With the news that REM have gone their own separate ways, we can look at their discography in its entirety — and, in particular, at how their final album Collapse into Now (with its retrospectively portentous cover shot of Michael Stipe waving goodbye) fits into their body of work, the highlights of which have been collected in the box set Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982 – 2011, out today. We really rather like Collapse into Now — it’s definitely better than Around the Sun and Accelerate, and makes for a worthy conclusion to a fine career. But it also got us thinking about bands that really went out with a bang, and so we’ve pulled together a selection of our very favorite final albums. Suggestions are, as ever, welcome. (Just a caveat, though: since the idea is to look at albums that ended relatively lengthy careers, we’re not counting artists who only made one or two albums — so no Closer, Spiderland, Loveless, etc.)
Roxy Music — Avalon
While regular readers might have noticed that we worship rabidly at the altar of Brian Eno, we also have a soft spot for Roxy Music’s post-Eno lounge art, and although they hit something of a slump after Country Life, their final record was a belated return to their best. There’s “More Than This,” of course, and the title track, both of which deserve places in the pantheon of the band’s best songs. But even apart from its two finest moments, Avalon has a stately elegance, and still gets a regular workout on the Flavorpill stereo.
Sleater-Kinney — The Woods
As The Ramones could attest (if they were alive), music can be a thankless mistress — you slave away for years, and people only pay attention once you break up. Sleater-Kinney might feel the same, as they were one of those bands who just got better as they got older, and yet somehow never got anywhere near the recognition they deserved. By the time of The Woods, they seemed to be past caring — “We’re not here because we want to entertain,” snarled Carrie Brownstein on the album’s first single “Entertain” — and the result was what was (with the possible exception of 2002’s One Beat) their finest record. Now they’re gone, and boy, do we wish they were still around.
Elliott Smith — From a Basement on the Hill
Moving into the realms of genuinely posthumous albums, there are few more brilliant or more harrowing than Elliott Smith’s final release, a sprawling 15-track opus that contains some of his best and most heartbreakingly beautiful songs (especially the genuinely discomforting junkie memoir “King’s Crossing” and the almost unendurably sad “Twilight”). Originally planned as a double-CD album, From a Basement on the Hill was still incomplete at the time of Smith’s death, and was thus assembled by his ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme and producer Rob Schnapf. How different the finished product might have been had Smith lived is a question to which we’ll never know the answer — but it’s hard to imagine it being much better.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros — Streetcore
The Clash went out with the meekest of whimpers in the form of their final record Cut the Crap, an album that contained precisely one good song (“This Is England”) and that is these days rarely spoken of in polite company. And while his death in 2002 at the age of only 50 was entirely unexpected and genuinely tragic, Strummer’s Mescaleros at least left the world with arguably his finest post-Clash record. As with From a Basement on the Hill, this was unfinished at the time of its creator’s death, and the final mixes were done by his bandmates. Streetcore‘s probably best known for its excellent cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and for “Long Shadow,” which Strummer originally wrote for Johnny Cash, but there’s really not a bad song here — and the final track, “Silver And Gold,” which finds Strummer listing all the things he wants to do “before I grow too old,” is almost unbearably poignant.
Gil Scott-Heron — I’m New Here
And while we’re on “unbearably poignant,” Gil Scott-Heron’s belated comeback album assumed even greater significance with his death earlier this year. While it’s not the complete creative renaissance those who loved him might have been hoping for — there’s actually not a whole lot of new material here — it’s still a wonderful piece of work, and a fine epitaph for a talent who gave us so much, and could have given us so much more.
Warren Zevon — The Wind
OK, this is the last of the tearjerkers, we promise. Zevon knew he was dying when he recorded The Wind — he’d been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer shortly before he entered the studio, and it was released just two weeks before his death. It’s a measure of Zevon’s ever-caustic sense of humor that he saw fit to include a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” here, finishing the song with a cry of “Open up! Open up!” Truly, we will not see his like again.
At the Drive-In — Relationship of Command
With Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López having been happily ensconced in making virtually unlistenable multi-part prog opuses for a decade now, it’s easy to forget just what a dynamic force their former band was. Crucially, the duo’s experimental leanings were counter-balanced by the punk sensibilities of the rest of At the Drive-In, and their work reached its apogee on Relationship of Command, 45 coruscating minutes of shifting time signatures, dense lyricism, and head-punchingly intense music. (Apparently, according to Rodríguez, the mixes were substantially watered down due to record company pressure, so God only knows what the original must have sounded like.) We were lucky enough to see At the Drive-In on the tour for this record, and it remains one of the very best shows we’ve ever seen. Barely a month later, they were gone.
Nirvana — In Utero
Nevermind shifted all the units, of course, but there’s an argument to be made that it was In Utero that represented the peak of Nirvana’s artistic vision. The way the album thumbed its nose at pretty much anyone and everyone may seem a little contrary and juvenile in retrospect, but it was thrillingly punk rock at the time — and anyway, the deliberately stripped-down production is a perfect fit for some of Cobain’s angriest and bitterest lyrics.
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone — Vs. Children
A reflective final album from Owen Ashworth, bedroom synthpop’s finest auteur. It’s also arguably the best thing he ever made, combining a loose narrative about a bank robber on the run with a series of reflections on how children and/or the lack thereof can affect people’s lives. No one else writes albums like this any more — so we’re looking forward to the first album from Ashworth’s new project Advance Base very much indeed. (In the meantime, we can console ourselves with the new song he’s recently uploaded to Soundcloud.)
The Beatles — Abbey Road
There, now, Beatles fans, we’ve said something nice about your favorite band, and we’re not even going to make a joke about “Octopus’s Garden.” (And yes, we know Let It Be was released after Abbey Road, but this was the band’s final recording. So.)