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The 10 Most Essential Posthumous Albums

The records that were too good to waste away in the vault

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    There are many reasons why a musician might wind up having an album’s worth of music at the time of his or her death. Maybe they were songs packaged and ready to go, but the artist passed away. Maybe the songs were half-finished and somebody had to come in and complete the job. Sometimes the posthumous album is just a bunch of scraps left over from other sessions repurposed as an album. Or, in some sad cases, maybe they were songs that the artist never wanted to see the light of day, sketches and demos distributed as if they were an “album” ready for the public’s consumption.

    But even in those cases, it’s hard to condemn the impulse to release posthumous albums. Fans will always want more from their favorite artists. The families of the deceased often need the financial support that would come from selling another album. And, thankfully, sometimes, these posthumous releases are just too good to hide away in the vaults because of their tragic circumstances.

    The latest prominent posthumous release will be Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings, the first so-called solo Kurt Cobain album. It remains to be seen what exactly that record will mean to his legacy: tribute, filler, cash-in, or some combination. What can be certain, though, is that the anticipation will be cranked to 11. To tide you over, we’ve assembled a list of 10 essential posthumous albums, spanning era and genre.

    –Adam Kivel
    Managing Editor

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    10. Selena – Dreaming of You (1995)

    Selena Dreaming of You

    Tejano music has its roots in the German and Polish immigrants of the 1830s who brought polka and the waltz to Texas and Mexico. The music was blended (some would say improved) with Mexican folk sounds, American country, jazz, and the blues, and it became a phenomenon among Mexican-Americans in Texas in the 1970s and ’80s. Tejano sounds like nothing else, and that partially explains the immense appeal of Selena Quantanilla, who had already been performing Tejano music for nine years when she signed a record deal at age 18. There was also her magnetic personality and iconic sense of fashion, the latter of which became the foundation of a clothing boutique empire.

    Selena released four Spanish-language albums, which were among the best-selling American albums of the early ’90s. She was in the process of recording her English crossover record, Dreaming of You, when she confronted the manager of her clothing boutiques about some financial discrepancies and was shot in the torso. She died at the age of 23. The English-language songs released posthumously on Dreaming of You are all solid, and the song she co-wrote with David Byrne, “God’s Child (Baila Conmigo)”, is one of Byrne’s very best songs of the ’90s. But it’s the second half of the album, loaded with new arrangements of her old Tejano hits, that makes Dreaming of You such a joy to listen to.

    –Wren Graves

    9. Marvin Gaye – Vulnerable (1997)

    Marvin Gaye Vulnerable

    Vulnerable had a decades-long road to release, so even though it’s the third posthumous Marvin Gaye album, it was recorded long before his death in 1984. Kicked off during a 1968 session with Bobby Scott, Gaye later reworked the album in 1977 before shelving it again. Originally titled The Ballads, the record was set for release in 1979 when Gaye decided it wasn’t yet ready to be put out. The Ballads haunted Gaye throughout his career. After the initial sessions with Scott, Gaye didn’t feel he had what it took to be a popular crooner and instead opted to hone his pop songcraft for Motown. For such an iconic vocalist to struggle with self-identity tied to a single album for much of his career is shocking, but the personality ingrained in Vulnerable is evident throughout the record’s all-too-brief 29 minutes. For those who like a calmer, more emotional Gaye, Vulnerable isn’t just a top-notch posthumous record, but a wonderful collection of low-key ballads.

    –Pat Levy

    8. Gram Parsons – Grievous Angel (1974)

    Gram Parsons Grievous Angel

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    In a segment from All Things Considered, a NPR music critic broke posthumous albums into three categories: “potpourri,” “the infinity vault,” and “warm to the touch.” A chief example of that last category is Grievous Angel, the second solo album by Gram Parsons. To a great degree, the album was released exactly as it would’ve been had the Flying Burrito Brothers founder not overdosed just after completing the recording sessions — though his widow, Gretchen, reportedly changed the cover so that it no longer featured Parsons’ longtime collaborator, Emmylou Harris. That said, the resulting album was still the ultimate example of “Cosmic American Music”, a self-designed style that fused country, rock, folk, soul, and more. The album featured stunning covers (the Harris-Parsons duet on “Love Hurts”), returning Burrito Brothers material (the charming “$1000 Wedding”, about marrying the mother of his daughter), and new compositions (the hypnotic, surreal “Return of the Grievous Angel”). The album may not be universally beloved, but Parsons’ ability to engage and enrapture the mind, heart, and soul of his listeners is a remarkable achievement, making his passing after this album that much more awful.

