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15 Legendary Unreleased Albums

Springsteen’s full-band ‘Nebraska,’ Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ and other shelved projects by major artists

15; Fascinating; Unreleased; Albums; Legendary; Musicians; The Beatles; Bob Dylan; Jimi Hendrix; Jeff Beck

Illustration by Ryan Casey

Unreleased albums offer a tantalizing glimpse of an alternate rock universe just beyond our reach. Ultimately we're drawn to these tales not just for the music – which doesn't always live up to the hype – but because of the people who make it. Behind these projects are stories of some of the greatest artists of all time fighting for their creative vision against a commercialized industry or even their own band members. Sometimes drama isn't the cause: Other projects are simply set aside and forgotten. But rumors of unreleased sessions by Neil Young, the BeatlesBob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, and others live on in the minds of devoted fans determined to hunt down every last note their idols recorded.

Legendary "lost albums" like the Beach Boys' Smile and the Who's Lifehouse have been chronicled in exhaustive detail, but a surprising number of other noteworthy projects remain hidden away in the vaults. Some albums might have changed history, while others might have merely sounded nice. Both are worthy reasons to listen.

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Illustration by Ryan Casey

Paul McCartney, ‘Cold Cuts’ (1974-80)

Paul McCartney and Wings delivered Beatle-sized sales with 1973's Band on the Run, and the label was anxious for a follow-up. A new album wouldn't be ready for the lucrative Christmas season, so they planned to release a collection dubbed Hot Hitz and Kold Kutz (also spelled: Cold Cuts). The double album was to contain one disc of chart-topping singles and a second comprised of unreleased tracks from McCartney's post-Fab career. 

Wings began work on the project in July 1974, polishing old tracks and recording several new songs. But with Band on the Run holding strong on the charts, the stopgap release was deemed unnecessary and the album was shelved. 

McCartney revisited the project several times during the next decade. It nearly saw release as a slimmed-down single disc in 1978, but label suits preferred the Hot Hitz to the Cold Cuts, and it hit shelves as a greatest-hits collection. McCartney returned to the unreleased material yet again in October 1980, compiling a 12-track album that showcased his own musical versatility. The homespun hoedown "Hey Diddle" sits alongside "Best Friend," a searing live cut from Wings' 1972 European tour. "Waterspout" is playful summery synth pop, and a cover of the Fifties ballad "Tragedy" is a haunting highlight.

In many ways the tracks were stronger than his contemporary output. Yet label indifference, the dissolution of Wings and the emotional devastation wrought by John Lennon's assassination caused the album to get lost in the shuffle.

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Neil Young, ‘Homegrown’ (1975)

Neil Young's personal life was in free fall by 1974. His wife, actress Carrie Snodgrass, was gone for good, and attempts to rekindle a working relationship with CSNY only resulted in the aborted Human Highway project and the goodwill-shattering "Doom Tour." It was during this turbulent time that he composed songs for a new record, Homegrown.

"It was intense, like trying to make a record in the middle of 42nd Street, or Vietnam," says producer Elliot Mazer "Here's a guy going through hell, and this is like a fuckin' catharsis for him." Titles like "Frozen Man," "Separate Ways" and "Love-Art Blues" paint a stark portrait of a lonely and heartbroken man. Those who heard the completed album insisted that it was as strong as Young's breakthrough smash, Harvest. Cover art was printed, and label executives braced themselves for a million seller.

And then Young changed his mind. He had assembled friends, including the Band's Rick Danko, at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont to get an opinion on his latest work. As a tape of Homegrown came to an end, a mix of the dark, gritty and unreleased Tonight's the Night came on the stereo by chance.

Danko preferred the raw power of Tonight's the Night to the comparatively delicate Homegrown. Disregarding advice from his label, Young released it instead that June. "[Homegrown] might be more what people would rather hear from me now, but it was just a very down album," he told Rolling Stone at the time. "It was a little too personal. … It scared me."

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The Beach Boys, ‘Adult/Child’ (1977)

After being sidelined for the first half of the seventies by metal illness and drug addiction, Brian Wilson was prodded out of hibernation in 1976 to resume his role as the Beach Boys' producer and resident genius. The resulting albums, 15 Big Ones (1976) and Love You (1977), weren't stellar, but the sessions reestablished his confidence. Wilson threw himself into his next project with a creative fervor rarely seen since his unfinished Smile sessions a decade earlier.

Adult/Child was Brian Wilson's attempt at making a big-band album, with swinging, brassy arrangements scored by Frank Sinatra's own arranger. Wilson's newfound élan is apparent on the album's opening track, "Life Is for the Living," featuring the unforgettable admonishment: "Life is for the living/Don't sit around on your ass/Smoking grass/That stuff went out a long time ago."

