Michael Jackson's posthumous album Xscape drops tomorrow, featuring his "strongest unreleased songs" that have been "polished with state-of-the-art production." While the first two posthumous MJ releases—2010's Michael and 2011's Immortal—were met with mixed reviews, all signs are pointing that Xscape will be the album the late King of Pop deserves.
The music is already resonating with audiences: Lead single "Love Never Felt So Good," featuring Justin Timberlake, already hit No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100—Michael's best-charting hit since 2001. It appears Xscape will stand proud alongside past MJ albums.
But Michael, Immortal and other posthumous releases often feel like an easy way to cash-in on a beloved singer's legacy. And sometimes, they're a dishonor to the artist no longer with us. But every now and then, brilliant songs and albums get released that live up to the act's legacy.
From the Beatles to Amy Winehouse, check out 11 posthumous releases that live up to the standards those legends set when they were still among us.
By Jeff Benjamin, Mike Ayers, Joe Lynch, Mark Sundstrom and Samantha Vincenty
Who: R&B princess Aaliyah
What: I Care 4 U, a half greatest hits/half unreleased songs collection released a little more than a year after Aaliyah's passing
Why It Doesn't Suck: Aaliyah’s death in a tragic plane crash came at arguably the peak of her career: Her self-titled third album had just been released to critical praise and she was set to star in 2003’s The Matrix: Reloaded. Upset her life had been cut so short, fans were hungry for anything more from the star.
I Care 4 U is the perfect mix of six unreleased tracks and seven classic Aaliyah songs. Lead single "Miss You" hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, accompanied by a video featuring dozens of Aaliyah’s music friends and peers lip-syncing to her vocals. Another stand-out: The timelessly seductive "Come Over" featuring R&B singer-songwriter Tank. -MS
Who: British soul songstress Amy Winehouse
What: The first—of possibly three—posthumous releases, Lioness: Hidden Treasures
Why It Didn't Suck: Longtime Amy supporters will remember most of these tracks released as beloved b-sides, demos or leaks throughout the troubled songstress' career, making them indeed "hidden treasures." There's the original version of 2007 single "Tears Dry on Their Own," an update of her Shirelles cover "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" (originally on the Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason soundtrack) and renditions of classic standards like "A Song for You" and "The Girl From Ipanema."
Helmed by her close producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, this means Amy's signature sound never gets muddied, as evidenced in the new tracks "Between the Cheats" and "Like Smoke," featuring her friend Nas. -JB
Who: The iconic Fab Four, The Beatles
What: Previously unheard singles "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love"
Why It Didn't Suck: In the late ‘70s, John Lennon made demo recordings and in the early 90s, surviving Beatles Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison recorded new music to pair with his vocals. Purists might have cried foul, but these new tunes sound as timeless as their original catalog.
Listen to "Real Love" above and "Free As a Bird" below. -MA
Who: Singer-songwriter/Former Big Star member Chris Bell
What: I Am the Cosmos
Why It Didn't Suck: If you love Big Star and haven't heard Chris Bell's sole solo album, you need to change that stat.
Released in 1992 but recorded during the mid '70s before a car crash claimed his life at 27, Bell crafted an album's worth of heartbreakingly lovely, introspective tunes after splitting with Big Star. It's an indie pop lo-fi masterpiece recorded 20 years before that was even a thing. -JL
Who: Singer-songwriter extraordinaire Elliott Smith
What: 2007 posthumous LP New Moon
Why It Doesn't Suck: Released four years after Smith’s death, New Moon has the same intimate sound of the singer-songwriter’s lo-fi early work—and that’s because most of it was recorded during the sessions that produced Elliott Smith and Either/Or. Mixed by engineer Larry Crane, a friend of Smith’s and archivist of his estate, the album feels like a long-lost artifact and a completely organic piece of Smith’s legacy.
Posthumous releases are often full of padded-out song fragments or failed studio experiments never meant to see the light of day, and listening can evoke the guilt that comes with reading someone's diary. New Moon blessed Smith fans with early versions of gems like the Oscar-nominated "Miss Misery," a wistful cover of Big Star's "Thirteen" and tracks like "Angel in the Snow" that sound like old favorites upon first listen. -SV
Who: Legendary guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix
What: First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the posthumous LP that attempts to recreate the fourth studio album he was working on before his 1970 death
Why It Didn't Suck: At the time of his death, Hendrix was working on his fourth studio album. A lot of these tracks came out in various forms after his death, but New Rising Sun is the proper attempt at recreating the album as he had hoped it would be. All of these tracks are pretty potent and make the case that his best work was still ahead of him when he passed. -MA
Who: Beloved Beatles singer-songwriter John Lennon
What: John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Milk & Honey LP, the first posthumous album release from Lennon
Why It Didn't Suck: Milk & Honey is an interesting posthumous album. Lennon's tracks were mostly recorded after 1980's Double Fantasy and they're not officially polished studio versions. These serve as some of his last original songs and there’s no reason to believe he was waning in quality as he got older and more domesticated. -MA
Who: Hip hop producer J Dilla
What: His posthumous solo album The Shining
Why It Didn't Suck: When J Dilla passed away in 2006, the endlessly inventive hip hop producer left an album that was 75% finished and Dilla's friend—jazz drummer and fellow producer Karriem Riggins—was entrusted to finish that album. Although it's no Donuts, The Shining stands as an essential, inspiring part of J Dilla's legacy.
The album closer, "Won't Do," is the only officially-released song where Dilla hits the mic himself and carries the entire track without guest verses from anyone. -JL
Who: Classic soul-pop crooner Marvin Gaye
What: Standards collection, Vulnerable
Why It Doesn't Suck: More than a decade in the making, Vulnerable was a labor of love that the "Grapevine" singer ultimately never got to experience. Originally titled The Ballads, Gaye was keen to prove himself as a balladeer and started up the project in the late '60s. After obtaining a slew of pop hits like "Let's Get It On," "Got to Give It Up" and "What's Going On," Gaye went back to rework the record a decade later. But Gaye shelved the project indefinitely, despite being quoted by a biographer saying it was "the best stuff I ever did."
Eventually released in 1997, Vulnerable finally revealed seven classic ballads and three alternate cuts that showcased his musicianship with improvised lyrics on the alt version of "I Won't Cry Anymore" and the loads of ad-libs on "I Wish I Didn't Love You So." -JB
Who: East Coast rap icon the Notorious B.I.G.
What: The first posthumous album released without any of Biggie's input, Born Again
Why It Didn't Suck: While it certainly got mixed reviews when it came out in 1999, Biggie's first proper posthumous release boasts a ton of top-notch, unreleased verses from Biggie as well as new verses recorded by Missy Elliott, Puff Daddy, Eminem and Lil' Kim. It's worth seeking out if you're a fan of Biggie—and if you're a fan of hip hop, you're probably a fan of Biggie.
One of the highlights, the Duran Duran-sampling "Notorious B.I.G.", finds the incorrigible rapper talking about enjoying hot nurses while recuperating in the hospital. -JL
Who: Classic soul singer Otis Redding
What: The first of many Redding posthumous releases, The Dock of the Bay
Why It Doesn't Suck: Dock of the Bay is certainly a bittersweet record. Sure, it contains what came to be his signature song "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," but with a collection of past singles and b-sides, it's also a painful reminder of all the promise that was still to come from Redding, who died at just 26.
The record's legacy lives with Rolling Stone naming it one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. -JB