1. The Beach Boys, SMiLE
Probably the most famous lost album, The Beach Boys' SMiLE was intended as the even-more-complex follow-up to the richly orchestral Pet Sounds, but while bandleader Brian Wilson was able to get the visionary single "Good Vibrations" into the marketplace, the totality of his vision never came into focus. Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks fiddled with several songs, trying to encompass the American musical experience on a 40-minute album, and debating whether to be straightforward or use the collage techniques that had made "Good Vibrations" so stunning. Eventually, the album was canned, and several of its songs—most notably "Cabinessence," "Surf's Up," and "Heroes And Villains"—reclaimed for later Beach Boys albums. In 2004, Wilson recorded a "completed" version of SMiLE on his own, though he mainly stuck to straightforward versions of the songs that he and Parks had finished, and left behind the fragments and multiple reprises that can be heard on several bootlegs and outtakes collections. The SMiLE that's available now is an excellent album, but it isn't the intricate tapestry that Wilson had planned, and even now, Beach Boys fans continue to piece together the scraps from 1966 and '67, to make their own SMiLEs.
2. Prince, Camille
Just ask David Bowie or, um, Garth Brooks: Pop stars love alter egos. In 1986, Prince began working on an album called Camille that was meant to spotlight his weird new obsession: speeding up his voice in the studio to make it sound female (the same way Morrissey created his own fictional backup singer, Ann Coates, in "Big Mouth Strikes Again"). Dubbing himself Camille, Prince recorded eight songs of vocal transvestitism for a self-titled album—but like so many of his projects over the years, the album was dissected before it was ever released, with songs like "Housequake," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," and "Rockhard In A Funky Place" being transplanted into Sign O The Times, The Black Album, and various B-sides and soundtracks. Of course, Camille wasn't the first (nor the last) time Prince would use his virtual nut-strangling technique. In fact, there's a great anthology lurking in there somewhere. The Princess Sessions, anyone?
3. Clipse: Exclusive Audio Footage
When the release of Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury was held up indefinitely, the Virginia duo must have experienced a bone-chilling sense of déjà vu: Their late-'90s Neptunes-produced Elektra debut Exclusive Audio Footage was shelved after a lukewarm reception to its first single, "The Funeral." Much of the album has subsequently found its way onto the Internet, but at the time of its almost-release, The Neptunes weren't anywhere near the commercial force they would become, and Clipse's chilly snowman rap wasn't yet in vogue.
4. The Who, Lifehouse
During The Who's long Tommy tour, guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend started noting the times when he'd launch into a powerful passage and the audience would respond almost meta-consciously. Inspired by that energy—and some chemical additives—Townshend began to conceive of an elaborate film/rock-show/album that would convert audience members' biorhythms into musical themes via synthesizer. He concocted a hard-to-follow science-fiction story about underground rock 'n' roll temples in a dystopian future, and he wrote a few songs about "teenage wastelands," "the new boss," and how it feels to be a villain locked "behind blue eyes."
Unable to get his story across, and unable to realize his the-audience-becomes-the-band vision, Townshend let his bandmates bring him back from the brink of madness, and he reworked some of the music into standalone rock songs. The result was Who's Next, widely considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time. But while the straightforward Who's Next is likely more listenable than what Lifehouse would've been, the absence of songs which later turned up elsewhere—like "Pure And Easy" and "Mary"—make Who's Next feel incomplete in retrospect.
Townshend later tried reviving the Lifehouse project with a new set of songs, and he also commissioned a radio play, included on the box set The Lifehouse Chronicles, alongside a slew of demos. But since there's no way to recreate the state of mind he was in more than 35 years ago, Lifehouse will remain an unrealized pipe dream.
5. Neil Young, Homegrown
In Jimmy McDonough's Neil Young biography Shakey, Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro describes Young's working methods in the '70s as especially scattershot, with the band jumping from session to session without knowing what was going to become of their work. Every now and then, Young would tell Sampedro that he sent an album in to Warner-Reprise, and Sampedro would say, "Oh yeah? What was on it?" And occasionally, Young would submit an album, then yank it back.
Young fans covet the original version of Tonight's The Night, which reportedly has fewer rockers and includes bizarre between-song speeches, and the widely bootlegged Chrome Dreams, an alternate American Stars 'N' Bars that contains studio versions of songs later recorded live for Rust Never Sleeps. And fans especially long to hear Homegrown, a loping country-rock album that Young's Warner bosses were sure would've been a Harvest-level blockbuster, if Young hadn't decided the songs were too personal and scrapped the whole project.
Several Homegrown songs later appeared elsewhere, including the title track, "Star Of Bethlehem," "The Old Homestead," and "Deep Forbidden Lake," but much of the album remains unreleased in any form, and those who've heard the Homegrown Young originally submitted describe it as a moving, tuneful exploration of a relationship in trouble. Young followers rejoiced last year when he announced an "archives" project that would kick off with a box set including the missing Homegrown tracks, but like the long-rumored Decades 2, the first volume of Archives remains on Young's groaning leftovers shelf.
6. Ryan Adams, The Suicide Handbook
Ryan Adams has put out eight solo albums in the last seven years, but he still has more music than his record label knows what do to with. (He currently has a staggering 11 albums worth of unreleased material streaming on his website, under pseudonyms like DJ Reggie, The Shit, and WereWolph.) Perhaps Adams' best-known unreleased album is The Suicide Handbook, recorded in early 2001 after the release of his solo debut Heartbreaker, and shortly before he began work on that record's official follow-up, Gold. It's a spare, acoustic collection, modest in production, but at 21 songs, not in scope. Three tracks eventually ended up on 2002's Demolition, a compilation of Adams' unreleased work (originally envisioned as a box set), and five other songs were re-recorded for Gold. But Adams fans who prefer Heartbreaker's stripped-down sound over Gold's classic-rock embrace (and the stylistic schizophrenia of everything after) wish The Suicide Handbook had seen the light of day in its original form.
