Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
A few years ago, Stereogum called the tribute album “possibly the most universally derided format in pop music.” To be fair, many tribute albums are pretty rough. Hootie and the Blowfish and Blind Melon covering Led Zeppelin? Yech. A ska tribute to Duran Duran? It works as well as you’d think.
Nevertheless, tribute albums overall get a bad rap (and I’m not talking about the tribute albums that feature bad rap). Despite the format’s many black marks, its promise is enticing: A bunch of artists spanning generations and genres come together to honor a formative influence, simultaneously showing just how well that influence’s songs work in other sounds and styles. I just wrote an entire book on the history of the tribute album (more on that here) and gained a whole new appreciation for the format. When it goes bad, it goes very bad. But when it succeeds, there’s nothing quite like it in the world of popular music.
The tribute albums as we know it didn’t really exist until the ’80s, when it was more or less invented whole cloth by one man: Hal Willner. It’s a long story (did I mention there’s a whole book about it?). Suffice to say that by the end of the decade, a few other independent producers began following Willner’s lead, and in the ’90s, the major-label tribute album gold rush was on. That pace has continued to this day, with new tribute albums coming out every week even as record label budgets for them have shrunk.
Unfortunately, older tribute albums are getting lost to time. Very few of the tribute albums of the CD era appear on streaming services. Even the most famous tribute albums of the ’90s, some of which sold millions of copies, are M.I.A. on Spotify (that includes the one I framed my book around, 1991’s I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen). You can find most of them on YouTube at least, as fans step up to preserve this music when the labels won’t.
Today, we’re presenting our list of the 50 Best Tribute Albums Ever. Even narrowing it down to 50 was hard (the Honorable Mentions at the end adds over 100 more). We’ve listed them in alphabetical order, and included our writers’ picks for the Best and Worst tracks on each, because, yes, even the greatest tribute albums usually have a dud or two. That inconsistency is usually held up as a knock against them, but I think of it as a sign of the format’s potential. A good tribute album takes risks and tries a bunch of different things to honor a band or songwriter. They won’t all work, but these fifty did it better than most.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
The list begins on Page 2.