Rest in pop 

Musical ghosts of Christmas past keep clanging their chains

I hear dead people.

To be more specific, dead musicians.

Their voices ring through my speakers. But instead of haunting me, they're sending out holiday gifts. Click on your radio and you'll hear voices from beyond, too.

Each of these deceased hit makers had a single at No. 50 or higher on last week's Billboard Hot 100, the list of the most popular songs in radio rotation:

  • Rocker Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994, groans newly unveiled angst-filled lyrics on "You Know You're Right," from his defunct band's self-titled retrospective, Nirvana.

  • Rapper Tupac, who was gunned down in 1996, spits staccato rhymes on "Thugz Mansion," from the two-disc Better Dayz, further attesting to his position as the afterworld's most prolific act.

  • Aaliyah, R&B's "baby girl," died in a plane crash last year and, like the vampire she played (also posthumously) in Queen of the Damned, she rises from the dead. Her song "Miss You," recorded locally with producer Teddy Bishop, advances the release of her first posthumous album, I Care 4 U, out this week.

  • Atlanta's own baby girl, Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes, also died last year, in a car crash. Her nasal-and-naughty rhymes can be heard on "Girl Talk," TLC's first single off their recently released fourth and final album, 3D.

  • Beatles guitarist George Harrison's posthumous release, Brainwashed, recently debuted on the album charts in the Top 20. A year after Harrison's death from cancer, the Beatle known as the "quiet one" is making himself heard from the grave.



    Fanfare
    As these deceased artists lead their own second-line funeral march onto the music charts, their fans are happy spectators, swinging their parasols to the beat. Enduring fans are keeping the music alive -- those who crave one last riff, one last rhyme, one last refrain.

    On a cold, drizzly Monday night last month, dozens of fans lined up at Tower Records in Buckhead to cop TLC's 3D, released at the stroke of midnight. The faithful had to hear what would likely be the group's final album, given the death of Lopes.

    "I can see this being their best album," said longtime TLC fan Scott Howard, of Atlanta.

    The same night, at South DeKalb Mall, the buzz for 3D wasn't nearly as loud. In fact, many shoppers didn't even know TLC was releasing the CD the next day. Those who knew, at least, were positive about the group's return.

    "If you're a TLC fan, you'll definitely like 3D," said Joe Richards, assistant manager of Peppermint Music.

    And after hearing a new song off 3D, TLC fan Monica Scott, of Atlanta had kind words for surviving members Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas. "There's enough talent between the two where they can make it," Scott says.

    Of course, the best-selling female group of all time doesn't just make it. 3D, perhaps confounding some expectations, doesn't disappointment. Lisa's rhyming on songs such as the first single, "Girl Talk," remains biting and sassy, adding the requisite grit to the sweet and throaty tracks of T-Boz and Chilli. And on the songs without Left-Eye, including the Timbaland-produced "Dirty Dirty" and Raphael Saadiq-produced "So So Dumb," T-Boz and Chilli hold their own.

    But it won't be easy for the ladies to live up to the sales legacy Lisa helped create on previous CDs, particularly with no tour planned. TLC's last album, Fanmail, debuted at No. 1 in 1999 and stayed there for five weeks. It's now one of the best selling hip-hop albums of all time, with at least 6 million units sold. In comparison, 3D debuted at No. 6 and after three weeks fell to No. 24.

    Without Lisa's physical presence, it's a challenge for the members to even market the album for greater sales, according to V-103 morning show host, Frank Ski.

    "When a new album comes out and the entire group is here, they do the promo tours. They do radio tours, the free shows," he says. "They get on television and they perform. It's kind of a difficult thing for them to go through, having this album. But I think the true TLC fans are really supporting them on what they've done."

    As one of TLC's diehard followers, Scott Howard is somewhat ambivalent. "I wish they will go on, because I think that's what Left-Eye would want," he says. "But it's hard to see them by themselves. You can see the sorrow."

    As TLC's surviving members, T-Boz and Chilli admit the emotional pain that comes with listening to Left-Eye in death.

    "Sometimes it's hard, sometimes I can do it -- I'll listen and go, 'Ah, that rap she did was tight!'" T-Boz says in Honey magazine.

    In the same magazine, Chilli says, "After something bad, there's always something good. And not just for us, with Lisa, but like [with] Sept. 11, for the world, and for Aaliyah and her family."



    Requiem
    As eagerly anticipated as 3D, Aaliyah's posthumous I Care 4 U, featuring unreleased tracks and greatest hits, arrives this week.

    Aaliyah's famous friends, including Missy Elliott, have paid homage to their girl by wearing Aaliyah's face airbrushed on T-shirts and jackets. For the upcoming video to "I Miss You," they've honored Aaliyah again by lip-synching to her vocals. It's an easy and potentially effective way to overcome the difficulties of promoting a dead artist's album.

    "The thing that has made music so big now, of course, is the video and the live appearance," says Ski. "I remember when Tupac came out with his first song after he passed, they did a cartoon [for his video]. And it's truly on an individual basis how a record company decides to do it."

    Tupac's sixth and latest posthumous album, Better Dayz, will include a video and some collaborations with living artists such as Trick Daddy and Mya to attract holiday buyers.

    Undoubtedly, no other artist does the posthumous album better than Tupac. He has proven to be the Machiavelli of the musical underworld by ensuring his estate reaps royalties for years to come. In fact, the posthumous albums have made Tupac the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time, with more than 38 million records sold.

    How is it possible for an artist who's been dead for six years to continue releasing so much new material? By incessantly recording before death, of course.

    "Like when Prince passes, his albums will come out forever," says Ski. "Prince may do 100 songs and only put out 12. So where do the other 88 go? They get put in the vault, and then artists record new stuff for a new album because their music is evolving."



    Gift of life
    If the thought of going back and listening to recordings of dead people during the holidays once seemed sort of creepy and depressing, this year it's a seasonal ritual as inevitable as The Nutcracker.

    "With these albums coming out, with new unreleased music or greatest hits that have become so very popular in the past few years, you can still give folks their favorite artist although the musician is no longer with us," says Ski.

    This holiday, who needs the ghost of Christmas past to help you channel dearly departed musicians? Just pick up their latest CDs and make a spiritual connection of your own.

    music@creativeloafing.com

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