15 Great Posthumous Albums

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Had he lived, Tupac Shakur would have celebrated his 40th birthday this summer. It’s interesting to contemplate what a grizzled Tupac would sound like; The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, Shakur’s first posthumously released album, introduced his darker side, a sinister, new sound that, unfortunately, never got the chance to evolve. While the rapper is now notorious for his posthumous albums, having released nine since his death in 1996, The Don Killuminati puts most of Shakur’s early discography to shame.

While it’s true that posthumous albums can be exploitative, pushed onto the market by opportunistic handlers and record labels (ahem, Michael), they can also can be legitimate contributions to an artist’s discography and true gifts to their fans. Now, in hopes that chatter about new material from the late Amy Winehouse will add up to more than just an attempt to cash in, we’ve collected 15 great records that gave dearly departed musicians new life.

Joy Division, Closer

In May of 1980, Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s frontman and primary songwriter, committed suicide, leading to the band’s dissolution. Two months later, Closer was released. While it was only Joy Division’s second full-length, their progress and maturation was already audible — the album features a more rich and ominous sound than anything found on their debut, Unknown Pleasures. The innovation and lyrical beauty showcased on Closer still haunts listeners today, the true mark of music that was ahead of its time.

Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill

Much like Ian Curtis, Elliott Smith fought a well-publicized battle with depression throughout his short life. In 2003, he died of two stab wounds to the chest, a probable suicide. The next year, Anti- Records released From a Basement on the Hill, which was unfinished at the time of his death and mixed without his input. While no one knows what he would have created had he lived, the album turned out to be both cohesive and recognizably Smith’s — melancholic, gritty, and desperate.

The Notorious B.I.G, Life After Death

It’s almost shocking to recall that the Notorious B.I.G released only one studio album while he was alive. Following the success of Ready to Die, Biggie seemed poised to take over hip hop’s throne. Yet a mere two weeks before his release of his sophomore record, he was murdered by an unknown assailant in a drive-by shooting. Life After Death remains one of the best-selling rap albums in history and represents a milestone in hip hop — the clean, sample-heavy sounds of Biggie’s final studio album have been influencing rappers from coast to coast for close to two decades.

Otis Redding, The Dock of the Bay

Often, in a bizarre turn of events, the posthumous album defines an entire career. In 1967, Otis Redding’s charter plan crashed into Lake Monona, just outside Madison, Wisconsin, killing the soul singer and six others. Just days before his accident, Redding wrote and recorded what would be the most successful single of his career, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Released in 1968, The Dock of the Bay is Redding’s sixth studio album, containing a number of B-sides and singles, including the eponymous hit (which became the first posthumous #1 single in history). While the album lacks cohesion, it is hard not to love the way it showcases Redding’s versatility, wit, and remarkable talent.

Janis Joplin, Pearl

Much like Otis Redding, Janis Joplin never lived to witness the success of her biggest single, tragically overdosing on heroin at age 27. Prior to her untimely death, the blue-eyed soul songstress was recording her fourth album in Los Angeles; those uncompleted sessions became Pearl, which features her hit cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.” The album is textured, polished and intensely passionate, representing a Joplin who was tightening her sound yet staying true to the raw intensity that made fans love her.

Jeff Buckley, Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk

These days, Jeff Buckley is omnipresent — television ads, movie trailers, sitcoms — yet the singer-songwriter lived to release only one album, Grace, a debut that was initially overlooked. After spending much of his time touring to promote that record, Buckley moved to Tennessee to begin work on his next album. But in May of 1997, he drowned in the Mississippi River. His Memphis demo recordings were collected and released as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, an incomplete but stunning compilation. If this effort is a mere sketch of what Buckley was working on, we can only imagine the eclectic and remarkable album he would have produced.

Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways

In the 1990s, after being dropped by Columbia Records and suffering a career slump at Mercury, the Man in Black signed a contract with producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Thus began Johnny Cash’s American series, a run of six records all produced by Rubin with little to no accompaniment. Their minimalist sound complemented his deep, sorrowful baritone and rejuvenated his career. In 2003, four months after the passing of his wife, he succumbed to complications from diabetes. American V: A Hundred Highways was one of Cash and Rubin’s last collaborations and was released three years after his death. Though he wasn’t alive when the final song arrangements were made, we feel his producer tended to Cash’s final recordings and legacy respectfully — the work is sparse, stately, confessional, and surprisingly fragile.

