The 8 Ball 5.03.14: Top 8 Posthumous Albums
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 05.03.2014
From Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death and Johnny Cash's American V to Nirvana's MTV Unplugged, Joy Division's Closer and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 posthumous albums!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Welcome back to the 411 Music Zone 8 Ball ladies and gentlemen! Jeremy Thomas, your host as always, and today we're going to be inspired by the latest big-name song release...that of Michael Jackson. The late King of Pop has a new posthumous album titled Xscape releasing this month and last night at the iHeartRadio Music Awards the first single from it, "Love Never Felt So Good," was debuted. There have been many, many artists who have had albums released after their passing and many of them have seen their discographies suffer as a result of substandard efforts. This week we're going to be positive though, and look at those albums that actually stand tall among their respective artists' libraries by examining the best posthumous albums of all-time.
Caveat: Relatively simple this week: I was looking at studio albums that were released after the artist (or one of the primary members of the band who worked on that album) passed away. I did not include Greatest Hits albums because those are completely different; I went back and forth on live albums but ultimately chose to include them. That's about it!
Just Missing The Cut
Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill (2004)
Roy Orbison Mystery Girl (1989)
Ray Charles - Genius Loves Company (2004)
Jimi Hendrix - First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1997)
J Dilla - The Shining (The Shining)
#8: Sublime Sublime (1996)
Kicking off our list is a 1990s classic. Sublime was a band that was just on the verge of true mainstream success in 1996; while their first two albums 40oz. to Freedom and Robbin' the Hood had positioned them as a known entity on alt-rock radio, they were really prepping for full-on breakout status with their third, self-titled LP. That album was basically done when frontman Bradley Nowell lost his war with addiction, resulting in a heroin overdose in May. The band decided that they wouldn't carry on under the name of Sublime but they still released the LP which--of course--would catapult them into the full-on fame that they were so close to achieving. Sublime helped revive interest in ska punk, bringing the genre to mainstream ears and having a heavy influence on alternative rock in the 1990s and beyond. Everyone of course knows songs like "What I Got," "Wrong Way" and "Santeria," but non-single tracks like "Same in the End" and "Caress Me Down" are fantastic as well. This was an album that managed to be fun while still pushing the envelope and influencing the state of rock at the time, both to great measure.
#7: Nirvana - MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
I very nearly considered not including Nirvana's posthumous live album, simply because it isn't a studio LP and I was going back and forth on the idea of live albums. However, the Unplugged LPs are not compilations either, and the kicker for me is that it was a set of new recordings (if not new songs) done very differently than we knew the original work. Grunge music is not something that most people would have imagined would have worked in an acoustic sense; it seems almost akin to the idea of acoustic heavy metal. That perception changed after the release of this album, almost seven months following Kurt Cobain's death. Who knew that Nirvana's hits would be even better when slowed down and played quieter? For many people who weren't convinced by Nirvana's studio work, this is the album that helped to solidify Kurt Cobain's reputation as a musical genius because it showed the versatility of his songs. The album is rightly mentioned among the greatest live albums of all-time and the music comes across incredibly well, with a beautiful sensibility that does nothing to dim the edge of some of their best songs. Many people consider this album's version of "All Apologies" to be the definitive version and it's difficult to disagree; either way it's a brilliant piece of work
#6: Johnny Cash - American V (2006)
Johnny Cash was one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. I think that's more or less a given. But that's not what makes the American albums so great; after all, they're largely covers. What makes them so great is the fact that Cash is able to take these classic American songs (new and old) and reinterpret them. Most people think of his cover of "Hurt" first when thinking of the American albums, and it is his best. But another distinction that they have for me is providing the greatest posthumous release ever. With American V, Cash delivered an overall better quality album than any of the previous four and an absolute instant classic. There's simply no other way to put it. Just listen to "God's Gonna Cut You Down," just one of many great tracks on the album, and tell me that it isn't excellence in musical form. Cash left an amazing legacy in terms of country-rock music and this one stands very strongly among his impressive discography.
