The Highs and Lows of Posthumous Music

Tom Ronan 12 January 2015

When an artist dies they often leave behind a body of unreleased work. This can be anything, from whole albums of their finest music, to scraps of songs that are used by their record labels to profit from their legacy. Here are six tracks showcasing the highs and lows of posthumous releases.


Ain't No Grave – Johnny Cash

The aptly titled 'Ain't No Grave' comes from the fourth instalment of Johnny Cash's American Recordings, a series of stripped-back covers and traditional numbers that the country music legend made shortly before his death. The prolific recording sessions have spawned a total of six albums, two of which have been released posthumously. His dark rendition of this gospel standard serves as a haunting reminder of music's ability to allow others to communicate with us from beyond the grave.


Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division

Following in this morbid vein, 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' documents singer Ian Curtis' growing sense of despair as he battled with epilepsy, depression and a failing marriage. In their short career, Joy Division did much to define the post-punk sound, bringing synthesisers and more reflective lyrics to the punk scene. Curtis would never live to see the influence of his music. He committed suicide in 1980, leaving this masterpiece as a relic of his troubled mind.


California Stars – Billy Bragg and Wilco (Lyrics by Woody Guthrie)

When Woody Guthrie's daughter unearthed a collection of her father's unseen lyrics she was spurred to approach other musical artists in the hope of setting them to music. This song is taken from the Mermaid Avenue sessions that ensued, bringing together protest music poster-boy Billy Bragg and the then relatively unknown band Wilco. Guthrie was remembered for his political iconoclasm, but songs like 'California Stars' show us the more mellow and romantic aspects of his personality.


Breaking News – Michael Jackson

The King of Pop was set to play a huge comeback tour when he suffered a cardiac arrest in 2009. Keen to recuperate the costs of the planned tour and Jackson's spiralling debt, his estate orchestrated the posthumous album Michael. It's a hodgepodge of studio outtakes, old demos and guest performances. Among the wreckage was the uninspiring track 'Breaking News', which many claimed to contain vocals falsely attributed to him. Even his sister La Toya Jackson thought that the vocals were a fake. Despite the allegations, it seems likely that his estate will continue to use any scraps of music they can find to cash in on his name.


Hold Ya Head – Notorious B.I.G. (feat. Bob Marley)

Bad Boy Records are also determined to squeeze every penny out of a deceased recording artist. Brooklyn-born rapper Notorious B.I.G. lost his life in a drive-by shooting, leaving his record label and collaborators to derive a string of albums, a biopic and even a clothing line from his legacy. On 'Hold Ya Head' he can be heard "dueting" with the long-dead Bob Marley in what is essentially glorified remix parading as a new release.


Real Love – The Beatles

There are several early demos of 'Real Love', a John Lennon song which remained unreleased at the time of his death. It was brought to public attention recently when Tom Odell's cover accompanied the annual spectacle of sentimentalism that is the John Lewis Christmas advert. But we focus here on a version from 1995 in which the surviving members of The Beatles came together to add backing and harmonies to the Lennon recording. The result was a turgid flop that lacked the raw emotion of Lennon's original. Some things are best left to rest.