Music History

The 8 Greatest Posthumous Albums of All Time

Elliott Smith, at an NYC performance, before taking his life at age 34. His love songs still hold up.
Elliott Smith, at an NYC performance, before taking his life at age 34. His love songs still hold up. Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Flybutter
We’re not going to mince words here: We’re all in hell right now, and 2020 is a year that seems never-ending. No amount of tragedy fatigue will ever make the deaths of local musicians such as Riley Gale and Trini Lopez less devastating. No matter how turbulent this election cycle is, and no matter how high its stakes are, nothing will make the deaths of people like John Prine, Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers, Little Richard, Justin Townes Earle and Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples suck less.

Often, when musicians die, their labels and estates release albums posthumously. This year has seen several albums from late hip-hop artists with posthumous albums coming from Juice WRLD, Mac Miller and Pop Smoke. Locally, this week saw the release of Brad Jordan Jr. almost two years after the passing of its creator, rapper C. Struggs.

Posthumous albums are delicate endeavors. They’re almost always incomplete upon release, and they occasionally come across as joyless cash grabs. But sometimes a posthumous album is executed beautifully and in a way that honors the memory of the artist. Below are eight of the best examples.

J Dilla, The Shining (2006)
Next to Madlib and DJ Shadow, J Dilla is perhaps one of the greatest underground hip-hop producers to come out in the last 30 years. The Detroit hip-hop artist’s magnum opus Donuts just so happened to also be his swan song, as it was released three days before his death in 2006. But, even as he dropped such a lasting album another quality release was just around the corner.

That album was The Shining, and while it was approximately 75% complete before Dilla’s death, it still makes for a hell of a counterpart in its emphasis on guest features, while Donuts was a purely instrumental album. Spitting over Dilla’s beats for The Shining were revered names such as D’Angelo, Busta Rhymes and Black Thought of The Roots fame.

Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill (2004)

From his tenure with Portland indie band Heatmiser to his untimely death in 2003, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith’s professional music career spanned 12 years. Each studio album showed a significant stylistic progression and maturity, but that’s not to say his debut full-length Roman Candle wasn’t a forward-thinking development. On the contrary, it provided a raw, cathartic edge to lo-fi indie folk that served as a reaction against grunge and its just counterpart all the same.

Juxtapose that with Smith’s 2004 posthumous album From a Basement on the Hill, and you see considerable differences in terms of songwriting and production. Moreover, this release documents many of Smith’s personal struggles and emotional traumas, from drug addiction to his infamous battle with depression.

Above all else, this album serves as a testament to what more we could have witnessed from Smith had he not died at 34. His best work was never going to be behind him, and while calling From a Basement on the Hill his best LP is debatable at best, there’s no denying that it makes for a damn good contender.

Mayhem, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
This was Mayhem’s debut album, and it was released after vocalist Dead and guitarist Euronymous died in 1991 and 1993, respectively. It also followed a transitional period when bassist Necrobutcher left and to be replaced by Burzum brainchild Varg Vikernes.

Dead was suspected of having Cotard’s delusion (a mental disease in which the afflicted person believes himself or herself to be already dead), and there are pretty convincing anecdotes that corroborate this. He carried around a plastic bag with a dead bird inside, and he huffed the fumes before each set so he could invigorate himself with the scent of death. Before each show, he buried his clothes in dirt and wore them so he could roleplay as a buried corpse. He cut himself frequently at shows and in the company of friends.

Unsurprisingly, Dead committed suicide in his home by slitting his wrists with a hunting knife, then shooting himself in the forehead with a shotgun. Euronymous was the first person on the scene, and instead of calling for help, he went to a store, bought a disposable camera, took a picture of Dead’s corpse and later used it for a bootleg album cover. He then made necklaces out of fragments of Dead’s skull and gave them to members of the Norwegian black metal community, an act so heinous that it caused Necrobutcher to leave the band (over what could literally be described as necro-butchery, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Two years later, Vikernes murdered Euronymous by stabbing him 23 times, for which he was given a 15-year prison sentence one week before the release of this album. Vikernes’ motive is the subject of rigorous debate in black metal circles.

(We know we're not really describing the music here, but given how brutal and stomach-churning this band’s history is, do we really need to?)

Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)

During his heyday, Johnny Cash made a name for himself by infusing country music with elements of rock n’ roll, and for this reason, he’s aptly considered by many to be the greatest rockabilly artist of all time.

What made the Man in Black so distinguished from other country artists is that he adapted to rock music’s evolution by the end of his life, and in doing so, made one of the most unlikely comebacks with the help of famed producer Rick Rubin. This period was mostly defined by covers of songs by artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden and even Bonnie “Prince” Billy, but once in a while, he belted out original cuts such as “Like the 309”, a song that comes from his posthumous 2006 album American V: A Hundred Highways.

This was his first No. 1 album since Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and the contrast between the two releases couldn’t be more stark. American V showed the world a different Johnny Cash; a widowed one left frail and in somber surveyance of the damage caused by his wild oats.

The Notorious B.I.G.,  Life After Death (1997)
What makes The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death one of the greatest posthumous albums of all time is not only that it was a musical and conceptual successor to his 1994 debut full-length Ready to Die, but also the fact that it boasts two of his most celebrated singles (“Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems”).

There’s only one flaw behind this album, and it’s the simple fact that R. Kelly is featured on “Fuck You Tonight.”

Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)

It takes special talent to perform an acoustic set that isn’t a complete snooze-fest, and in MTV Unplugged in New York, Nirvana passed that test in flying colors. The album dropped six months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994, and there couldn’t have been a more suitable release to capture his character and creativity.

Original cuts such as “Dumb” and “About a Girl” pull this off, but perhaps the most personal tracks on this LP are the ones he didn’t write. The best of these is the closing track, a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

Selena, Dreaming of You (1995)
To say that Selena properly earned the nickname “Queen of Tejano music” would be a severe understatement. While Tejano music has long had commercial viability, it didn’t enjoy much presence in America’s mainstream pop circuit until she came along. Thanks to Selena’s unprecedented trailblazing, artists such as Shakira, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias have all been able to occupy space in more Billboard charts than those that have the word “Latin” in them.

What makes the late Texas starlet’s legacy even more astonishing is that she accomplished the bulk of this before she was even old enough to drink. She even made history following her murder in Corpus Christi, as her posthumous album Dreaming of You became the fastest-selling album of 1995. Even if she had lived to see the release of this record, it would have still cemented her place as one of pop music’s most significant torchbearers.

Joy Division, Closer (1980)
Unknown Pleasures is undoubtedly Joy Division’s most celebrated record (not to mention an incredibly popular T-shirt graphic), but its successor Closer deserves its due.

The opening track alone (“Atrocity Exhibition”) is so visceral and gloomy that it served as inspiration to Danny Brown’s sinister album of the same title. Following this is the single “Isolation,” which is as dark as it sounds. Each song is, in its own way, a reflection of vocalist Ian Curtis’ surroundings, which were frequently marked by feelings of despair and loneliness. Curtis committed suicide May 18, 1980, exactly two months before the release of this album. He was 23.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.