10 of Music’s Best Late-Career Albums

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Yesterday, we finally got to hear the first single from Lou Reed and Metallica’s forthcoming album. And it was just as bad as we feared it would be, coming off as little more than an ill-conceived vanity project by two very different acts that are both past their prime. Late-career albums like this one are often the target of disappointment and criticism, partially because the music industry is such a transitory place — audiences and record companies alike are always on the lookout for the next big thing, on whom attention is focused for a couple of years before the spotlight shifts away. This isn’t always entirely unwise, mind you: artists often make their best work at the start of their careers, when their ideas are fresh and their minds are relatively clear. But this isn’t always the case, and there have been some fine albums made long after the hype machine has upped and moved onto the next Next Big Thing. Here’s a selection of our favorite late-career flourishes. There must be loads more, so let us know who else you reckon should be included.

Ween — Quebec

A decade after “Push the Little Daisies” and nearly 20 years after they first met in an eighth-grade classroom, Dean and Gene Ween released what remains arguably the best album of their career in the form of 2003’s Quebec. It struck a fine balance between Ween’s madcap tendencies and a new… well, we hate to call it “maturity,” but there’s certainly a reflective and restrained air on Quebec that was largely lacking on their earlier albums, and the record’s all the better for it. More’s the pity, then, that this album seems to remain a hidden gem (the songs are all on YouTube, and all have about 1,000-6,000 plays each). It really deserves a wider audience.

John Cale — HoboSapiens

While his old bandmate Lou Reed’s best solo albums were most definitely made in the 1970s (with the possible exception of 1989’s New York), there’s an argument to be made that for all the excellence of John Cale’s work over the years, his single best record is this one. Released in 2003, HoboSapiens found Cale gleefully exploring a new sonic landscape (Uncut ran a detailed review at the time explaining how the then-cutting edge ProTools shaped the album’s sound — unfortunately, we can’t find said review online). Anyway, the album also contained Cale’s best set of songs since his 1982 masterpiece Music for a New Society, and the combination of loops, breakbeats and lyrics that address Zen, René Magritte, and the war in Afghanistan still makes for consistently fascinating listening.

Rowland S. Howard — Pop Crimes

Like Cale, ex-Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard’s career followed a trajectory that brought him less commercial success than his former lead vocalist, Nick Cave, but arguably a great deal more musical interest. His wonderful 2000 solo debut Teenage Snuff Film was one of the albums of the decade and deserves a place in the record collection of anyone with ears, but we’ll focus here on his 2009 record Pop Crimes, an album that would sadly prove to be his last (he died from liver disease in early 2010). As valedictories go, it’s a sad, wonderful record — full of defiance (particularly his cover of Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”) and desperate vigor. Like the album we’ll look at next, it’s a fitting epitaph but also a frustrating one, a reminder that this was an artist taken from us when he had a great deal more to give.

Gil Scott-Heron — I’m New Here

Although it didn’t exactly contain a heap of new material, clocking in at only 28 minutes long and leaning heavily on covers and reworked older songs, I’m New Here nevertheless marked a spectacular late-career renaissance for an artist who had languished in a drug-addled wilderness for years. Scott-Heron’s vocals sounded somehow all the more inspiring for their fractured world-weariness, while Richard Russell’s was innovative without ever threatening to draw attention away from what mattered: the rebirth of a man who had appeared lost to music forever. Sadly, it wasn’t to be — Scott-Heron died earlier this year — but I’m New Here is a fine record to remember him by.

Laurie Anderson — Homeland

While her husband is busy messing around with Metallica, Laurie Anderson is creating some of the most vital and contemporary music of her career. Last year’s album Homeland was never going to bother the charts, but those savvy enough to pay it the attention it deserved were rewarded with a hugely intelligent and remarkably ambitious piece of work, an album that’s both political and personal, with lyrics that address the state of America and its role in the 21st century, accompanied by music that encompass everything from Tuvan throat singers to cameos from Antony and Kieran “Four Tet” Hebden. As Pitchfork’s review of Homeland noted, at the age of 64, Anderson is “still broadcasting from the day after tomorrow.”

Brian Eno — Small Craft on a Milk Sea

You may have noticed that we’re shameless Eno worshippers here at Flavorpill, and as such, it’s no surprise that we loved Small Craft on a Milk Sea. But we can also see why others are less enamored of the man than we are, and crucially, if we had to recommend one post-’70s Eno solo album to such types, it’d be this one. While it’s all instrumental, its songs are largely brief, effective, and disinclined to overstay their welcomes. The result is a record that’s atmospheric and evocative, sonically interesting enough to command the attention of devotees and focused enough to retain the interest of casual listeners.

Roxy Music — Avalon

And speaking of Eno, while we’re always going to prefer the Roxy Music albums that featured the keyboard genius to those that didn’t, we’re certainly also big fans of Avalon, which remains perhaps the best embodiment of Bryan Ferry’s vision for the band. The opening “More Than This” and the title track are rightly acclaimed as classics, but there are plenty of other fine moments on Avalon, and the album as a whole represents a belated return to form for the band after the relatively uninspired Manifesto and Flesh & Blood.

Tom Waits — Alice

Like Eno, Waits hasn’t really made a bad record since… well, ever, really. But still, there’s something especially wonderful about this album, which featured a series of songs written for Robert Wilson’s Alice In Wonderland-themed play and marked the end of what was the closest thing Waits has ever had to a fallow period. It was the double release of this and Blood Money that ushered in Waits’ stellar 2000s, and while the albums that followed (including Real Gone and the sprawling Orphans box set) are excellent, we’ll always have a particular soft spot for Alice.

R.E.M. — Reveal

Now that they’ve sadly gone their separate ways, it seems an appropriate time to assess R.E.M.’s career as a whole. The question we’re hoping might get answered in among all this reflection and reassessment is: why does no one like Reveal? In our opinion, it was the band’s best record since New Adventures in Hi-Fi and is the winner in the race for the title of R.E.M.’s Best Post-Bill Berry Record. It features songs that’d stand with any in the band’s back catalogue (particularly “I’ve Been High” and “Beachball”), along with a radio-friendly single in “Imitation of Life” and, most importantly, a sense of cohesiveness that much of the band’s later work lacked. Reveal is a real summer album, full of lyrical references to dragonflies and songs that evoke long, hot nights, and it still gets a regular workout on our stereo — if it’s sat untouched on your shelf for years, we highly recommend getting it down and giving it another try.

Johnny Cash — American III

Really, Cash’s entire decade with American Recordings was a sustained late-career flourish, but we’re particularly fond of this record because it contains excellent covers of two of our all-time favorite songs — a suitably apocalyptic rendition of Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” and a bruised take on Will Oldham’s “I See A Darkness” (with Oldham himself on backing vocals). American IV (aka “The One With ‘Hurt’ On It”) may have sold more copies, and American I may have been the album that relaunched his career, but this is the late-career Cash record to which we find ourselves coming back again and again.