Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Scourge of Tribute Albums

In the last 48-hours I’ve learned of a new upcoming tribute album and one that was just released.

The just-released album pays tribute to the music of The Black Keys.  The upcoming one features the songs of Fleetwood Mac.

First off…is it really time for a Black Keys tribute record?  Aren’t tributes supposed to honor legendary artists who have made a major impact on music in general? I mean, I like the Black Keys overall.  I loved their last record.  But have they had a major impact on all of music-dom???

Before you answer that, let me preempt that question with one about tribute records in general….WHY????

If someone deserves a tribute record, it means they’re great, right?  If they’re great…why do I need to hear someone else doing their personal version of the original, already-great material?

The first time I remember thinking this was when “Endless Highway: The Music of The Band” was released in 2007.  Seriously…how is ANYONE going to improve on the music of THE BAND???

I will concede that there were two tracks I really enjoyed on that album; Guster’s cover of “This Wheel’s On Fire” and My Morning Jacket’s “It Makes No Difference”.  But, honestly, those were songs I wasn’t overly familiar with from the Band’s back catalog.  And once my initial love of the Guster and My Morning Jacket versions wore off, I found my way back to the originals (by The Band) and pretty much stayed there.

Cover songs are fine.  If you want to pay tribute to an artist or song you love, do it.  If you want to try and put your own spin on it…it’s a gamble, but you’re welcome to.

But tribute records just seem cheap and easy. 

The exception might be someone like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, who craft incredible music that’s not easily palatable by the general public.  Or perhaps a well-respected artist who is off-the-beaten-path enough that the greater world-at-large might not be aware of them; someone like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, or even John Hiatt or John Prine.

But even then…it would be my hope that by listening to those cover versions, it would drive a listener back to the original source material.

Is the world any better off for having MGMT and Billy Gibbons versions of Fleetwood Mac songs?  Or Iggy Pop and Pat Travers versions of Black Keys tunes?

Some tribute albums work.  But it's a rare exception.  The ones I've enjoyed generally feature artists that are bound by a common feel or attitude.  The Kindred Spirits album that Marty Stuart produced in honor of Johnny Cash and Bloodshot Records' tribute to Bob Wills both quickly come to mind as good albums that were fun to listen to.  

The Cash album was designed to play tribute to Cash's songwriting and many different genres were represented by the featured artists (Steve Earle, Keb'Mo, Little Richard, etc.), so the gathered artists hung pretty well together; the point was to show how Cash's music could be interpreted in a variety of ways.  But I'm failing to grasp how Lykke Li, Marianne Faithful, Antony & the Johnsons, and Bill Gibbons can hang together cohesively.

In thinking about the tribute albums that work...I still keep coming back to the we NEED them?   Do they fill a void?  Are they better than the originals?  Do they benefit the tributee by driving folks back to the original?

I could go on all day.  But instead, I'll just ask...

What’s your opinion on the tribute album phenomenon?


  1. You didn't mention the recent Woody Guthrie project.
    Maybe the intended purpose of these projects should be "Homage" instead of "Tribute".
    It seems that many of the artists that are part of these albums are actually trying to pay their respects, in a way, to some of the artist who may have inspired them.
    After all, that's why many artists chose certain material to cover throughout their careers.
    As far as Black Keys, I would tend to agree with you in saying that you're not sure if they technically deserve a tribute album, this early in said career.
    There are many artists who have been pigeon holed to a particular type of music throughout their careers, and these tribute albums may be the only way they can broaden their scope of music to the masses.
    Either way, it seems that tribute albums will continue, and at the very least bring attention to:
    1)the original artists material,
    2) the artist(s) that perform on said projects, 3)the producers / engineers behind the scenes, etc.
    And it sure beats the new crap that most major labels are cramming down the throats of the music consuming public!!!! IMO.

  2. I definitely agree with that last comment, about some of this stuff being better than a lot of what's currently out there!

    Not sure if this is the same tribute record you mean, but I literally JUST saw a Woody Guthrie tribute album (Shared Vision) in a friend's collection. I wasn't familiar with it before today. That one seems to hang together pretty well. Lots of rootsy artists, like Mellencamp, Dylan, Springsteen, etc.

    In those cases, I think it's a good thing. A fan of Bruce may buy it because he's on it, and then maybe learn about the other artists on it as well as Guthie himself.

    But I gotta say, as soon as I got to the U2 track on that album, I, I'd sure rather be listening to the original.

    I guess my preference is still to hear artists do a single cover song from someone they want to honor on their own records.

    You make a good point about the pigeon holing, too.

  3. I remember in the mid-'90s when the whole tribute album/fundraiser thing was huge. Which was cool - it was usually for good causes (Victoria Williams' Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, Red Hot + Blue for AIDS research, etc.). I also noticed that Sheryl Crow was on every single damn tribute that came down the pike. Any respect I had for her from "Tuesday Night Music Club" was lost because it just seemed like she'd record anything for anyone.

    I like covers, and hearing how artists reinterpret one another. But really? It's too much. It's one thing if it's for a good cause (the giant Dylan/Amnesty International project earlier this year) or a true tribute ("Enjoy Every Sandwich" after Warren Zevon's death). But just for the hell of it? There needs to be more discretion.

    I just made a crack on Facebook today about The Bird and the Bee's Hall & Oates covers/tribute album. No one needs that.

  4. Springsteen did a tribute album a few years ago - "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions". I loved it at the time. Listened to it for the first time in years a few weeks ago and was underwhelmed. It felt forced. I'd rather listen to Pete.

    I tend to classify the Guthrie tributes differently, since so many of them ("New Multitudes", "Mermaid Avenue", "Note of Hope", etc) are comprised of songs Guthrie never recorded. Since he couldn't write music notation, the melodies to nearly 3000 of his unrecorded songs died with him. These projects seem more like posthumous collaborations than tributes.

    1. I couldn't agree more - with both of your posts. After posting this, I remembered the Boss's Seger Sessions. Same reaction; loved it at the time, not so much now. There are three or four songs that still sound good to me. They could have been incorporated to Springsteen's other albums as covers.

      I didn't even think about the Mermaid Avenue albums being what the first commenter was talking about. Which I guess shows I didn't classify them as tribute albums. Like you said, since they're not true "RE-interpretations", they're a different beast.