A few weeks back, we surveyed the art of the album opening track, putting together a pretty exhaustive list of our 50 favorites and generally opining on what makes for an effective introductory song. The flipside to this, quite literally, is the closing track, and so we’ve put together a similarly epic list of songs that demonstrate how to finish an album in style. There are several distinct genres here — the epic flare-out, the unexpected left turn, the reflective ballad — but they all share one characteristic: making you want to hit “play” again immediately.
Ash — “Darkside Lightside” (from 1977, 1996)
Not so much the song, although it’s great — this one earns its place for the closing “Sick Party,” a secret track that arrives some ten minutes after “Darkside Lightside” itself and features a recording of one of the band’s friends vomiting repeatedly on cue. True story: the first time I listened to this record, I left it playing and went off to school, blissfully unaware that the sound of chundering Irishmen had frightened the hell out of my mother about 15 minutes later.
The Beatles — “A Day in the Life” (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
Credit where it’s due — “A Day in the Life” is a strong contender for the title of Best Beatles Song, and it’s a strong end to an album that, in your correspondent’s opinion, has never quite deserved its place in the boomer pantheon. This is a 24-carat classic, though, especially the crazy crescendo ending (which is apparently the sound of all four band members bashing away at grand pianos).
David Bowie — “The Bewlay Brothers” (from Hunky Dory, 1971)
A fine example of the Weird Final Track genre. The second side of Hunky Dory is dominated by tributes to Bowie’s famous influences, but this one is of a more personal nature: it’s about his half-brother Terry Burns, who suffered from schizophrenia and would commit suicide in 1985. Or, at least, it’s somewhat inspired by Burns — the lyrics and imagery are strange and surreal, and it segues into an outro that’s one of the great musical non sequiturs. All together now: “Lay me plate and bake me pie/ I’m starving for me gravy!”
Jeff Buckley — “Dream Brother” (from Grace, 1994)
There are distinct similarities between this and “The Bewlay Brothers,” actually — both end their respective albums on strangely incongruous notes, and both discuss troubled relationships with members of the songwriter’s immediate families. In Buckley’s case, it was his father Tim — “the one who made me so old, the one who left behind his name” — who serves as an example to the friend to whom this lyric was addressed, who was apparently considering leaving his pregnant girlfriend.
The Chemical Brothers — “The Private Psychedelic Reel” (from Dig Your Own Hole, 1997)
This really is like having your own private psychedelic experience — an overwhelmingly positive one, too.
Clipse — “Nightmares” (from Hell Hath No Fury, 2006)
There are surprisingly few great hip hop closing tracks — as a rule, albums tend to be frontloaded and often peter out into an aimless swamp of skits and general pissing about. Not Hell Hath No Fury, though, which allies deceptively pretty production to a lyric about paranoia and how fame only serves to make you a target for people who want what you have.
Nick Drake — “Saturday Sun” (from Five Leaves Left, 1969)
Several of the songs on this list capture moments of fleeting beauty at the end of records that are largely sad and/or downbeat. So it goes with this, which is perhaps the prettiest song Drake ever wrote — it’s just like the English summer sun, soft and ephemeral and gorgeous while it lasts.
The Drones — “Sixteen Straws” (from Gala Mill, 2006)
Gala Mill feels like it could (and perhaps should) close on the uncharacteristically jolly cover of Karen Dalton’s “Are You Leaving?” Instead, though, there’s this: an eight-minute reinterpretation of a traditional ballad, a song that catalogs the brutal history of Australia’s penal colonies and the poor souls who inhabited them. It’s as intense as one man and an acoustic guitar can get.
Brian Eno — “Here Come the Warm Jets” (from Here Come the Warm Jets, 1974)
The title might have referenced Eno’s alleged fondness for, um, watersports, but the guitars on this track really do sound like jets of the aeronautical variety. Which is really all I have to say about them, because it’s kind of impossible to discuss them further without resorting to water-based metaphors, and… ewwwwww.
Marianne Faithfull — “Why D’Ya Do It?” (from Broken English, 1979)
In which Faithfull tears strips off Mick Jagger for cheating on her. Be very, very grateful you weren’t on the other end of this particular tirade.
Gowns — “Cherylee” (from Red State, 2007)
Bleak optimism is something of a theme for this list, and this is perhaps the most compelling depiction thereof out of all of them. It’s a song about confronting your addictions and your trauma and your past, and hopefully, coming out the other side: “You gotta look it in the eyes and say that I don’t believe/ You gotta hold it underwater so you see where it bleeds/ You gotta stare into this mirror ’til you name this disease/ You gotta know.”
