American author Gore Vidal, upon hearing of the death of his contemporary Truman Capote, remarked somewhat coldly that his passing was a "wise career move". Harsh words, but not entirely inaccurate and the same sense of dispassionate acclaim can certainly be applied to the music world. From Buddy Holly to Roy Orbison and from Tupac to Kurt Cobain, a succession of musicians have achieved massive acclaim and success for work released long after their deaths.
Yesterday's news that Michael Jackson (or rather his estate) would be releasing a brand new collection of original music this coming May got us thinking; what are some of music's best posthumous releases of all time? Below are ten of our picks...
Words: John Balfe
Nirvana - MTV Unplugged
Released in November 1994, some seven months after Kurt Cobain's suicide, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged album remains a genre classic and one of the most purely distilled examples of Cobain's genius. Nirvana had initially turned down MTV's invites to appear on Unplugged due to worries over the format of the show. Whereas MTV wanted Nirvana to play their biggest hits, the band wanted to play some of their lesser-known songs which they felt would work best in an acoustic format and Cobain - in the midst of heavy drug withdrawals - appeared nervous, quiet and tetchy, prompting concerns over his ability to perform.
Thankfully though, Cobain and Nirvana won their battle of wills and the result was one of the best-selling records of the nineties and offered one final unsettling glimpse into the soul of Kurt Cobain.
Janis Joplin - Pearl
Janis Joplin's Pearl is seen by most as Joplin's finest record of her career despite the fact that she never heard the completed work, dying of a heroin overdose midway through its production. Had she lived to see the album's release she would have heard the best, and most polished, work of her career. Classic songs like 'Move Over', 'Cry Baby', 'Me and Bobby McGee', 'Mercedes Benz' are all housed within. An instrumental version 'Buried Alive In The Blues' was also included in the album, the track that Joplin was scheduled to lay down vocals to in the days after her death.
Roy Orbison - Mystery Girl
Mystery Girl was released in February 1989, just two months after Roy Orbison's death of a heart attack at age 52, and became a worldwide chart hit. The album was recorded during the final few months of Orbison's life and included several collaborations with Orbison's friends Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, as well as the song 'She's A Mystery To Me' which was written for Orbison by Bono and The Edge.
Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death
Life After Death was something of a prophetic title for Notorious B.I.G.'s second album, as it was released just two weeks after the rapper was shot to death on the morning of March 9th 1997. The album, and particularly lead single 'Hypnotize', were very well received critically and topped the Billboard Year-End poll as the year's best R&B/Hip Hop album and has been recognised in the years which have followed as a landmark album in the rap genre and has remained required listening for any rapper worth their salt over the last two decades.
2Pac - R U Still Down?
2Pac has released an incredible seven albums since his death at the hands of a gunman in Las Vegas in September 1996, with R U Still Down? arguably being his most famous posthumous release - and the first release of his to be completed without his creative input. The rapper left an extraordinary body of unreleased work upon his death, enough to populate several more albums, but few will have the same emotional resonance as this one.
Elliott Smith - From A Basement On The Hill
Released almost a year to the day after his death in October of 2003, Elliott Smith's From A Basement On The Hill was intended to Smith's follow-up to 2000's Figure 8 but doesn't fully illustrate the direction that some suggest Smith was intending to go with his music. Completed after his death, From A Basement... was fairly standard Smith fare and, with a few exceptions, didn't hit the high watermarks he aimed for with XO or Either/Or. One interesting note, though, is that just before his death he had expressed an interest in adding an ambient electronic sound to his music giving a tantalising indication of where his outstanding career may have been headed.
Otis Redding - The Dock of the Bay
Otis Redding's '(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay' became not only the first Otis Redding single to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but the first ever posthumous #1 single in history after the singer died in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin on December 10th 1967. What makes the story of the song all that more visceral is that Redding died just a couple of days removed from recording what would go on to become his biggest hit and one of the most beloved songs in the R&B genre.
Marvin Gaye - Vulnerable
Marvin Gaye's Vulnerable was originally slated for a released in 1979 but it was until almost twenty years later in 1997 when the album was made posthumously available, some 13 years after Gaye was shot to death by his father. Perennially known for his R&B and soul classics, Gaye had long intended to release a record of jazz ballads. Recorded during a turbulent divorce, Vulnerable is a haunting reminder of the vocal talents of one of the best singers of the twentieth century.
Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
It says a lot about the brief but indelible mark that the inescapably flawed Amy Winehouse made on popular music that she can be included in a list alongside the likes of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye with relative ease. Lioness: Hidden Treasures probably leans more towards an unreleased/rarities collection more than some of the other records in this list. The record contains interesting versions of 'Valerie' and 'The Girl From Ipanema' but it's the duet with Tony Bennett 'Body and Soul' which serves as this collection's focal point and casts one last spotlight on supremely talented Londoner.
Eva Cassidy - Songbird
Eva Cassidy was mostly unknown outside of her native Washington DC at the time of her death from cancer in 1996 - but that would soon change when her music was played to a label head from Blix Street Records shortly after her passing. A new record - 'Songbird' was proposed and released but it wasn't until Terry Wogan played her on heavy rotation on his BBC Radio show that thing began to snowball. Huge acclaim followed, with the likes of Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton announcing themselves as fans. This wave of appreciation eventually made its way Stateside, ending with Songbird being certified gold in the United States meaning that, of all the musicians in this list, Cassidy is the only one who became famous after her death.