DISCLOSURE: This website uses affiliate links, meaning if you click the links below and make a purchase, Track X Track may earn a commission from that sale at no additional cost to you.
Earlier this month, indie rocker Juliana Hatfield announced details about her upcoming album, and many fans were taken by surprise, myself included. On April 13, “Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John” hits record store shelves. (Amazon) If you’re like me, new music from Juliana Hatfield is always a welcome announcement. But a tribute to the music of Olivia Newton-John?
But hey, I do have Newton-John’s greatest hits in my collection, and least we forget, there was a lot more than “Physical.” In addition to the hits, Hatfield is even digging into her soundtracks, including songs from both “Grease” and… a guilty pleasure of mine, “Xanadu.”
If you’re still skeptical, check out the first single, Hatfield’s version of “A Little More Love.”
So after hearing about this new Juliana Hatfield project, I got to thinking about tribute albums. Now, tribute albums are a dime a dozen. Pretty much every major band or artist that‘s ever been inducted into or even just nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has probably had a compilation album released with various artists covering their greatest hits.
But what Juliana Hatfield is doing is a different kind of tribute album. It’s something that’s much more rare. This is a single artist doing an entire album of music by another single artist. We’re not talking about just a covers album, here. Everybody does that. But for one artist to pay tribute to one other artist… is not so common.
So today, I want to highlight some of my favorite single artist tribute albums. I’ll start with one of the earliest ones I can think of. In 1987, singer Jennifer Warnes paid tribute to the legendary Leonard Cohen on her album “Famous Blue Raincoat.” (Amazon | iTunes) At the time, Warnes and Cohen had been friends and collaborators for nearly two decades, but the songs of Leonard Cohen had not yet reached legendary status. In fact, the Cohen song everyone knows best, “Hallelujah,” wasn’t even selected by Warnes for her tribute collection. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. In retrospect, the absence of that now iconic song helps this collection to better stand on its own without having to bear he weight of too many comparisons, or cries of “Buckley did it better.”
I know I said the Jennifer Warnes album was one of the earliest, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t go back even further and talk about The Byrds. These folk rock legends may be just as well known for their many covers of songs by Bob Dylan as they are for their own material. Technically speaking, The Byrds never went into the studio to record an entire album of Bob Dylan music. But over the span of their career in the 60s and 70s, they did record enough individual Dylan tracks that eventually a compilation was warranted. (Amazon | iTunes) And of those many Dylan covers, I think it may be fair to say that The Byrds version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” may be better known than the original Dylan version.
Of course, Bob Dylan may also be one of the most covered songwriters of all time. Just last year, we saw yet another single-artist tribute album, this time from Joan Osborne. On “Songs of Bob Dylan,” Osborne puts a feminine spin on a baker’s dozen of classic Dylan songs. (Amazon | iTunes)
And going back just a few more years, we saw one of the most interesting Dylan tributes of all time. In 2014, “Lost on the River” by The New Basement Tapes was released. (Amazon | iTunes) The album was made up of “lost songs” by Bob Dylan. Producer T Bone Burnett took a collection of Dylan lyrics from the late 60s that were never turned into completed songs and then assembled a group of musicians to flesh them out. And not just any musicians. The New Basement Tapes were a supergroup, including Elvis Costello, along with members of Mumford and Sons, My Morning Jacket and Dawes. The resulting album was one of my favorites of the year. And with a pedigree that strong, how could it not be?
As you might expect, to make a great tribute album you need to start with a great songwriter. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are two of the very best. One more I’d add to that list is Tom Waits. Although Waits has become one of my personal favorites over the years, my first exposure to his songs actually came from a single-artist tribute album. In 1995, jazz singer Holly Cole released “Temptation,” a spectacular collection featuring 17 of Tom Waits’ best songs. I can see how Tom Waits could be a bit of an acquired taste for some listeners, especially considering how his voice evolved over the years. (And I suppose the same could be said of Dylan.) But as far as finding a good gateway to his songs goes, you can’t do much better than this tribute by Holly Cole. (Amazon | iTunes)
Also interesting is the debut album from actress Scarlett Johansson. “Anywhere I Lay My Head” (Amazon | iTunes) didn’t exactly launch Johansson into music stardom, but you have to give her credit for picking great source material. All but one of the songs on the album were Tom Waits covers. That, combined with backing from members of TV On The Radio and a cameo by none other than David Bowie helped lend this project an air of legitimacy.
Of course, if we’re talking about great songwriters, we have to include probably the most successful of all time: Lennon and McCartney. There’s no shortage of cover versions of Beatles songs. Seems like there’s a new various artist compilation of Beatles covers just about every year. But very few individual artists try to tackle an entire album of Beatles music on their own.
But The Smithereens have done it. Twice, in fact! In 2007, they released “Meet The Smithereens,” a full album cover of The Beatles debut album, “Meet The Beatles.” (Amazon | iTunes) A year later, the Smithereens revisited the Fab Four on “B Sides: The Beatles.” Part of what makes both of these tributes work is that it is perfectly clear throughout every song that that’s exactly what the band is doing: paying tribute. These guys are worshiping at the altar of John, Paul, George and Ringo. It’s an earnest effort, and I have to give them major points for that.
Of course, for a single artist tribute to go full-album-cover is about as dedicated as you can get. And in 2015, we got what may go down as one of the most unexpected tribute albums of all time when rocker Ryan Adams hit the studio to cover Taylor Swift’s album “1989,” track for track. (Amazon | iTunes) Swift’s album wasn’t even a year old when Adams’ version came out. When it was announced, a lot of music fans expected the release would be more of a joke than a true tribute. When it turned out to be a legitimate effort, fan response was polarized. Many listeners criticized Adams for what they thought was a waste of his time and talents. Others admired the effort and thought some of Adams interpretations surpassed the originals. As for me, I liked it. That doesn’t mean I want to see a Ryan Adams version of “Reputation” next, but as a one-off tribute project, I give it a thumbs up.
The last tribute album I want to highlight today is perhaps the most remarkable. As I said earlier, most single-artist tributes tend to be focused on the work of a single music legend. But on this next album, we have one music icon paying tribute to another. In 2006 Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to one of his heroes, folk music activist Pete Seeger, on an album called “We Shall Overcome- The Seeger Sessions.” (Amazon | iTunes) And as if a full studio album of Pete Seeger covers wasn’t enough, Springsteen followed it up with a live DVD and CD release, “Live In Dublin,” backed by the Seeger Sessions Band and playing both the tribute songs as well as new interpretations of his own music.
Single artist tribute albums are a rare breed, but there’s plenty more than just the ones I’ve talked about. If you’re looking for a few more cool tributes to check out, here’s some additional suggestions:
- On “Foreverly” Billie Joe from Green Day and Norah Jones teamed up for an album of Everly Brothers songs.
- Paying tribute to Abba, I can’t imagine a better match than Erasure on their “Abba-esque” EP.
- The Bird and the Bee put their unique spin on some classic hits on “A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates.”
- Shelby Lynne channels Dusty Springfield on “Just A Little Lovin’.”
- The flamboyant Rufus Wainwright tackles Judy Garland’s legendary live concert recording on “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall.”
- Jazz guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter covers reggae legend Bob Marley on “Nattty Dread.”
- Reggae band Easy Star All Stars have made a name for themselves recording full album covers of classic rock albums, including The Beatles “Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”… as if that album wasn’t enough of a trip already.
Note: This review is also available on video on the Track X Track YouTube channel.