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A tribute album is a recorded collection of cover versions of songs or instrumental compositions. Its concept may be either various artists making a tribute to a single artist, a single artist making a tribute to various artists, or a single artist making a tribute to another single artist.
There have been tributes or covers recorded since before the first albums became technically feasible; Enrico Caruso's 1907 recordings of Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci are one early example. The birth of the 'modern' tribute album is often credited to record producer Hal Willner with the Amarcord Nino Rota LP in 1981. He followed up with tributes to Thelonious Monk, Disney cartoons, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus and Harold Arlen.
Some tribute albums are created with a further conceptual twist other than a simple collection of covers. These include:
- Albums which aid the artist whose work is being covered: for example, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, whose cult fame has not led to financial success, as well as the double CD Orphans of God, a tribute to Mark Heard, a singer/songwriter whose work has been praised by fellow artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Victoria Williams, Sam Phillips and T-Bone Burnett. Victoria Williams is also the subject of such a tribute CD, titled Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams.
- Albums consisting of one artist performing only songs by another artist: for example, Great Zeppelin, a tribute album for Led Zeppelin performed solely by Great White, or Wicked Grin, a collection of Tom Waits songs performed by John P. Hammond. The Persuasions, The Inmates, Les Fradkin, The Smithereens, Laibach and Overboard have each recorded tribute CDs entirely consisting of songs by The Beatles.
- Albums consisting of cover songs performed in a different style of music from their original performers: these include Is It Rolling Bob?: A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan and Goth Oddity 2000: A Tribute to David Bowie, as well as the Pickin' On... and String Quartet series of instrumental artist tributes in the bluegrass and classical style, respectively.
- Other examples include reggae, Cuban and ambient lounge compilations consisting solely of songs by The Beatles, such as the a cappella album Help! by the group Overboard. Another good example is The Songs of West Side Story, a compilation of 1990s style covers of songs from Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story released by RCA Victor and features prominent artists of the time such as Salt-n-Pepa, Michael McDonald, Chick Corea and even non-musical guests such as The Jerky Boys.
- Albums which recreate a specific album with cover versions of songs from that album: these include Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Booker T. & the M.G.'s' McLemore Avenue, which covers songs from The Beatles' Abbey Road, Pussy Galore's recreation of Exile on Main Street, Les Fradkin "Pepper Front To Back" which covers the entire Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album as a CD of guitar instrumental rock, More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander "Skip" Spence, which recreates Spence's only album Oar, and Mammoth: A Tribute Album, which recreates the White Stripes' Elephant.
- Albums consisting of cover songs sung in another language: these include Tributo a the Cure - Porque No Puedo Ser Tu (1999) and Tributo a Queen: Los Grandes del Rock en Español (1997).
- Albums consisting of cover songs performed by artists who influenced the band being covered, rather than those influenced by that band: these include Sharin' in the Groove: Celebrating the Music of Phish.
- Albums made to commemorate the loss of a cherished artist:, like So Amazing: A Tribute to Luther Vandross, recorded shortly after his death, Ronnie James Dio - This Is Your Life, and a planned album for Whitney Houston.
Some albums titled and marketed as "tributes" to well-known musical figures are more accurately describable as sound-alikes (or occasionally, knock-offs), recorded by lesser known session musicians or performers.