A well-done cover song is a beautiful thing—and, by extension, so is a
compilation of tracks by a slew of musicians paying tribute to one of their heroes. But it takes a special combination of love and guts and a hearty dash of hubris for a single artist to tackle the oeuvre of another—whether a friend or a legend—all by their lonesome. Sometimes the result is a mess (like Dirty Dancing songstress Jennifer Warnes' maudlin, schlocky Leonard Cohen tribute, Famous Blue Raincoat), but when the stars align, it can be really wonderful. Here are a few of our favorites. (Scroll down for a playlist.)
Petra Haden—Sings: The Who Sell Out
You might not think the world needed an all-a capella, nearly note-for-note take on The Who's third LP, but you'd be wrong.
Sun Kil Moon—Tiny Cities (Modest Mouse)
Mark Kozelek reconstitutes the band's early alt-rock grittiness as delightfully somber, nearly unrecognizable acoustic-picked beauties. I like some of these more than the originals.
He named his firstborn after Van Zandt: Was a tribute album not inevitable?
Paste's Web Warrior loves this album. He says: "I respect Willie Nelson, but am hardly what you'd call a big fan of his work. After listening to Phosphorescent's lovingly fleshed-out renditions of his songs on To Willie, though, I'm going back through a catalog that's as massive as it is influential. If it's good enough for Phossie, it's good enough for me."
The Smithereens—Meet the Beatles
A pretty faithful retelling that highlights the tidy original's secret garage leanings. (Playlist track taken from the accompanying b-sides compilation.)
Scarlett Johansson—Anywhere I Lay My Head (Tom Waits)
Still kinda not sure if this was a travesty or a triumph, but I guess you've gotta give her credit for trying.
Dirty Projectors—Rise Above (Black Flag)
Dave Longstreth's attempt to recreate an album he hadn't heard in 15 years. Can't wait 'til someone tries that with Bitte Orca one day.
Jeffrey Lewis—12 Crass Songs
Leave it to this comic-book folkster to render one of England's grimiest anarcho-punk bands totally accessible, affecting and kind of adorable.
Billy Bragg & Wilco—Mermaid Avenue, Vol. I and II (Woody Guthrie)
Could there have been anyone better to put a batch of the late Guthrie's unpublished lyrics to song? Good call, Nora.
Harry Nilsson—Nilsson Sings Newman
One early king of pop takes on another (including "Caroline," which Randy himself never recorded).
The Walkmen—Pussy Cats
Indie rockers redo Nilsson and John Lennon's "lost weekend" masterpiece, including several covers-of-covers. (Your move, Newman. Might we suggest You & Me?)
Bruce Springsteen—We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
America, fuck yeah!
Robyn Hitchcock—Robyn Sings (Bob Dylan)
"Visions of Johanna" inspired him to become a songwriter. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
Yim Yames—Tribute To EP (George Harrison)
Recorded just after Harrison's death and just recently release, this homage is a real heartfelt, reverb-drenched beauty.
Shelby Lynne—Just A Little Lovin' (Dusty Springfield)
Springfield's Southern soul is tough to top, but Lynne tries her damnedest.
Colin Meloy—Sings Morrissey, Sings Shirley Collins and Sings Sam Cooke EPs
The Decemberists frontman's takes on Mozzer, a British folk icon and an American soul legend were sold as tour-only EPs (though his suprisingly soulful take on Cooke is still available online).
Rufus Wainwright—Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall
The fabulousness is overwhelming.