Tag Archives: final songs

Classic Openers & Closers

Not all classic albums have classic opening tracks. Very good openers, sure, but not genuinely arresting, heart-stopping brilliant ones. The same is true – truer, even – for final songs. And then there are those strange few classics that have bad last songs.

Why is this? Well, part of what makes a record a classic is its overall shape: the play of one song into another, how a low-key opener explodes into an incredible second song, or how a tumultuous album goes out on a calm, understated note.

An opening or closing song might absolutely do its job but not be, outside the context of the album, a classic. Any rap record that begins or ends on a skit or audio collage (I immediately thought of Illmatic, but insert your own favourite) would, I suppose, be an example of this phenomenon. Or records where the opener or closer is very good, but just not quite stone-cold brilliant: hi there, Second Hand News (Rumours) and Something in the Way (Nevermind).

Or perhaps the artist just didn’t quite sustain their brilliance all the way through to the final track, like Joni Mitchell, who frequently ended her records on a ponderous note*, or Judee Sill, whose debut album is still the best record of all time (yes, it is) even though her usual lightness of touch deserted her on closing track Abracadabra. Or maybe the artist wilfully chose bizarre final songs, like the Byrds so often did.

Perhaps a classic album begins or ends on a track that loads of people think is classic, but actually is really overrated (You Can’t Always Get What You Want from the Stones’ Let it Bleed is my choice, but as I’ve said before, I feel the same about Taxman and the title track from Sgt Pepper as openers).

So, here’s my highly personal, completely-off-the-top-of-my-head, not-entirely-serious, definite-not-exhaustive list of classic (or semi classic) records with amazing opening and closing tracks. As I think of more, I’ll add them.

  • Pet Sounds – Beach Boys (Wouldn’t it Be Nice; Caroline, No)
  • Liege & Lief – Fairport Convention (Matty Groves; Crazy Man Michael)
  • Time (The Revelator) – Gillian Welch (Revelator; I Dream a Highway)
  • One World – John Martyn (Dealer; Small Hours)
  • Red – King Crimson (Red; Starless)
  • IV – Led Zeppelin (Black Dog; When the Levee Breaks)
  • What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On; Inner City Blues)
  • Dirt – Alice in Chains (Them Bones; Would?)
  • The Boatman’s Call – Nick Cave (Into My Arms; Far From Me)
  • Small Change – Tom Waits (Tom Traubert’s Blues; I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work)
  • Dust – Screaming Trees (Halo of Ashes; Gospel Plow)
  • Happy Sad – Tim Buckley (Strange Feelin’; Sing a Song For You)
  • The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (Excursions; Scenario)
  • Loveless – My Bloody Valentine (Only Shallow; Soon)
  • A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night; I’ll Be Back)
  • Please Please Me – The Beatles (I Saw Here Standing There; Twist & Shout)
  • Talking Book – Stevie Wonder (You Are the Sunshine of My Life; I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever))
  • The Band – The Band (Across the Great Divide; King Harvest Has Surely Come)
  • Music from Big Pink – The Band (Tears of Rage; I Shall be Released)
  • Inside Out – John Martyn (Fine Lines; So Much in Love With You)
  • Bert Jansch – Bert Jansch (Strolling Down the Highway; Angie)
  • Bringing it all Back Home – Bob Dylan (Subterranean Homesick Blues; It Ain’t Me Babe)
  • Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan (Like a Rolling Stone; Desolation Row)
  • Younger than Yesterday – The Byrds (So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star; My Back Pages)
  • Songs for Swingin’ Lovers – Frank Sinatra (You Make Me Feel So Young; How About You?)
  • Workingman’s Dead – The Grateful Dead (Uncle John’s Band; Casey Jones)
  • Sail Away – Randy Newman (Sail Away; God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind))
  • Never for Ever – Kate Bush (Babooshka; Breathing)
  • Melt – Peter Gabriel (Intruder; Biko)
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water; Song for the Asking)
  • There Goes Rhymin’ Simon – Paul Simon (Kodachrome; Loves Me Like a Rock)
  • Gaucho – Steely Dan (Babylon Sisters; Third World Man)
  • Forever Changes – Love (Alone Again Or; You Set the Scene)
  • Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays – Nat King Cole & George Shearing (September Song; Don’t Go)
  • Everybody Knows this is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Cinnamon Girl; Cowgirl in the Sand)
  • Harvest – Neil Young (Out on the Weekend; Words (Between the Lines of Age))
  • MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana (About a Girl; Where Did You Sleep Last Night)
  • Doolittle – Pixies (Debaser; Gouge Away)
  • Murmur – REM (Radio Free Europe; West of the Fields)
  • OK Computer – Radiohead (Airbag; The Tourist)
  • Scott 3 – Scott Walker (It’s Raining Today; If You Go Away)
  • Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon (Don’t Make Me a Target; Black Like Me)
  • Veedon Fleece – Van Morrison (Fair Play; Country Fair)
  • There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly & the Family Stone (Luv & Haight; Thank You for Talking to Me Africa)

