Last week, we looked at the best songs ever to lead off a debut album. This week, because we believe in the yin and yang of life, we count down the ten best songs to ever close an artist’s final album.
This week’s list is a trickier affair than last week’s, because it’s often difficult to determine when an artist’s career is actually finished. Bands reunite all the time, and retired solo artists make ill-conceived comebacks. Furthermore, while bands often lead off albums with one of their strongest tracks, they usually hide their weakest songs toward the end of an album. So we had to do some digging to find worthwhile entrants. But dig we did. Just don’t expect a lot of “Welcome to the Jungle”-type efforts here.
- To be considered, a song must be the final track on the last full-length studio album of a band’s career. Live albums don’t count, no matter how crucial they may be to understanding an artist’s legacy.
- We’re taking broken-up bands and retired artists at their word. We can’t guess who might reunite or unretire, so for the sake of this list, we’re embracing Pollyanna and believing that no means no.
- Bands that have reunited, however, automatically disqualify their earlier work. So “Classic Girl” is ineligible because Jane’s Addiction had to go and release this turgid piece of crap.
- Lineup changes required judgment calls. When a band lost an essential member (i.e. the main songwriter), I generally considered it the end of that band’s career. Unfortunately, I couldn’t count Bill Berry’s departure from R.E.M. as the end of R.E.M. as we know them.
- “The End” by The Beatles is disqualified. 1
Enough dilly-dallying. On to the countdown.
10. Sleater-Kinney/Night Light
Sleater-Kinney’s farewell album, The Woods, is a solid but unspectacular sendoff, and the same could be said about “Night Light,” which lends a creepy finality to the underrated Portland band’s career.
9. The Doors/Riders on the Storm
“Riders on the Storm” certainly has its detractors, and I’m almost one of them. But the cheesy rain sound effects and tinkling jazz piano are just enjoyable enough for teenagers who don’t know anything about music, and stoners/drunks at 3 a.m. after a long night. Frankly, that’s enough to make the list.
8. Billy Joel/Famous Last Words
Billy Joel was always a bit of a ham-handed lyricist. At his worst (“You’re Only Human,” “Blonde Over Blue”), his lack of subtlety overwhelms even the prettiest melodies. At his best (“Only the Good Die Young,” “Miami 2017”), the simple, direct lyrics are of a piece with his music, and tell moving, if inelegant, stories. “Famous Last Words” is somewhere in between, and it’s fitting that Joel’s purported last pop song is so on-the-nose. And although the imagery is obvious, I’m a sucker for lines like, “They’re pulling all the moorings up and gathering at the Legion Hall.”
7. Pavement/Carrot Rope
Pavement’s career as a recording band died as it lived: silly, inane, catchy as hell, and spitting in the face of those who search for meaning. Malkmus and his crew also earn the distinction of being the only band to appear on both the “best firsts” and “best lasts” countdowns. At least until they record a reunion album and fuck it all up.
6. Creedence Clearwater Revival/Sweet Hitchhiker
John Fogerty barely participated in CCR’s last legitimate album, Mardi Gras, but he did manage to contribute “Sweet Hitchhiker” — one final blast of classic Creedence. From there, Fogerty would bring his talents to a sparse but worthwhile solo career, while Creedence Clearwater Revisited would perform unimaginable acts of terror on an unsuspecting populace.
5. Whiskeytown/Bar Lights
This was a tough one to include, due to the similarity of Ryan Adams’ solo career to Whiskeytown, but the song is so good, and so classic Whiskeytown, that it fought its way onto the countdown. After the musical schizophrenia of most of Whiskeytown’s farewell LP, Pneumonia, “Bar Lights” provides a gentle, lilting segue to Adams’ brilliant Heartbreaker — and it’s the beginning of the end of Adams’ period as an alt-country troubadour.
4. Nirvana/All Apologies
The live album exclusionary codicil hurts Nirvana perhaps more than any other band, because MTV Unplugged in New York’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” would have been an easy number one on this list — it’s a haunting, mesmerizing coda to Nirvana’s career and Kurt Cobain’s life. But “All Apologies” isn’t too shabby either, and it’s a big improvement over Nevermind’s similarly gentle album closer, “Something in the Way.”
3. The Velvet Underground/Oh! Sweet Nuthin’
Lou Reed leaving The Velvet Underground certainly qualifies as a cataclysmic, band-altering event, such that the Velvets’ post-Reed album doesn’t remotely count as a Velvet Underground album at all. I’m among those who count Loaded as the Velvets’ worst album (by far), but “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” provides one of its most beautiful moments. Lyrically, the song’s nothing special, but atmoshpherically, it’s as good as the past-Cale Velvet Underground get.
2. The Faces/Ooh La La
Ronnie Wood can sing! Kind of. Regardless, this is a fantastic song, and a hell of a way to send a band off.
1. Sugar/Explode and Make Up
“Explode and Make Up” is Bob Mould’s masterwork, and that’s really saying something. It’s an alternately howling and mournful look back at a damaged, passionate relationship that also serves as the final song of the career of Mould’s best band. And no, Sugar’s b-sides and rarities compilation that followed File Under: Easy Listening doesn’t count.
Fun Fact: If we pretend The Spaghetti Incident never happened (The Spaghetti Incident never happened — see, that was easy), then the winner of the best first song ever would also hold the distinction of having the worst last song ever:
You wanna step into my world? It’s a sociopsychotic state of bliss. Indeed.
Tune in next week, when we count down the best fifth tracks on artists’ fifth albums! Until then, did I miss any great closing songs?
1 Why? It has nothing to do with Let it Be getting released after Abbey Road. It’s simply too trite a choice, and I don’t like the song at all.