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As is the case with a few other albums on this list, the songs that make up Prince's super wonderful 1987 album Sign 'o the Times would have been released to the public in one way or another eventually. In those other cases, though, what we ended up getting was usually a superior replacement. I'd argue that's not the case with this album, even if it's one of Prince's best.
For one thing, most of the songs present on Sign o' the Times were supposed to be on an album called Dream Factory, which would have been the last of his albums to feature the Revolution, one of the only bands in music history to feature a practicing doctor (Prince, gynecologist) and a dude dressed as a surgeon (Matt Fink, keyboard).
He's also the lead singer of the Cure.
They were also the backing band for some of Prince's most enduring hits from his 1980s heyday, even when that only meant holding an unplugged electric guitar in the video for a song you didn't know existed until that very moment. But still, Prince + the Revolution usually added up to good times in the '80s. Whatever they brought to the music of Sign o' the Times would have been nice to hear, if nothing else.
There's another argument for why the songs of Sign o' the Times should have been released as intended, though, and it can be summed up in one word: Camille. That's the name of an album Prince recorded shortly after the Revolution was put down. What differentiates it from most Prince albums is that the part where he sounds like a woman is intentional.
If you were my what now?
See, if you're familiar with the Sign o' the Times album, you know that a few songs, like the kind-of-unsettling single "If I Was Your Girlfriend," feature sped-up vocals that sound as if they're being delivered by a woman. I'd love to embed a video for reference purposes here, but this is Prince we're talking about. You will find more video evidence online to support the existence of Bigfoot than you will to support the existence of practically any Prince song.
That's beside the point, though. What I'm getting at is that there are a bunch of songs on Sign o' the Times that inexplicably sound like Prince is singing them while tucking in front of a mirror like Buffalo Bill, and that was supposed to be an entire album. It was to be called Camille, and it came close enough to being released that a date was set (January 1987) and cover art was made. It's never been released to the public but apparently features a stick figure with X's for eyes and only says "Camille" on the cover.
This is not it. Bootleggers make album covers, too.
Because Prince isn't happy if The Man overseeing him is too, just weeks before the album's release, plans for Camille were put on hold in favor of packaging the material from Dream Factory and Camille together into a huge three-disc set with a few new songs under the title Crystal Ball. This time Warner Bros. was less receptive to the plan, because three albums at once is just crazy.
In the name of compromise, Prince cut it down to two discs and probably slapped that apocalyptic title on it more as a statement on his relationship with his record label in light of their refusal to love him unconditionally more than anything else. Whatever the case, it's still a pretty great album.
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Neil Young sometimes makes rash decisions. Case in point, he once just up and left a joint (sounds highly unlikely so far) 1974 tour with Stephen Stills that had been under way for weeks by leaving a note that read, in its entirety:
"Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil."
So no one should be shocked that he sometimes releases and withholds (for decades) entire albums with just as much thought. Take the strange story of his long-unreleased studio album Homegrown. It's never surfaced in its entirety on the bootleg market, like so many other unreleased Neil Young albums have, putting it at a strong number two on the list of things his fans would most like to own (a bong shaped like Neil Young is number one).
What's most frustrating for fans who know of Homegrown and would like to hear it is knowing just how close it came to being released. Unlike the previously mentioned Camille album, not only was the cover art for Homegrown made, but we even know what it looks like:
Yep, that's a Neil Young album.
Even more maddening, Neil Young himself seems to hold the album in pretty high regard, calling it the "missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways, and Harvest Moon." If you're not a huge Neil Young fan, just know that those are mostly all really important albums of his, although he's batshit delusional if he thinks anyone legitimately cares about Old Ways.
No, you don't understand, it's really a country album.
He was even so excited about Homegrown at the time it was completed that he hosted a listening party so friends could check it out. On the same reel of tape as Homegrown was an album he'd finished in late 1973 called Tonight's the Night. When the album everyone had come to hear finished playing, Neil kept the tape going and gave Tonight's the Night another listen. At the conclusion of the accidental experiment, he decided that Homegrown was just too personal and "down" of a record to release, and decided to put out Tonight's the Night instead.
While I fully support that decision on the grounds that Tonight's the Night has always been my favorite Neil Young album, anyone who's familiar with it should have the same question I do. Just how "down" is Homegrown, exactly? I'm only asking because, holy shit, Tonight's the Night is a pretty dark album. It's basically a drug-fueled freak out recorded to commemorate the drug-fueled freak out and eventual death of supremely talented Crazy Horse (Neil Young's backing band, not ... the other guy) guitarist Danny Whitten, a man whose tombstone should be emblazoned with the words "Rod Stewart Did Not Write This Song" above a YouTube embed of this video:
When Neil Young fired Danny Whitten from Crazy Horse over his excessive drug use, he gave him $50 and an airplane ticket back to Los Angeles. The unfortunate legend has it that Whitten used the money to buy heroin and overdosed in a motel room later that night. While that's not completely true (he died from a lethal mix of alcohol and Valium), Young still felt responsible for Whitten's death. So how did he deal with it? By getting higher and drunker than he'd ever been and making a shambles of an album that, upon first listen, will probably strike you as something that shouldn't have been released.
It's sloppy and the sound quality sucks and Neil is trashed for most of the album and, because you know it's all about the death of a friend, even the song that's just about rolling a joint becomes really depressing if you think about it too much.
That's the entire sound of this album. People trying not to think about it too much. For an extra kick in the stomach, the most upbeat song is about going downtown to score drugs, and it features Danny Whitten, the man whose drug overdose everyone on the album is mourning, handling lead vocals.
It's hands down the darkest record Neil Young has ever made, and yet after listening to Homegrown, he was like, "You know, this is kind of a bummer, let's put out that record about the guy I think I might have killed instead."