The term Posthumous means something that happens after a person’s death but relates to something they did before they died.

Posthumous comes from the Latin posthumus, which is itself an alteration of postumus (“born after the father’s death”). It is thought that the word humus (meaning “dirt, earth” in Latin) was substituted for -umus in the mistaken belief that the word’s final element had something to do with the soil in a grave.

A posthumous album is an album consisting of previously unreleased material that is only released after an artist’s death.

That’s an important distinction to keep in mind. Most people wouldn’t necessarily consider a greatest hits compilation from a deceased artist to be a posthumous album. That’s because the tracks on a greatest hits compilation aren’t new to listeners (although sometimes record labels add one or two previously unreleased bonus tracks).

To qualify as a posthumous album, the album’s tracks must be works casual listeners would not have heard before.

The process of releasing a posthumous album can vary depending on a range of factors. These may include how far along a project was before the artist died, what their original plans for the album were, whether any legal restrictions could prevent a posthumous release, and much more.

That’s why it helps to break the concept of posthumous albums into two major types: the intended posthumous album and the unintended posthumous album.

There are cases when an artist recording an album either knows they will die soon or suspects they will. In these instances, they might also know they aren’t likely to still be alive when the album finally reaches audiences. 

This offers them certain opportunities. They may choose to record songs (both original works and covers) that directly address death or serve as songs about moving forward for those they will leave behind. 

For example, Queen recorded their final studio album, Made in Heaven, at a time when Freddie Mercury knew his life would be over soon. He thus used the opportunity to confront death and provide listeners with some insights from someone who knew his death was near.

Unintended posthumous albums

Many posthumous albums started as works their artists expected to release while they were alive. That often means they didn’t offer the kinds of instructions to others that an artist might offer when they’re fairly confident they won’t live to see the album’s release.

All musical artists die, but their work can live on long after their passing. The best posthumous albums remind us of this. Instead of exploiting an artist, they give fans a chance to remember these artists and cherish their memories.

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