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”.)