The posthumous song is a lovely death letter. The best are elegies that embody why an artist will be forever mourned. There’s something tragic yet triumphant to these melodies from beyond the pale. Our bodies are perishable, but our musical spirits can breathe forever. The songs below rank among the finest from some of the greatest. We’ll play them until we’re no more.
Otis Redding –“Sitting on the Dock”
The first posthumous song to top the Billboard charts, Otis Redding’s ode to watching the ships roll into San Francisco Bay remains his most iconic. Authored on a houseboat in Sausalito in the fall of 1967, Redding recorded a finished version at the famed Stax Recording studio in Memphis (with aid from producer and guitarist Steve Cropper).
Unlike many other iconic posthumous recordings, there’s nothing particularly doleful about Otis Redding’s words. He’s wasting time, watching the tide roll, as though he’ll be able to capture nature’s rhythms for eternity. Removed from any context, it’s a gorgeous song. But when you realize that he died in a plane crash only three days after recording it, it becomes impossible to get out of your head.
Jimi Hendrix – “Angel”
Jimi Hendrix, the greatest guitarist alive, died on September 18, 1970. In the nearly half a century since choking on his vomit in a British hotel room, the psychedelic godhead has spawned countless imitators and few worthy successors.
Over a dozen posthumous compilations and albums have been released—ranging from almost-completed records to blues jams. But the most perdurable of the batch is “Angel.” A requiem for his late mother, “Angel” appears in countless iterations throughout the Hendrix vaults. The founding member of the “27 Club” began working on it as early as 1967, but only finally completed it several weeks before his death. It’s his rhapsody in paisley.
Janis Joplin – “Me & Bobby McGee”
Overwhelmed by an overly potent batch of heroin, the death of the Texas-raised blues necromancer came only sixteen days after Hendrix. The accident occurred amidst the Hollywood recording sessions of what would be her final album, 1971’s quadruple-platinum, Pearl.
During that fatal drunk and drugged October, Janis Joplin covered a Kris Kristofferson saga about rambling the country with a soon-to-be lost love. Roger Miller and Gordon Lightfoot had previously sung it, but Joplin’s version remains the timeless gem. “Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose” might as well be carved on the tombstone of the immemorially 27-year old.
Bob Marley – “Buffalo Soldier”
Scarcely 36 years old, the dreadlocked Jamaican bard was felled by cancer in 1981. For most Americans, Bob Marley remains the touchstone and central entry point for reggae music. Songs like the posthumous anthem, “Buffalo Soldier,” explain why. Chronicling the story of the black U.S. cavalry regiments that fought in the 19th Century Indian Wars, “Buffalo Soldier” is a ballad that unites both those in the African diaspora and those who just like cowboy songs.
Marley possessed a rare gift for transcending cultural and class differences throughout the globe. “Buffalo Soldier” was cut during Marley’s final recording sessions in late 1980 and first released on 1983’s Confrontation. But after being included on the posthumous greatest hits collection, Legend, “Buffalo Soldier” became the most loved military song since “Taps.”
Nirvana (Kurt Cobain) – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
“Nirvana” literally translates to “blown out.” So it’s fitting that for his band’s MTV Unplugged Performance, Kurt Cobain requested that the stage be adorned with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. “Like a funeral,” he reportedly joked.
Shortly after killing himself with a shotgun in April 1994, MTV practically played a constant loop of the performance. Released on CD that November, Unplugged in New York sold over 5,000,000 copies. The bestselling single from the record, “About a Girl,” re-worked a threnody from Nirvana’s debut album. But the most poignant was “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a traditional folk song credited to Leadbelly, but with origins in the post-Civil War Appalachians.
Few singers could channel anguish and suffering as well as Kurt Cobain. His question to an unfaithful lover twists in the wind, offering no answers, resigned to a numb void.
2Pac – “Changes”
Just this month, former Death Row boss, Suge Knight made headlines for suggesting that 2Pac was still alive, living secluded on a desert island. The fact that it even made the news is testament to the prophetic nature of the gangsta rap icon’s lyrics and the depth of his posthumous discography.
Notoriously prolific, 2Pac spawned multiple high-charting singles and albums after being slain in September 1996 by a still-unknown assailant. The most powerful was “Changes,” which transforms a soft-rock Bruce Hornsby jaunt into a national anthem for the disenfranchised. Tackling internecine conflicts from race and poverty to war, 2Pac reminded the world why his words will be passed down from one generation to the next.