7. Minutemen, Three Dudes Six Sides Half Studio Half Live
Post-hardcore trio Minutemen included an insert with their 1985 album 3-Way Tie (For Last), promising that the next album would be a triple-disc set, half of which would consist of a live recording with the set list determined by fan voting. Then guitarist D. Boon died in a van wreck, and the idea was reconceived as Ballot Result, a double-live album that filled the fan requests with archival recordings. As for the "half studio" portion of Three Dudes, it was never begun, though the set of songs that bassist Mike Watt recorded a year later with his new band fIREHOSE—"Chemical Wire" especially—would've sounded fantastic with Boon's chicken-scratch guitar and burly voice.
8. Kamaal The Abstract, Kamaal The Abstract
What do you do when a hip-hop icon abandons hip-hop, stops rapping, trades in his beloved moniker for a trippy new stage name, starts singing, and records an oddball organic jazz-funk album devoid of big-name producers or guest rappers? If you're Arista and the artist in question is revered A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip (or Kamaal The Abstract, as he took to calling himself for the album), you go along with the artist's crazy new sonic direction all the way to releasing press copies of his second solo disc, Kamaal The Abstract (several of which ended up in the hands of A.V. Club staffers) before abandoning the project at the last minute as too uncommercial, no doubt denying your major label thousands of album sales from adventurous/indulgent Tribe fans.
9. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, The Dylan/Cash Sessions
Two of the most imposing icons of the rock era (with Carl Perkins on lead guitar, no less) teamed up in February 1969 and recorded 15 songs in two days, one of which—a cover of "Girl From The North Country"—ended up on Bob Dylan's pastoral country album, Nashville Skyline. Any record with these names on the cover promises more than it can possibly deliver, but Dylan and Johnny Cash willfully play down their legendary status with charmingly amateurish performances of old Cash hits and honky-tonk standards. The artless performances are hardly appropriate for an official release, but The Dylan/Cash Sessions' shortcomings—the forgotten lyrics, sloppy harmonizing, and nonexistent arrangements—make for an endearing bootleg peek at two humbled legends fucking up in the studio.
10. Dave Davies, Untitled Solo Album
Dave Davies released his first official solo album in 1980, long after The Kinks had ceased being appreciably decent. But in the late '60s, at The Kinks' creative peak, he was already ambitious: Squirming under the weight of Ray's genius, Dave made a handful of singles that were in every way the equal of his brother's best. The shambling "Death Of A Clown," with its "whisky-and-gin" refrain and angelic backup vocals, is the most visible, mainly because it wound up on The Kinks' great Something Else, while "Susannah's Still Alive" made the cut of Kink Kronikles. Dave intended them as the core of a solo album that he worked on in 1967, but as the singles tanked, so did his dreams of escaping Ray's shadow, and he soon abandoned his studio sessions. Some of the songs, like "Good Luck Charm" and "All Aboard," surfaced soon after in a live BBC broadcast, and were later tacked on the Good Luck Charm bootleg, but not even Dave's Unfinished Business compilation from 1999 revisited this material. The Great Lost Kinks Album, consisting of unissued tracks from 1966 to 1970, included Dave's plaintive "This Man He Weeps Tonight," but it's never been made clear whether it was intended for his aborted solo record. Stitch the pieces together, though, and it's easy to imagine a world in which Dave completed his album in '67, quit The Kinks, and became the next Van Morrison. Or at least the next Gerry Rafferty.
11. Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind
After taking three years to get 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town out of his head and into record stores, Bruce Springsteen swore that he was going to make his next album quickly, and when he called in The E Street Band for sessions in May 1979, they knocked out a bunch of songs in a hurry, inspired by Springsteen's sudden interest in writing simple, three-minute pop singles. By October of that year, an album had been mixed and mastered: The Ties That Bind, a sprightly 10-song LP that, had it been released, would've been Springsteen's shortest album, and arguably his slightest. In spite of the inclusion of the grim lost-hope ballads "Stolen Car" and "The River" and the haunting anthem "The Price You Pay," The Ties That Bind was dominated by peppy rockers like "Hungry Heart," "Be True," "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," and the title track.
But according to Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, the experience of playing the anti-nuke MUSE concerts over the summer convinced The Boss that he needed to make a bigger statement, so he expanded the curt single-disc The Ties That Bind into the sprawling double-disc classic The River, adding more raucous party songs and more mournful tales of working-class exhaustion. Some of the prolific Ties That Bind/River sessions have been officially released on the box set Tracks (including TTB cast-offs "Be True," "Loose Ends" and the folk-rock version of "Stolen Car"), but the Springsteen vaults still contain hundreds of revelatory alternate takes and dozens of unreleased songs. The original The Ties That Bind features a screaming rockabilly take on "You Can Look," a version of "The Ties That Bind" where Springsteen's vocal goes down at the end of a line rather than up, and a "Price You Pay" with an extra verse. And while those may seem like minor changes, they subtly alter the tone of the record, especially when placed against the we're-in-this-together-babe sentiment of "Be True," "Loose Ends," and the most disappointing River exile, "Cindy," a jangly, ultra-catchy two-minute love song that exemplifies The Ties That Bind's complex faith in—and fear of—romance.