The news that there could be as many as two more albums from Amy Winehouse, a year after her passing, got us to thinking about posthumous releases. As cash-grabbingly ghoulish as they no doubt can be, they are also, in the best of times, an opportunity to recapture one final, fleeting glimpse of what made these artists great in the first place.
Overexposed figures like the late Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur, after somehow issuing more albums in death than they ever did in life, didn’t make the cut. (And let’s not even get into the bringing-them-back-via-hologram thing.) Instead, we’ve focused on found-object gems — moments that, though belatedly released, became deeply illuminative. They gave us a chance to remember and, perhaps, a chance to heal. And, every once in the blue moon, they helped propel the departed into the popular consciousness, conveying fame in death that these musicians perhaps never experienced in life.
Highlighted are the doomed blues genius Robert Johnson, country-rock legend Gram Parsons, lost rockers John Lennon and George Harrison, and volcanic R&B shouter Otis Redding. You could argue that Harrison, for instance, hadn’t issued a better album since the 1970s — certainly since the late 1980s — when Brainwashed appeared almost a year after this death. Johnson, Parsons and Redding have undoubtedly received far more mainstream attention since their passing, largely on the strength of these recordings. Lennon’s might be a more personal choice, but we’ll make the case for that later.
Of course, sketching out such a list leaves much on the cutting room floor. So, we’ve included a lengthy list of free-associated honorable mentions, as well …
GRAM PARSONS – GRIEVOUS ANGEL (1974)
Arriving four months after his tragic overdose, Parsons appears with Emmylou Harris, Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, members of Elvis Presley’s band including James Burton, and Linda Ronstadt on a set that features two then-new tunes, as well as previously rejected songs, country standards and other efforts dating back to Parson’s time as a member of the Byrds (the lovely “Hickory Wind”) and the Flying Burrito Brothers (“$1000 Wedding”) — and even one song, “Brass Buttons,” from his mid-1960s days as a folksinger at Harvard. That makes for a roving sense of experimentation, as Parsons melds country with pop, psychedelic rock and R&B. The result: alt-country’s big-bang moment.
JOHN LENNON – MILK AND HONEY (1984)
A muscled testament, far more than 1980’s sometimes too-slick finale Double Fantasy, of Lennon’s thrillingly disassociative, brutally honest, toss-off rock ‘n’ roll attitude. (“I Don’t Wanna Face It” is prototypical Lennon, beginning with an intro that finds Lennon counting off in made-up gibberish melding Old World-sounding language with a drunked-up Lewis Carroll: “Un, deux, eins-zwei-hickel-pickel!”) Sure, some of the tracks probably needed one more take, but that works, too, in its way: After all, we know the fate that lay just around the corner on a New York City street. In the meantime, we get to remember Lennon at his best, only half varnished, unrepentant and very real.
OTIS REDDING – THE DOCK OF THE BAY (1968)
Featuring, as its title cut, the first posthumous No. 1 single in history, this album finally hurtled the hard-working Redding to superstardom. Completing the album was a labor of love for producer, sideman and “Dock of the Bay” co-writer Steve Cropper, who roused himself from crushing grief by approaching the project as a final tribute. The work paid off: All of a sudden Redding, then played primarily on black radio stations, was a Grammy-winning charttopping sensation. Though finished out with B-sides and singles dating back to 1965, The Dock of the Bay became a badly needed crossover showcase for this soul singer’s electrifying versatility.
GEORGE HARRISON – BRAINWASHED (2002)
That Harrison kept recording until just two months before his death at age 58 in November of 2001 was its own blessing. After all, he hadn’t put out a new album of solo material since 1987. But you wondered what would become of Harrison’s final works, since producer Jeff Lynne had decided to finish the project in George’s absence. After all, this former frontman of 1970s hitmakers the Electric Light Orchestra — perhaps even more so than Harrison — was prone to unsuccessfully ornate albums. What happened was one of the best two or three records Harrison issued. Ravaged by then with throat cancer, he retakes his place as one of his generation’s most stirring spiritualists.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With 2004’s ‘Me and Mr. Johnson, Eric Clapton illustrates the universality and power of the blues – and his early hero Johnson in particular.]
ROBERT JOHNSON – KING OF THE DELTA BLUES SINGERS (1961)
Without question, the most influential single posthumous recording ever released. Arriving more than two decades after Johnson’s passing, King of the Delta Blues Singers had a sweeping impact on modern music: His songs would eventually find their way, via this Columbia collection, into the repertoires of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, among many, many others. There’s also straight line to be drawn from Johnson’s work to modern voices like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and the White Stripes. Listening, it’s easy to see why: With his flair for the dramatic, questionable lifestyle choices and early death, Johnson was the prototypical rock star. More particularly, he sounded the part: Tough and honest, full of vibrancy, danger and rhythm.
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HONORABLE MENTIONS (in the order they occurred to me) …
Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways (2006) – a powerful, stately triumph, it became his first No. 1 album since 1969; Joy Division, Closer (1980) – post-punk roadmap, and influencer of a million 1980s bands; Janis Joplin, Pearl (1971) – with “Me and Bobby Magee” and “Mercedes Benz,” she was inarguably peaking; Miles Davis, Miles and Quincy: Live at Montreux (1993) – a late-period look back from an artist who so rarely did; Steve Ray Vaughan, The Sky Is Crying (1991) – very revealing, with a focus more on blues than blues rock; Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York (1994) – reveals new depths of harrowing fragility;
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Confrontation – some of his best post-Wailers material, including “Buffalo Soldier”; Hound Dog Taylor, Genuine Houserocking Music (1982) – Grammy-nominated, and rightly so: Head straight to his take on “Crossroads”; Queen, Made in Heaven (1995) – an emotional reunion finished with odds and ends, at the late Freddie Mercury’s request; Junior Kimbrough, God Knows I Tried (1998) – criminally underrecorded in life, making every song is a revelation; The Allman Brothers Band, Eat a Peach (1972) – Duane’s legend is burnished by an explosive 33-minute live improvisation called “Mountain Jam”;
Billie Holiday, Last Recordings (1959) – leaner, darker, in some ways better than the previous Lady Satin; Roy Orbison, Mystery Girl (1989) – come for the hit “You Got It,” stay for “She’s a Mystery to Me”; Otis Spann, Last Call (2000) – a final glimpse into his genius, if only in patches; Marvin Gaye, Vulnerable (1997) – a classic blast of old-school soul, which for some reason was originally shelved in 1979; John Coltrane, Interstellar Space (1974) – fiery abstract duets with drummer Rashied Ali; and Muddy Waters, King Bee (1981) – though unfortunately uneven, the title track is a highlight.