Few things are as touching as when an artist creates a somber tribute song for a fallen friend or idol. We have compiled a list of some of the best tribute songs ever recorded below.
1. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd paid tribute to its founding frontman Syd Barret with an entire album, but the song “Wish You Were Here” is the most poignant example. Barret was still alive when the band recorded the track and even appeared in the studio while the group was recording the album. But mental illness and drug abuse had left him a shadow of the man the band knew.
“Wish You Were Here” is a downbeat song about dealing with separation from someone you care for. Even if the person is still there physically, there is an ocean of space between you. “Wish You Were Here” is not just the best tribute song but the best Pink Floyd song ever recorded.
2. “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans ft. 112
Few deaths shook the music world as the murder of The Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. The rap world was never the same after the sudden passing of one of the genre’s legends, and numerous artists recorded tributes to express their grief. The most famous song about the death of Biggie Smalls was “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans.
Classic rock fans will instantly recognize the backing track is a sample from “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. The band sued Puff Daddy, and lead singer Sting now earns 100 percent of the royalties from the track. In the song, Puff Daddy sings about the grief he and many others are dealing with. The song is as sentimental as it is sad.
3. “Man on the Moon” by R.E.M.
“Man on the Moon” is the only tribute song R.E.M. ever recorded, but the band struck gold with its singular attempt. “Man on the Moon” tells the story of Andy Kauffman and alludes to many of his famous stunts: wrestling Jerry Lawler and impersonating Elvis Presley. The band never met Kauffman but was enamored with his antics and the rumor that he faked his death.
The band took inspiration from both country and rock music when creating the track. “Man on the Moon” remains one of R.E.M.’s most enduring hits, and the song provided the title for the 1999 film about Kauffman’s life.
4. “American Pie” by Don McLean
“American Pie” is an epic track that alludes to several high-profile events and characters of the 20th century. At the song’s heart is the repeated lyric “the day the music died.” The phrase has become synonymous with the 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. Critics often see “American Pie” as a tribute to those fallen idols of early rock and roll.
Critics and fans have debated the meaning of the symbols and lyrics of “American Pie” since its release in 1971, and it remains one of the most discussed songs in history.
5. “Here Today” by Paul McCartney
The death of John Lennon sent shockwaves throughout the music world, particularly with his former Beatles partners. The remaining three Beatles all grieved the loss of a friend in different ways, but “Here Today” by Paul McCartney is perhaps the most touching tribute to come out of Lennon’s death.
McCartney was the primary songwriting partner of Lennon during their time together in the Beatles. Though the two did not often see eye-to-eye, especially after the band’s break-up, Lennon’s murder deeply impacted McCartney. McCartney said he cried while writing the song and had difficulties discussing it with Ringo Starr or George Harrison.
6. “Missing You” by Diana Ross
No death affected Motown artists as much as the murder of Marvin Gaye by his father. Gaye was a pioneering force in soul music, and his death left a void few artists were ready to fill. Diana Ross talked with Lionel Richie shortly after Gaye’s murder; Richie began to create the song “Missing You” out of those conversations.
Richie produced and wrote the song but allowed Ross to sing it as only she could. What followed was a touching tribute song to a man who touched so many lives both musically and personally. The track was a hit for Ross, her final tune to make it to the top 10. Ross continues her career today, but the death of Gaye still casts a shadow on soul music.
7. “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John
Elton John originally recorded “Candle in the Wind” in tribute to the late Marilyn Monroe. Monroe died 11 years before John’s recording, and he wrote the song to immortalize Monroe’s fame and youth. John saw Monroe as someone cut down in her prime and died too early. John released the song as a single along with “Bennie and the Jets.”
In 1997, Princess Diana died in a car crash. John was a close friend of Diana and wrote a new version of the song as a tribute to her.
8. “Better on the Other Side” by The Game, Chris Brown, Diddy, Usher, Mario Winans, and Boyz II Men
Michael Jackson’s death affected musicians of all stripes, particularly Black musicians who felt Jackson was an icon. A group of musicians got together on the day of Jackson’s death and recorded “Better on the Other Side” in tribute to the King of Pop.
Diddy released the song on his Twitter account the day after Jackson’s death. The lyrics detail the important place in pop culture that Jackson exists in, as well as artists recalling their memories of the King of Pop.
9. “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton’s life changed forever with the death of his four-year-old son in 1991. His son fell out of a window in New York, and the artist entered a period of isolation and depression as he dealt with his grief.
Clapton attempted to work through his emotions with “Tear in Heaven,” a tribute song he recorded about his deceased son Conor. In the song, Clapton sings about the grief he feels and the process of recovery.
10. “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth
Many of the most famous tribute songs deal with a personal loss or the death of another musician. Actor Paul Walker died in a car crash, and the world mourned. Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth recorded the song “See You Again” for the movie Furious 7 as a tribute to the deceased actor.
“See You Again” was a smash hit upon its release in 2015 and topped the charts for 12 weeks. The song plays at the end of the film, the last one filmed before Walker’s death.