    –Adam Kivel

    7. John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Milk and Honey (1984)

    john lennon yoko ono milk and honey The 10 Most Essential Posthumous Albums

    Yoko Ono’s songs are musically engaging, but she’s not much of a singer, and it doesn’t help that she always follows one of the most iconic vocalists in the history of recorded sound. What makes Milk and Honey the best of Lennon’s Yoko albums is that the Yoko problem is fixed in two ways: technology and practice. It’s a softer sound, first explored in 1980’s Double Fantasy. That album was initially panned for the self-obsessed way it idealized their marriage, but three weeks after its release, Lennon was shot, and Double Fantasy became the number one record in the world. Lennon’s songs on Milk and Honey were recorded during the same sessions, but the album was far from complete. Four years later, Ono finished it herself.

    Now, the context for the love songs is different; instead of navel-gazing, these intimacies feel like a long, grateful goodbye from Ono to her husband. Lennon is great. Gone are the worst excesses of his solo career, the bluntness of “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”, and the cliches of “Working Class Hero”. Here, he approaches political subjects with a shit-eating grin and tongue planted firmly in cheek. But the great surprise is Ono. Most of her material was written after Lennon’s death and after she had put out two solo albums. On Milk and Honey, her voice has a new emotional range — and yes, they threw the whole mixing board at her vocals, but to criticize her for that misses the point: She now knew how to use her voice. John Lennon was a genius, but Yoko Ono deserves a lot of the credit for this tender, happy portrait of a marriage.

    –Wren Graves

    6. Joy Division – Closer (1980)

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    Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis committed suicide just one month before the release of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, the band’s only true hit single, and two months prior to the release of the album it was taken from, 1980’s Closer. Unfortunately, that meant that Curtis would never see what an important document the record would become for the post-punk scene, and subsequently stretching its long shadow of influence across the entire rock spectrum. The album would be the band’s last in addition to Curtis’, as the group reformed under the New Order banner to release their next set of tunes, and Closer works as a powerful testament to his magnetic persona. Though his bandmates’ contributions hold their own in swirling rhythms, kinetic synths, and propulsive guitars, listening to Closer feels a lot like stepping into Curtis’ brain: a dark, burning place, especially this close to his death, closing in slowly but still full of brilliance and beauty.

    –Adam Kivel

    5. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on the Hill (2004)

    Elliott Smith From a Basement on the Hill

    Some posthumous albums are warm reminders of the legacy of an artist. From a Basement on the Hill is not one of those albums. Listening to Elliott Smith’s unfinished sixth and final album can be a particularly brutal experience, as so many of the 15 songs reference addiction, frighteningly dysfunctional relationships, and even suicide. Considering the singer-songwriter’s drug problems and the disputed cause of his death (many theories swirl around the stabbing death that was presumed a suicide), these already intensely personal lyrics dig so much deeper. In fact, many consider From a Basement a sort of suicide note, the 15 songs presented the depressed words of a man with one foot already out the door and the other on its way. Smith apparently had over 30 tracks in contention for a double album, and it’s tragic that only 15 were close enough to finished to be completed by his former producer Rob Schnapf and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme. That said, songs like “Strung Out Again” and “Pretty (Ugly Before)” are haunting reminders of the stunning songwriter’s potential.

    –Adam Kivel

    4. Makavelli – The Don Killuminati, The 7 Day Theory (1996)

    Makavelli The Don Killuminati

    Originally intended to be a “tongue-in-cheek” and “underground” release, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory was released as a studio album two months after Tupac Shakur’s death. Producer Suge Knight elected to release the album in November of 1996 rather than March of the next year (which would’ve had it out around the time of Notorious B.I.G.’s death), and that decision was based on capitalizing on Shakur’s public figure right after his demise. The business behind the decision doesn’t diminish the final product much, with Shakur’s usual poeticism weaved throughout the West Coast production. None of Shakur’s “greatest hits” are on Don Killuminati, but it’s a well-rounded project that shows that Shakur had multiple facets and plenty of material yet to explore. The balance between optimism and realism is something that Tupac always toyed with, both with his production choices and lyrics, and this record is no different. “To Live and Die in L.A.” finds him lamenting both sides of the Los Angeles coin and advising radio stations to promote his record so it can go “katruple platinum.” It’s typical Cali Tupac, but there’s lightness to the affair that makes it an interesting posthumous release, much like Life After Death.