Bad last songs

About 18 months ago, I did a piece on final songs,

In that post, I kicked around the difference between an album that’s a collection of great songs, and an album that’s a great collection of songs. Extrapolating from that, I argued there’s more to a great final song than just a good song stuck on the end of an album’s tracklisting. A great final song is born out of its relationship with the rest of the record.It seems to finish the album in a way no other song could, tying it all together, reinforcing themes or moods. Maybe it offers hope and redemption at the end of something cathartic or challenging. Maybe it does the opposite, dragging the record down into the very depths, where it was headed all along.

A Day in the Life is the most obvious example of the great final track in rock’n’roll, but you might equally pick Caroline No, Gold Dust Woman, Time of the Season, Thank You for Talking to Me Africa or All Apologies. With Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues, Marvin Gaye managed two great final songs on one album, one for each side of the vinyl disc.

But not everyone gets it right. There’s something perversely lovable about finishing a record with something ill judged, bathetic or just plain goofy (yes, Hippie Boy from The Gilded Palace of Sin, I’m looking at you) – something that seems to be doing its best to undermine all the good work of the rest of the record.

My favourite example of a band who clearly found it hard to get it over the line is the Byrds, who made something of a habit of head-scratching final tracks: 2-4-2 Foxtrot (The Lear Jet Song) and Space Odyssey are just the most notable. Then there’s Joni Mitchell, who has ended even some of her very finest albums on a regrettable joke (Twisted), or over-serious attempts at writing something grand that instead come off po-faced and lumbering. The Silky Veils of Ardor, Judgement of the Moon and Stars, The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song) – the titles alone tell you you’re going to be in for a long five, six, seven minutes.

Speaking of long, I can’t be the only one who finds Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands a 10-minute punishment, or perhaps a provocation. Or who’s not at all convinced that You Can’t Always Get What You Want merits its endless intro and outro. A special class of “long final track” is the endless instrumental; Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga is a blot on the otherwise perfect Fred Neil, while the third disc of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass is given over entirely to jams, of which Thanks For All the Pepperoni is not the worst, but as the last is the least welcome. Then there’s Revelation, the less-than-revelatory 20-minute jam that takes up all of side two of Love’s Da Capo.

Those are just some off the top of my head. If you’ve got any more, comment below!

Final songs

The following post probably shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. Just a few thoughts I’ve been kicking around for a couple of days.

There is a difference between a great collection of songs and a collection of great songs. Revolver is a collection of (mostly) great songs. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a great collection of songs. Pepper’s songs themselves may not be as strong individually as those on Revolver, but the way they work with each other, flow into and out of each other,  mutually support and reinforce each other make Pepper into something greater than the sum of its parts. Revolver may be the consensus choice Best Beatles Album these days, but maybe consensus was right when it lined up behind Pepper.

The Beatles are far from the only band we can play this fun game with. Let it Bleed is a collection of great songs; Exile on Main Street is a great collection of songs. Nevermind is a collection of great songs; In Utero is a great collection of songs. Aja is a collection of great songs; Gaucho is a great collection of songs.

