Tribute albums are often items to avoid -- well-meaning but sometimes sappy or self-absorbed affairs. Three new tribute CDs, though, and are worth your ears:
Various artists, "Rave On Buddy Holly" (Fantasy) () -- The spare twang and chugging rock style pioneered by lanky Texan Buddy Holly in the 1950s has been nurtured in succeeding generations by acts ranging from Marshall Crenshaw to the aptly named Raveonettes, and three of those generations gather here for a rollicking rave-up of Holly's classics.
Opening quietly, with delicate and faithful readings of "Dearest" (the Black Lips) and "Everyday" (Fiona Apple with Jon Brion), this collection quickly gets weird with none other than Paul McCartney. The Beatles were certainly influenced by Holly, and McCartney turns in a freewheeling run through "It's So Easy" that, thick with distorted vocals and hard riffs, sounds like something John Lennon would've included on his 1975 love letter to classic "Rock and Roll." It also ends with McCartney yelping through a goofy rant as if he were Wolfman Jack, drawing the song out to nearly five minutes -- twice the length of nearly any Holly cut.
Elsewhere, there are more interesting interpretations from intriguing choices -- Cee Lo Green's quick and flirty "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care," My Morning Jacket's wonderfully delicate "True Love Ways" with a string section, the intriguing way Modest Mouse turns "That'll Be the Day" into a creepy threat, and the deftly controlled country-rock of John Doe's "Peggy Sue Got Married" -- and some requisite duds -- like the basic bar-band slop of Justin Townes Earle's "Maybe Baby," Patti Smith's droning ruination of "Words of Love" and Lou Reed's typically tuneless deconstruction of "Peggy Sue." Graham Nash, whose first band was named after Buddy, closes the overall worthwhile set with a sweet, sad, piano-and-strings arrangement of "Raining in My Heart." There's definitely enough here to make you say, "Oh Boy!"
Various Artists, "I Love: Tom T. Hall's 'Songs of Fox Hollow' " (Red Beet) ()-- Buddy Holly would have been 75 this year; Tom T. Hall just turned 75 and should be as well known. (So says someone who grew up singing his songs in the backseat, and who actually mixed peanut butter and birdseed in a childhood effort to "make friends with a bird" as instructed in Hall's song "Everybody Loves to Hear a Bird Sing.") A singer and a hit songwriter (for Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, plus the 1968 smash "Harper Valley PTA"), Hall recorded the 1974 album "Songs of Fox Hollow" filled with whimsical barnyard tales for those in their wonder years. Several country artists convened to celebrate this collection on this fine tribute, featuring Patty Griffin singing "I Love," Hall's sunny ode to baby chicks and other miracles, as well as Jim Lauderdale ("I Like to Feel Pretty Inside"), Tommy Cash (Johnny's brother singing the true story of "Ole Lonesome George the Basset"), Bobby Bare Sr. (adding weight to "I Care," an anthem to innocent young despair) and more. Hall himself joins Fayssoux Starling McLean for "I Made a Friend of a Flower Today." Lots of friends on this record, and the warmth is infectious.
Various Artists, "A Tribute to Billie Holiday" (StormVox) ()-- Swedish actor Peter Stormare (he's the kidnapper who gets, shall we say, a leg up at the end of "Fargo") is also a musician and a big fan of Billie Holiday. He's assembled this mild but loving tribute to Lady Day for his record label, featuring her signature tunes rendered with the kind of professionalism and regimented studio swing familiar from projects like Donald Fagen's Rock and Soul Revue. Included are smooth cuts from Shelby Lynne (an easygoing "You've Changed"), Grammy's latest best new artist Esperanza Spalding (a breathy and eventually breezy take on "I'll Look Around"), Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds (a haunting but slightly syrupy "Strange Fruit"), Boz Scaggs (a restrained "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me"), Rickie Lee Jones (lively and typically childlike on "They Can't Take That Away From Me") and others.