William Orbit has been given the task of producing the ‘new’ Queen album, which will almost certainly feature much-anticipated 1983 duets between Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson (known as ‘the llama recordings’ because of Freddie’s reported disdain for Michael’s pet llama). Don’t be surprised if the toils of Orbit’s mixing desk wizardry land in shops just in time for Christmas.
Unlike, say, Damon Albarn (who the producer fell out with) or Madonna (who fell out with the producer when he gave ‘Pure Shores’ to All Saints instead of her), Freddie and Michael won’t be able to give him any backchat (and nor will the llama), but that doesn’t mean producing a posthumous album can’t be fraught with difficulties.
Drake found that out the hard way when he was drafted in to produce an entire album of unreleased material from R&B singer Aaliyah back in 2012, only to be met with angry hostility from fans, from Timbaland and DMX and even the late singer’s family. In the end Drizzy decided not to get busy – he and co-producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib announced they were throwing the towel in January such was the strength of bad feeling.
Few releases illicit more passion or divide opinion like the posthumous release does. With each release comes cynicism regarding motives, and final verdicts tend to fall into two camps – they’re either “on the money” or “for the money” Though you’ll see from our list that nothing is black or white; here are five largely positive posthumous albums and five below par ones, though that’s not to say that any were put out into the public domain without the best of intentions *cough*.
Michael Jackson – ‘Xscape’ (2014)
If at first you don’t succeed then try again, because while Jackson’s first post-death release – simply titled ‘Michael’ – was widely regarded as rubbish, it appears Sony got it right for the sophomore posthumous effort with a good balance of producers (Timbaland, Dr Freeze, Babyface et al) making truncated past endeavours zing. In ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ written with Paul Anka, a genuine lost classic was unearthed, and how few albums of the like can boast that. Be warned though, Sony paid good money to excavate the King of Pop’s musical tomb, and if rumours are correct there could be as many as eight more albums on the way. Quality control may suffer.
Gram Parsons – ‘Grievous Angel’ (1974)
When Parsons died from an overdose at Joshua Tree aged just 26 in September ‘73, he’d been working on new material but hadn’t got much down on tape. ‘Grievous Angel’ was culled from sessions recorded the year previous, hence the number of covers. Despite the dearth of original material and the lack of commercial success when it was released four months after he died (he never had a hit record in his lifetime), it has become a stealthy cult classic and Parsons the legendary father of Cosmic American music. Rumour has it posthumous changes were made by Gram’s widow Gretchen, who reduced country vocalist Emmylou Harris’ involvement and had her picture removed from the cover.
Elliott Smith – ‘From a Basement On A Hill’ (2004)
It’s possibly lucky – although it’s hard to equate luck with the final days of Elliott Smith – that the singer had planned to record a double album. Over 30 tracks were sat through and touched up by producer Rob Schnapf and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme, though Elliott’s estate finally plumped for 15 of the tracks – many of them sparse – but capturing the essence of the artist without the listener having to make too many allowances. Other tracks from the sessions have been leaked onto the internet since, though those chosen at the time are cohesive enough to make ‘From a Basement on a Hill’ feel like a proper album. It went on to become Smith’s best seller too.
Notorious B.I.G. – ‘Life After Death’ (1997)
They say death is a good career move, and if you’re going to cash your chips in before your album comes out then try and do it a couple of weeks ahead of release. Obviously it wasn’t Biggie Smalls’ intention to get assassinated, though the timing certainly didn’t hurt sales – ‘Life After Death’ shifted 10 million, and on top of that there was really nothing left to be done to the album as it was already in the can. ‘Life After Death’ followed ‘Ready to Die’, and both not only changed hip hop but are considered two of the greatest records ever made in any genre.
Jimi Hendrix – ‘The Cry of Love’ (1971)
Hendrix only brought out three albums (plus a couple of live recordings and two compilations) in his lifetime, before his untimely death in 1970 at 27. These days there’s surely a factory somewhere churning out nothing but new Jimi Hendrix CDs for motorway service stations! Finished by producer Eddie Kramer and drummer Mitch Mitchell, ‘The Cry of Love’ is a work of genius – like the great man himself – and a lasting testament to the incredible things he did in such a short space of time. By 1975 and ‘Crash Landing’, the barrel was already being well and truly scraped.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – ‘Milk And Honey’ (1984)
‘Milk and Honey’ isn’t a disaster, it just lacks cohesion and makes you wonder what might have been. Yoko Ono didn’t go back to the sessions she’d been recording with her husband until three years after he was shot, understandable in the circumstances, and the intended follow up to ‘Double Fantasy’ sounds bitty and doesn’t quite hold together. John’s material is knockabout, a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll outtakes and demos, while Yoko’s is sharper and more contemporary and at odds with the remnants that were left. In many ways it’s heartbreaking to listen to.
Amy Winehouse – ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’ (2011)
The saddest thing about ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’ is the realisation you get of just how little Amy got done between ‘Back to Black’ and her sad death in 2011 because of her addictions. Her duet with Tony Bennett sparks, and the version of ‘Valerie’ is fine if you wanted another version of ‘Valerie’, but the Shirelles cover is dreary and on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ she barely sounds like herself. The great news is we still have ‘Back to Black’ – and few artists ever record anything that accomplished.
The Doors – ‘An American Prayer’ (1979)
It’s hard to deny what an excellent band The Doors were in their pomp, but nobody ever said ‘the best thing about The Doors is Jim’s lyrics’ unless they were really fucking high. Jim Morrison might have thought himself less rock star and more dionysian poet in the tradition of French shitbag genius Arthur Rimbaud, but really, he was a brilliant rock star and a mediocre poet at the end of the day. What’s more, his stream of consciousness style became deeply unfashionable not long after his death and still is unless you’re in sixth form. That didn’t stop the remaining Doors making an entire album recorded around his spoken word in 1979.
Queen – ‘Made in Heaven’ (1995)
If you’re looking forward to another posthumous album by Queen this Christmas then you might want to take a listen to ‘Made In Heaven’ first. Freddie knew he was dying and so was able to record a number of vocals before he passed on, though this is a sorry schmaltz fest with de trop reverb, too much Brian May solo wankery (too much Brian May will kill you) and choirs too. Though even warbling seraphim and cherubim purloined from heaven itself wouldn’t be able to save this ostentatious, manipulatively soppy mess.
Jeff Buckley – ‘Sketches From ‘My Sweetheart The Drunk’ (1998)
At times the real Jeff Buckley comes through these untidy, rough and unready demos, but too often it’s just unlistenable. Buckley was clearly an astonishing talent, and nobody can blame his mother for wanting to release these unexpurgated musical doodlings unto the world (she insisted on added the ‘Sketches From’ to denote incompletion), but really, this is for the superfan only. Shame shame shame.