For all its ostentatious instrumentation, the songs on Adult/Child offer a surprisingly intimate glimpse of Wilson's days. Uptempo numbers like "H.E.L.P. Is on the Way" lament his "pudgy" frame, and "Lines" documents a mundane trip to the movies. Twin ballads "Still I Dream of It" and "It's Over Now" are as emotionally devastating as anything found on the second side of Pet Sounds.

The music was not well received by the band. Upon hearing the heavily orchestrated demos, Mike Love apparently turned to Wilson in utter disbelief and gasped, "What the fuck are you doing?" They rejected the music, and in its place released the much-maligned M.I.U. Album.

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Marvin Gaye, ‘Love Man’ (1979)

The Motown star was addicted to two things in 1979 – cocaine and his estranged wife, Janis Hunter. Both addictions were wreaking havoc on his music career and listeners flocked to younger stars like Rick James and Prince. "All these boys are romancing my fans and I don't like it," he complained. "I'm getting my fans back. I'm doing a straight-ahead make-out party album."

Wryly titled Love Man, the songs were unabashed attempts to woo his wife as well as his fans. "A Lover's Plea" featured the mournful lines, "If God up above can forgive me then why can't you?" Even the lead single, an unfortunate disco-flecked dance record called "Ego Tripping Out," is a self-lacerating parody of his ladies' man reputation.

The song was not a success, and a $4.5 million tax bill made matters worse. Desperate for money, Gaye hit the road to generate income. He only made it through several lukewarm performances before he pulled out, drawing lawsuits from concert promoters. Crippling debts forced him to declare bankruptcy, and he attempted suicide by snorting an ounce of cocaine.

Gaye survived and made attempts to put his life in order. To distance himself from this unhappy period, he began work on a new project, In Our Lifetime. "No matter how much money Motown would give me to release Love Man, I couldn't do it," he told Ritz. There were rumors that he wanted to revisit the album, but those hopes died with him in 1984.

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The Clash, ‘Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg’ (1981)

The Last Gang in Town were beginning to splinter by the fall of 1981, as frontman Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones butted heads over the band's sonic direction. Strummer preferred down and dirty rock & roll, while Jones wanted to continue exploring the world-music trends present on their recent work. Assuming the role of producer, Jones proposed an ambitious double album with the working title The Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg.

Recorded primarily in New York City, the album's final mix clocked in at 80 minutes. Heard today, the tapes are a fascinating amalgam of the band's wide spectrum of influences: Hints of hip-hop, surf rock, calypso, funk, New Wave and Afrobeat shimmer throughout, shrouded in the electronic haze of Jones' echo-y production. It might not have been their best album, but it's certainly among their most interesting artistic statements.

But the response from Jones' bandmates was overwhelmingly negative. "Does everything have to be a bloody raga?!" their manager fumed when he heard the sprawling tracks. Labeling it self-indulgent and rambling, Strummer hired superproducer Glyn Johns to whip Rat Patrol into a more commercial single disc. Johns axed five songs completely, trimmed five more by two minutes each and stripped away much of the heavy production. At 46 minutes, the Clash had their single-disc rock album. It was released in May 1982, under the fitting title Combat Rock.

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Bruce Springsteen, ‘Electric Nebraska’ (1982)

The album that became Nebraska began as an acoustic sketch recorded in Springsteen's New Jersey home during the first week of January 1982. Using a "Portastudio" cassette recorder, he taped guitar and vocal demos (with minimal overdubs) for 15 tracks to be fleshed out with the E Street Band. These songs were more downbeat and macabre than his previous work, reflecting Springsteen's malaise as he grappled with family difficulties and the isolation of superstardom.

Springsteen and the band convened in a New York City studio the following month to give these intimate songs the full E Street treatment. As work progressed, the Boss grew dissatisfied with the heavily orchestrated takes. "They overruled the lyrics," he told Uncut. "It didn't work. Those two forms didn't fit. The band comes in and generally makes noise, and the lyrics wanted silence." He decided that the delicate demo tapes suited the music far better than barroom bombast. The studio recordings were scrapped, and Springsteen released 10 tracks from his home sessions as Nebraska.

For decades it was unclear exactly just how much work had been completed on the so-called Electric Nebraska, but drummer Max Weinberg recently confirmed that the album does exist. "The E Street Band actually did record all of Nebraska, and it was killing," he revealed to Rolling Stone. "It was all very hard-edged. As great as it was, it wasn't what Bruce wanted to release. There is a full-band Nebraska album – all of those songs are in the can somewhere."

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