Five great records made by artists at death's door

In light of David Bowie's frankly brilliant Blackstar here is a handful of albums made by musicians who knew their lives were at an end

Five great records made by artists at death's door 1


A semi-obvious one to start, but you can’t beat an ailing Johnny Cash when it comes to dignity in the face of death. Under the astute guidance of producer Rick Rubin, the Tennessee country music linchpin went on a madly productive musical run at the end of his life, releasing five sombre, stately albums that made an asset of his grey-templed, increasingly gothic demeanour. Ain’t No Grave was recorded during the final months of his life.

Poignant lyric: “Well, look way down the river/ And what do you think I see/ I see a band of angels/ And they’re coming after me.”

Five great records made by artists at death's door 2


Not a brilliant album by any stretch of the imagination. Like Captain Planet’s Planeteers, you sort of need all the Ramones present if they’re going to achieve anything spectacular. But it’s compelling to hear someone deal with their own imminent demise through the medium of sunny pop-punk. The Louis Armstrong cover What A Wonderful World went on to be a hit, but this, for our money, is more representative of the album’s jarring (but winning) weirdness.

Poignant lyric: “Sitting in a hospital bed/ I want life/ I want my life/ It really sucks.”

Five great records made by artists at death's door 3


Progressive hip-hop icon James “J Dilla” Yancey recorded 29 of the 33 songs on his Donuts opus from a hospital bed. For an album put together in such restrictive circumstances it’s certainly not lacking energy. Chaotic, creative, restless, detailed – Dilla’s production is all the things that most hip-hop sorely lacks.

Poignant lyric: Dilla chopping up a sample of rapper Jadakiss to make it sound like he’s saying “is death real?”

Five great records made by artists at death's door 4


Less well-known over here, folk-rock singer-songwriter Warren Zevon was and is a big name in the States. Think a slightly more bitter (and worse behaved) Bruce Springsteen. The Wind was his grand parting statement, featuring all of his famous mates pitching in. The track Keep Me In Your Heart represents a satisfying conclusion to a pretty substantial career.

Poignant lyric: “Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house/ Maybe you’ll think of me and smile/ Keep me in your heart for a while.”

Five great records made by artists at death's door


Another album recorded from a hospital bed. The soul music pioneer’s health was so bad at the time that each lyric had to be captured one line at a time to allow the man time to catch his breath. Mayfield’s vocals, sweet and delicate at the best of times, have a rare fragility here that genuinely elevates the whole record.

Poignant lyric: “Keep myself tough enough/ Never to cry/ Don’t really want to die/ How did I get so far gone?”

Subscribe to the Mr Hyde daily email for free here