If you’re a musician, there’s no better way to honor a fellow artist than by writing a song. Indeed, rock history is filled with classic tribute songs — some penned for fallen icons, others written for influential performers still living and breathing and able to appreciate the sentiment. What follows are some of our favorite tribute songs — highly personal expressions of gratitude and reverence that nevertheless resonate with mass audiences. Scroll down, give them a listen and feel the love.
Two years after Elliott Smith‘s death, friend and fan Ben Folds paid tribute to the singer-songwriter on his 2005 album ‘Songs for Silverman.’ The mournful ballad ‘Late’ specifically addresses Smith: “Elliott, man, you played a fine guitar and some dirty basketball,” Folds sings. Through the road stories and backseat philosophizing, one line stands out in his tribute: “The songs you wrote got me through a lot / Just want to tell you that.”
Like another track on our list of Tribute Songs (Patti Smith’s ‘About a Boy’), R.E.M.’s ‘Let Me In’ is about Kurt Cobain. But R.E.M. managed to get theirs out less than six months after the Nirvana frontman’s death. And like the rest of the 1994 album ‘Monster,’ ‘Let Me In’ is an abrasive guitar-fueled track that’s as angry as it is despondent.
Unlike the rest of the tracks on our list of Tribute Songs, the subject of the Replacements’ ‘Alex Chilton’ wasn’t dead when it was recorded. In fact, the cult rock hero was very much alive at the time, finding a new audience with indie rock fans. But the former Big Star frontman didn’t sell too many records during his mid-’80s comeback. So it was up to fans like the Replacements (whom Chilton produced) to sing his praises. (Sadly, Chilton passed away in 2010.)
‘About a Boy’
Punk priestess Patti Smith’s first album after an eight-year break, 1996’s ‘Gone Again,’ is filled with death. Her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith (a member of protopunks the MC5) had passed away. So had her brother and a longtime friend, artist Richard Mapplethorpe. The eight-minute dirge ‘About a Boy’ could be about any one of them, but Smith wrote it for Kurt Cobain, a fan.
A highlight of U2’s great 2000 album ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind,’ ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ pays tribute to INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who killed himself in 1997. Bono wrote the song as an imagined conversation with his departed pal, whom he tries to talk out of suicide. “It’s just a moment / This time will pass,” he sings as hope drains from his voice.