Tribute albums have a long history dating back to at least the start of the LP era. But the tribute album phenomena as we know it today probably got started in the late-eighties. I first became aware of the phenomena with the 1987 release of Beyond The Wildwood: A Tribute To Syd Barrett on Imaginary Records. Imaginary must have been happy with the sales of the Barrett tribute, because they followed it with tributes to Captain Beefheart, The Kinks, The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, The Bonzo Dog Band, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. Other labels big and small released tributes to Neil Young, The Rutles, The Beatles, Richard Thompson, Gram Parsons, Kiss, Brian Wilson, and many, many others.
On the surface tribute albums are a win-win proposition. Ideally, the recordings by newer artists expose younger listeners to classic, possibly under-appreciated, older artists, while the built in audience for the old masters gets exposed to the music of the new generation.
But of course these albums have their flaws, and Beyond The Wildwood and Fast 'N' Bulbous: A Tribute to Captain Beefheart are fairly typical in that regard; they feature a few songs from well-known indie or alternative acts (Sonic Youth, XTC, That Petrol Emotion, Plasticland, Opal, etc.) and a lot of tracks by bands so obscure that even I had never heard of them (The Kings of Luxembourg, The Dog Faced Hermans, SS-40, The Lobster Quadrille, and inevitably The Mock Turtles). On the plus side, some of these unknown-to-me acts like The Paint Set (featuring future members of Velvet Crush) turned out to be quite good, on the minus side, some of them turned out to be The Mock Turtles. But there are deeper flaws with these albums that make them resistant to repeated listening; even the best of the tracks are unlikely to make anyone forget the originals, and it is all but impossible for a single person to enjoy every song on one of these albums.
In any case, I think the tribute album phenomena started innocently enough. But at some point around 1990, the floodgates opened. Suddenly we had tributes to relatively minor talents from the recent past. Our musical past was either being cannibalized before our eyes or cleverly deconstructed (depending on your point of view). Then something went horribly wrong. Indie rockers started recording tributes to each other. Shonen Knife got the double LP tribute treatment. Albums like Fortune Cookie Prize: A Tribute To Beat Happening with Beat Happening covers and original songs like "I Love Calvin" were the sound of a scene collapsing into itself, demonstrating that indie-rock had become too insular and cliquish for its own good.**
A lot of the blame for this obviously lies with Sonic Youth. There was clearly no artist they were unwilling to pay tribute to (I can hear Thurston Moore answering his phone now: "Yes we would love to be a part of your tribute to April Wine!"). In all fairness, Sonic Youth's tracks were frequently the standouts on tribute albums, and their terrific versions of "Computer World," "I Know There's An Answer," and "Electricity" are once again available on their recent rarities CD [Update: I was wrong about that, those tracks are not on that Sonic Youth CD]. But perhaps that was the problem, the few standout tracks by acts like Sonic Youth were the only reason anyone bought these albums in the first place.
I originally planned to write about some imaginary tribute record in order to parody the genre; Heat of the Moment: An Indie-Rock Tribute to Asia on K Records, or The Mocks Get Props: A Hip-Hop Tribute To The Mock Turtles on Tommy Boy, or something along those lines. But the actual existence of albums like In The Chamber: A String Quartet Tribute To Linkin Park and The Piano Tribute To Iron Maiden, ensure that the genre now defies the limits of parody. I find it impossible to imagine the consumer that is driving the market for releases like this, but clearly someone is buying this stuff. And when I see releases like An 80s Metal Tribute To Journey, it is hard to escape the feeling that we have reached the end of the line for rock music as a culturally relevant art form.
Because of the their many flaws, the tribute albums I didn't sell outright have been filed away in the deepest recesses of my record collection for years. But the iPod era--with its playlists and increased ability to control what one wants to hear at all times--seems like the perfect time to take a second look at some of these.
**It was all for a good cause, Fortune Cookie Prize raised over $15,000 for Sacha Bruce Youthworks.