Isaac Hayes — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (from Hot Buttered Soul, 1969)
The word “epic” might as well have been invented for this track, in which Hayes reinvents Glen Campbell’s original as a slow-burning, tear-jerking soul ballad. For full effect, you really should listen to the album version, which features Hayes’ eight-and-a-half-minute spoken-word intro.
Jimi Hendrix — “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” (from Electric Ladyland, 1968)
That riff, though.
Interpol — “Leif Erikson” (from Turn on the Bright Lights, 2002)
Look, sure, Interpol’s debut album was po-faced and humorless. It was pretentious. It was proudly, unabashedly ridiculous (“HEY LOOK IT STOPPED SNOWING!” — OK, Paul Banks, if you say so)… and occasionally, it was brilliant. The closing “Leif Erikson,” which took its name (for no apparent reason) from the Norse explorer who may well have discovered America, was all these things in one song. It mixes lyrics of all-caps portent (“Her rabid glow is like braille to the night,” indeed) with an often ridiculous turn of phrase (“Well then hook me up and throw me, baby cakes, ‘cos I like to get hooked”) and the occasional piece of truly impressive banality (“I picture you and me together in the jungle/ It would be OK”). And somehow, it works. Maybe Paul Banks really is a misunderstood genius, and future generations will laugh at us all.
LCD Soundsystem — “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” (from Sound of Silver, 2007)
Dear god — if only James Murphy circa 2007 could have seen Williamsburg circa 2014.
Led Zeppelin — “When the Levee Breaks” (from Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
A fine example of the Unexpected Ending genre. The lovely “Going to California” seems like the perfect closing track, bringing the album to a serene conclusion… and then that drum beat thunders in, signaling that, no, you’ve actually got another seven minutes of music to go, and it concerns the sort of apocalyptic flood that’d have Noah checking his caulking twice over. Excellent.
The Magnetic Fields — “Zebra” (from 69 Love Songs, 1999)
It takes something special to close an album of, yes, 69 love songs — and this is perfect. It’s a sort of faux-Parisian accordion ballad about, well, wanting a zebra. Because who doesn’t want a zebra?
Manic Street Preachers — “William’s Last Words” (from Journal for Plague Lovers, 2009)
Given that this album’s lyrics were put together from works left behind by the Manics’ lost lyricist, Richey Edwards, the immediate temptation on hearing this song is that it’s a suicide note. But really, if anything it’s more like Terry Jacks’ similarly heartbreaking “Seasons in the Sun” — it’s a beautiful farewell from someone who knows their end is near. If only everyone had a chance to say goodbye.
Bob Marley and the Wailers — “Redemption Song” (from Uprising, 1980)
Marley’s final album (not counting the posthumous Confrontation) was largely lackluster in comparison to his work during the 1970s, but this song… wow. It’s all the more powerful for being the last song the world would hear from Marley in his lifetime.
John Maus — “Believer” (from We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, 2011)
Only the inimitable John Maus, I venture, could write a song that contains the lines “Jackie Chan flashing all across the world/ Hulk Hogan flashing all across the world” and have the end result sound both inspiring and downright moving. Related: where is John Maus? And where is his new album?
mclusky — “Support Systems (from The Difference Between You and Me Is That I’m Not On Fire, 2004)
Also on the topic of idiosyncratic lyricists, this is an epic from the pen of Andy Falkous, the man who’s composed a slew of lyrics that manage to be simultaneously bewildering, intimidating and hilarious. This song contains at least one classic Falkous verse — “Think of death as a medium-sized yellow robot/ That should help” — and also some profound, if decidedly acerbic, meditations on life.
M.I.A. — “Galang” (from Arular, 2005)
A manifesto of sorts for the signer who was at the time the freshest on the scene. It’s a portrait of London street culture, speaking the slang and keeping your ear to the ground. It also, however, serves as a comment on the impossibility of blending into mainstream society if you’re different to the norm — black, or queer, or whatever else: “Work is gonna save you/ Pray and you will pull through/ Suck a dick’ll help you/ Don’t let em get to you/ If he’s got one you get two/ Backstab your crew/ Sell it I could sell you.”
Mogwai — “Mogwai Fear Satan” (from Young Team, 1997)
There are many songs that reference Satan, and very few that sound like they might actually pique the Dark One’s interest. This qualifies on both counts.
