Chris Willman
October 11, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Recording artists whose albums get shelved by the labels that commissioned them might go through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And then, of course, if the damned thing actually comes out 15 years or more later, shock.

No one decreed that all time capsules should be opened in the fall of ’96, but by coincidence, four legendarily buried albums from roughly the same period are just now getting ”unshelved”: Karen Carpenter’s self-titled solo album (from 1980), Donna Summer’s I’m a Rainbow (1981), Frank Zappa’s Lather (1977), and Jules and the Polar Bears’ Bad for Business (1980). Like fine wines, these albums have all gotten…older, anyway.

”Is it dated?” asks Phil Ramone, who produced Carpenter’s album. ”Of course. Was ’79 a particularly interesting year in music?” He hedges. ”It was the height of the Donna Summers, the dance craze. With the two or three tracks that represented that, Karen and I felt it was okay to do that, because she wanted to not be out of step. She didn’t want to just be Miss Ballad. Sometimes you try on clothes that others don’t see you wearing. But I felt more free about her than other people did. I really adored Karen — it was like an adventure of taking somebody out of Disneyland into the real world.”

Jules Shear’s Polar Bears broke up after Columbia refused to release their prophetically titled third album. Now an acclaimed solo artist, Shear recently sent a copy of the tape to a pal at Sony who had no idea a former regime had banished it to the vault; the release was easily set in motion. Laughs Shear, ”I don’t think those people who said ‘We’re not putting this out because it’s too weird’ are still in the music business. I don’t know if that proves anything, but I’m happy to say I’ve outlasted them.”

Some artists fight to get their unreleased albums back — like critics’ fave Tonio K., whose best record, Persistence of Memory, was canned by A&M in 1990; he recently wrote the label, imploring ”To quote Moses: Let my (record) go!” But some acts do their own shelving — like Sheryl Crow, who had A&M can her too-slick 1992 debut, or Neil Young, who had a ’70s habit of pulling projects like Odeon Budokan and Homegrown before release. ”When somebody like Neil or Prince so much as mentions an album and it never comes out, it achieves mythical proportions,” notes Pete Howard, publisher of the CD newsletter ICE. ”Of course, none can live up to their myths. Witness the Beach Boys’ Smile — if that poor thing ever comes out, there’ll be a lot of disappointed fans.”

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