I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead: the best – and worst – posthumous albums of all time

By , Mar 28 2012
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1999 Biggie reheat Born Again was – and remains – surprisingly durable: cuts like ‘Dead Wrong’ and ‘Rap Phenomenon’ might feasibly have cropped up on either of his seminal studio albums. Duets: The Final Chapter, by contrast, is the model of a sloppy, scrappy, mindlessly perfunctory tribute album. It’s hard to pick out the greatest atrocity: the Korn duet; the Bob Marley team-up (which manages to denigrate two dead musical icons in one go); or the sheer number of tracks which barely feature Biggie at all. Taking inspiration from Duets, FACT has produced its own ‘tribute review’, assembled from clippings of reviews at the time: a ‘shameless’, ‘morbid’, ‘truly-heinous’ set of ‘scraps’ with ‘no reason to exist’.


A bleakly bonkers concept album which only saw the light of day after its creator, Kevin Gilbert, died of autoerotic asphyxiation, The Shaming Of The True depicts the rise to fame – and subsequent fall from grace – of its fictional hero, a rock ‘n roll star named Johnny Virgil. Remarkably, it wasn’t the first album to be released after its creator died of autoerotic asphyxiation – Michael Hutchence pipped Gilbert to that rather unfortunate post by three years. One more tragic wanking accident and we’d have a fully-fledged genre on our hands.


Arthur Russell’s hallowed reputation is almost entirely posthumous – this visionary artist was criminally under-appreciated during his short lifetime, and the process of reissuing and canonisation didn’t really get going until the 2000s. By 2008 we were all well-acquainted with Russell the avant-garde composer and Russell the disco maverick, but it took the release of Love Is Overtaking Me, a compilation of previously unheard material spanning almost 20 years – to introduce us to Russell the master craftsman of earthy, country-tinged pop song.


Cosmic country seraph Gram Parsons was just 26 years old when he lost his life to an overdose of morphine and alcohol on September 19, 1973; the following year saw the release of Grievous Angel, a record he’d been tinkering with, in between epic binges, at the time of his passing. Parsons had intended for the album to be credited to ‘Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris’, and to have a picture of the two of them on front cover – Harris, after all, sings on eight of the nine songs – but his jealous widow, Gretchen, made sure that her husband’s muse was given only a modest mention on the album’s back cover, and excluded her face from the cover art entirely.


Eazy-E’s Str8 off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton not only has the best title of any album on this list, it was also one of the most ambitious. Released eight months after the former N.W.A. rapper’s death from AIDS in 1995, the original plan for Str8 off tha Streetz – so the story goes, anyway – was for it to be a double-CD clocking in at close to 60 tracks; had this plan come off, we’d have been dealing with one of the worst killer-to-filler ratios in hip-hop history. As it happened, legal issues got in the way, and the record that came out clocks in at a cool 14 tracks, including the horrorcore classic ‘Sorry Louie’.


For 1995’s Anthology project, Paul McCartney asked Yoko Ono if she could grant the remaining Beatles access to some unreleased Lennon material for them to contribute to. For some reason she said yes, offering them two agreeable demos, 1977’s ‘Free As A Bird’ and 1979-’80’s ‘Real Love’, which they proceeded to rework in the studio. ‘Free As A Bird’ appeared on Anthology 1 and ‘Real Love’ (co-produced by The Beatles and Jeff Lynne) on Anthology 2; both were also released as singles. What did these new recordings contribute to Lennon’s legacy? Very little. What did they contribute to his former bandmates’ already huge fortunes? You’d have to ask them. “Recording the new songs didn’t feel contrived at all,” claimed Ringo on his way to the bank.


As the decades idle by, and musicians travel from prominence into legend, it’s easy to forget just how young some of music’s greatest stars were when they passed. Otis Redding – 26 at the time of the plane crash that took his life – is a prime example; in turn, 1968’s singles collection The Dock Of The Bay is a test case for how a posthumous record can be the best form of tribute. The languid title cut became the singer’s most enduring hit, and former B-side ‘Ole Man Trouble’ showcased Redding’s songwriting chops. Wonderful covers like ‘The Glory Of Love’ and ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ further reinforced Redding’s uniqueness as a vocalist. The Immortal Otis Redding came out the same year; but it was The Dock Of The Bay that really calcified Redding’s legacy.


Not the greatest J Dilla record, and almost not even the greatest posthumous J Dilla record – he died only three days after the release of the superior Donuts – but still an excellent album, three quarters of the way completed by the time Dilla succumbed to illness, and finished off by fellow Motor City beat-maker Karriem Riggins.


If the worst posthumous albums resemble scrapbooks, cobbled together from odds’n’sods, the most effective function like photographs: they offer uncanny images of their subject, are permanently haunted by a sense of something lost. Joy Division’s Closer – released two months after Ian Curtis’ suicide – falls firmly into the latter category. Everything about Closer, from its sepulchral cover art to its fatalistic lyric sheet, draws attention to Curtis’ tragic end. On tracks like ‘Passover’ and ‘Decades’, Curtis’s voice – aided by Martin Hannett’s chilly production – already sounds like it’s being beamed in from the other side. A masterpiece of post-punk punctum.


You’d think that snuffing it on the bog is about as ignominious as final statements get. RCA, however, had other ideas. As Frankenstein’s monsters go, Elvis Presley’s 2008 collection Christmas Duets is pretty much the grisliest. Poor Elvis is wheeled out to perform jaunty Christmas numbers with LeAnn Rimes, Carrie Underwood and Olivia Newton-John. Although RCA aim to keep the mood light, there’s something properly eerie about the awkward edits and punched-in harmonies. The King of posthumous botch-jobs.

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