Music is founded on myth-making, and it’s easy to look upon the most influential artists and albums as awe-inspiring legends. It’s even easier to wonder about what might have been. Luckily, the history of pop music is littered with all sorts of breakups, untimely deaths, and creative disagreements that resulted in unreleased albums. Some of these planned albums that were never released sound so ambitious and fascinating they become myths of their own, as fans speculate dreamily about the musical ecstasies that have been lost to the ages. Let’s pay tribute to the greatest unreleased albums, even if we’ll never know exactly what they sound like.
1. SMiLE by The Beach Boys
Beach Boy Brian Wilson took a break from touring with his group in the mid-60s to invest more time in the studio on the band’s next album, which became the lush masterpiece of pop balladry that is Pet Sounds, often considered one of the greatest if not the greatest album of all time. That album was only the beginning of Wilson’s album ambitions however, and he was soon collaborating with songwriter Van Dyke Parks to create an LP called SMiLE touted as a “a teenage symphony to God” made from abstract musical vignettes.
Due to Wilson’s advancing mental illness, drug use and disagreement with band members who thought the band should stick to more conventional songwriting, SMiLE was never completed. The Beach Boys scrapped together remnants of the misbegotten album into 1967’s Smiley Smile, but SMiLE looms large in pop history. For those still curious about this legendary effort, Brian Wilson’s reimagined version of the album was released in 2004, though the 2011 release The Smile Sessions is likely closer to how the original album would have sounded.
2. Lifehouse by The Who
Like Wilson, The Who’s chief songwriter Pete Townshend intended to follow-up his band’s arguable magnum opus, the rock opera Tommy, with something even more ambitious. Inspired by his readings on spirituality, the project was called Lifehouse and related to the connection of the human spirit to musical vibrations, with Townshend hoping to use synthesizers to help create a universal chord that could be altered to appeal perfectly to a specific person based on biographical data. In terms of actual story, the album would have taken place in a post-apocalyptic world where rock music is considered savagery until a guru emerges to tell others of the nirvana attainable through rock. Are you lost yet? Because Townshend’s band members certainly were.
After the departure of collaborator Kit Lambert, Townshend was increasingly unable to turn the complex ideas in his head to reality, so the Lifehouse project collapsed, with the traditional album Who’s Next rising from the ashes. Songs from the Lifehouse project have popped up again and again in albums by The Who and Townshend alone, including “Pure and Easy,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Join Together,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
3. Household Objects by Pink Floyd
The members of Pink Floyd first had the idea to create an entire album recorded entirely from household objects, manipulated creatively to achieve the desired sound, in 1971, shortly after the release of their album Atom Heart Mother. They returned to the concept again after the wild success of Dark Side of the Moon before scrapping the album and incorporating a few of its ideas into their proper follow-up, Wish You Were Here. Most of the material written and recorded for this audacious experiment has never been released, save for two tracks titled “The Hard Way” and “Wine Glasses” that showed up on EMI’s Why Pink Floyd? 2011 reissue series.
4. Detox by Dr. Dre
Almost immediately after the release of his confusingly-titled 1999 album 2001, rumors swirled about the next and possibly final release from hip-hop guru and production whiz Dr. Dre, tentatively titled Detox. Hints of the album’s eventual release have been floating around for more than a decade, as Dre pushed the release to 2005, and then to 2010, instead focusing on producing records for other artists on his Aftermath label. Other heavyweight producers were rumored to be involved, including RZA, Jay-Z and Warren G, and Dre offered patient listeners a taste of the long-awaited album in 2010 and ’11 with the respective releases of singles “Kush” and “I Need a Doctor.”
Though collaborators confirmed that at least 10 Detox tracks had been completed and unfinished versions of many have leaked online, Dre finally shelved the release, saying in 2015 that he “had between 20 and 40 songs for Detox, and I just couldn’t feel it.” That same year, fans at least got Dre’s first release since 1999, the acclaimed Compton.
5. Songs from the Black Hole by Weezer
Weezer intended to follow up their self-titled debut album, known colloquially as The Blue Album, with their own science fiction rock opera about songwriter Rivers Cuomo’s ambivalence concerning success as a rock musician, featuring six characters and six singers, including Cuomos himself, providing their voices throughout the album. Cuomos recorded demos for the album in late 1994 before enrolling at Harvard and gaining a darker songwriting edge, which contributed to his trashing the entirety of Songs from the Black Hole for being “too whimsical.” Some remnants of the album popped up on the band’s eventual second LP Pinkerton (1996), including the B-sides “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams” and “Devotion.”
6. Dream Factory by Prince
Prince released four albums with his band The Revolution in the ’80s, including the soundtrack to the band’s musical film Purple Rain, dissolving before they could release their fifth and most collaborative release. Prince, who often recorded nearly every part of his studio albums himself, invited his band into the studio in 1986 to take a more involved role in the planned album Dream Factory. An entire Prince album recorded with a full band was an enticing proposition, especially as the album expanded to a 19-track double LP before Prince disbanded the band in October 1986. Much of the album’s leftovers were repurposed into Prince’s solo double LP Sign o’ the Times. It’s possible we may hear more of the original album now that Prince’s vault of unreleased material has been opened.
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