Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark MulcahyLast week, in my review of Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill, I said that in most cases, tribute albums are a hit-or-miss affair. That’s not exactly a controversial opinion, but it is equally true that there are exceptions to every rule. The new charity compilation Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Shout Factory) is one of those exceptions — and how.

Mulcahy is the former frontman for Miracle Legion. When his wife Melissa died suddenly last year, Mulcahy was left with a broken heart, a pile of bills, and a whole bunch of high-profile friends who wanted to help out. Their help comes in the form of an album that is not only one of the best compilations of 2009, but one of the year’s best albums, period. More importantly, proceeds from the sale of the album will go to Mulcahy to enable him to raise his twin three-year-old daughters, and continue his music career. Concerts are planned in London and New York to raise more money.

You know how sometimes you’re listening to a compilation album, you hear a track that you like, and you check your iPod for the name of the artist? That happened to me a number of times when listening to Ciao My Shining Star. The only reason I didn’t have to check every time a new track came on is because a number of the artists here are instantly recognizable, including Thom Yorke, The National, Michael Stipe, Frank Black, and Dinosaur, Jr.

Thom Yorke gets things started with “All For the Best.” I love Radiohead, and I don’t mean to imply anything lacking in their recent work, but this is Yorke at his warmest and most human. The National continue to prove that they are one of America’s greatest bands with their take on “Ashamed of the Story I Told.”

“Mark’s melodies always imply hope and uplift, even when his lyrics explore mystery, loss, and darkness,” intones R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. As if to prove his point, Stipe chips in with a stunning, vibrato-guitar filled cover of Mulcahy’s “Everything’s Coming Undone,” which is as vital as anything to come out of the R.E.M. camp in years. Frank Black is at his ominous best on the torrid “Bill Jocko.”

No, I’m not giving you tracks from the really big guys. This is for charity, after all. That doesn’t mean I’m not giving you a couple of really good songs though. I know the boss here is a big Josh Rouse fan, so to throw him a bone, check out Josh’s cool version of “I Woke Up In the Mayflower.” The Autumn Defense is a side project of Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone. They contributed my favorite track in a field of great ones, the aptly named, “Paradise.”

Ciao My Shining Star is that rare occasion when a good cause merges with good art and the result is good for everyone. Perhaps some good deeds do go unpunished. If you have no idea who Mark Mulcahy is (and my previous awareness of him was sketchy at best), you’ll quickly discover that he’s a terrific songwriter, and a much-loved figure among his peers. Whether or not you’re interested in supporting him is up to you, but this is a wonderful album in any event. Buy it.

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