Posthumous album releases might work for beloved deceased musicians, but the trick is to know when enough is enough.
Sometimes, the rest isn't silence
Memo to struggling musicians seeking to recapture lost glories: you might want to think about dying. In the 13 months since Michael Jackson's passing, the King of Pop's star is once again in the ascendant. Forget Kings Of Leon or Lady Gaga: Jackson was the best-selling artist of 2009 in the United States, selling over 35 million albums worldwide. The film made in the run-up to the tour-that-never-was, This Is It, was in cinemas for just two weeks, yet broke all box office records for a music documentary. No wonder a new album was announced in Rolling Stone last week.
We jest, of course. Whatever you think about Jackson's creative nose-dive throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, death is not to be wished upon anyone. But is it a coincidence that now his music can be celebrated without the distractions of his, shall we say, quirky personality, he's more popular than he has been for decades? And so, in November, a collection of unreleased songs from the Jackson vaults is set to be packaged together and released as a "new" album. According to Rolling Stone, the 10 tracks are the first fruits of over 100 previously unheard tracks in the superstar's archive.
And we can expect to hear every single one of them if Sony wants to maximise the US$250 million (Dh918m), 10-album deal they've just signed with Jackson's estate, the biggest in history for someone dead - or alive. Such statistics are as depressing as they are amazing. There is a reason why some of the tracks we'll be told are "new" didn't make it onto Bad or Thriller, and it's not because there wasn't room. They just weren't good enough.
Posthumous releases might work as a one-off, as a poignant postscript to a career - like adding John Lennon's voice from beyond the grave to two "new" Beatles songs in 1995 - but 10 albums' worth of the stuff is contemptuous of the fans and the legacy. The Jackson estate would be wise to heed how murdered rapper Tupac Shakur's archives have been handled. Since his demise in 1996, there have been six albums of "new" material, two live albums and two greatest hits collections. There are now more posthumous Tupac albums than releases while he was of this earth. The songs have generally been awful - relying on new production barely recognisable from the beats Shakur made himself, and the contributions of rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Ludacris.
The sheer number of "Shakur" releases from beyond the grave has actually become laughable, yet the proceeds are so extravagant (Shakur, in death, has become the best-selling rapper of all time) many believe his murder was all a hoax and he's living - probably with Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson - in some sort of retreat, counting his dollars. Is this the legacy his family really wanted? There are also two albums of posthumous Notorious BIG material (Shakur's rival, also murdered). Once again, the unlikely collaborations with living rappers proved these albums' critical undoing, but the records sold in droves.
So are posthumous albums ever free from the stench of exploitation? Johnny Cash's beautiful epitaph to a life in music, the American Recordings series, has escaped any such suspicions because he began making them before his death. But even so, this year's American Recordings VI is surely as far as the archives can and should go. The plaintive singer-songwriter Nick Drake's retrospective was released a full four years after his death in 1974. But the folk singer's gorgeous archives - generally ignored at the time - have quite deservedly gained millions of fans since.
And no one would begrudge the CD release of Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance, which appeared just months after Kurt Cobain's death. It was an unbearably poignant full stop to the band's career. Box-sets and a rather average "new" song, You Know You're Right, would come later, but generally the temptation to cash in has been remarkably well resisted. The trickiest case of all, though, is that of Eva Cassidy. Her 2001 album, Songbird, was beautiful. It fired Cassidy to the top of the charts five long years after her death - and rightly so.
If the story had ended there, then this may well have been a tale of a one-off talent shamefully ignored while she was alive. But there have been another seven albums since - of sadly diminishing quality. You can't help but think it's rather tasteless to release songs Cassidy herself probably didn't think much of in the first place. Perhaps deceased musicians really should be able to rest in peace.