Nine Inch Nails — “Hurt” (from The Downward Spiral, 1994)
Sure, everyone these days knows Johnny Cash’s cover — but Christ, the original is even more depressing. What a note on which to end a record, eh?
Nirvana — “All Apologies” (from In Utero, 1993)
I would have actually picked “Something in the Way,” except for the presence of the hidden track “Endless Nameless,” which spoils both the end of Nevermind and this list. But then, “All Apologies” is also great. While “Endless Nameless” aims to fuck shit up, “All Apologies” is more subtle — the verse riff is almost mockingly melodic (especially after the songs that precede it), and the lyric is shot through with ambiguity, managing to be simultaneously sincere and sarcastic. The image of burning out in the sun, of course, is lent a whole lot more weight by Cobain’s suicide note.
Placebo — “Burger Queen” (from Without You I’m Nothing, 1998)
Another secret track, this time the gloriously titled “Evil Dildo,” which features a bunch of threatening (and disturbing) messages someone left on Brian Molko’s answering machine. If you reckon secret tracks don’t count, that’s fine, because “Burger Queen” is also great, discussing the travails of a drug-addicted trans woman in Luxembourg. (I’m fairly sure I remember reading an interview wherein Molko described it as “the most depressing subject I could think of,” or something to that effect.)
The Pogues — “And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda'” (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, 1985)
“Waltzing Matilda,” if you don’t know, is a traditional Australian folk ballad. In the context of this song, it’s bitterly sad, given that the song catalogs the demise of Australian soldiers sent to their death at Gallipoli in 1915. It’s an interesting cover choice for the Pogues to close their 1985 magnum opus, serving both as a anti-war anthem and a discussion of the cultural ties between Ireland and Australia.
Prince — “Purple Rain” (from Purple Rain, 1984)
Clearly. (And no, of course it’s not on YouTube.)
Pulp — “Bar Italia” (from Different Class, 1995)
Wait, one more true story: your correspondent moved to London in 1998 as a very innocent 19-year-old, and the very first thing I did was go to Soho in search of Bar Italia. I found it — and also got chased around by a pimp trying to sell me “very nice girls.” It was terrifying.
Radiohead — “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (from The Bends, 1995)
Radiohead are well stocked for excellent album closers — apart from this, “The Tourist” from OK Computer, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” from Kid A, and “Videotape” from In Rainbows spring to mind immediately. But still, this is the best of them all. And “immerse your soul in love” is a rather lovely sentiment with which to leave the listener.
Lou Reed — “Sad Song” (from Berlin, 1973)
Berlin is one of the most harrowing albums you’ll ever hear, so it’s remarkable that there’s any shock value left by the time you arrive at the end of side B — by the time you get there, you’ve been through tales of addiction, domestic abuse, suicide, and a woman having her children forcibly taken from her. But in some ways, it’s the casual brutality of this lyric that’s most shocking of all — it finds the male narrator abandoning his wife, concluding, “I’m gonna stop wasting my time/ Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.” Ugh.
Sex Pistols — “EMI” (from Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977)
What better way to sign off history’s most famously misanthropic record than by metaphorically pissing on the doorstep of the record company that refused to release it?
Slint — “Good Morning, Captain” (from Spiderland, 1991)
In which Slint repurpose Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner for hardcore fans the world over.
Elliott Smith — “Say Yes” (from Either/Or, 1997)
Perhaps the most beautiful song that Smith ever wrote, which is saying something. It’s perhaps all the more emotive because, unlike so many of Smith’s other songs, it’s happy — bruised, hung over and bleary-eyed, perhaps, but just for a moment, happy. It’s like the sun peeking through the clouds for a brief moment on a gray day — its beauty is all the more compelling for how fleeting it is.
Sonic Youth — “The Diamond Sea” (from Washing Machine, 1995)
Really, has anyone listened to anything else from Washing Machine in the last 20 years?
Sparklehorse — “Gasoline Horseys” (from Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, 1995)
Not even three minutes long, and yet it embodies the spirit of Sparklehorse’s wonderful debut record: the sound of a broken radio, then a spidery melody that’s so fragile that it’s barely there, lyrics that are as surreal as they are beautiful, and Mark Linkous’ voice, so quiet and intimate that it feels like he’s singing for you and you alone.