J Dilla, The Shining

J Dilla was one of hip hop’s most influential artists, lending his distinct sound of grinding bass and distorted loops to some of the genre’s biggest albums, from A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life to Busta Rhymes’s The Coming. But Dilla was also a solo performer. Following the release of Champion Sound, his collaborative album with California producer Madlib, it seemed he was finally going to receive the mainstream recognition he deserved. Tragically, in 2006, the rapper died from the blood disease TTP. He had been working to complete multiple projects before his death, including his second solo album, The Shining. Despite being somewhat unfinished, it exemplifies Dilla’s virtuosity — layered with various styles, influences, and emcees, the album keeps listeners on their toes.

Marvin Gaye, Vulnerable

In the late 1970s, with the landmark What’s Going On and the sensual Let’s Get It On under his belt, Marvin Gaye returned to an ambition he had previously put on hold: He wanted to make an album of jazz ballads. Working in his own studio, Marvin’s Room, the singer recorded what he called The Ballads with bandleader Bobby Scott. Despite his excitement for the project, Gaye shelved it. In 1997, 13 years after he was shot and killed by his father, Motown released the Gaye-Scott sessions, retitling the album Vulnerable. It may be brief, but it packs a punch — recorded during the dissolution of his first marriage, Vulnerable is hauntingly pained and includes some of Gaye’s best vocal performances ever.

Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel

Gram Parsons was a member of several notable bands, including The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, yet it was his short solo career that altered country and rock forever, creating a successful hybrid between the two genres that he referred to as “Cosmic American Music.” His first solo album, which features vocals by Emmylou Harris, was enthusiastically received by critics but proved a commercial failure. In 1973, Parsons and Harris reunited to record Grievous Angel. With the album complete, he headed to Joshua Tree, California, where he fatally overdosed at the age of 26. Rearranged by his widow, Parsons’s final album was released in 1974 and has since been recognized as a classic, fusing country with elements of psychedelia, pop, and even R&B.

Selena, Dreaming of You

In a tragic turn of fate, the album that garnered Mexican pop star Selena a massive American following was the singer’s second posthumous release. Despite being a verifiable icon in Latin America, she was relatively unknown in the US in early 1995, when she was shot and killed by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her fan club. Dreaming of You, which she had been working on at the time of her death, was released later that year and debuted at number one on the US Billboard chart. Intended as a crossover record, it is filled with giddy pop songs, many containing elements of traditional Latin music. Selena’s voice is supple and soulful, reaching arresting heights during the album’s mariachi numbers and a surprising bilingual duet with David Bryne.

Sublime, Sublime

By 1996, Sublime had already released two albums, establishing their unique blend of reggae, ska, punk, and hip hop. After co-headlining the first annual Vans Warped Tour, the band was poised to achieve mainstream success. At the same time, lead singer Bradley Nowell was struggling with a worsening heroin addiction. That year, just a short time after the band completed their self-titled third album, which was to be their major-label debut, he died of an overdose and Sublime disbanded. Two months later, they released Sublime, a classic ska album that was compelling in its diverse musical influences and progressive lyrics. In a way, Nowell’s voice is the album, exuding wit, a fair amount of arrogance, and a whole lot of soul. By 1999, it had gone platinum five times over.

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul

We are sincerely grateful to whomever first brought together surrealist indie rock band Sparklehorse and DJ/producer Danger Mouse. After collaborating on Sparkhorse’s fourth studio album, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, the unlikely pair went on to work with David Lynch and a slew of other high-profile contributors on Dark Night of the Soul. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two artists was fated to be short-lived; in March of 2010, Sparklehorse mastermind Mark Linkous committed suicide. After much legal wrangling and an online leak, Dark Night finally secured an official release several months later. The album provides a fitting testament to Linkous’s often underappreciated artistry — it is dark, psychedelic, and confident, rarely missing a beat.

Chris Bell, I Am the Cosmos

Here at Flavorwire, our love for Big Star is fairly unabashed — we still can’t understand how their genius debut album, #1 Record, flew under the mainstream’s radar. After they failed to find commercial success, the group’s power players, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, left to pursue solo careers. Bell worked into the late 1970s on numerous recordings but never lived to see his solo material produce a full-length album. In 1978, at the age of 27, he died in a car accident. Fourteen years later, several of his solo works were compiled and released as I Am the Cosmos. The collection is beautifully constructed, laden with the reflective and chilling power pop that made Big Star and Bell so influential.

Jimi Hendrix, Live at the Fillmore East

Nine Hendrix studio albums have been released since his death, along with numerous live records, compilations, and box sets. While the depth and breadth of Hendrix’s posthumous discography is remarkable, we believe his 1999 live album, Live at the Fillmore East is its highlight. Documenting performances on December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970, it captures Hendrix in his prime. While we agree that the Band of Gypsys pales in comparison to the Experience,Fillmore‘s sound quality is unrivaled. Also, Hendrix’s fearless takes on “Machine Gun” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” are revelatory guitar statements.