It's nice when musicians sing songs about other musicians. The phenomenon would seem to compound the sense that pop stars are only interested in their own insular world, but instead it somehow makes artists seem more human—it proves that even they are obsessed with other musicians, just like we are. Hearing a pop song by one artist about another artist is sort of like reading someone else's fan mail (or hate mail). In any case, it can be revealing both about the artist giving the tribute and the artist on the receiving end. Here are some good ones.
1. Jeffrey Lewis, "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror"—Ostensibly about seeing Bonnie "Prince" Billy on the subway, the tune is actually a startling meditation on indie-rock culture. Wickedly insightful.
2. Cat Power, "Song To Bobby"—It's wonderful to hear Chan Marshall's phrasing dip in and out of Dylanisms in this open letter to everybody's favorite songwriter.
3. Sugarland, "Steve Earle"—A plea from the pop-country stars to the alternative-country patriarch. "Steve Earle, Steve Earle," Jennifer Nettles sings, "please write a song for me."
4. Asher Roth, "As I Em"—As a song, it's not great. But you gotta respect Asher for addressing the Eminem comparisons head-on.
5. Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2"—Widely interpreted as a ballad about Janis Joplin, the song is one of Cohen's best. "You told me again you preferred handsome men," he sings to his lover, "but for me you would make an exception."
6. Jay-Z, "Takeover"—Hip-hop diss tracks take the whole "from one musician to another" concept to the extreme, and this classic Blueprint cut leaves Nas in a pile of rubble. It's amazing they could ever reconcile after this one.