At the time of Michael Jackson’s death, his career was in decline. The last album released during his lifetime was 2001’s Invincible, which was regarded as a commercial failure.
However, his 2009 death made him a commercially viable entity all over again, and on December 14, 2010, his posthumous album Michael was released, and sold 224,910 copies in its first week.
The King of Pop is not the first musician to have vastly improved album sales after leaving us. In fact, sometimes an album released after an artist’s death is the biggest seller of his career.
Click ahead to see which musicians drummed up major sales with posthumous albums.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 29 Dec 2010
Milk and Honey was intended as a sequel to Double Fantasy, the collaboration between the husband and wife team of John Lennon and Yoko Ono that had been released in November 1980.
The original plan was to finish the second album at the beginning of 1981 and release it that spring. However, when the former Beatle was murdered just weeks after Double Fantasy’s release, all bets were off.
Some people speculated that Milk and Honey might never be finished, and that it would remain unheard in the record company’s vaults. However, after three years, Ono went back to the unfinished tapes and completed work on the album.
Though it received lukewarm reviews, people were happy to have the opportunity to hear Lennon again, and Milk and Honey went on to sell half a million copies.
For three decades, Johnny Cash was a hit maker, with multiple recordings that had dominated the charts and even his own weekly television show.
However, in the 1980s his career ran out of gas, and by the beginning of the 1990s he was a has-been who was reduced to appearing in Taco Bell commercials just to keep his bills paid. However, all of that changed with American Recordings, a 1994 album produced by Rick Rubin that revived Cash’s career.
He made three more albums with the producer, all of which garnered strong sales and positive reviews. Cash passed away in 2003, but he left behind a wealth of Rubin-produced outtakes that were used for his first posthumous album, 2006’s American V: A Hundred Highways. It went gold, and it gave Cash his first number one album since 1969’s boisterous classic Johnny Cash at San Quentin.
The Allman Brothers Band’s 1973 hit Brothers & Sisters was released in the wake of not just one tragedy, but two.
While recording 1972’s Eat a Peach, founding guitarist Duane Allman had been killed in a motorcycle accident in the band’s hometown of Macon, Georgia. However, they soldiered on and completed the sessions, dedicating the finished album to him.
While recording the follow-up, bassist Berry Oakley was killed in another motorcycle accident just three blocks away from the intersection that had claimed Allman’s life one year earlier. Undaunted, the band dug deep and finished the album, which included Berry on two songs. It went to the top of the Billboard charts, staying there for five weeks, and spawned the hit single, “Ramblin’ Man,” which peaked at number 2 and remains one of the group’s best-known songs.
Roy Orbison’s operatic singing voice drove such songs as “Oh! Pretty Woman” to the top of the charts during the 1960s.
However, he was all but forgotten by the 1980s, until he contributed to the star-studded Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 album. It featured such artists as Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and the Beatles’ George Harrison, and it became the surprise hit of 1988, thrusting Orbison back into the spotlight.
Suddenly in demand again, the formerly washed-up singer took to his resurgence with gusto, performing internationally and recording a comeback album. Unfortunately, the flurry of activity was too much for the chain smoker and triple-bypass survivor, and he succumbed to a fatal heart attack on December 6, 1988. The album that he had just completed, Mystery Girl, was released two months later and sold over one million copies, his first album ever to do so.
Ray Charles was—and still is—an American institution. He has performed at two presidential inaugurations, played “Georgia On My Mind” on the floor of the Peach State legislature and his version of “America the Beautiful” has been played at countless US sporting events.
Charles died of liver cancer in June 2004, but he had kept working right up to the end. His final project was Genius Loves Company, an album of duets with such superstar collaborators as Willie Nelson, Elton John and B.B. King.
It was released two months after his passing and went to number one on the Billboard charts, his first album to do so in over forty years. It sold over five million copies, making it the most successful album of his entire career.
Tom Brokaw once referred to Selena as “The Mexican Madonna.” The singer was a regular fixture on Billboard’s Latin charts, and once her 1994 album Amor Prohibido went gold, she was perfectly poised for crossover success. She began recording her first English-language album in 1995, and hopes were high that it would provide the breakthrough she had been looking for.
Sadly, in March of that year, the Tejano superstar’s promising career was cut short when Yolanda Saldivar, president of her fan club, murdered her. The album she had been working on, Dreaming of You, was released four months later and debuted at number one on the Billboard pop chart.
It sold over 300,000 copies in its first week alone and sold 175,000 copies on the day it was released, a record for any female singer in any genre. To date, Dreaming of You has sold 3.5 million copies.
Sublime was a popular band during the 1990s alternative rock movement. They had released two albums on an independent label before MCA Records picked them up for their self-titled major label debut.
The album was recorded in 1996 and featured the mixture of ska and punk that had earned the band a strong following, and it seemed likely that it would be a major mainstream success upon its release.
The band’s future was derailed in May 1996 when lead singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell died of a drug overdose in San Francisco, two months shy of the album’s release date. Rather than continue with a replacement, Sublime broke up, but the album received a strong push from the label and from radio stations, and according to Rolling Stone magazine it’s sold over six million copies as of March 2010.
Big Brother and the Holding Company was a psychedelic band that formed in San Francisco in 1965. Their lead singer was Janis Joplin, whose scorching blues howl quickly earned her legendary status. She left the band to become a solo artist, and recorded her second solo album, Pearl, in September 1970, but died of a drug overdose that October.
Pearl was released in February 1971 and contains her biggest hit single, “Me and Bobby McGee,” as well as the classic “Mercedes Benz.” It went to number one on the Billboard albums chart and it remains her most popular album. It’s gone on to sell over four million copies, and in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed it as one of its 500 greatest albums of all time.
When Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain took his own life in April 1994, it spelled the end of a group whose music was still very much in demand.
In order to meet that demand, DGC Records released MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994, just seven months after the singer’s passing. It was a live album recorded in 1993 that featured acoustic versions of the band’s songs.
The album debuted at number one on the US charts and sold over 300,000 copies in its first week of release, the best first-week sales the band had ever had. It received unanimous raves from critics, who used it as an example of what Nirvana might have gone on to do had Cobain lived. Ultimately, the album went on to sell over 14 million copies.
Christopher Wallace, better known as Notorious B.I.G., became famous in 1994 with the release of his debut, Ready to Die.
When rapper Tupac Shakur became the victim of a violent robbery that same year, he claimed that Wallace was involved, starting an epic feud between the two men. Although Wallace claimed his innocence, he became a suspect again when Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996.
Six months later, Wallace was murdered, a crime that remains unsolved to this day. Fifteen days afterwards, Notorious B.I.G.’s second album, Life After Death was released and went to number one the Billboard charts. In 2000 it received diamond certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, signifying over ten million copies sold, making it one of only three hip hop albums to do so.