Oct 052020

Go back to the beginning

Rave On Buddy Holly

It feels like a good portion of this star-studded group of musicians got together ahead of time to share notes. The vast majority of these covers have a very “clean” sound, especially around the crisp, running or shuffling drums and the solo, slightly reverbed vocals. It makes for an easy listen track to track, which can be lacking in many tribute albums. Additionally, the similarities highlight the strengths of the source material; Holly’s songs have a simplicity and sweetness in the melodies and lyrics that most of these versions really play up.

“Dearest” by the Black Keys opens the album and is a prime example of showing off the great original song and building into something more. Dan Auerbach croons a sweet melody while he hits the faintest version of the chords, backed by sparse kick drum and high hat. As the song continues, we get added drums and noodling guitar and eventually ethereal backing vocals. Before anything can feel overblown, it’s over. More than half of these songs, and the best ones, are only about two minutes long, giving just enough time to serve up an earworm and move you on to the next simple take. – Mike Misch

Best cover: The Black Keys, “Dearest”
Worst cover: Paul McCartney, “It’s So Easy”

Restoration: The Songs Of Elton John And Bernie Taupin

Elton John, with his Sir-ness and his ostrich-feathered glamboyance, might not seem like the best target for a country music tribute. But this album quickly reminds you that Elton and Bernie Taupin had lots of love for the music of the American south. It shouldn’t be surprising that the country stars perform this music so well and with such feeling — banjos, fiddles, and all. The collection does lean hard on John’s earlier career, which is no drawback: the John/Taupin catalog through to the mid-’70s is arguably their best, and certainly their most Americana-minded.

The line-up of artists is top notch, and runs the gamut from long-reigning stars (Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris), to the best of the new breed (Brothers Osborne, Maren Morris), with a galaxy of stars in mid-career sounding great as ever. Folks on the fringe of country music chipped in too, like Don Henley and Miley Cyrus (who usually leaves the country music scene to her father). In terms of song selection, you have a good distribution: a smash or two (“Honky Cat,” “Rocket Man”) some middle of the road hits (“Sad Songs,” “Sacrifice,” “The Bitch is Back”) and some songs never released as singles but which John fans love dearly (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” “My Father’s Gun”). The talent rises to the best material, and lifts up even some of the lesser songs. – Tom McDonald

Best cover: Maren Morris, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”
Worst cover: Little Big Town, “Rocket Man”

Rewiggled: A Tribute To The Wiggles

In honor of the Wiggles’ 20th Birthday, some of Australia’s best contemporary artists recorded 20 covers of some of the famous children’s group’s popular songs. For Australian children, Wiggles songs are your very first soundtrack, so it’s fascinating to hear these songs transformed by artists who no doubt grew up on these songs. While not everyone’s current style of music translates well to the songs (yes, Spiderbait, we know that it’s ironic to have a hard rock beat behind the lullaby of “Rock a Bye Your Bear,” but it ruins the ambiance, no?), some tracks are intelligently reworked. Lesser-known track “Henry’s Spinning” is turned into a smooth slow rock groover by Paul Greene that will get you swaying, let alone spinning. The standout is Bluejuice’s reworking of “Wake Up Jeff” into a bossa nova/samba track that wouldn’t sound out of place at the coolest bar in your city. – Brendan Shanahan

Best cover: Bluejuice, “Wake Up Jeff”
Worst cover:Spiderbait, “Rock a Bye Your Bear”

Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three

By the time Black Flag split up, they’d logged more stage time than Keith Richards has lodged drugs into his system. The band had more ex-members than Axl Rose’s post-Slash Guns N’ Roses and had dueling reunions in 2013 when Greg Ginn reformed Black Flag with Ron Reyes (Black Flag’s second frontman) and Keith Morris (Black Flag’s first frontman) formed Flag with Chuck Dukowksi, Dez Cadena, and Bill Stevenson. Known for being one of the forerunners of the DIY punk movement – practicing seven hours a day, and touring extensively – Black Flag is one of the most respected hardcore acts ever, and they helped put the West Coast on the map.

