Has the last song on a record ever been the best song on the record? The answer is yes, but just barely. You might think that in the heyday of LP construction more bands would have wanted to close strong, like a Broadway musical (or one of their own concerts), with a memorable finale that brought the album to a rousing finish and made you want to flip the record over (or rewind it) and play it again. But a while back I started realizing how many dud closers there are, even on great records: for every "Free Bird" and "Love Train," there are a dozen "Lady in My Life"s and "West of the Fields." It's clear that most bands (or producers or label execs) thought of an album lineup more like a baseball one, which you frontload for maximum efficiency, than a novel or a concert, which you might also orchestrate for a powerful final effect. I don't quite understand why. Don't you want to leave them wanting more?
Not everyone has shirked that opportunity, though, and in honor of the ongoing death of the album, I'd like to suggest ten final cuts that carry the weight they should. They may not all be the best songs on their respective records (though most of them are), but they all bring it on home in style, summing things up, or, even better, raising the stakes or shifting the tone just when you think you're done. As always, my ten are limited by my own idiosyncrasies (and record collection), and further suggestions are welcomed (if not necessarily agreed with).
- "A Day in the Life," The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ah, it's annoying to put this titan at the top, but what can you do? This is it: the template, the outlier, the exception that proves the rule. Easily the best song on, in theory if not in fact, the Greatest Record of All Time, "A Day in the Life" provides a rare hybrid of the Lennon-McCartney yin-yang as well as the archetypal chaotic-freakout ending, although it's just a tease before the second half of the song and the endless final chord, which harbors a vibrating chaos of its own. Unsurprisingly, the Fabs had a strong enough sense of the dramatic moment (or just had such a deep catalogue) that they came through with great finales more often then not, from "Tomorrow Never Knows" to "Her Majesty" to "Get Back," the last and best song on their last record.
- "Built Too Long, (Parts 1, 2 and 3)," Built to Spill, Ultimate Alternative Wavers. Nine-plus minutes of chaotic-freakout ending, with the fattest, furriest licks this side of "Shake Your Rump," this is the final pinnacle of a record that is never out of my all-time top five. It took a bold band of Idahoans to throw in a Chuck D./Flavor Flav "Bring that beat back" sample at the end of their debut record, but it is fully earned. Not every one agrees, however: the only time I ever had the pleasure of coming across this one on the radio (back when KEXP was still KCMU), I was at first too blissed out to notice that my future wife, in the just-parked car with me, was being driven into a furious agony by the assault on her ears. She left the car and I stayed for all nine minutes; somehow we still got married.
- "After Hours," Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground. The Velvets went to both extremes with their endings, from the endless drone of "Sister Ray" to this sweet and sad lullaby, which Lou Reed brilliantly gave to Mo Tucker to sing. "Looking gray in the rain as they stand disarrayed" may be the loveliest phrase in recorded music, and "After Hours" is the finest example of the sweet ditty finale, with other examples like "Her Majesty," "I'm in Love with a Girl" on Big Star's Radio City, and "My Little Corner of the World," on Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. (As true VU acolytes, Yo La tends to alternate their finales between 10-plus-minute freakouts and little Georgia Hubley numbers like this one.)
- "Shattered," Rolling Stones, Some Girls. What is there to say? It's "Shattered," the great NYC song (hmm, second straight great NYC song on this list) at the end of a great NYC record.
- "Fight the Power," Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet. The perfect match of beat and delivery, though I considered docking it a little because it had already appeared, as the opening cut, on the Do the Right Thing soundtrack. It may have seemed a bit of an afterthought to still be shouting "1989!" when Black Planet came out in 1990, but still, it's hard to match the feeling when you near the end of the record, having almost forgotten what's still in store, and you hear the revs and then the beats that kick off the most thrilling track of them all.
- "Wall of Death," Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights. Thematically and musically closes this haunted record. A favorite of mine for years, but what elevates it for me, really, are just two little bits of picking (at 1:48 and 2:40 on the album, though they aren't as noticeable in the live version linked above) that somehow give this otherwise-dirgey song the headlong momentum the Thompsons are singing about.
- "Superfly," Curtis Mayfield, Superfly. It takes confidence to hold out until the end of the soundtrack to bring out the title song (is that when it appears in the movie too?), especially one this fabulous. "Freddie's Dead" and "Pusherman" may get respect for their storytelling, but they can't match the way that baseline strums in as the title song begins.
- "I Had a Dream," The Long Ryders, Native Sons. I was a bit of a wide-eyed Long Ryders fan back when every road led from R.E.M., and I remember trying to talk up Native Sons to my friend Josh, who--light years more sophisticated about music than I--thought the Ryders were a little silly. But he did confess that when he and an equally sophisticated pal from his band got to the moment at the end of the record when someone from the band declares "That was tight" after the revved-up jam that closes "I Had a Dream," they had to admit that, much as they wanted to make fun of them, it was indeed tight. And dammit, 25 years later, it still is. (The video linked above and embedded below, which does include those final three words, is an embarrassing and incomprehensible '80s timepiece, but I have to say, unlike almost every other public figure from that decade, the band's haircuts hold up pretty well!)
- "Both Sides Now," Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I really do want everyone to get along. I get awfully sentimental when this little instrumental comes on at the end of disc two of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, just after the rousing group version of the title number. Lovely in its own right, it also hits the record's anti-Townshend 1972 themes of cross-generational reconciliation right on the nose, with a traditional setting of Joni Mitchell's anthem of hippie ambivalence, played by Randy Scruggs, teenage son of the bluegrass legend Earl. (The link is to one of the many YouTube covers, not Mr. Scruggs himself.)
- "Bonnie and Clyde," Luna, Penthouse. The tenth spot should really go to "Her Majesty" (and the brilliant Abbey Road medley it closes), but I've said enough about the Beatles, and I want to give a nod to the lightly populated genre of the unlisted final track, which includes the superb examples of London Calling's "Train in Vain" (which, irresistible though it is, always seemed too much of a little pop song to fit on that snarling record) and "Superman" from Lifes Rich Pageant, as well as this Gainsbourg cover duet with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier (that's not her in the live video linked above) that's a perfect fit for Dean Wareham's drowsily jaded worldliness.
Here are those Ryders, by the way, in all their period finery:
All these riches might give you the impression that the last slot on a record is, in fact, a gold mine, but rest assured that it is not (or feel free to test my hypothesis yourself). But I did cull some further worthies in my search, and I want to give honorable-mention credit to these artists (in addition to the extras mentioned in the entries above) who had the guts to save one of their finest punches for last:
- "Love Train," The O'Jays, Backstabbers
- "Debra," Beck, Midnight Vultures (still makes me laugh every time)
- "Jungleland," Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
- "Space Truckin'," Deep Purple, Machinehead
- "I Can't Make It Alone," Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis
- "I Shall Be Released," The Band, Music from Big Pink
- "Can't Hardly Wait," The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me
- "He's Misstra Know-It-All," Steve Wonder, Innervisions
- "Free Bird," Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pronounced
- "Frustrated," The Knack, Get the Knack
- "It's True That We Love One Another," The White Stripes, Elephant
- "Judy and the Dream of Horses," Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister
- "100,000 Fireflies," The Magnetic Fields, Distant Plastic Trees
- "Reservations," Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
- "EMI," Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks
- "End of the Line," Traveling Wilburys, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1
- "Are You Experienced?," Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?