    –Pat Levy

    3. Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay (1968)

    Otis Redding Dock of the Bay

    Otis Redding had already helped define the soul sound of the 1960s when, on a rainy, foggy night, his plane crashed into Lake Monona near Madison, Wisconsin. He was 26 years old, and the songs that were released on The Dock of the Bay after his death show an electric talent just entering his prime. His soul rasp has been imitated many times, but not his wit. The infectious, funky “Tramp” has Redding flirting with the great Carla Thomas, who in return does nothing but insult him. “Open the Door” places him as an errant husband knocking on the door of his own house. First he apologizes, then he threatens, and finally he breaks down and begs.

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    And, of course, the album opens with the relaxed masterpiece “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay”. Redding locates his best songs in a particular setting: a single argument or an afternoon loafing on the dock. Otis is never exactly an admirable person in his songs. Master storyteller that he was, he chose to pass himself off as a country bumpkin, a tramp, a hopeless loser laughing through the pain.

    –Wren Graves

    2. Janis Joplin – Pearl (1971)

    Janis Joplin Pearl

    The young girl who was taunted as a “pig,” “freak,” “nigger-lover,” and “creep” while in high school became the young woman voted “the ugliest man on campus” by a fraternity at Lamar University. Friends wanted her to stay sober; lovers wanted her to put their own careers first; her original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, wanted her to restrict her talents to their psychedelic sound; critics wanted her to abandon her solo projects and go back to Big Brother; and at the age of 27, Janis Joplin died of an alcohol and heroin overdose, having lived her entire life disappointing one person or another. This is the story told by her raw, husky, remarkable voice, wailing away in pain.

    Pearl feels about two-thirds finished, and Joplin is badly worn out by the end. On “Mercedes Benz”, recorded only three days before her death, her voice is broken, croaky, and fried. She loses none of her power, but you don’t feel like you’re listening to a well-cared-for instrument. Rest and healthy living would have restored some of her early smoothness, but throats are only good for so much wear and tear. It’s possible that if she had lived and continued recording music, we would still think of Pearl as one of Joplin’s last albums where she could make her voice do anything she wanted.

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    And, of course, part of the morbid appeal of Pearl is that she sounds like she’s just about done. It’s deeply unsettling, listening to someone slowly killing herself three days before she finally dies. Which brings me to the final tragedy: Unlike her first solo album and her work with Big Brother and the Holding Company, on Pearl, for the first time, Joplin was playing with musicians she had hand-chosen, a producer she had picked, and performing material that she, and no one else, wanted to record. She had never sounded so free.

    –Wren Graves

    1. Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death (1997)

    Notorious BIG Life After Death

    Released just two weeks after the shooting death of Christopher Wallace, Life After Death is an over-inflated, deceptively upbeat gangsta rap record that would’ve surely made Biggie the biggest rapper in the world had he lived to see its release. Stretched over two discs, the album encapsulates East Coast hip-hop, specifically New York, featuring appearances by Jay Z, Puff Daddy, and Ma$e. Particularly captivating is the album’s ability to span between slow-burning production on tracks like “What’s Beef” and “Ten Crack Commandments” and buoyant and relatively sanguine tracks like “Hypnotize” and the album’s standout, “Mo Money Mo Problems”. Morbid title notwithstanding, Life After Death is kind of the perfect posthumous record. It’s too long, clocking in at nearly two hours, but it’s chock-full of essential Biggie. It was also essential to the music community, altering the trajectory of gangsta rap as a genre despite the loss of its biggest star. If Wallace’s estate had elected not to release the album in 1997, who’s to say what rap would look like now and what kind of impact these songs would have had if they had been released any later than they were.

    –Pat Levy

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