Life after death: 10 posthumous albums to listen to from The Notorious BIG to Eva Cassidy

These releases range from heart-wrenching to bittersweet

Artists The Notorious BIG, Janis Joplin, Eva Cassidy and Otis Redding all released posthumous albums.
Artists The Notorious BIG, Janis Joplin, Eva Cassidy and Otis Redding all released posthumous albums.

One of the most intriguing genres of popular music is the posthumous album. These bodies of work, released after the death of the recording artist, spark interest because of the context of their arrival. Some have been released in the wake of tragedy, when the artist passed away unexpectedly, while other albums were recorded by those in full knowledge that their end was near.

The most recent such example is Meet the Woo Vol.2 by rapper Pop Smoke. He died in February, and the record is an anguished reminder to fans that he was an artist gone too soon.

If you are a Johnny Cash fan, meanwhile, 2006 album American V: A Hundred Highways, which came out three years after his death, offers a sombre account of a man coming to terms with his mortality.

One of the most famous posthumous releases is perhaps Eva Cassidy’s compilation Songbird. It came out two years after her demise, a bittersweet game changer that earned her a global following.

From soul music to folk and hip-hop, here are 10 posthumous albums spanning six decades of popular music.

1. ‘The Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding (1968)

Released nearly a year to the day after his death in a plane crash in the US, The Dock of the Bay was the first of many posthumous Otis Redding albums.

For fans, this one really hurt, as the new material – crowned by the majestic title track – showcased an audacious talent gradually mastering the genre. The album is also home to another soul music standard, I Love You More than Words Can Say.

2. ‘Pearl’ by Janis Joplin (1971)

One of the most eerie songs in rock doesn't have words. Buried Alive in the Blues, the fifth track of Joplin's second and final album, is only available in instrumental form.

That's because Joplin was supposed to record the vocals the day after she died in the US of a drug overdose. That said, Pearl is not maudlin at all. It's a celebration of one of rock 'n' roll's greatest voices, with Joplin’s signature raspy vocals incendiary in the soulful Cry Baby and tender in the folkish Me and Bobby McGee.

3. ‘Closer’ by Joy Division (1980)

It is easy to fixate on the many lyrics alluding to death in Closer. But even before singer Ian Curtis took his own life after completing the album’s recording sessions, he was always fond of chronicling the bleaker aspects of life.

Closer is both Joy Division's most stark as well as most ferocious offering. Their second and final album comprises 10 songs that remain a showcase of their pensive approach to rock. Future generations of bands have yet to reach the sheer tension of Closer.

4. ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’ by Nirvana (1994)

An absolutely revelatory experience. Nirvana captured the hearts of millions of fans with their anguished and dissonant approach to rock music. This live special, however, released months after the death of singer Kurt Cobain, proved that underneath Nirvana's spiky heart was a folk band. It's full of reworkings of their hits and covers. Nirvana never sounded more achingly beautiful and vulnerable than on this record.

5. ‘Dreaming of You’ by Selena (1995)

It is hard to separate this album from the Mexican singer's death. Released three months after she was murdered by the president of her fan club, Dreaming of You became the first album to transcend the Spanish-speaking market and capture an English audience. It remains a great gateway into Selena's brand of Tejano pop, a style that fuses Mexican folk with western pop music styles.

6. ‘Life after Death’ by The Notorious BIG (1997)

This record is as supremely entertaining as it is eerie. Released two weeks after Biggie was fatally shot, this sprawling two-CD opus is full of the rapper ruminating about his impending demise and encircling enemies. However, executive producer P Diddy buttressed the nihilistic material with upbeat soul samples to elevate the album, turning it into an accessible summer classic. It is still hailed as one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time.

7. ‘Songbird’ by Eva Cassidy (1998)

The album is as beautiful and heart-breaking as the story of its discovery. Months after Cassidy died of cancer in 1996, US folk singer Grace Griffin sent a US record label live recordings from a then-unknown Cassidy. Stunned by her crystalline vocals and songwriting, the label reached out to Cassidy's family to create a compilation of her work.

Released two years after her death, it arrived with barely a whimper. However, that all changed after influential British broadcaster Terry Wogan came across it in 2000 and played it on his show. As a result, Songbird flew off the shelves.

8. ‘American V: A Hundred Highways’ by Johnny Cash (2006)

The legendary musical outlaw is the best kind of thief. Such is the gravitas of his deep, and by this time, quavering voice, that whenever he covers an artist’s song it immediately becomes his. Performed in Cash's minimalist style, his takes on Further Up the Road by Bruce Springsteen and Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind paint a picture of an artist reaching the end of the road and casting a huge shadow of influence behind.

9. ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’ by Amy Winehouse (2011)

Released five months after her death, this compilation features covers and demo tracks taken from Winehouse's nine-year career. While many of the songs sound rather rough and unvarnished, there is no denying her powerful voice, particularly in the jazzy cover of Body and Soul (a duet with Tony Bennett) and an almost drum-and-bass-like version of The Girl from Ipanema.

10. 'Meet the Woo Vol 2' by Pop Smoke (2020)

What will surely be one of a number of posthumous releases, either in further mixtapes or guest features in other artists' singles, this is a poignant showcase of Pop Smoke's talent. The Brooklyn rapper, who was killed earlier this year in a burglary, was well on his way to reaching his prime. While Meet the Woo Vol 2 is full of bravado street tales, it is all tempered with his charismatic swagger and humour. Tragically, the release proves Pop Smoke was taken from us way before his creative journey reached its peak.

Updated: July 14, 2020 07:11 PM

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