In 2002, Rise Above was released with the Rollins Band performing the songs of Black Flag featuring various singers including ex-Black Flag members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, and of course Henry Rollins himself on many of the tracks. The first track, “Rise Above,” is introduced by Public Enemy’s Chuck D, before Rollins belts out the song true to its original form – maybe just a little louder and harder. When Keith Morris breaks into Black Flag’s debut “Nervous Breakdown,” right after hearing Rollins on “Rise Above,” it’s the perfect blend of nostalgia and excitement hearing the first and last frontman of the band back-to-back on the same disc. Highlights include Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenka (X), Nick Oliveri (Queens of the Stone Age), Ice-T, Mike Patton, Dean Ween, Tim Armstrong & Lars Frederiksen, Lemmy, and Slayer’s Tom Araya. There’s not a bad song in the mix, which makes picking the best and worst song a challenge. – Jay Honstetter

Best cover: Tim Armstrong & Lars Frederiksen (Rancid), “No More”
Worst cover: Exene Cervenka & Henry Rollins, “Wasted”

Rumours Revisited

Rumours Revisited was an unassuming compilation commissioned by MOJO Magazine as part of their January 2013 issue to accompany a cover story on Fleetwood Mac. But despite its modest launch into the world, it remains an absolute gem, the very definition of a sleeper and maybe the most listenable Mac tribute that has come down the pike thus far. This is quite an achievement given its competition came in the form of two very high profile Mac cover compilations that featured far bigger names than those here.

For all its promise on paper, 2012’s Just Tell Me That You Want Me turned out to be exceptionally overstuffed, offering up a staggering 19 tracks (!) only a handful of which were truly memorable (with Gardens & Villas and Washed Out’s contributions being the standouts). And 1998’s Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, comically time stamped by the inclusion of then-megastars Matchbox 20, Tonic and the Goo Goo Dolls, was, apart from Sister Hazel’s “Gold Dust Woman,” a passionless and forgettable affair. Rumours Revisited, on the other hand, can lay claim to owning two of the absolute best Mac covers ever, both of which dwarf virtually everything from those aforementioned Mac comps. And while the covers surrounding those two tracks aren’t quite as seminal, you’ll still feel a celebratory vibe emanating from them, a genuine spark of reverence and affection that is mostly missing on the aforementioned tributes. 

We’ve written about Julia Holter’s magnificent version of “Gold Dust Woman” before, with its hymnal beauty confirming its status as maybe the finest cover of the song ever. But The Besnard Lakes’ take on “You Make Loving Fun” is also exceptional, with its rumbling, murky and sinister guitars and falsetto vocals holding hands and jumping together off a cliff into the chorus. Pure Bathing Culture’s foggy, jangling “Dreams” is downright beautiful, as is The Staves’ folkified “Songbird,” which is blessed with their traditionally transcendent harmonies. There are ridiculously fun takes like Dylan LeBlanc’s lo-fi-Garth-Brooks “I Don’t Want To Know” and Slaraffenland’s eccentric “Never Going Back Again,” with subtle layer of muted horns. Of course, keeping in the tradition of the tribute album, there are a couple of missteps. The Liars turn “The Chain” into Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” an ill-suited approach that turns the legendarily angry anthem into an unrecognizable dirge. And if you don’t like “Don’t Stop,” a polarizer of a song at the best of times, The Phoenix Foundation’s deliberately quirky and cheap-sounding version will do nothing to change your mind. But overall, Rumours Revisited is a winning listen and features some absolutely stellar Mac covers. It’s sweet and weird in all the right places. – Hope Silverman

Best cover: Julia Holter, “Gold Dust Woman”
Worst cover: The Phoenix Foundation, “Don’t Stop”

Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks

Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks celebrates the children’s television cartoon that has been teaching kids grammar, math, science, and history since the ‘70s. True to its title, this album definitely rocks. We’re getting a spunky science lesson from Goodness’s “Electricity, Electricity.” Better Than Ezra adapts well to the balance of singing and spoken asides in “Conjunction Junction.” And hey, knowing how a bill becomes a law is always relevant, even better when it’s pumped up with rock and roll drums and guitar.

Best of all is “The Tale of Mr. Morton.” It’s a slow jam with a hint of a hip-hop beat. Skee-Lo makes lines like “and what the predicate says, he does” sound like natural lyrics. We’re learning, grooving, and rooting for Mr. Morton and Pearl. – Sara Stoudt

Best cover: Skee-Lo, “The Tale of Mr. Morton”
Worst cover: Chavez, “Little Twelvetoes”

Shoe Fetish: A Tribute To Shoes

The pride of Zion, Illinois, Shoes are known as far and wide as power pop circles get – so while their audience might be relatively small, it’s also amazingly pure. There are members of that audience performing on Shoe Fetish, and rarely do tribute albums get so accurately named.

