Michael Jackson's MICHAEL, in stores this week, is only the latest in a long-standing tradition of releasing "new" albums from recently deceased artists before their gravestones have received their first splatter of bird crap. Some of these posthumous releases have been masterpieces that honor the artist's integrity and legacy...others have been tossed-off, archive-raiding cash-grabs that serve the best interests of everyone BUT the artist and their diehard fans. (And if that new MJ single featuring Akon is any indication...yikes, sorry Mike.)
Here are five albums that prove there's life after death, and five more that prove rolling in your grave will always be a popular activity.
THE 5 BEST
5. Roy Orbison – Mystery Girl (1989)
Orbison was riding high on the million-selling Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and working on his first solo album in a decade when he died suddenly from a heart attack in December 1988. Mystery Girl, released two months later, proved to be a well-deserved success, as Orbison’s voice was still a force to be reckoned with, and “She’s a Mystery to Me,” a song written by Bono and The Edge, remains the best U2 song of all time never recorded by U2. Also: cool shades.
4. Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992)
Yeah, yeah, switch off your hipster alarms now. Half of the creative force behind influential early-'70s power-popsters Big Star, Bell bailed after the group’s first album failed to find an audience. (Of course, nearly 40 years later, it’s considered one of the greatest albums of all time. Fate, you are a callous whore.) Bell worked in his dad’s restaurant and struggled with depression for years before being killed in a 1978 auto accident. The collection I Am the Cosmos, named after one of the singles he recorded during this dry spell, was released 14 years later, as bands like R.E.M. were falling over themselves praising his work.
3. Gram Parsons – Grievous Angel (1974)
Gram Parsons was many things: Alt-country pioneer, member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, pal of Keith Richards, snazzy dresser, plagued by demons. He was also more country than pretty much anything being heard on Nashville radio in the early '70s, but suffered from the all-too-common "critically acclaimed but can't sell records" syndrome. The fact that his second solo album, culled together from sessions scraps after his death from an overdose on morphine and alcohol, came out as such a stellar collection speaks volumes when it comes to Parson’s prodigious talent.
2. Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay (1968)
Few artists can claim to have had their signature song released after their untimely passing; of course, Otis Redding was always in a class all his own. An electrifying live performer, one can only imagine how many ladies would’ve fainted after he brought the crowd back down to earth with this posthumous set's title track, the ultimate feel-good slow jam that revolutionized the concept of "whistling with soul."
1. Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)
Recorded in 2003, American V can be a tough listen, as Cash sounded frail and, as evidenced in songs like “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” like a man aware of his own mortality. But this labor of love from producer Rick Rubin didn’t come off as an exploitative affair, as putting these selections on tape undoubtedly helped Cash get through some tough times following his wife June Carter Cash’s passing earlier that year. Knowing what a benevolent and spiritual man he was, Cash likely would’ve wanted others to hear these songs to help them with their own difficulties.
...AND THE 5 WORST
5. John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Milk and Honey (1984)
“Nobody Told Me” was a big hit in 1984, and it’s not a bad song, but we can all agree that the only reason it cracked the Top 10 was because it was a new John Lennon single four years after he’d been shot. Sadly, the rest of the album that spawned it is mired in dated production and FAR too much Yoko Ono material, meaning Milk and Honey comes off as pretty sour.
4. Michael Hutchence – Michael Hutchence (1999)
INXS frontman Michael Hutchence was without a doubt an amazing singer (Like you don’t crank up “Never Tear Us Apart” every time it pops up on the hits station?), but the circumstances surrounding his accidental death in 1997 proved far more titillating than his solo material. Kudos to Posthumous Album Hall of Famer Bono for adding vocals to the track “Slide Away,” though.
3. Queen – Made in Heaven (1995)
Following Freddie Mercury’s leaving of this mortal coil in 1991, Queen had a resurgence in sales, spurred in large part by the use of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World. The band opted to soldier on and release some material they’d been working on at the time of Mercury’s passing, filling out the sparse vocals he’d recorded with their own (and peppering in a couple of tracks from Mercury’s solo albums). But due to the patchwork nature of the project, the album barely made a dent on the charts. Where's a Beck or grunge god singing your praises when you need one?
2. 2Pac – Until the End of Time (2001)
With grating production techniques that 2Pac wouldn’t have signed off on if he were still us, too many hip-hop guests, and barely any actual 2Pac (not to mention the pervasive rumors that a 2Pac soundalike had been used on many of these unfinished tracks), the result of the FOURTH posthumous 'Pac release is a mess. Three years later, Eminem would do a respectable job salvaging even more unfinished tracks when he was handed the producer reins for Loyal to the Game.
1. Jimi Hendrix – Crash Landing (1975)
Never heard of this one? GOOD. There are far, far too many posthumous Hendrix releases to wade through (this year even saw the release of another “album,” Valleys of Neptune), but this 1975 release, shepherded by controversial producer Alan Douglas with tons of guitar overdubs by session musicians (blasphemy!), is considered the nadir of the post-Jimi Jimi projects. Hey Joe, where you goin' with that shitty record in your hand?