It’s a special bit of recognition when one musician professes to be a fan of another. It bestows some sort of artistic credibility, depending, of course, on who is doing the bestowing. These 15 songs are examples of times great musicians used their talent to throw some shine toward their peers or their influencers.
1. “I Am A Huge Fan Of Bad Religion” – NOFX
Starting things off highly literally is NOFX, who wrote a short song in tribute to their SoCal punk lifer pals Bad Religion. Specific references to moments in Bad Religion’s career abound.
2. “Liz Phair” – Weston
Forgotten pop punk band Weston wrote a love letter to the Chicago chanteuse. It’s partially about how pretty she is, and partially about she’s “the best thing in rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s a terrific slice of emo-ish late-90s pop punk.
3. “Alanis Morrissette” – Wesley Willis
Legendary outsider artist Wesley Willis wrote this one about Alanis Morrissette, a “rockstar in Jesus’ name” who “can really rock Saddam Hussein’s ass.” The late, great Chicagaon has literally hundreds of songs about other musicians, but this one is special because because he compliments Alanis Morrissette by calling her a “singing hyena.”
4. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” – Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney knew all about the Ramones, including their “I Wanna/I Don’t Wanna” titling convention. Carrie Brownstein says that if Joey is the king of rock ‘n roll, she wants to be the queen. But not his queen. The queen.
5. “Alex Chilton” – The Replacements
This power pop classic by the recently-reunited ‘Mats is a tribute to one of the most influential men in power pop, Big Star’s Alex Chilton. Chilton died this past April, but he was memorialized many years before, when Paul Westerberg sang “I’m in love with that song.”
6. “The Velvet Underground” – Jonathan Richman
As a young man, Jonathan Richman loved The Velvet Underground so much that he moved to New York and slept on their manager’s couch just so he could be like them. Years later, he recorded this delightful tribute song, which asks the immortal question about the Velvet Underground: “how in the world are they makin’ that sound?” His analysis makes this song not just great music, but also great music writing.
7. “I Am Damo Suzuki” – The Fall
Like Jonathan Richman and his beloved Velvet Underground, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith made investigating his favorite band’s sound an integral part of his career. In his case, the band was German art-rockers Can. This song is a literal and spiritual homage to Can’s singer Damo Suzuki, whose hallucinatory gibberish Smith imitates.
8. “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” – Neil Young & Crazy Horse
The acoustic version “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” is perhaps better known than its electric sibling, but I prefer the gnarly distortion and the background singers giving a shoutout to Johnny Rotten. The song pays homage to two of the most important musical figures of 1977, the Sex Pistols (who imploded) and Elvis (who died) and contemplates the impermanence of individuals and the permanence of history.
9. “Ronnie & Neil” – Drive-By Truckers
Neil Young is here not only as a performer, but as a subject, too. The Drive-By Truckers have a lot of songs about other musicians, but this guitar storm is special for its historical account of the famous beef/friendship between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and its nuanced depiction of the good and bad of the South. “Rock stars today ain’t half as real,” lead Trucker Patterson Hood sings, and you can’t disagree with him while this song is playing.
10. “Steve Earle” – Sugarland
Steve Earle is one of alt-country’s most well-regarded songwriters. He played Bubbles’ NA sponsor on The Wire and has been married seven times. Sugarland goofs on that last fact in this song, where singer Jennifer Nettles asks to marry him so that he can write two great songs for her: one when they marry, and one when they inevitably divorce.
11. “Tupelo” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Elvis was so influential that he has more than one tribute song about him. This one is an apocalyptic account of his birth in Tupelo, Mississippi during a tornado, his stillborn twin, and the burden his circumstances placed upon him. Barry Adamson’s repetitive, doomy bass and Cave’s unhinged testifying don’t sound much like Elvis, nor does the song seem like something Elvis would even like, but it might be the best piece of fan fiction ever set to tape…
12. “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” – LCD Soundsystem
…unless this is. James Murphy was the first one playing Daft Punk to the rock kids, so it makes sense that the robots would indulge his superfandom with a private performance at his house party. The party he describes sounds like the best party of all time, and it couldn’t happen without Daft Punk.
13. “The Sign” – The Mountain Goats
This is technically a cover of the ‘90s pop classic, but when John Darnielle performs it live, he makes it a tribute by editorializing about Ace of Base’s career and his genuine, infectious love of the song, telling between-verse anecdotes about his relationship to the life and work of Jenny and Joker and Linn and Buddha. It’s a cliche to say, but it’s true: I wish I loved anything as much as John Darnielle loves “The Sign.”
14. “XTC vs. Adam Ant” – They Might Be Giants
Beatle-based pop vs. New Romantic in a showdown for supremacy of the 1980s charts. But of course, there is no wrong. They’re both great. As is this hilarious, lavishly produced song.
15. “Dio” – Tenacious D
According to Jack Black, the diminutive metal singer with the operatic voice “soared on the wings of a demon,” which is the equivalent of a Congressional Medal of Honor for a metal guy. Of course, Tenacious D is saying that the (now deceased) Dio is too old to rock, but they say it out of love.