Saturday, January 18, 2014

Alive Again: 10 Greatest Posthumous Hits

I'm still smarting a little from Oscar's snubbing of Enough Said's late James Gandolfini yesterday in the Best Supporting Actor category. What does the Academy have against dead people anyway? Only four have been nominated in my lifetime: Network's Peter Finch for Best Actor, Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes' Sir Ralph Richardson for Best Supporting Actor, Il Postino's Massimo Troissi for Best Actor, and The Dark Knight's Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor. Only Finch and Ledger continue (presumably, hopefully) to rest in peace as Academy Award winners following the most crushing loss for their fans.

Does Oscar have a bias in favor of living people, particularly living women? (Only one female, 1929 Best Actress nominee Jeanne Eagels, has been nominated posthumously, while the six male nominees after death include James Dean, whose two Best Actor citations, for East of Eden and Giant, came after his death in September of 1955.) Once I set aside my conspiracy theorist tendencies, it becomes more clear that the lack of acting nominees in any given year who also would qualify for the In Memorian section has less to do with bias and more to do with the fortunate fact that the top film performers of any given year are usually still alive and kicking when the Oscar nominations are announced.

Still, the music industry tends to be considerably more generous to the dead. In 2005, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded the Album of the Year Grammy to Genius Loves Company by Ray Charles, who had died in June of 2004 at age 73. No one would ever accuse Charles' duets album of ranking anywhere near the caliber of Charles's classic work, and had he been alive to see its release, it probably would have been greeted with considerably less fanfare and possibly would have been regarded as a last-ditch grasp for commercial relevance by association with contemporary stars.

Unfortunately, the bottom line remains the music industry's primary concern when dealing with deceased stars. Record labels often have appeared to be more interested in cashing in on the increased goodwill of mourning fans than contributing to the legacy of a talent taken too soon (see Michael Jackson's Michael or Drake's long-rumored Aaliyah resurrection).

Then there are the rare posthumous releases that transcend business principles and make us even sadder that the artists are gone, ones like soon-to-be Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Nirvana, whose MTV Unplugged in New York, released in November of 1994, seven months after the death of frontman Kurt Cobain, captured a haunting quiet desperation that previously had frequently been buried under layers of murky grunge. It's the trio's most enduring work, and I consider us all lucky to be blessed with its existence in both aural and visual form.

Unfortunately, for too many of the other great posthumous releases, the recordings will have to do on their own, for we'll never get the opportunity to experience them performed live. Here are nine more musical statements made in life but delivered after death that made parting such an even sweeter sorrow.

Sam Cooke (1931-1964) "A Change Is Gonna Come" (from Ain't That Good News, 1964)

Otis Redding (1941-1967) (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" (from Dock of the Bay, 1968)

Janis Joplin (1943-1970) "Move Over" (from Pearl, 1971)

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) "Loving Arms" (from Guitar Man, 1981)

John Lennon (1940-1980) "Nobody Told Me" (from Milk and Honey, 1984)

Jim Reeves (1923-1964) and Patsy Cline (1931-1982) "Have You Ever Been Lonely?" (from Greatest Hits of Jim Reeves & Patsy Cline, 1982)

Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) "Sanctified Lady" (from Dream of a Lifetime, 1985)

Roy Orbison (1936-1988) "She's a Mystery to Me" (from Mystery Girl, 1989)

Eva Cassidy (1963-1996) "Songbird" (from Songbird, 1998)

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