Last week, Juan and I did our Top 10 album opening tracks. This week, I’m back with my 10 favorite album closers. The criteria, at least for me, is a little bit different here. While an opening track is a sort of statement of purpose for an artist and an album, the closing track is a punctuation mark, the thing that you take with you when you leave. Album closers tend to be longer, weirder, more experimental. And sadder, too–I think artists know you’ll feel sad when an album you love is ending, and they heighten that by closing with melancholy songs. In many ways, I think I prefer the album closers (far more of these songs came from my Desert Island Albums than did the songs on my album openers list). Okay, on to my list. (Update: Juan got around to posting his album closers list. Check it out.)
Honorable mentions: When the Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin (because it rocks, but I just couldn’t quite find a home for it here); Gold Dust Woman, Fleetwood Mac (I can’t believe I haven’t written about Rumours yet); Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, AC/DC (Back in Black made honorable mention for both its opener and closer; that’s a mean album right there); Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2, Neutral Milk Hotel (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea also made honorable mention for both its opener and closer); and Sweet Lil Gal 23rd/1st, Ryan Adams (the gorgeous ending to the impeccable Heartbreaker).
10. 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, Simon & Garfunkel
We start with, admittedly, a bit of an odd entry. Simon & Garfunkel close their 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by singing the Christmas hymn Silent Night, only they dubbed a radio news brief consisting of reports on murder trials, race riots, and the escalation of the Vietnam War over the top of it. I chose this song for my list because it perfectly captures the moment in history when this album was recorded, a moment that saw the strands of American society unraveling in many ways. And this song is a perfect folk group’s reaction to that circumstance–sad, beautiful, tinged with some small hope.
9. Life Without You, Stevie Ray Vaughan
The last track on SRV’s 1985 album Soul to Soul, this song, perhaps more than any other, shows the influence Jimi Hendrix had on the great Texas blues guitar player. During the verses, SRV plays chordal licks in a style Hendrix popularized with Little Wing (a song SRV famously covered), and SRV said in interviews that his soaring solo, with its sustained bent notes, was inspired by Hendrix’s Bold as Love. But the song is more than just a Hendrix tribute. Originally written about a friend and guitar-maker of Vaughan’s who died in the early ’80s, it became his concert closing number. During these performances, SRV would typically stop in the middle of the solo to talk about his recovery from alcohol and drug addiction and his gratitude for a second chance at life. It’s such a shame that his second chance was cut short by a helicopter crash. Stevie Ray had so much left to give.
8. The End, The Doors
The Doors really knew how to end albums: among their other closing tracks are When the Music’s Over and Riders on the Storm. But how do you beat the meandering, mysterious, Oedipal ramble that ends their debut album, a song so crazy that it was prominently featured in Apocalypse Now, a movie that’s so dark it pretty much drove half the cast insane during production? Come on baby, take a chance with us…
7. I Didn’t Understand, Elliott Smith
It was really hard not to pick Say Yes, the beautiful closing track to Elliott’s Either/Or, but for a song that punctuates the feeling of an album, I don’t think you can top the final track of XO. That album is a roller coaster of emotions, from the love of a distant mother on Waltz #2 to the rage of Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands, but mostly it’s sad, with songs like Pitseleh and Oh Well, Okay, about loneliness and loss, and there is perhaps no sadder song in pop music than I Didn’t Understand, with its final verse, “You once talked to me about love/And you painted pictures of/A never never land/And I could have gone to that place/But I didn’t understand.” So bleak, yet sang so beautifully over that piano. RIP, Elliott.
6. Moonlight Mile, The Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers is one of my Desert Island Albums, and Moonlight Mile is a big part of why. It’s a layered song, acoustic and electric guitars, lush strings, staccato drums, all building to a crescendo as Jagger urges the band “Come on … let it go now,” before crying out “Yeah, I’m coming home/Cause I’m just about a moonlight mile/On down the road.” The song fades gently away from its peak, giving this album, one of the greatest rock records ever recorded, the graceful ending it so richly deserves.
5. Desperados Under the Eaves, Warren Zevon
The song that closes Warren Zevon’s self-titled major label debut is, as I wrote in my Desert Island Albums review, quintessential Zevon. Funny, smart, and heart-piercing. The chorus features what is truly one of rock’s great lyrics (“And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing/Until I pay my bill”), and the string and vocal arrangement in the outro, which symbolize a man’s life floating away on an air conditioner breeze, is unparalleled.
4. Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the electric guitar, and there’s no song that embodies just how much he pushed the envelope of sound one could reap from the instrument than the closing track of Electric Ladyland. From the opening wah wah pedaled riff in E to the insane fills he plays in between the lyrics, to the solo, which basically sounds like a horde of alien spaceships attacking your earthbound ears, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) is perhaps Hendrix’s most impressive instrumental accomplishment. I really wanted to choose Bold as Love for my Hendrix entry, because that’s such an underrated song, and such a beautiful ending to Axis: Bold as Love, but I just couldn’t do it. I mean, watch this shit.
Hendrix was either an alien or a god, sent down to Earth to show us what the electric guitar could do. Mission accomplished, he returned home. And he is still missed.
3. Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Nirvana
I have a standard prohibition against live albums in these countdowns, but I had to make an exception for Kurt Cobain’s incredible performance of this ancient Lead Belly song, the finale of Nirvana‘s Unplugged show. When Cobain screams the final refrain, “In the pines, the pines/The sun, it never shines/I’ll shiver the whole night through,” he pours every bit of his haggard being into it. He’s not just closing the song or the album–he’s putting a final punctuation mark on his life. He’d be dead less than six months later.
2. Desolation Row, Bob Dylan
Highway 61 is, in my opinion, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album ever recorded, and Desolation Row is Bob Dylan at his absolute songwriting peak. As I said in my Desert Island Album review, Desolation Row is “an 11-minute, 21-second acoustic song so packed with literary allusion too daunting to unpack in the short format I’m working with here. This is a key ‘Angry Dylan’ number, summed up in the final lyric of the album: ‘Right now, I don’t feel so good/Don’t send me no more letters, no/ Not unless you mail them from/Desolation Row.’”
1. A Day in the Life, The Beatles
The Beatles are the greatest band of all time in part because of the combined songwriting abilities of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (with some George Harrison sprinkled in), and in part because they were relentless innovators with recording and sound (thanks at least in part to their producer, George Martin). A Day in the Life, the final track of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, embodies all of those characteristics. It opens with a slowly strummed acoustic guitar and John’s verse about reading the morning paper–a man shooting himself in a car, a war overseas–and then we get a piano softly striking a chord and a strange, swirling effect that gradually builds and then suddenly drops away, at which point Paul takes over, with his whimsical verse about falling out of bed late. This verse is punctuated with an orchestral surge, and John’s moaned “aaaah” before he returns to reading the news. Lyrically it’s actually pretty simple, but it’s incredibly musically creative, a journey through the entire soundscape of the Beatles’ imaginations–which makes it the perfect closing song for Sgt. Pepper, the band’s most wonderfully strange and creative album.