11. “Coldest Winter” by Kanye West
Kanye West was in a raw emotional place in 2008. West was coming out of a breakup, and his mother tragically died from surgery complications. The rapper changed his style and lyrical content for his next album, 808s & Heartbreaks.
Perhaps no song demonstrates West’s depression like “Coldest Winter.” West raps about his mother’s death and the effect it continues to have on him. This song and album marked a turning point in West’s music and career.
12. “Luv (Sic) Part 2 Acoustica” by Nujabes and Shing02
Nujabes was one of the primary forces in Japanese hip-hop music during the 2000s. He pioneered a downtempo and lo-fi approach to hip-hop beats. In 2010, Nujabes died in a traffic accident that profoundly affected his frequent contributors and friends.
“Luv (Sic) Part 2 Acoustica” is a remix of a song Nujabes produced during his lifetime. Frequent contributor and rapper Shing02 dedicates the track to a “dear friend” as an acoustic arrangement plays. Many tribute songs exist for Nujabes, real name Seba Jun, but few hold the emotional weight as this one.
13. “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was a blow to many Black people and activists. Stevie Wonder shared a birthday with the late Dr. King and decided to produce a tribute song for the late reverend and civil rights proponent.
Wonder never released the song in the United States, instead releasing it as a single in the United Kingdom. The tune has become one of Wonder’s signature songs, and many Black people play this song during their birthdays.
14. “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan
“Angel” has become a meme, but the song is a touching tribute and one of the saddest songs ever recorded. Sarah McLachlan wrote the song as a memorial to Jonathan Melvoin, the keyboardist for the Smashing Pumpkins, who died of a heroin overdose.
McLachlan sings about the tragedy of musicians turning to hard drugs while admitting she understands what might drive one to abuse these products. While McLachlan dedicated the song to Melvoin, she said you could apply the track to any musician who died of a drug overdose.
15. “Life Changes” by Wu-Tang Clan
The Wu-Tang Clan was one of the primary innovators in the world of ‘90s hip-hop. One of the members with the most influence in the group was Ol’ Dirty Bastard. ODB died of a drug overdose in 2004, and the remaining Wu-Tang Clan members banded together to create a touching tribute to their fallen comrade.
“Life Changes” samples from “The Road We Didn’t Take.” Wu-Tang Clan members rap through their grief at the loss of ODB, saying he went too soon.
16. “Free as a Bird” by The Beatles
Though the Beatles broke up in 1970, the three surviving members got together to record “Free as a Bird” in 1995. John Lennon originally wrote the song years after the band dissolved, and the band decided to record the song in honor of their murdered friend.
“Free as a Bird” was the first song released under the Beatles' name since 1970, and anticipation was at an all-time high. The tribute went on to win a Grammy Award in 1997.
17. “Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers
“Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers is not a singular tribute song to one person. Instead, the song is a tribute to the many rock and rollers who died too young. Alan O’Day and Johnny Stevenson originally wrote the song, but it did not become a hit until The Righteous Brothers released its version.
“Rock and Roll Heaven” alludes to several artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jim Morrison, Jim Croce, and Bobby Darin.
18. “No One But You (Only the Good Die Young)” by Queen
Freddie Mercury is one of the most iconic personalities in rock and roll music. His early death led to much grief from the other bandmates of Queen. Six years after Mercury passed, the surviving Queen members recorded “No One But You (Only the Good Die Young)” in tribute to their fallen friend and frontman.
The song is the only Queen song to feature three musicians. Brian May wrote the track and originally intended it to be a solo track before the other members of Queen decided to join him.
19. “Johnny Bye Bye” by Bruce Springsteen
Few forces in pop culture were as prevalent as Elvis Presley. Many artists took inspiration from the King of Rock and Roll, and the myth of Elvis continues to permeate today. Many artists have recorded tributes to Elvis, including Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen said seeing Elvis at a young age inspired him to become a musician. Taking inspiration from a Chuck Berry song, Springsteen wrote “Johnny Bye Bye” to analyze the legendary figure’s life and the depressing way his life ended.
20. “Buddy Holly” by Weezer
Released on what should have been Holly’s 58th birthday, “Buddy Holly” by Weezer pays tribute to the classic rock and roller. Weezer discusses many other topics in the song, but everything returns to its namesake.
“Buddy Holly” was a smash hit for Weezer, and the popularity of its music video helped establish the band in its early days. The music video evokes 1950s nostalgia and contains many references to the 1970s television show Happy Days.
21. “Sleeps with Angels” by Neil Young
Neil Young is one of folk’s most accomplished musicians. In 1994, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana committed suicide and left a hole in popular music. Cobain quoted his icon Young in his suicide note and that scarred and depressed Young.
Young wrote “Sleeps with Angels” as a tribute to the fallen musician as he attempted to work through the grief he felt as another artist died too young.
Top Tribute Songs Ever, Final Thoughts
There are so many touching tribute songs out there, and we only scratched the surface of the best examples. What is your favorite tribute song? Did we miss any that belong on this list? Let us know!