Ray Padgett on the covers that shaped the tribute album as we know it today
I write about a lot of tribute albums in my book; in the index, the “tribute albums” section runs almost three pages. Most of them I like, and my team at Cover Me is finalizing a separate list of the 50 Best Tribute Albums Ever, to go up next week (and even capping it at 50 required a lot of painful cuts). But there’s another way to look at the history of tribute albums other than just quality: What were the most historically important tribute albums, especially in the development of the format itself?
I narrowed it down to ten entries, all of which I write about more in the book. Most of them are pretty good, true, but that’s not the point here. The tribute album wouldn’t be where it is today without these formative tributes:
All This and World War II (1976)
Think of this one like a TV pilot that gets filmed several years before the show gets picked up. This experimental documentary juxtaposed World War II footage with new Beatles covers by the likes of Rod Stewart and Peter Gabriel. The soundtrack looks like what we now think of as a tribute album, but was so early it wasn’t called that then, nor did it spawn many imitators. For several years, it just existed as this odd little one-off. Tribute albums wouldn’t really become a thing until the 1980s, starting with…
Amarcord Nino Rota (1981)
“Is it all my fault?” Hal Willner asked me when I called him up to ask about tribute albums. In a word: Yes. He almost single-handedly invented the format in the ‘80s with a series of esoteric projects inspired by the television variety shows he loved as a kid. Amarcord Nino Rota, a tribute to the composer of Fellini films featuring a bunch of avant-garde jazz types and Blondie, wasn’t his biggest tribute album, nor his best. But it was his first. To some degree, everything that came after stemmed from this.
Beyond the Wildwood – A Tribute to Syd Barrett (1987)
Willner had the tribute-album lane pretty much to himself for a half decade. Then, slowly, others began to pick up on the idea. Early out of the gate was independent UK label Imaginary Records, which began a series of tributes with this 1987 entry. Again, not their biggest or best, but they’d produce many more following this model. The bands were mostly obscure, but they got attention across the pond, including at the New York Times, which wrote an influential trend piece on the new format in 1989. He called Imaginary’s records “uneven propositions,” which has been a critique of tribute albums since day one.
The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young (1989)
As the ‘80s turned to the ‘90s, the tribute album began picking up steam fast with a host of other independent producers jumping aboard (the major labels were mostly still a year or two away). One was Terry Tolkin, a New York record store clerk who drew on friends from Sonic Youth to Pixies for his first and only tribute. He also initiated what would become a trend among tribute albums: fundraising. In his case, he gave all proceeds to Neil and Pegi Young’s charity. Many tribute albums would subsequently follow this model. For one, it makes it easier to get big name artists on board if you don’t have much of a budget…
Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson (1990)
Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye took the charity concept to the next level, raising money for the musician being tributed himself. Roky Erickson had long struggled with mental health issues, and medical bills had mounted. A host of bands who loved Roky got on board to help, and many subsequent tribute albums would help other musicians, a generally under-insured group. In fact, the producer of Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye tried to repeat the feat with 1999’s More Oar: A Tribute to Skip Spence. Unfortunately, he was too late; the former Moby Grape songwriter died of lung cancer several weeks before the album’s release. Reportedly his tribute album was played for him an hour before he passed.
I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1991)
A tribute album so influential I hear there’s a whole book about it! You wouldn’t know “Hallelujah” without I’m Your Fan…
Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles (1993)
Tribute albums became big business in the 1990s, and none bigger than Common Thread. Superproducer Ralph Sall conceived the idea for the album after reading a Garth Books quote saying that if the Eagles were around then (they’d been broken up since 1980), they’d be a country band rather than rock. The band members themselves got involved, with Don Henley and manager Irving Azoff overseeing the proceedings. It sold three million records, which Sall says makes it the best-selling tribute album ever (with so many contenders across so many record labels, that claim is hard to verify definitively, but in my research I never found another to challenge it). The Eagles themselves reunited for a Common Thread music video – a reunion that lasts to this day.
Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits (1995)
Another Sall project, and one that showed you don’t have to just pay tribute to a single band or songwriter; you can pay tribute to just about anything. In this case, he recruited indie-rock icons to cover the theme songs of cartoons like Fat Albert and Johnny Quest. Many tribute albums today pay tribute to a theme, a sound, a genre, a label, or a scene, rather than just one artist.
Stereogum Presents… OKX: A Tribute To OK Computer / DRIVE XV: A Tribute to Automatic For the People (2007)
In my book, the earliest example I found of a tribute album created and distributed entirely on the internet actually came a decade earlier than these two, with 1996’s Prosthetic Lips: A Tribute to Weird Al Yankovic. It was organized on an early message board, with musically-minded fans recording home covers and sending them off to another fan to compile. But it’s hard to argue this album was influential; it made nary a ripple outside the Weird Al superfan community. The internet-driven tribute album really took off in the 2000s, where faster connection speeds began to make the concept more viable. The blog Stereogum delivered some of the highest-profile examples with these indie-rock-all-star tributes to Radiohead and R.E.M. albums, but many similar projects came out around the same time from all sorts MP3 blogs and web-only record labels. These days, Bandcamp has taken over as a primary source of web-only tribute albums.
Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story (An Album to Benefit War Child) (2017)
In the 2000s, the tribute album has mostly settled into its 1990s formula (albeit with smaller budgets). But one new trend has been artists proudly creating tribute albums to themselves. I say “proudly” because artists have been quietly involved for decades; The Eagles with Common Thread, Leonard Cohen with I’m Your Fan, and many more. But it was always a little hush-hush. It looked better, perhaps, to pretend a tribute album was a spontaneous burst of support from your peers, rather than something you cultivated yourself. Recently, though, artists have begun openly curating tributes to themselves, from Tegan and Sara to Bleachers to Nada Surf. Brandi Carlile got everyone from Pearl Jam to Adele on hers, but that wasn’t her biggest coup – Barack Obama wrote the liner notes, marking the first presidential appearance on a tribute album.
This concludes Ray’s takeover of the 33 1/3 blog! If you’re hooked on Leonard Cohen, or you live for covers, buy your copy of Various Artists’ I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen today!