The release of the new Nirvana tribute album, In Utero In Tribute is not the first time a bunch of punk bands have been thrown together to cover Nirvana songs, but it's the first time it's been done remotely well. Tribute albums work best when they shine a light on an otherwise underrated or under regarded band. Paying tribute to a band like Nirvana on the other hand is a more difficult and tricky pursuit. Fortunately, this new Nirvana tribute meets the criteria of a successful tribute album.
In punk and hardcore or other music genres not generally focused on by the mainstream media, the tribute album can have meaning and power. If a band you're not so familiar with is deemed worthy of tribute by a number of bands you like and listen to regularly, it's probably time to give them a chance.
Sometimes, hearing bands you aren't too familiar with putting their own spin on a song that you love is just the thing to endear you to their work. Hearing Sean Bonnette lend his voices to Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two Headed Boy" is enough to make Andrew Jackson Jihad click for anyone who's yet to take notice. Sometimes, a cover overshadows the original. Ask most children of Genration Y who originally sung "I Will Always Love You" and chances are you'll hear Whitney Houston the majority of the time despite the fact that Dolly Parton not only wrote the sung, but crushed it when she performed it on TV.
Let's try to calibrate what makes for a good tribute album. If you're unfamiliar with the band being paid tribute, a good tribute album should inspire you to go out and buy the band's entire catalogue. However, a great tribute album should also appease die-hard fans of said band.
Below is a guide to the tribute album.
5 Tribute Album Don'ts
Don't Pay Tribute to the Wrong Band
There are rules to tributes and covers in general. Most importantly, don't pay tribute to a band that is still active, or a band that broke up yesterday. Exceptions stand for legendary bands that just happened to have reunited, and for a band made of your close friends. Carry The Torch: A Tribute to Kid Dynamite came out right after the band broke up, and though the Ergs "Fuckuturn" cover is a triumph, the tribute itself jumps the gun. Give a band at least five years to be broken up before you pay tribute. Bands break these rules all the time and the cover gods take vengeance and destroy them.
Don't Pay Tribute By Playing a Bunch of Songs Exactly The Same As The Originals
If you want to cover a song that's similar to the original, there's nothing wrong with that, assuming the speed, or vocal or guitar style of your band is somehow different than the band you're covering. Listening to Phil Collins cover Peter Gabriel might not be that interesting. However, there are two sides to this coin…
Don't Destroy a Classic
Case in point, Never Give In: A Tribute to The Bad Brains, track one: Moby covers "Sailin' On." Oh my god, Moby, what have you done? Make the song your own, sure, some of the best tribute albums contain complete re-imagining's of classics, but this cover of "Sailin' On" is like pouring tuna fish juice in a Dr. Pepper. You can't even taste the Dr. Pepper anymore.
Don't Cover Every Song the Same Way
This happens a lot, especially with punk tributes to non-punk bands. For instance, "Hey, let's do a punk tribute to Metallica." What does that mean? It means a full album of Metallica covers simplified to power chords and minus the solos. Let's hope that never happens… Never mind, it happened.
Don't Just Play the Hits
A good tribute should reflect the entirety of a band's lifespan, and therefore shouldn't just contain the hits. On the other hand, a tribute made up entirely of b-sides or rarities is an even more irritating choice. Switch it up and show the whole picture.
5 Tributes That Never Should Have Happened
Never Give In: A Tribute to the Bad Brains
We've already discussed what Moby did here—destroying a classic—but the rest of the record is just a bunch of generic metalcore Bad Brain covers. The exception comes via Boysetsfire's rendition of "I Against I."
A Punk Tribute To Metallica
This tribute is even worse than when Metallica started covering Misfits songs. There's a great collection of Punk and Disorderly-era hairspray punk bands on here doing exactly what you'd expect—simplifying the shit out of Metallica songs. This is like doing an acoustic tribute to Skrillex.
Ben Lee Sings Against Me!'s New Wave
Man, punks were pissed about this album when it first came out for a bunch of reasons I can't remember at this point anyway. I'm pretty sure when this thing came out a few crusties blacked out from bingeing on dumpstered Odwalla. It's like they took the lion on the cover of the album and injected it with Propofol.
Smells Like Bleach: A Punk Tribute to Nirvana
Similar to the Metallica tribute (and with a lot of the same bands), this is just a bunch of Nirvana songs sped up and shit out.
Burning London: The Clash Tribute
If I could go back in time, I'd rescue Kennedy and then prevent this monstrosity. A few listens to the Indigo Girls' cover of "Clampdown" and Third Eye Blind's "Train in Vain" is enough to make you swear off tribute albums forever.
5 Successful Tribute Albums
Bring You to Your Knees: A Tribute to Guns N' Roses
There are a few bands you've never heard of on this record and who may not exist beyond this record, but it's a solid tribute, nonetheless. Starting with Zombie Apocalypse covering "Welcoming to the Jungle" and including Dillinger Escape Plan's rendition of "My Michelle," this tribute is far better than The Spaghetti Incident.
City Rockers: A Tribute to The Clash
Kid Dynamite's cover of "Hateful" is among the best Clash covers you'll hear. Like most tribute albums, this one's packed with a quite a few bands you won't recognize but it also has some appearances from some legendary bands like Fang and Ill Repute.
Violent World: A Tribute to the Misfits
This is mostly a bunch of glossy covers of Misfits songs, but it's a good tribute album. Ironically, "Hybrid Moments," which is probably the most-covered Misfits song there is, remains absent from this tribute. Highlights include "Horror Business" covered by Deadguy and transformed into a mosh parade and "Mommy Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?" made all chaotic and messy by the Bouncing Souls.
Fight The World Not Each Other: A Tribute to 7Seconds
It's nice when a tribute album contains a bunch of bands that were actually influenced by the band of note. This record rounds up some of the best of mid-90s hardcore, but each band on the tribute is clearly influenced by 7Seconds.
Bad Scene, Everyone Fault: A Tribute to Jawbreaker
There are some not-so-great bands on here but it's fair to say that no Jawbreaker songs are dishonored on this tribute. In particular, Kill Your Idols covering "Do You Still Hate Me?" and Face to Face's version of "Boat Dream From the Hill" actually elevate the material.
5 Bands Deserving of a Tribute Album
Ink and Dagger
One of the most influential and under-recognized hardcore punk bands of all the time. They dressed as vampires, fought with Earth Crisis, vomited on Christmas trees, and Eric Wareheim from Tim and Eric played bass. If that doesn't warrant a tribute album, then I don't know what does.
There was a pretty terrible tribute in the late 90s that featured pop punk and ska bands covering Op Ivy, but it didn't do the songs justice. If the Operation Ivy record doesn't cheer you up every time your hear it, then your life lacks meaning.
There was a Crass tribute released a few years back but with the exception of Oi Polloi covering "The Greatest Working Class Rip Off," it fell flat. The rest of the bands on the record existed seemingly just for the sake of being on the tribute, then broke up. Jeffrey Lewis did a Crass tribute that some people liked, but it would be nice to hear a variety of bands doing interesting things with old Crass tunes. Did you know Bjork's first band was on Crass Records?
The Cocksparrer tribute that exists is just the Dropkick Murphys and a bunch of Oi! bands doing carbon copies of the originals. Against Me! does a great cover of "Because We're Young." Maybe Hard Skin could cover "Argy Bargy" and Baroness could do "Take Em All." That would be a good start.
This would be the most badass tribute album to be on. Include a variety of male and female vocals, punk and non-punk bands and maybe skip "Rebel Girl" because it's so on the nose.
Jon Reiss is on Twitter - @JonReiss