Word on the internet this week is that a leaked version of David Bowie’s lost 2001 record Toy has slipped out into the wild and is now doing the round on file-sharing sites. Toy is one of many albums over the course of musical history that for one reason or another got delayed, shelved or otherwise waylaid. There’s often a mythology that grows up around such albums, and although the story can sometimes outweigh the actual music – after all, often albums get canned for a reason — there are some that warrant the attention they attract. Here’s our pick of 10 of music’s best lost records — or the ones that sound like they would be the best, if only we could hear them…
David Bowie – Toy
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a strange period for David Bowie in general — he made a drum’n’bass record, for God’s sake. But things started looking up with 2002’s Heathen , an album that featured a cover of The Pixies’ “Cactus” and got the strongest reviews Bowie had enjoyed in years. Before Heathen, however, came an aborted album called Toy, and while several songs from the Toy sessions ended up on the final album, there’s plenty that didn’t. As such, the record has been something of a Holy Grail for Bowie completists ever since, one of those albums that lots of people have heard about but few have ever heard. Until this week, that is.
Juliana Hatfield – God’s Foot
Juliana Hatfield’s fourth album provides a fine example of how artists can be royally screwed by contractual obligations and record label politics. On receiving the album, Hatfield’s label Atlantic decided that they didn’t like it, mainly because there was nothing that they could see working as a single. They sent her back to the studio three times to try to come up with something that’d sell. Nonplussed, Hatfield eventually asked to be released from her contract. Atlantic obliged, but refused to release the rights for the record, effectively burying it. Only three of the tracks have ever emerged from the label’s vault.
Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
Fiona Apple’s third studio album was originally meant to come out in late 2002. It didn’t come out until three years later, and the story of what happened in those three years is one of the stranger ones in recent musical history. Apple originally recorded the album with producer Jon Brion, who had worked on her 1999 album When The Pawn Hits the Conflicts Etc Etc Etc . The sessions dragged on for months, and when they finally finished there was no word on a release date. Eventually, in 2004, news started to filter out that the label had shelved the record for being too commercially unappealing (are we seeing a pattern here?). Songs started to leak online, and some of Apple’s most devoted/crazed fans began picketing Sony BMG’s offices demanding that Apple be “freed.” Eventually, in mid-2005, she re-recorded pretty much the entire album with a new producer, Mike Elizondo. It was this version that eventually got released, and although there’s occasionally been talk of officially releasing the Brion version, nothing has happened as yet (although it’s been floating around the internet for years).
Weezer – Songs from the Black Hole
What eventually became Pinkerton started life as a sci-fi rock opera called Songs from the Black Hole. And for all that Pinkerton is clearly Weezer’s strongest record, it still would have been more fun to see them go all Star Trek.
The Beach Boys – Smile
The grandaddy of legendary unreleased albums, Brian Wilson’s magnum opus Smile was torpedoed by a combination of its creator’s fragile mental state, intra-band conflict and a crisis of confidence apparently brought on by hearing The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As the project fell apart, so did Wilson, and as he lapsed further into mental illness, Smile assumed legendary status as rock’s great lost album. Wilson eventually resurrected the project in 2003 and released a re-recorded version a year later; apparently the songs from the original session will finally get an official release some time this year.
Prince – The Black Album
Prince was at the peak of his powers in 1987 – he’d just released the career-best Sign o’ the Times double album, and pretty much the whole world of music was waiting on his next move. In December of that year, promo copies of what would be called The Black Album started circulating. The album took its name from the fact that the sleeve was entirely black, with a tracklisting on the disc itself. However, a week before the scheduled release date, Prince abruptly canned the album and withdrew all copies from circulation. Quite why he did so has never been explained — one theory says he apparently took ecstasy for the first time, freaked out and decided that the album was somehow evil or ill-starred. But in any case, it was replaced by Lovesexy , which came out in mid-1988, and lay dormant until it finally got a belated and largely unheralded release in 1994.
Ice Cube and Dr. Dre – Heltah Skeltah
This reunion of the two ex-NWA luminaries was meant to come out during the halcyon days of Death Row. But, like various other projects that were touted at the time, it never reached the ears of the listening public, and God only knows where the tapes are now. Still, considering how long Dre tends to sit on things (cf. Detox, which is the hip hop Chinese Democracy), maybe there’s still hope.
Neu! – Neu! 4
German visionaries Neu! made three of the greatest albums ever in a extraordinary three-year period between 1972 and 1975. By the end of this time, sadly, core duo Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother had grown apart, and broke up soon after to pursue other projects – most notably Harmonia, which Rother formed with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius. It seemed unlikely Rother and Dinger would ever work together again, but as it turned out, they reconvened in 1986 to record another record. Unfortunately, the reunion didn’t work out, and the album they recorded went unreleased for years, until it surfaced in 1995 on a Japanese label as Neu! 4. Dinger sanctioned the release as bootlegs of the sessions had been appearing anyway, but Rother wasn’t happy. Although the duo tried to come to some agreement as to an official release, the situation hadn’t been resolved when Dinger died in 2008.
Brian Eno – My Squelchy Life
During the 1980s, Brian Eno’s time was largely taken up with producing U2 and making ambient music. He hadn’t released an album featuring his vocals since 1977’s Before and After Science , so the news that he was making a non-ambient album with the strange title My Squelchy Life was greeted with much curiosity by fans. In the event, the album never saw the light of day – his label asked him to delay its release by six months, and by then he’d apparently gotten bored with it and moved onto making what would become his 1992 album Nerve Net . In a 1993 interview, Eno revealed that since he didn’t release the album, he returned the advance that the record company had sent him on it. Bless.
Danger Mouse – The Grey Album
It’s not surprising that The Beatles’ record label EMI wasn’t particularly amused by the idea of a largely unknown producer releasing an album that mixed the vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with a whole heap of sampled music from The Beatles’ The White Album. The resultant record – dubbed, inevitably, The Grey Album – was borderline genius, and the fact that EMI nixed its release only provided the whole project with a heap of valuable publicity. The resultant hoo-ha catapulted Danger Mouse to prominence – which might just have been the idea, eh?