#5: Tupac Shakur - The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996)
It's a truism (and perhaps an obvious one) that an artist's first posthumous album is generally their best. The more albums that are released after an artist's passing, the more it becomes a situation of a record label mining incomplete songs, demos and simply inferior tracks in order to capitalize on that artist's name value. Few people have been subject to this at the level that Tupac Shakur has been; the albums that have been released since his death have been largely mediocre. The 7 Day Theory, on the other hand, is an absolute triumph. Released two months after his 1996 murder, this album (released under his stage name Makaveli) is an aggressive and take-no-prisoners album which delivered an incredibly powerful effort. "To Live and Die in L.A." is a fantastic piece of music, a slow jam that features the rapper's ability to paint vivid portraits in words...in this case, of the city he called home. Then there are the ominous tones of "Hail Mary," the girl-gun metaphor of "Me and My Girlfriend," the raw sexuality of "Toss It Up" and so on. The 7 Day Theory is one of the better albums in 2pac's discography and clearly the best of the albums released after he was gone.
#4: Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death (1997)
It wasn't intentional for me to pair Biggie and Tupac one right after the other; it just worked out that way. Everyone loves to debate who was the better rapper between them and it's a very close argument for me. I have a bit more of a connection to Biggie because he was the first rapper I really connected to, but I don't think it's much of a question in my mind that the East Coaster holds the unquestionable edge in terms of posthumous releases. Released 15 days after he was killed in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting, Life After Death is oddly prophetic with the title, and that alone gives it a bit of infamy on its own. Get past that though, and you have a fantastic double album. One wonders what might have been for Biggie had he not been killed, because Life After Death shows that he was quickly maturing as an artist and keeping his storytelling skills while taking it out of the gangsta rap style to something more accessible. The album had huge hits that, I think, would have been hits no matter what such as "Hypnotize" and "Mo Money Mo Problems," but even those are lesser tracks on the overall album. Great stuff here, and I wish we could have gotten more.
#3: Janis Joplin - Pearl (1971)
Janis Joplin's posthumous release was the bar by which all such albums were measured for a long, long time. Joplin seemed to be getting her life in order before her untimely death from a heroin OD in 1970; she had claimed to have kicked her drug habit and had a new backing band which she was using to go headlong into new material. Obviously, she fell back into bad habits that ultimately killed her, though before that happened we got the work that would be known after her death as Pearl. The album was released in 1971 and was not only her most successful, but in my estimation her best album. Some of her signature tracks like "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Mercedes Benz," the former of which is more attributed to her than it is the original performer and the latter of which was recorded just three days before her death, are on this album. It's a more intimate, personal work from Joplin and helped propel her into the realm of blues rock iconography.
#2: Joy Division - Closer (1980)
Anyone who knows my writing knows I'm a huge Joy Division fan, and so it may not be too much of a surprise that they made this list. The post-punk pioneers didn't have a huge amount of material released before Ian Curtis' suicide in 1980; they had an EP and their first studio album to their credit. But proving that you don't need a long career in order to be deeply impactful, they were already on their way to changing the direction of music. Curtis struggled with depression and epilepsy, the latter impacting the former and making it worse, and his dissolving marriage to Deborah Curtis seemed to be what pushed him over the edge. Once Curtis was gone the band decided to leave the name behind and became New Order, but their label did release the album that was basically finished in Closer. In all honesty, I have a slightly higher personal appreciation for Unknown Pleasures but I think that Closer is the better album, with more expansive instrumentation complementing beautifully crafted songs. Closer would forever be a testament to the man's talent and the potential the band had to become such a huge success commercially. Instead, they just did so critically.
#1: Otis Redding - The Dock of the Bay (1968)
Otis Redding is one of the few artists whose most-identified song was never heard, at least in a commercial form, until after he passed on. "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" became one of Redding's biggest hits by far but was part of this album, which was released on January 8th, 1968 which was three months after he died in a plane crash. The song is an absolute landmark track for soul music, one of the greatest lazy Sunday feel-good jams of all-time. But Dock of the Bay wouldn't top the list if that was the only great song; the album resonates from start to finish with fantastic pieces of music. Redding was at the top of his game here; I almost didn't consider it because on some ways it could be considered a compilation but the older songs had never seen release as part of a studio album and so I decided to qualify it. This album is the epitome of Memphis soul music at its finest and remains one of the all-time great LPs in popular music, posthumous or not.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
For this week's Music Vide A-Go-Go, we're going with the song that got me on this topic. (Okay, it's not a music video but it's a YouTube video of the song so that's close enough right?) Check out the newest Michael Jackson song "Love Never Felt So Good":
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.