The only thing more inevitable than a tragically early rock star death is that the end of their life doesn’t necessarily mean the end of their recording career. Had Amy Winehouse lived, who knows how long the world would have had to wait for a new collection of her music, but her death earlier this year has led to the release of Lioness: Hidden Treasures. Are these posthumous albums ever more than one last cash-in?
Lioness is very much a collection of unreleased music rather than Amy Winehouse’s long-awaited third album proper, which will never be finished because she had apparently only recorded two tracks for it. So in that way it’s mostly music that wasn’t thought to be good enough to be released, even as b-sides or bonus tracks in her lifetime, but it’s certainly not without merit. Her voice carries almost any material and manages to make Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow sound fresh and soulful after all of the many other cover versions out there. But it is what it is, some nice songs to celebrate her life and her talent and raise some money for her Foundation.
In that sense at least it’s a noble venture more than a cash-in, which is more than can be said about a lot of similar posthumous albums, but there have been some classics in this grim genre. For one thing, albums released after an artist’s death can include those already finished, like the aptly-titled Life After Death (released a fortnight after his murder) by Notorious B.I.G., who kept on going with Born Again two years later. Fellow hip hop victim Tupac is of course the king of posthumous albums, having released albums up to ten years after he was shot dead in Las Vegas.
And then we have the likes of Closer by Joy Division and Pearl by Janis Joplin, two albums that the world would be a poorer place without, even if Ian Curtis and Janis had departed it by the time they were released. The same can be said for Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons, while Johnny Cash kept up his late-era hot streak with American V and American VI released in the years after his death. Both Sam Cooke and Otis Redding had albums released after their deaths that added to their legends by showcasing beautiful songs like A Change Is Gonna Come and (Sittin On) The Dock Of The Bay.
But the inevitable question that arises when these albums are released is how much of it is how the artist would have wanted it to be. Apparently there’s enough material to release more Amy Winehouse albums, but she expressly said that some of it should never be released, so it will stay in the vaults. That’s clearly not always been the case in the past, and what about music that hasn’t been finished? Jimi Hendrix’s death was followed by many new albums, most of which are controversial for the way that Alan Douglas added newly-recorded music around the original tracks.
Michael Jackson’s posthumous album Michael was hugely controversial when it came out, with claims from the Jackson Family amongst others that the King Of Pop wasn’t even on some of the tracks and had been replaced with a soundalike, while his father claimed that he would have never wanted unfinished songs to be released. All of which left a bad taste in the mouth and the album got mixed reviews while hardly setting the world alight in the way you’d have expected a first release of new Jackson material to do.
Posthumous albums do fulfil a need beyond the commercial, of course. Fans will always want to hear some more music from their departed stars, and those who were left shocked and heartbroken by the terrible waste of Amy Winehouse’s death will find plenty to enjoy in Lioness: Hidden Treasures, even if it will never be another Closer or Pearl. There’s no easy answer to which posthumous albums should be released and which shouldn’t, it should always come down to whether the families of those involved agree or not.