I’ll stop now.

So just as there’s something more to the great collection of songs than just putting together the 10 or 12 best songs you have – something to do with the relationship between the songs themselves that means an objectively “weaker” song might make for a stronger overall collection (in mood, theme, tempo, whatever) – there’s something more to a great final song than just putting a really strong song last on an album.

Now, any discussion about great final songs that doesn’t conclude that A Day in the Life is the best final song ever has reached the wrong conclusion (suggesting Good Vibrations on the basis of Brian Wilson Presents Smile is cheating – it’s not the real record, and you know it). But there are loads of others. Yeesh, just among the Beatles’ catalogue you’ve also got I’ll Be Back and Tomorrow Never Knows.

Bob Dylan gave us It Ain’t Me Babe, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue and Highlands (my favourite “long” Dylan album closer).

Joni never quite managed it – sometimes it felt like she was trying to hard to make grand statements and missing the mark: Judgement of the Moon & Stars and The Silky Veils of Ardor give away their ponderousness in their titles. Shadows & Light in its Hissing of Summer Lawns incarnation is musically too abstract to feel like it belongs with the rest of the record. Both Sides Now deserves to end a better record than Clouds.

Radiohead had a good streak, with Street Spirit and OK Computer‘s The Tourist – particularly the latter, when Jonny Greenwood’s rampant guitar bursts in from nowhere, blasting away the unease and knotty tension of the previous 50 minutes, and ending the record on a note of hard-won liberation.

Spoon, too, with New York Kiss, Chicago at Night and the endlessly wonderful Black Like Me, a winner from its first line on – “I believed that someone’d take care of me tonight”.

R.E.M. did it repeatedly: West of the Fields, Wendell Gee, Find the River, You, Electrolite.

Here’s a list of some favourites. I’ve tried to limit it to records that really stand up as substantial. A good song tacked on at the end of a so-so record isn’t quite what we’re looking for here. You’ll probably notice the usual 1970s and 1990s biases.

Would? – Dirt (Alice in Chains)King Harvest (Has Surely Come) – The Band
Caroline No – Pet Sounds (Beach Boys)
Someone to Watch Over Me – My Gentleman Friend (Blossom Dearie)
Love Has No Pride – Give it Up (Bonnie Raitt)
We’re All Alone – Silk Degrees (Boz Scaggs)
You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman – Tapestry (Carole King)
Subterraneans – Low (David Bowie)
Say Yes – Either/Or (Elliott Smith)
Crazy Man Michael – Liege & Lief (Fairport Convention)
Gold Dust Woman – Rumours (Fleetwood Mac)
I Dream a Highway – Time (The Revelator) (Gillian Welch)
Pacific Street – Eveningland (Hem)
Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Electric Ladyland (Jimi Hendrix)
Small Hours – One World (John Martyn)
The Donor – Heart Food (Judee Sill)Starless – Red (King Crimson)
When the Levee Breaks – IV (Led Zeppelin)
Frozen Love – Buckingham Nicks
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler – What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)
Soon – Loveless (My Bloody Valentine)
Words (Between the Lines of Age) – Harvest (Neil Young)
Through My Sails – Zuma (Neil Young)
Far From Me – The Boatman’s Call  (Nick Cave)
Saturday Sun – Five Leaves Left (Nick Drake)
All Apologies – In Utero (Nirvana)
Gouge Away – Doolittle (Pixies)
Glory Box – Dummy (Portishead)
God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) – Sail Away (Randy Newman)
Davy the Fat Boy – Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun
Gospel Plow – Dust (Screaming Trees)
Thank You for Talking to Me Africa – There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Sly & the Family Stone)
Like Suicide – Superunknown (Soundgarden)
Sing a Song For You – Happy Sad (Tim Buckley)
Come On Up to the House – Mule Variations (Tom Waits)
I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work – Small Change (Tom Waits)
Scenario – The Low End Theory (A Tribe Called Quest)
Time of the Season – Odessey & Oracle (The Zombies)

Have I missed your favourite? Let me know.

bob-with-stratWhen Bob got it right, he really got it right