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The Country-Centric Restoration Is the Elton John Tribute Album You Should Hear

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 30: Recording Artist Elton John performs onstage during 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards - I'm Still Standing: A GRAMMY Salute To Elton John at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on January 30, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for NARAS)

Two different tribute albums to the classic songbook of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin were released today. One of them, Revamp, invited a big tent of contributors from the worlds of pop, rock, rap, and R&B; the other, Restoration, is comparatively hermetic, focusing on multiple generations of Elton fans within country music. We’ve already highlighted a few tracks from Revamp contributors like the Killers and Queens of the Stone Age, but really, if you’re going to listen to one of the two, Restoration is the right pick.

Part of its superiority has to do with simple genre coherence and consistency: there’s no Logic rapping on Restoration, thank God, as there is on Revamp—which also features Mumford and Sons immediately followed by Mary J. Blige, two artists that are never going to sound at home on the same album together. But the John/Taupin catalog also lends itself particularly well to Nashville interpretation, filled as it is with narratives and character studies, largely acoustic instrumentation, and a frontman who, just like Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn, can do brassy and swaggering or worn out and lonesome with equal panache and credibility. Tumbleweed Connection, John’s Old West-obsessed masterpiece from 1970, is practically a country album already.

Restoration isn’t perfect. Little Big Town’s opener attempts an ambitious vocal-heavy version of “Rocket Man” that fails to achieve liftoff, for instance. But it’s shot through with highlights: Maren Morris’ nimble and soulful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which runs circles around the Killers’ glammed-up Revamp version, mostly by keeping in mind what makes the song so great in the first place; Chris Stapleton’s “I Want Love,” a pleasantly surprising pick from Elton’s cult-favorite 2001 album Songs From the West Coast; Willie Nelson’s “Border Song,” in a somber minimal arrangement that brings out the preternatural gravitas of the original (released when John was 23!). Hear the whole thing below.