There’s something eternally moving about listening to a musician’s work after they have tragically passed away, especially music that the artist didn’t manage to live to see released.
The emotions that come in to play when listening to these records can make these albums sound different from anything else that they released during their career. Their mortality leaves a tangible marker that can be felt all across the album.
These records can act as a reminder of a life lost too soon and a bittersweet memory of their talent. Even if it is entrenched in sadness. All the artists who feature in this list lost their life painfully young, and even though some achieved more than others during their lifetime, they all left their marker on the world in their own way.
Posthumous albums hit differently from anything else in each specific artists repertoire. The tracks take on different meanings when you know that their unexpected mortality was lying just around the corner. This feature looks at ten of the best efforts from artists who didn’t live to see their work immortalise them in history forever.
10 best posthumous albums of all time
Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death
The title of Biggie’s sophomore album, Life After Death, suggests that he knew that his final days were upon him, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. His death came just a fortnight before his 25th birthday in 1997 and just 16 days before the release of Life After Death.
While most rappers are yet to hit their stride at that age, Biggie was one of the greatest of all time. He may have only had two albums under his belt, but both are held in the same breath as Nas’ Illmatic or Kanye West’s College Dropout when it comes to hip hop classics.
The album spawns hit after hit, including ‘Hypnotize’, which was released just a week before Biggie’s death and became just the fifth track to reach number one in the charts posthumously.
Jimi Hendrix – The Cry Of Love
Jimi Hendrix is the definition of a ‘one of a kind’; his artistry oozed out of every pore of his body and is sadly another guitar god having a drink upstairs in the all-too large ’27 club’.
He left behind a small but timeless collection of songs as part of his legacy, which is still one of the greatest in rock.
Several posthumous albums were made out of scraps of work that Hendrix left behind when he died, but The Cry of Love was the first and is the one that he had the greatest hand in creating. Around half of the tracks were mixed by Hendrix before his death. On top of that, the record offered a glimpse of his career direction if he stayed around.
Elliott Smith – From A Basement On The Hill
In his early thirties, the late Elliott Smith was an undoubted great of music, an influential creative who died by suicide in 2004. While Smith was never the most commercially successful artist during his lifetime, with From A Basement On The Hill charted higher than any of his other records.
The album is truly harrowing to listen to as Smith lays the desolate way he’s feeling bare across the record, which starkly resembles a suicide note and is impossible to listen to without thinking about what he was going through whilst making From A Basement On The Hill.
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged
Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged session is the definitive performance in the programme’s history, and although it’s not a studio album, it deserves mention on the list. The session is noted for being one of Kurt Cobain’s last acts before his tragic death, putting in arguably the most iconic performance of his entire career. The acoustic setting left his vulnerabilities nowhere to hide.
He showcased a different side to himself, which many were unaware existed and were on full show when Nirvana famously covered David Bowie song ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
Cobain’s vocals are on point throughout the session, which he pours everything he has left into and opens the door to his feelings of the time.
Mac Miller – Circles
The late, great Mac Miller was one of the finest wordsmiths of his generation, and his innovative approach to rap music remains sorely missed since he left us in 2018.
Miller’s music incorporated many different influences under the umbrella of hip-hop and helped him become a mercurial talent.
His final album, Swimming, was released just a month before his death, and in 2020, Circles arrived as a painful reminder of a life lost too soon. The album was made as a companion album for Swimming, but, sadly, he wouldn’t be here for the second part of the project to arrive.
Circles is both an extremely sore listen due to the circumstances surrounding it, as well as the most complete body of work he made in his career.
Otis Redding – The Dock Of The Bay
The title track from this record became not only Redding’s debut number one single but the first-ever posthumous single to top the Billboard Chart — just a month after he passed away.
The album was also the first posthumous LP to top the charts in the UK. With it, Redding confirmed himself as a talent lost far too soon.
He was only 26-years-old when a freak plane crash would see the world lose a voice that’s as divine as anyone’s. His voice was one of the wonders of the earth, and he set out the blueprint when it comes to great soul singers, The Dock Of The Bay is a timeless masterpiece from a talent that was only getting started.
Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures
This record wasn’t a follow-up to 2006’s Back To Black, which Winehouse had made two songs for before her death, but instead a scrap-book of songs she’d left on the shelf selected by close friend Mark Ronson and producer Salaam Remi.
The album is a reminder of Winehouse’s sheer talent and allowed fans to hear music that didn’t fit any of her other projects but found a rightful home here.
Although the album is a collage of throwaway songs, they all blend perfectly on Lioness: Hidden Treasures, which is proof that she could sing anything, and it would be delectable.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Milk & Honey
While the album isn’t Lennon’s finest piece of work as a solo artist, it’s a celebration of his relationship with Yoko Ono. It paints a blissful picture of the content place he was in before he was murdered in 1980.
The album was the second half of Double Fantasy, with the recording taking part during the same sessions. However, it would take Ono three-years of tinkering and make sure Milk & Honey was right before she would allow it into the world.
Lennon’s part on the album was recorded in the final months of his life, and on Milk & Honey, he sounds like he’s in paradise.
Joy Division – Closer
Closer was released just two months after frontman Ian Curtis’ sadly lost his life through suicide, and the album is the archetypal release from the post-punk era.
Curtis’ ill mental health is prevalent on the record, and it’s a difficult album to listen to when you take his personal hardship into account.
The album confirmed that Joy Division was the best band in the world in 1980—hand’s down, no questions asked. They encapsulated the burning punk spirit that came before them but with the intelligence and fresh forward-thinking, but it’s impossible not to think about what they could have become if Curtis didn’t lose his battle with his demons.
Janis Joplin – Pearl
The powerhouse performer Janis Joplin was still in the upward thrust of her rocket launcher career when she sadly passed at the age of just 27 on October 4th, 1970.
At the time, the singer was a leading light of the counter-culture movement, and Pearl proved that there’ll never be a singer quite like Joplin ever again.
Joplin was known for living her life in the fast lane and, during her short but remarkable career, she made herself an unstoppable force that was undoubtedly the voice of her generation. Joplin’s free spirit would see her live at high speed. Pearl is a record that suggests Joplin was an otherworldly talent that we were fortunate to host, even if it wasn’t for anywhere near long enough.