The Stone Roses — “I Am the Resurrection” (from The Stone Roses, 1989)
There’s been plenty written over the years about how Ian Brown’s proclamation in this song that he was, indeed, the resurrection, was the spark that started the renaissance of British music in the early ’90s. That may well be true, but it ignores just what a nasty piece of work the rest of the lyric is — the chorus might be all resurrection and light, but the verses contain lines like, “I wish you’d learn/ You’re a no one, nowhere washed up baby who’d look better dead.” It’s a great song, though.
Spiritualized — “Cop Shoot Cop” (from Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, 1997)
Seventeen minutes and 14 seconds of cathartic intensity, building from a gentle piano vamp into a relentless juggernaut of white noise. It’s the perfect conclusion to an album that traces the trajectory of a failed love affair, descending into a haze of drug abuse and self-destruction before emerging, bruised but optimistic, at the other end.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros — “Silver and Gold” (from Streetcore, 2003)
Like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (which, spookily enough, Strummer covered on Streetcore), this song is all the more poignant because of Strummer’s unexpected death from heart failure halfway through the album sessions. The song itself is a cover of Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old,” and it’s all the sadder because of its air of bruised optimism: “Oh I do a lotta things I know is wrong/ Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone/ It’ll take a lot of prayers to save my soul/ And I got to hurry up before I grow too old.”
Suede — “Still Life” (from Dog Man Star, 1994)
Dog Man Star is a dramatic, theatrical record from start to finish, but this closing track goes above and beyond on both counts. It sounds like something Andrew Lloyd Webber might write, if he ever composed a musical about doing perilous quantities of drugs in a basement flat in London.
Super Furry Animals — “Mountain People” (from Radiator, 1997)
A quiet, reflective ballad about isolation and the joys of solitude. And then it turns into an ear-bleeding techno meltdown. Huzzah.
Talking Heads — “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” (from Speaking in Tongues, 1983)
The melody in question really does sound naïve — it’s breezy, cheerful, and somehow innocent, none of which are really words one tends to associate with David Byrne. This is a curious choice to conclude a record — if anything, you’d think its bright, optimistic notes might make for a great album opener — but it works a treat.
Television — “Torn Curtain” (from Marquee Moon, 1977)
Seriously, though, why has no one ever used this over the closing credits for a film?
U2 — “Love Is Blindness” (from Achtung Baby, 1991)
“Haunting” is a word that gets thrown around an awful lot more than it should in relation to music, but this is surely the most bleakly beautiful ballad that U2 ever wrote (a bigger compliment than it might sound if you’re only familiar with the band because of colored sunglasses and political grandstanding). The lyrics are startlingly good, but even better is that guitar solo — it’s emotive and sad and, yes, haunting.
The Velvet Underground — “Sister Ray” (from White Light/White Heat, 1968)
The original extended meltdown. Apparently the producer for this session walked out in despair after the band turned everything up to 11 and proceeded to make the most unholy racket anyone had ever heard in 1968. Oh, and the lyric concerns a murder that everyone else in the song is too wasted on heroin to pay much attention to.
Tom Waits — “Anywhere I Lay My Head” (from Rain Dogs, 1985)
Rarely has a song about homelessness sounded so defiantly romantic and beautiful. (Nor, indeed, has an entire album about homelessness sounded so defiantly romantic and beautiful.)
Kanye West — “Who Will Survive in America?” (from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)
West is another rare exception to the hip hop closing track rule — whether it’s “Bound 2” from Yeezus or “Last Call” from The Colllege Dropout, he’s tended to close his records on a high note. It’s the last couple of tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that really demonstrate his ability to transition seamlessly from the ridiculous to the sublime, though. From the comedy of the extended outro to “Blame Game” (“Yeezy taught me!”) through the reflectiveness of “Lost in the World” (feat. Bon Iver!) to this coruscating closing track, which deploys an extensive Gil Scott-Heron sample in its bleak vision of race relations in America.
Lucinda Williams — “Jackson” (from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, 1998)
This lyric reads like a modern reinterpretation of the aforementioned “Before I Get to Phoenix,” except for one key difference: instead of looking back and wondering how the person she’s leaving behind is going to be feeling, Williams is looking forward and thinking about how she’ll feel. And the answer? She’ll be doing just fine, thanks.
X — “The World’s a Mess; It’s In My Kiss” (from Los Angeles, 1980)
All the more relevant today, sadly.
X-Ray Spex — “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” (from Germ-Free Adolescents, 1978)
And finally: punk surrealism at its finest, and a pretty compelling portrait of a plastic world in which everything is fake. (Compare the imagery here and that of, say, Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” or Fad Gadget’s “Back to Nature”.)