Last week, I counted down the best first songs of a band’s career. Unfortunately, I forgot that The Dilemma had already covered the same ground over a year earlier (boy, how time flies here at P.C.H.A.) With only three overlaps, it’s up to you to decide whose is better (hint – clearly mine, although overlooking Just Like Honey was unforgivable.)
In an effort to come up with an original top ten list, I’ve decided to look in the opposite direction. As key as the opening song is to a great album, the final song may be even more important. It’s the last thought that the band leaves you with, the notes that linger in the air after the record ends. Whereas an opening song wants to propel the album forward, a final song should both make you reflect on what you’ve just heard and whet your appetite to hear it again.
Unlike first songs, which can be great even on a subpar album, a great final song is normally a sign of an album with depth. Only a confident band that’s shaping a cohesive work holds a great song until the very end. In doing so, they signal an album worth taking seriously.
Let’s take a look at the best ever.
The Runners-Up (11-20)
Train In Vain – The Clash – London Calling
Scenario – A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
Desolation Row – Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
Champagne Supernova – Oasis – What’s The Story, Morning Glory
Rock N’ Roll Suicide – David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Fight The Power – Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet
Can’t Hardly Wait – The Replacements – Pleased To Meet Me
All Apologies – Nirvana – In Utero
Hurt – Nine Inch Nails
How A Resurrection Really Feels – The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
10.) Different But The Same – Ben Kweller – On My Way
Ben Kweller may have flown under the radar for most of his career, but very few songwriters can pull off sincerity as well as he can without seeming cliched. This ending to his best album straddles the edge of sentimentality, but ultimately proves to be stirring instead.
9.) A Murder Of One – Counting Crows – August and Everything After
Not only does August and Everything After have an opening song that both The Dilemma and I agree is one of the Top Ten career openers, but it has a perfect final song. Adam Duritz’s plaintiff wails of “You don’t want to waste your life” are guaranteed to make you regretful at any age.
8.) Say Yes – Elliot Smith – Either/Or
It certainly doesn’t seem that Elliot Smith has gotten the dead rock star bounce since he stabbed himself twice in the chest. Either/Or stands as the masterpiece in a strong career, with Say Yes a good example of the wisdom of ending a somber album on a high note.
7.) Explode and Make Up – Sugar – File Under Easy Listening
Sugar was the ’90s version of The New Pornographers, a band whose lack of mainstream success despite their obvious accessibility and awesomeness proves either a.) the American people have no taste, or b.) record companies have no clue (and probably both). While not their strongest album, their final album has both the best final song in a band’s career, and the second-best one-two final punch ever (Explode and Believe What You’re Saying). That Explode and Make Up isn’t on YouTube should shame the Internet.
6.) You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Rolling Stones
I’m tempted to put Salt of the Earth from Beggars Banquet here, but when I separate You Can’t Always Get What You Want from the overkill of the number of times I’ve heard it in my life, it’s clearly the best Rolling Stones album ender. A perfect combination of the Stones’ jaded sensibilities and ability to write a great tune. It also serves a fitting ending to the Brian Jones era.
5.) Easy/Lucky/Free – Bright Eyes – Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
In 2005, Conor Oberst came out with two great albums featuring almost perfect endings. As good as I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’s Road To Joy is, I’m giving the nod to the final song on Digital Ash. A great conclusion to an album about technology and loss, Easy/Lucky/Free is one of the best songs ever recorded about death, managing to be both intellectually honest and comforting.
4.) Brothers In Arms – Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms
That Mark Knopfler chose to name his biggest album after a song he put last shows that he knew he was bringing some shit. In a similar vein to LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends, it has the ability to make you wistful for all the people that have passed through your life, even if they’re sitting right next to you at the time. Plus, it was used in one of the greatest television scenes of all time.
3.) A Day In The Life – The Beatles – Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
In addition to having the best five-year run in music history, The Beatles also produced the first great end-of-album song (the only argument seems to be the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds-ender Caroline, No, which I would classify as good, not great). Sgt. Pepper cemented the album as the most important musical art form (a distinction it held until recently, when the Internet ruined everything). A Day In The Life proved that all the stuff that made Sgt. Pepper cohesive wasn’t just a gimmick, but a new way forward.
2.) Reservations – Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
It’s easy to understand why Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would send a record executive over the edge on first listen. That Jeff Tweedy would choose to mask one of his most straightforward and touching songs in 7+ minutes of feedback must have seemed like lunacy. But it’s the perfect ending to the album, which goes to great lengths to make the listener search for the core of its songs.
1.) Find The River – R.E.M. – Automatic For The People
Automatic For The People has plenty of songs that could have been good album-enders, but the one-two punch of Nightswimming and Find The River provides the best conclusion in album history. The perfect example of the kind of thoughtfulness that some great albums can leave you with.