No casual fans perform here, and the album’s not intended for casual fans either. Too bad, as a goblet of Shoes songs should be drunk deeply from by one and all. If you like to hum along to songs about love, whether lost or anticipated, you need this tribute. – Patrick Robbins

Best cover: Matthew Sweet, “Karen”
Worst cover: Matt Bruno, “When Push Comes to Shove” [not streaming]

Sing Hollies In Reverse

The average radio listener can recognize half a dozen Hollies songs just by looking at the titles. The performers on Sing Hollies in Reverse are not average radio listeners; their appreciation of the band’s catalog goes much, much deeper. They take on these solidly crafted songs, from a band that’s more respected than adored, and they make them sound fresh. It’s an eye-opening experience going deeper into the Hollies catalog than oldies radio ever does, and coming up with song after song that’s been well worth returning to for decades, if only someone would tell the world. That’s what Sing Hollies in Reverse does, and reason enough to be grateful it exists. – Patrick Robbins

Best cover: E, “Jennifer Eccles”
Worst cover: Loser’s Lounge, “After the Fox” [not streaming]

Songs From Montague Terrace: A Tribute To Scott Walker

Scott Walker’s career can be broken up into two eras: the pre-Night Flights era and the post-Night Flights era. The era before was Walker as pop star, crooning hits with The Walker Brothers, recreating Jacque Brel tunes in English, and blasting off four killer solo albums with his signature baritone vocals over a Phil Spector-ish wall of sound. After Night Flights, Walker began experimenting with avant-garde techniques incorporating the sounds of slapping meat (among other obscure noises) with elements of punk rock, industrial, black metal, and operatic vocal variations.

On Songs From Montague Terrace, Invisible Familiars and Cibo Matto take on “Shutout,” a track from Night Flights, eliminating some of its post-punk elements and injecting it with a melodic electronic feel with affected vocals and harmonies. The result is a dark (though less dark than the original) version with a dance-y feel that still allows the lyrics to have their space. When Sondre Lerche sings “The Plague,” he never attempts to adopt Walker’s larger than life baritone vocal sound. Instead, he keeps his voice in its comfortable register, rendering the early composition a perfect song for his repertoire. Eugene McGuinness takes “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” from its huge melancholic sound, bringing it into a more 2000s-era indie rock feel with less dramatics while maintaining much of the song’s soft-loud elements. Nightlands strip down “Rosemary,” but add a huge chorus of echoed vocals over guitars and electronics. And Dax Riggs dramatizes “30th Century Man” with heavy vocals and a gradual build-up of layered instruments throughout. – Jay Honstetter

Best cover: Invisible Familiars feat. Cibo Matto, “Shutout”
Worst cover: Ella Joyce Buckey, “Farmer In The City”

The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered

It is good to see the presence of coverdiscs from the music press in this list, with UK magazines Mojo and Uncut especially responsible for commissioning many a tribute to many an act. Here’s another one, given away free with Mojo in the spring of 2012. It’s not even their first offering of Cohen songs by others, but by the sheer variety of the artists featured, as well as by being more than a procession of lugubrious baritones, it betters many of those made for official release. Also, by nature of the talent-spotting role of music journalism, it is fascinating to see the earlier flowerings of current big hitters like Michael Kiwanuka in more formative years. And is this the first acknowledged appearance of Father John Misty, still needing an “aka” reminder to his real name?

There are few stylistic swerves, most performers content to stick to the broad consensus of the originals, interpreting rather than any overt deconstruction. For that, you’ll want to look within the five “bonus tracks,” with an echo-drenched “Last Year’s Man” from folktronica chanteuse Paper Dollhouse. Even Marc Ribot, backing My Brightest Diamond, reins in his avant-garde, not to say hers, and not unpleasingly at that. Apropos more regular participants of this sort of project, Will Oldham offers some typically Appalachian gothic to “Winter Song” in his Palace Music guise. – Seuras Og

Best cover: The Miserable Rich, “The Stranger Song”
Worst cover: Diagrams, “Famous Blue Raincoat”

The list wraps up on Page 6.

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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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