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No Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

The other day I had a vision. I was standing on a vast plain, and the plain was a pale brown that verged on yellow. All of a sudden a huge black block fell out of the sky and clocked me. Down I went. Just before I lost consciousness, I looked at the block. Written on its side were two words: Tribute Album.

I think I know what the dream means. And I think you do too.
If you're a rabid record buyer, or a casual record buyer, or you've ever been in a record store, or you can even imagine what a record store looks like on the inside (that's right, shelves -- yep, records -- no, there's no ice sculpture, but it's an understandable mistake), you've probably figured out that tribute albums are pretty hot these days.

Even as you read this, record executives in cool clothing are pressing a new batch and preparing to market them down your throat. Examples? The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers (Egyptian/Columbia) is filled with contemporary rock and country artists like John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, and the late Jerry Garcia performing the songs of the country pioneer known as the Singing Brakeman. One Step Up, Two Steps Back features -- you got it -- contemporary rock and soul artists performing the songs of Bruce Springsteen. There are also tribute albums devoted to the songs of Iggy Pop (We Will Fall, with contributions from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joey Ramone, and a reunited Blondie), Kurt Weill (September Songs, which includes performances by Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and PJ Harvey), and the Police (Regatta Mondatta, which features versions of Police songs by, um, contemporary reggae artists).

And that's just in the last month. By my incredibly hasty count, no fewer than 100 artists have been the subject of tributes released in the U.S. since 1992. Feeling swamped? You aren't alone. Given the deluge, it seems worthwhile to engage in a bit of critical damming. The following is a simple system of classification -- not to be confused with a flow chart -- that divides tribute albums into six basic categories.

I. Last Rites: Someone dies, you release a tribute. Simple, right? Many tributes trail the tragic deaths of stars like Stevie Ray Vaughan (Hats Off to Stevie Ray), Doc Pomus (Till the Night Is Gone), and Harry Nilsson (For the Love of Harry).

II. Nostalgia Spasms: Any tribute that finds younger artists covering the previous generation's stars, either to pay homage or to boost their own reputations through association with the supremely gifted (call it the "coattail effect"). The list is impressive and forever growing: Jimi Hendrix (Stone Free), Led Zeppelin (Encomium), Kiss (Kiss My Ass), Elton John (Two Rooms), Marvin Gaye (I Want You), and the Velvet Underground (15 Minutes).

III. Wet Nurses: These projects raise health insurance money for ailing stars like multiple sclerosis-sufferer Victoria Williams (Sweet Relief) and paraplegics Vic Chesnutt (Sweet Relief II -- The Gravity of the Situation) and Curtis Mayfield (Tribute to Curtis Mayfield and People Get Ready).

IV. Archaeological Digs: These unearth the songs of artists buried by history or critical opinion, whether Charles Mingus (Weird Nightmare) or the Carpenters (If I Were a Carpenter).

V. Genre Benders: Sometimes you can make old art new with radical recontextualization, whether it's a country tribute to the Eagles (Common Thread), a bluegrass tribute to the Grateful Dead (Pickin' on the Dead), the London Symphony Orchestra performing the songs of Pink Floyd (Us and Them: The Symphonic Music of Pink Floyd), or classical arrangements of Split Enz tunes (Enzso). Genre Benders can also be album-length experiments like the Coolies' Dig?, which parodied Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, or the The's Hanky Panky, which reupholstered eleven Hank Williams chestnuts.

VI. Gold Watches: Relatively straightforward tributes that honor a living artist who has written a bunch of good songs, either as a career-capper or not. (Gold Watches often incorporate the coattail effect of Nostalgia Spasms.) Examples include tributes to Tom Petty (You Got Lucky), Leonard Cohen (I'm Your Fan, Tower of Song), Richard Thompson (Beat the Retreat), Neil Young (The Bridge), Merle Haggard (Tulare Dust), and Van Morrison (No Prima Donna). The occasional album-length tribute also pops up here, such as Pussy Galore's Exile on Main Street, which copied the Stones' classic note for note, or Tapestry Revisited, which sicced a dozen new soul and pop artists on the Carole King classic.

So those are the six main types of tribute album. It's an easy classification system that you're welcome to use at home at no cost. Now, let's take a look at the recent crop. The Iggy Pop and Springsteen tributes are classic Type VI projects (Gold Watches, in case you're still memorizing), the Jimmie Rodgers and Kurt Weill are Type IV tributes (that's an Archaeological Dig), and the Regatta Mondatta is a Type V (or Genre Bender).

Each of the six categories works on record buyers in a unique way. Last Rites have the heft of tragedy behind them. Nostalgia Spasms exploit the culture's need to overvalue its recent past. Wet Nurses combine a lesser form of Last Rite tear-jerking with intimations that record buyers can actually change the fortunes of real people by purchasing the product. It's the same sort of veiled emotive Ponzi-scheme allure that AmEx's Charge Against Hunger feeds on.

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