Posthumous Albums Explained: Definition, Process & Examples

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Anyone with an interest in popular music knows tragedy can often claim the lives of some of the world’s greatest artists far too early. Sometimes those artists left unreleased work behind. This work may consist of full albums they completed right before their deaths, or collections of tracks they’d experimented with but never found a place for on previous releases.

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It’s not uncommon for their record labels to release these works after the artists pass away. We refer to these releases as posthumous albums.

Posthumous albums can serve many purposes. For example, they can allow fans to enjoy albums their favorite artists fully intended to release before they died. Or, they may serve testaments to artists’ entire careers.

Keep reading to learn more about this subject. This overview will explain what posthumous albums are, how record labels release them, and what some popular examples can teach us about the overall nature of posthumous albums.

What is a Posthumous Album?

A posthumous album is an album consisting of previously unreleased material that is only released after an artist’s death.

That’s an important distinction to keep in mind. Most people wouldn’t necessarily consider a greatest hits compilation from a deceased artist to be a posthumous album. That’s because the tracks on a greatest hits compilation aren’t new to listeners (although sometimes record labels add one or two previously unreleased bonus tracks).

To qualify as a posthumous album, the album’s tracks must be works casual listeners would not have heard before.

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How is Music Released Posthumously?

The process of releasing a posthumous album can vary depending on a range of factors. These may include how far along a project was before the artist died, what their original plans for the album were, whether any legal restrictions could prevent a posthumous release, and much more.

That’s why it helps to break the concept of posthumous albums into two major types: the intended posthumous album and the unintended posthumous album.

Intended posthumous albums

There are cases when an artist recording an album either knows they will die soon or suspects they will. In these instances, they might also know they aren’t likely to still be alive when the album finally reaches audiences. 

This offers them certain opportunities. They may choose to record songs (both original works and covers) that directly address death or serve as songs about moving forward for those they will leave behind. 

For example, Queen recorded their final studio album, Made in Heaven, at a time when Freddie Mercury knew his life would be over soon. He thus used the opportunity to confront death and provide listeners with some insights from someone who knew his death was near.

It’s also worth noting that the actual recording of an album is by no means the only step involved in releasing an album. Artists must make other changes after the recording process is over. This may include choosing cover art, making certain technical choices regarding how the album is mixed, and deciding which songs to include on the finished album, and which to cut.

When an artist knows (or at least believes) the album they’re working on will be a posthumous album, they can provide instructions for these future decisions. This helps anyone completing the album after their death thoroughly understand their intentions. They go about the process of finishing the work and releasing it based on their knowledge of what the artist wanted.

On the other hand, there are instances when an artist is recording a work they don’t know will become a posthumous album. This brings us to the next major type:

Unintended posthumous albums

Many posthumous albums started as works their artists expected to release while they were alive. That often means they didn’t offer the kinds of instructions to others that an artist might offer when they’re fairly confident they won’t live to see the album’s release.

The results can be mixed. Sometimes those completing a posthumous album don’t actually have much material or guidance to work with. There are instances when a posthumous album starts as nothing more than a few rough recordings an artist made before their unexpected passing. This forces the remaining band members, producers, and other parties involved in an album’s release to make decisions the main artist would have otherwise made. 

Sometimes that means a posthumous album consists of songs (and even parts of songs) the artist possibly never meant to include together on the same release. Consider the example of TLC’s 3D.

Released seven months after the untimely death of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the album features songs in which many of her verses actually began as segments from separate songs that didn’t make the cut on intended solo album releases. The team completing 3D simply spliced and cobbled them together to give listeners the impression that Lopes had originally recorded them that way.

In other instances, family members of loved ones who’ve had albums released posthumously after an unexpected death have even expressed criticism that their loved one was actually the one performing some of the tracks.

None of this is to say all unintended posthumous albums are disrespectful to the artist. On the contrary, when those who knew them closely actively participate in completing the album, the result can serve a creative way to honor someone who has passed on. They may also feature moving tribute songs and nostalgic songs celebrating the artist who has passed on.

Famous Examples of Posthumous Albums

The following examples are by no means the only strong posthumous albums ever released. Instead, they represent different types of posthumous albums, helping you more thoroughly understand the different forms such albums can take.

Milk and Honey by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Milk and Honey isn’t noteworthy simply because it’s a posthumous album from one of the world’s most iconic rock and pop stars ever. The story of its completion is also interesting.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono originally intended Milk and Honey to be a direct follow-up to their previous album Double Fantasy. Lennon’s work on the album was almost complete when he tragically lost his life at the hands of gunman Mark David Chapman.

However, after she lost her husband (and the world lost a musician whose work touched so many lives), Ono had to spend four years completing the project. Many feel the end result certainly justified the wait.

Unplugged in New York by Nirvana

A posthumous album doesn’t always need to be a studio release. Instead, it can be a live recording of one of an artist’s final or most memorable performances.

Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York is a strong example of this. The gentle nature of the tracks stands in stark contrast to the band’s typical grunge sound, capturing the pain Kurt Cobain was experiencing in his final days.

Lioness: Hidden Treasures by Amy Winehouse

This release is an example of the unintended posthumous album. It consists of several cover songs and original recordings that never made their way onto any of the albums Winehouse released while she was alive. In some cases the team completing the album only had single, rough vocal takes to work with, turning these bare-bones recordings into songs.

You can probably guess the result didn’t thrill everyone. Many critics saw the release as nothing more than a cynical attempt to squeeze some extra cash out of an acclaimed star. 

However, others admit that while the album may not be perfect, it does feature moments that capture Winehouse’s unique skill, justifying its existence.

The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding

It’s unfortunate that sometimes an untimely death prevents an artist from experiencing the success that could have been in their future. For instance, this album features Otis Redding’s most famous song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It won Redding two posthumous Grammy Awards and became his biggest hit by far. 

Redding never got the chance to experience the public’s reaction to the tune that began as a unique experiment for an artist best known for traditional R&B and rock recordings. That said, it does provide all of us with an iconic tune that captures his brilliance.

Posthumous Albums: An Artist’s Work Lives On

All musical artists die, but their work can live on long after their passing. The best posthumous albums remind us of this. Instead of exploiting an artist, they give fans a chance to remember these artists and cherish their memories.


Sources

  1. Greene, David and Phil Harrell. “'Dock Of The Bay' At 50: Why Otis Redding's Biggest Hit Almost Went Unheard.” NPR, NPR, 8 January 2018, www.npr.org/2018/01/08/576413464/the-story-of-how-otis-reddings-dock-of-the-bay-got-released
  2. “Heaven or hell? The problem of the posthumous album.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 6 April 2018, www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/06/heaven-or-hell-the-problem-of-the-posthumous-album
  3. Mandle, Chris. “5 Of The Best Posthumous Albums.” Esquire, Hearst UK, 5 November 2014, www.esquire.com/uk/culture/news/a6267/5-of-the-best-posthumous-albums/
  4. THR Staff. “Amy Winehouse's 'Lioness: Hidden Treasures' and 11 Albums That Got Big Posthumous Sales Boosts.” The Hollywood Reporter, Prometheus Global Media LLC, 6 December 2011, www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/amy-winehouses-lioness-posthumous-album-270259
  5. Various Authors. “The Top 10 Posthumous Albums.” TIME, TIME USA LLC, entertainment.time.com/2010/12/14/top-10-posthumous-albums/slide/all/
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