Not all music is meant to be released. Plenty of artists have vaults of unfinished material languishing in some basement, studio, or literal vault. Some are even smart enough to leave instructions on what is to happen to that material after they pass.
But others are not so lucky. Sometimes — most often in the case of the most tragic, unexpected passings — artists leave the fate of their unreleased recordings in the hands of their estate. And depending on who controls said estate, the intentions behind the release of unpublished material can vary wildly in benevolence and taste. Two young stars that flamed out too soon, Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley, recently had old material posthumously released: Cobain’s sketches dug up for the documentary film Montage of Heck, and a collection of Buckley’s covers called You and I.
The questionable release of these records prompted us to take a look back at some of the more egregious posthumous releases we’ve come across, with the question of “Why does this exist?” at the forefront of our minds. Most of the time it’s money, but not always — creative control, demand from fans, and pure satire have all served as motivation for questionable releases. Click through to see some of the worst.
The Notorious B.I.G. — Duets: The Final Chapter (2005)
1999’s Born Again — technically the second posthumous Biggie Smalls release (but the first without his input) — was a mixed bag of often ham-fisted collaborations, but at the end of the day, there were some classic tracks (“Dead Wrong,” “Dangerous MCs”) that actually felt like The Notorious One would have approved of. Duets: The Final Chapter is a different story. “Hold Ya Head,” which manages to desecrate both Biggie and Bob Marley at the same time, digs up an old verse, slows it down, and slaps a Marley sample on the hook for good measure. An embarrassing, transparent cash-grab. The only thing uglier is the sad clown portrait on the cover.
Ritchie Valens — In Concert at Pacoima Jr. High (1960)
When a 17-year-old Ritchie Valens passed away in the plane crash heard ’round the world, the music world declared it “The Day The Music Died.” Much of what he had recorded was already published, though, so when his fan club vociferously demanded more material after his death, his manager Robert Keane secured a bootleg tape recording of this performance, slapping it together with the handful of early demos he had access to. While the four songs from the Pacoima Jr. High performance appear to be Valens’ only live recordings, the raw, unfinished demos were clearly never meant to be released.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard — A Son Unique (2006)
If you’ve caught any recent Wu-Tang Clan performances, you may have already seen the cringe-worthy Ol’ Dirty Bastard-miming from his son, who has made a little career for himself impersonating his father in performances and videos. The irony is thick — ODB’s name references the fact that there is no father to his style — but even that is less embarrassing than this trainwreck of an album, featuring old verses, snippets and samples paired with contemporary acts. This Macy Gray duet, a riff on Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” is the worst kind of derivative, especially when it comes to ODB: it’s just boring.
Jimi Hendrix — Crash Landing (1975)
After Hendrix died in 1970 at the age of 27, there were hours of tape he’d recorded in the previous two years that were ripe for exploitation. But Alan Douglas, who was hired to sift through the tapes after the death of Hendrix’s manager in 1973, brought in session musicians who had never worked with Hendrix to re-record and overdub instrument tracks, and adding additional vocals. He also gave himself co-writing credits on more than half the songs. To this day, the entire thing feels a bit icky.
Queen — Made In Heaven (1995)
Queen’s fifteenth (and final) studio album isn’t all bad; album opener “It’s a Beautiful Day” carries a triumphant, hopeful beauty. But for the most part, this record appeared to be Brian May and Roger Taylor’s opportunity to finally exert the level of influence on the band that was impossible with Freddie Mercury still in the picture. If there’s any doubt, just look to what May told Mojo in 2014: “[Made in Heaven] was possibly the best Queen album we ever made.”
Jeff Buckley — Sketches From My Sweetheart The Drunk (1998)
He only has one official studio album (1994’s Grace), but Jeff Buckley has one of the most powerful and singular voices in the history of rock music. To this day, he’s one of the only singers with the strength, beauty and nuance to cover Nina Simone songs without inspiring a thousand cringes. But after his death, Columbia looked to capitalize on his legacy, and released this posthumous collection of unfinished material that was intended to be come his sophomore LP, My Sweetheart The Drunk. His mother — bless her heart — insisted that the “Sketches for” prefix be appended to the title, to make it clear that this was not the album that Buckley himself would have released. Buckley devotees are no doubt glad for more of anything from their hero, but more than anything else, the recordings leave us wondering what might have been.
Michael Jackson – Michael (2010)
Michael Jackson’s estate is one of the most troubling (and admittedly interesting) business organizations in music. Its assets are considerable (the list of master recordings and publishing rights it owns is staggering), but so are its outstanding debts. Settling those debts is undoubtedly the chief concern of his estate’s administrators, so expect many more releases like this abomination of Jackson’s work. There’s a question as to whether some of the tracks even feature Jackson’s vocals, an erroneous crediting of a drum track to Dave Grohl, and a general distaste for the compilation of material without the input of the notoriously hands-on and discerning legend. But with untold archives of material to be mined, rest assured that there is much more of this stuff to come.
Amy Winehouse — Lioness: Hidden Treasures (2011)
When I think about Amy Winehouse and her tragic passing, it’s hard for me to not think of that line in “Rehab” where she uses her father’s approval as justification to avoid getting professional help for her addictions “but if my daddy thinks I’m fine…” She could be referring to her partner, but if she’s talking about her actual father, it’s icky to think of him controlling her estate, mining the scattered vocal tracks she’d recorded in the years between Back to Black and her death. The duet with Tony Bennett notwithstanding, this release is mostly regrettable, with this cover of “The Girl From Ipanema” being the saddest — she barely sounds like a shadow of her former self.
Elvis Presley — Elvis’ Greatest Shit (1982)
This bootleg compilation might be the funniest of the bunch; unofficial and compiled by a fan, it’s a collection of recordings that mostly stem from Presley’s film career, featuring outtakes from soundtracks that most critics have agreed are undeniably terrible. It’s a response to the Elvis superfans that gobbled up literally anything he produced, even Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, a completely spoken-word album featuring on-stage banter from the King.
Kurt Cobain — Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings (2015)
A film and album like Montage of Heck is polarizing by nature; you might be so excited that you can’t wait to get a hold of anything from your idol Kurt Cobain that you haven’t heard before, or you may be disgusted with the idea of rooting through an artists private notes, thoughts and sketches after they are no longer around to approve or disapprove. Even Lil Wayne has voiced his displeasure with the enterprise, citing in the 2009 documentary The Carter that what they did with Kurt Cobain’s journals as indicative of the reason why he never writes down any of his raps. Much of the 31-track deluxe version sounds like an audio version of a journal; sketches of unfinished songs, sound collages and spoken word pieces. This is something Cobain would never have released, and likely would have scoffed at. And yet…