10 Surprisingly Good Tribute Albums

10 Surprisingly Good Tribute Albums

1. Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill

In lesser hands, the tribute record is little more than a way for mediocre bands to gain some undeserved exposure by screwing up songs written by more talented musicians, but producer Hal Willner sets his standards much higher. On discs like 1981's Amarcord Nino Rota, (often considered the first modern-day tribute album) and 1989's Disney tribute Stay Awake, Willner and a rotating cast of jazz and rock all-stars set out not merely to redo songs by geniuses, but to explore the creative possibilities those geniuses first opened up.

The subject of this 1985 tribute, German songwriter Kurt Weill, has become almost more famous than his music (with the perennial exception of "Mack The Knife"). Just this year, he was the subject of the Tony-winning stage show LoveMusik. And a bewildering variety of performers celebrate his rollicking proletarian tales of murder and betrayal on 1985's Willner-produced Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill. The collection brings together jazz innovators like Charlie Haden, John Zorn, and Carla Bley; classicists like The Armadillo String Quartet; world-weary urbanites like Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and Marianne Faithfull; lush-life producers like Mark Bingham and Van Dyke Parks; and an oddball sprinkling of extras like Sting and Todd Rundgren (who contributes the only rock interpretation on the record). The interpretations are uniformly retro, unified by the inimitable juxtaposition of Weill's swaying, tuneful populism with the steampunk baroque of lyrics contributed by the likes of Bertolt Brecht and Ira Gershwin. Thanks to its unabashedly theatrical spirit, Lost In The Stars is as good an introduction to Weill as most of the serious repertoire recordings of his output.

2. Take Me Home: A Tribute To John Denver

Some of the best tribute albums—like Friends And Lovers: Songs Of Bread, and this homage to John Denver—prompt a reappraisal of the entire career of a not-so-respected act. Remade with the slow, droning approach of the likes of Low, The Innocence Mission, Will Oldham, and project-organizer Mark Kozelek, the songs of feather-soft country-rocker Denver become hauntingly, surprisingly melancholy. Denver's winding melodies, stripped of saccharine '70s arrangements, are as ethereal and stung as anything by Red House Painters, and Kozelek's emphasis on lesser-known songs like "Around And Around" and "I'm Sorry" helps make the case for Denver as a songwriter first and a pop star second.

3. Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus

The 1992 album Weird Nightmare is something of a stealth twofer: The compositions and poetry of jazz bassist Mingus form the backbone of the disc, but Hal Willner also incorporates the unique instruments of avant-garde composer Harry Partch, adding a subtly unearthly quality to the music. Though Nightmare's core band includes jazz heavy hitters Greg Cohen and Bill Frisell, the album's refreshingly wide-ranging scope of personality comes from a crew of vocalists including Henry Rollins, Elvis Costello, Robbie Robertson, and Requiem For A Dream book author Hubert Selby Jr., with Public Enemy's Chuck D putting his definitive stamp on a reading of Mingus' autobiographical recollection "The Fire At The Coconut Grove." None of it necessarily sounds like what Mingus would have done himself, but that, of course, isn't the point.

4. This Is Where I Belong: The Songs Of Ray Davies & The Kinks

This Kinks tribute actually has an agenda of a kind, showing how adaptable Ray Davies' songs are to a variety of musical styles—in part because Davies himself has been so open to genre-hopping. Bebel Gilberto's "No Return" keys on the tropical tone of Davies' original and interprets it as full-bore Brasilia, just as Tim O'Brien makes "Muswell Hillbilly" into a genuine bluegrass raver, Matthew Sweet gives "Big Sky" a shot of power-pop jangle, and Lambchop stretches "Art Lover" into a mesmerizing five minutes of twang and drone. Largely avoiding the riff-o-riffic early Kinks hits in favor of Davies' subtler, more tuneful mid-period work, This Is Where I Belong hangs together as a wide-ranging popular-music sampler because of the lyrics, which stitch together a world of lost souls and last chances.

5. Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Covering a Leonard Cohen song gives an artist automatic gravitas, so it's no wonder there have been numerous tributes over the years, with artists as diverse as Pixies, Tori Amos, and Don Henley all taking a stab at the Canadian laureate's songbook. However, no collection nails the material quite like the recent I'm Your Man, the soundtrack (another from Hal Willner) to the documentary of the same name about a pair of star-studded tribute concerts taking place at Brighton Dome and the Sydney Opera House. Part of Cohen's appeal is that his songs are capable of evoking so much emotion while the man himself is so quietly enigmatic, so it stands to reason that the most interesting choice of Cohen interpreters would be outsized dramatists—people like Nick Cave, who adds a hilarious cabaret swagger to the title track, or Rufus Wainwright, whose tango-fied take on "Everybody Knows" makes the end of the world sound like one hell of a sexy party. Yet even the more intimate moments (Beth Orton's mournful take on "Sisters Of Mercy"; Antony's "If It Be Your Will") fare better than expected. There are still a few missteps—Jarvis Cocker strains against the edges of "I Can't Forget," and the less said about U2's overblown collaboration with Cohen himself on "Tower Of Song," the better—but all in all, it's a fitting tribute to a man who's had so many middling ones.

