okay) takes from Cranberries and Sheryl Crow are offset by the album’s polarizing yet endearing oddballs from Shonen Knife (goofy) and Babes in Toyland (fabulously sludgy). Even one-hit-wonder Dishwalla’s run through “It’s Going To Take Some Time” oozes an undeniably earnest charm. There are some outright misses by 4 Non Blondes (overwrought, off-key) and the usually cool Cracker, whose “Rainy Days and Mondays” has an edge of unwelcome irony using “ah’s” and strings in the background to drive the point home. That aside, 25-plus years later, If I Were A Carpenter remains immensely listenable, which is a tribute to the timeless melody forever embedded in the Carpentry. – Hope Silverman
Best cover: Johnette Napolitano & Marc Moreland, “Hurting Each Other”
Worst cover: Cracker, “Rainy Days and Mondays”
In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2
While it’s hard to think what else they could have called it, the title In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2 might be a little overambitious. Africa is such a vast continent, comprised of so many different musical styles, that what’s presented here can only offer a glimpse of what Africa has to offer. Despite that, it’s a treat to hear such a familiar and iconic songbook being reworked so comprehensively, to the point where you don’t even need to be a fan of U2 to enjoy this collection.
Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure – son of the great Ali Farka Toure – lights up “Bullet the Blue Sky” with his hypnotic fretwork, South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir soars on “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and Nigeria’s drumming legend Tony Allen brings his trademark percussive brilliance to “Where The Streets Have No Name.” Only a curiously electronic “With or Without You” by French-Chadian duo Les Nubians sounds a out of place amongst the more organic-sounding material elsewhere on the album. Otherwise, this is an exciting whistle-stop tour around Africa via Dublin. – Tim Edgeworth
Best cover: Vusi Mahlasela, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”
Worst cover: Les Nubians, “With or Without You”
Jesus Christ Surferstar
Truly the pinnacle of tribute album insanity: Twenty-six surf-rock bands cover every song on the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. One has to imagine the producers came up with the punny album title and then devised an album to fit it. Thing is, it works. Goofy, sure, and there’s definitely a wink here (the album cover alone!), but Andrew Lloyd Webber knows his way around a melody, so nothing is lost by dropping the plot and shifting these songs to a largely instrumental context. Surf-rock bands typically steer clear of ballads, but they even manage to make “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” work. – Ray Padgett
Spin magazine released this 2009 tribute to mark the 25th anniversary of Prince’s monumental Purple Rain. It’s clear from the first track this is a project which aims to honor the fervor with which the visionary Prince threw himself into his art.
The Riverboat Gamblers bring their live-show energy to the life-affirming “Let’s Go Crazy” to spark this tribute into action. Where the tracks sometimes lose some of Prince’s characteristic storytelling tone amidst their experimentation (see the filtered vocals on Chairlift’s “Darling Nikki”), this is remedied by moments where the risk-taking pays off. From the choral quality of The Twilight Singers’ piano-driven “When Doves Cry” to a brass-laden rendition of Mariachi El Bronx’s “I Would Die 4 U,” these moments show the reach and relevance of Prince’s vision to all corners of the music world. The melancholy of Lavender Diamond’s whispers through the closing “Purple Rain” captures the essence of a tribute album by creating a moment of stillness to marvel at Prince’s sound and influence. – Sabrina Caires
Best cover: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “Take Me With U”
Worst cover: Craig Wedren, “Baby I’m a Star [not streaming]
The list continues on Page 5.