Rock's Big Questions

The world's greatest closers: Finishing the argument with a can't-miss list of album enders

The world's greatest closers: Finishing the argument with a can't-miss list of album enders

Editor's note: This is a new feature where Douglas Newman and Jim Beviglia, two of CultureMap's music writers, tackle rock's big questions in a spirited dialogue where no feelings are spared. This edition is Douglas' rebuttal to Jim's article on the best closing tracks of all time.

We encourage you, fair reader, to join the fray by leaving your own arguments and rebuttals in the comments.

Kudos Jim for your varied and unpredictable list! "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy is an inspired choice and "Waterloo Sunset" was lurking around my brain as I compiled my selections. It's a perfect pop song that could have easily become a standard. Ray Davies is a songwriting god.

Thanks for teeing up some of the obvious ones, although you'll notice that I didn't fully take the bait. Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" (from Born to Run) was just too obvious and I've always preferred the Kinks to the Beatles, so I also skipped over "A Day in the Life" from Sgt. Pepper's.

One of the Fab Four did manage to make my short list, though. I couldn't resist the Dylan trap and was happy to wrestle with choosing his ultimate closer. I could have easily made a solid case for "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" (from Blonde on Blonde) or "Sara" (from Desire) — both epics inspired by ex-wife Sara Lowndes — but I went with what I would deem his most ambitious song.

While a few of my choices might be considered a tad left of center, on the whole I think it will appeal to most serious music fans and novices alike.

"Desolation Row" by Bob Dylan, from Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

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Dylan closes one of the great albums in history with an "eleven-minute voyage through a Kafkaesque world of gypsies, hoboes, thieves of fire, and historical characters beyond their rightful time," as noted Dylanologist Clinton Heylin describes it.

The fingerpicked Spanish guitar is sublime and Dylan's delivery is hypnotic. Take a listen and you'll find that 11 minutes can pass in a flash.

"God" by John Lennon, from Plastic Ono Band (1970)

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OK, so officially it's not the final "song" on the album, but the 49-second "My Mummy's Dead" doesn't really count in my book. If you overlook this technicality, then "God" does serve as the last proper track on Lennon's searing debut solo record.

With lines like "God is a concept by which we measure our pain" and "I don't believe in Beatles," and "the dream is over," it's obvious that Lennon's wrestling with some mighty demons and that makes for some compelling listening.

"The Last Time I Saw Richard" by Joni Mitchell, from Blue (1971)

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This songs never fails to depress me. The vividness with which Joni revisits a dissolved marriage hits you in the gut, made all the more powerful by the mundanity and resignation that infuse her lyrics.

"Love, Reign o'er Me" by The Who, from Quadrophenia (1974)  

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The Who know a thing or two about closing albums on a high. "Won't Get Fooled Again" finished off Who's Next with fist-raising fury and the band's masterpiece, Quadrophenia, is wrapped up with the emotional bombast of "Love, Reign o'er Me."

"Radio, Radio" by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, from This Year's Model (US Version) (1978)

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A blistering indictment of the radio and recording industries, “Radio Radio” features some of Costello’s most biting lyrics, all set to a furious new wave workout by the singer’s newly minted backing band, the Attractions. Costello spits his turns of phrase in rapid fire with inspiring results: “You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it/It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel/And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel.”

This Year’s Model is an astonishing achievement, an album full of amphetamine-fueled nuggets with no filler.

"Anywhere I Lay My Head" by Tom Waits, from Rain Dogs (1987)

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Rain Dogs is perhaps Tom Waits’ finest moment, an ambitious album of jarring songs that seer themselves into your brain upon first listen. Featuring angular rhythms, clanging percussion, amazing fretwork from guitarist Marc Ribot, and Waits’ gravely howl, Rain Dogs is a surreal joy ride through the inner workings of the songwriter’s twisted mind.

On “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” the album’s final track, Waits is accompanied by a Farfisa organ and a brass section as he explains to the listener his change in fortune. The song then shifts into an uptempo classic New Orleans style brass band romp to take us out.

"Tower of Song" by Leonard Cohen, from I'm Your Man (1988)

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Cohen grapples with the calling to his musical craft in this charming track of the 1988 tour-de-force, I'm Your Man. It finds the musician/poet explaining how he has no choice but to sing, as if the gods have chosen his destiny: "I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice/And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond/They tied me to this table right here/In the Tower of Song."

Notice the sly humor in Cohen's choice of words. Golden voice? 

"The Not Knowing" by Tindersticks, from Tindersticks I (1993)

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I implore anybody who's up for discovering some unfamiliar music to seek out Tinderstick's sublime debut. The English band boasts a remarkably consistent catalog in a career now 17 years deep, but its first offering is, as one critic gushed, a "chamber pop masterpiece of romantic elegance and gutter debauchery."

Tindersticks bring the dark, dank and emotionally wrenching musical exercise to a close with this elegant woodwind-laden come-down. It's the perfect end to a perfect record.  

"Street Spirit (Fade Out)" by Radiohead, from The Bends (1995)

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The Bends signaled the true arrival of Radiohead as one of the planet’s most promising bands, a distinction the band would achieve in spades in the following years. The final track of the album is the beautiful ballad “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” with its spellbinding repetitive guitar arpeggio and Thom Yorke’s inspired vocal wail.

The final lines of the album is also a quintessential closer, “All these things we’ll one day swallow whole/And fade out again and fade out again/Immerse your soul in love.”

"Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2" by Neutral Milk Hotel, from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)

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One of my favorite albums of all time, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a song-cycle of astounding beauty, depth and originality. Fuzz guitar, organ, singing saw, accordion, trumpet, Uilleann pipes, euphonium, and Jeff Mangum’s unaffected voice and surreal lyrics mesh to form a kaleidescopic head trip.

The record’s final track, “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” opens with a bowed saw intro and segues into a lyrically dense ballad featuring just an acoustic guitar and Magnum’s voice. A sublime ending to a breathtaking album.


The first article in this debate:

For Closers only: Great finishing songs that demand rock recognition

Aeroplane over the sea is one of my favorite albums of all time — and it finishes on the sublime.
The Who
The Who have always known how to close.
Rain Dogs
Rain Dogs is Tom Wait' finest moment and he saves the best for last.
Want to discover some great unknown music? Check out the Tindersticks and particularly the wooden-laden come-down on their debut album.