6. Whore: Tribute To Wire

Part of the problem with paying tribute to Wire is that the band made such huge stylistic jumps between records that anything covering its oeuvre is bound to feel a little schizophrenic. To its credit, Whore embraces this by letting the acts interpret the material however they see fit—whether it be Bark Psychosis' bizarre dub-jazz reading of "Three Girl Rhumba" or Mike Watt's hilariously sloppy piss-take on "The 15th"—instead of filing a rote collection of sound-alikes. Naturally, letting the bands use Wire's tracks as a starting point rather than a guide means that a lot of the songs end up sounding like lost originals. Not such a bad thing when it results in such high points as Laika's gentle "German Shepherds" or Band Of Susans' creeping version of "Ahead," but it can also spotlight a lack of creativity, as illustrated by Godflesh's phoned-in murky, industrial slop on "40 Versions," Fudge Tunnel destroying all the song's tension by needlessly walloping the two-chord "Lowdown," or Lee Ranaldo's tossed-off "Fragile." However, such warts are forgivable, especially in light of the primary reason to buy this CD: My Bloody Valentine's intoxicating cover of "Map Ref. 41º N 93º W," the last track the band released, and a frustrating tease for a Loveless follow-up that still hasn't arrived.

7. Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: Roky Erickson

Psychedelic pioneer, cult icon, and infamous LSD and Thorazine casualty Roky Erickson has experienced an amazing personal resurgence in the last couple of years, documented in the film You're Gonna Miss Me. But in 1990, he was living in poverty, in legal trouble for hoarding his neighbors' mail, and less interested in music than in dampening the voices in his head by switching on seven or eight radios and TVs simultaneously. Friends and supporters organized Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye to bolster Erickson and his musical legacy, and the results were splendid. The album is still uneven, and several of its covers are workmanlike at best. But Pyramid's numerous brilliant moments, including John Wesley Harding's scorching "If You Have Ghosts" and T-Bone Burnett's beautiful take on the lonely ballad "Nothing In Return," drove home the point that even during his unbalanced "Martian" phase, Roky was still a powerful songwriter, well worth exploring.

8. The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young

The '90s were a goldmine for bad tribute albums, as the alternative nation scrambled to show how ironically it could ape everything from lounge music to classic rock. But 1989's The Bridge, a collection of Neil Young covers, slipped in right before the trend, and its reverent, openhearted adoration of Young proves how great tribute albums could be before everyone burned out on the idea. The Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Pixies, and even Soul Asylum clock in with gorgeous versions of some of Young's classics, striking the perfect balance between reverence and reinterpretation. Particularly arresting is Nick Cave's crippled crawl through "Helpless" and, believe it or not, Psychic TV's alienly tender "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." The Bridge's only ironic moment is Dinosaur Jr.'s screeching, unhinged rendition of "Lotta Love"—which can easily be interpreted as a jab at all those critics who used to call J Mascis a subpar Neil Young rip-off.

9. Virus 100

In 1992, Alternative Tentacles—the label co-founded by Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra—decided to celebrate its 100th release with the largely in-house DK tribute Virus 100. Solipsism aside, the disc succeeds: Everyone from Neurosis and Napalm Death to Mojo Nixon and L7 contribute renditions of DK's manic, twangy, hardcore anthems. The approach ranges from faithful to hilariously skewed, though Virus 100's most infamous track is Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy' grinding, funk-industrial version of "California Über Alles," which first appeared weeks earlier on the band's debut, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury. Even Faith No More's crooning piss-take of "Let's Lynch The Landlord" works, perhaps because Mike Patton reverse-engineered the treatment that Biafra previously gave Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas."

10. Wig In A Box

The gender-bending off-Broadway musical Hedwig And The Angry Inch spawned a cult film adaptation and popular productions around the world. It also birthed Wig In A Box, a charity tribute album which beautifully evokes the swooning romanticism and deep underlying sadness that writer John Cameron Mitchell and lyricist/composer Stephen Trask packed into the play. Highlights include The Polyphonic Spree's rapturous, ecstatic take on the title track and They Might Be Giants' melancholy, shockingly understated cover of "The Long Grift." Even if Box weren't supporting a worthy cause (The Hetrick-Martin Institute), it'd still qualify as essential.

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