Biggie Smalls, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith and Joy Division - which are the best posthumous releases in music?
With the security door on Prince’s legendary purple vault finally cracked and the first of many posthumous releases gushing forth in the shape of the current gospel blues EP ‘Deliverance’, the formidable Class Of 2016 of deceased rock stars has begun to stake its claim on the title of greatest posthumous records ever. Here’s the ten Prince has to beat.
Jeff Buckley, ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’ (1998)
Buckley himself would have been horrified that 1998’s ‘Sketches…’ would emerge in its current state, a compilation of four-track demo tracks from sessions for his second album that he’d scrapped as inadequately capturing his post-‘Grace’ direction. But having died during an impromptu swim in Wolf River on the day in May 1997 when his dream band arrived to put the tracks right, we’re left with the remnants of his recordings with Television’s Tom Verlaine at the desk and a shifting line-up of band members; an unfocussed but inspired collection of political garage rock, full-on R&B, polished grunge and spectral love songs.
David Bowie, ‘No Plan EP’ (2017)
The soundtrack to Bowie’s musical ‘Lazarus’ featured a smattering of freshly-written tracks, and Bowie’s own takes on them were collected on the ‘No Plan EP’ on what would have been his 70th birthday. Like ‘Blackstar’, these were songs directly referencing his illness – “I’m falling, man/I’m choking, man/I’m fading, man” went ‘Killing A Little Time – but performed with a fresh creative invention that suggested the dying of the light was never so passionately raged against.
Janis Joplin, ‘Pearl’ (1971)
You can almost hear Joplin’s decline playing out within the grooves of her second, and final, solo album. The vocals to the anti-consumerist ‘Mercedes Benz’, recorded just three days before her death aged 27 from a heroin overdose in Hollywood’s Landmark Motor Hotel, are cracked and gritty, shattering under the joint pressures of a $200-a-day smack habit and copious alcohol. They reflect the album itself – powerful, fiery, but teetering on the edge of burn-out.
Gram Parsons, ‘Grievous Angel’ (1974)
Few posthumous records were actually completed before the artist died, but Parsons’ second solo album is one, albeit one completed while often incapacitated by hidden heroin and alcohol dependency. The resulting album was the haunting and hypnotic culmination of Parsons’ mission to create “Cosmic American Music” from the root ingredients of country, soul, folk and rock, splitting critics in the 70s but accepted as an engaging tragic classic today.
John Lennon, ‘Milk And Honey’ (1984)
Lennon had unleashed the finest moments of his return from the house-husband wilderness on 1980’s ‘Double Fantasy’, where Yoko Ono stood little chance of ruining a collection featuring ‘Watching The Wheels’, ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’. But with his work on the projected follow-up halted early by his death in December 1980 – it’s biggest hit ‘Nobody Told Me’ was written by John to give to Ringo – Ono had a far greater hand in piecing together ‘Milk And Honey’ from Lennon’s rehearsal takes and her own new songs. But by dialling back her, um, idiosyncrasies, Ono produced a Lennon tribute worthy of rock’s most exalted name.
Elliott Smith, ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ (2004)
Giving up drugs and alcohol left Portland indie rock outlier Elliott Smith facing less superficial battles; the depression that had dogged him for his entire life returned with an intense clarity. Before completing his sixth studio album he was dead from two knife wounds, believed to be self-inflicted. He left an almost-complete album that many considered a suicide note, a traumatic open diary of Smith’s struggles that was as epic and beautiful as it was tough to listen to.
Tupac Shakur, ‘The Don Killuminati, The 7 Day Theory’ (1996)
Featuring a cartoon depiction of Tupac nailed to the cross on the cover, the concept of selling his drive-by death came early to those in charge of his musical legacy, and hung around for decades. 2Pac has released far more albums since he died than he did while alive, but ‘The Don Killuminati…’ remains the most coherent, even if it lacks any major ‘Pac hits. Recorded in a week the month before his shooting, it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek underground release and thus – for all its Cali-flavoured fury and paranoia – comes as a considered piece, in pleasing contrast to the dozens of cobbled-together posthumous 2Pac remix albums full of supposedly clairvoyant tracks called things like ‘I Told You I’d Get Shot (Dead Now)’.
Otis Redding, ‘The Dock Of The Bay’ (1968)
Cut down in his prime in a 1967 plane crash over Lake Monona in Wisconsin at just 26, Otis Redding garnered the first ever posthumous UK Number One album with ‘The Dock Of The Bay’ and the first posthumous Billboard Number One single with the iconic ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’. As his silky tones soar across such evergreen blues and roots classics as Jimmy Cox’s ‘Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down And Out)’ and ‘The Huckle-Buck’, it’s all the sadder to think that such a celestial soul voice was singing its last.
Notorious B.I.G., ‘Life After Death’ (1997)
A record as big as the man that made it – a hulking 109 minutes of relaxed rap muscle – ‘Life After Death’ was the follow-up to Biggie’s 4 million-selling, ironically titled debut ‘Ready To Die’ and looked set to turn him from the East Coast faction’s commander in chief into a bona fide global rap giant. Unfortunately he was gunned down just two weeks before its release and the album’s guest star Jay Z would go on to fulfil that role, but ‘Life After Death’ proved to be the unbeatable slab of definitive Mafioso rap.
Joy Division, ‘Closer’ (1980)
Having recorded the defining album of the post-punk era and arguably the best single ever made, Ian Curtis committed suicide one month before the release of the latter – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – and two months before the former, Joy Division’s second album ‘Closer’. It’s churning sepulchral tones, death disco and gothic slashes of sound saw it stand as a towering monument to Curtis’ dark-hearted talents and made the album a pivotal moment in popular music. As the later tracks written for the record saw the band’s post-punk guitar roots give way to more synthesizers, it paved the way for the band’ post-Curtis revival as New Order.