Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My ten favorite album closers

There are a lot of things that go into making a great album great. The best albums, obviously, should contain consistently outstanding songs. In many cases, the greatness of an album has a lot to do with how its songs fit together. But something I look for in a great album is how it starts and ends. It's just like a good book or movie. No matter what happens in between, the opening and the ending should knock you out. The opening should reel you in, and the ending should leave a lasting impression. I'd say that most bands and recording artists understand the importance of an album starting with one of its best songs. When I think of all the albums I love, almost all of them open on a really strong note. But for me, a great closing track is equally important. As someone who's been buying LPs for 35 years, I've always relished the experience of an album ending so fantastically that I can't wait to listen to the whole thing again. A lot of the great album closers are epic and cinematic (think Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland"). But sometimes they're just standout tracks that put exclamation points on brilliant LPs (think Wire's "12XU"). I'd say The Dictators' "(I Live For) Cars And Girls" is no less masterful of an album closer than, say, the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want".

I originally tried to compile a list of the "ten greatest albums closers of all-time". But that proved to be an impossible task - one that would have involved far more research than I'd ever have time to conduct. And honestly, writing from a fan's point of view is way more satisfying than trying to take on the air of critical objectivity. So here then is a list not of the "greatest" album closers, but rather my ten personal favorites. My criteria was simple. These are all albums I love, and a large part of why I love them is how they end.

10. Parasites- "Letdown" (from Punch Lines, 1993)
While no doubt one of the greatest pop-punk albums ever made, Punch Lines is one of those records that transcends genre. Essentially it's a song cycle about love, relationships, and the pain they too often cause. "Letdown" is the resolution to all of that heartache and betrayal - that "enough is enough" moment where you finally take away a certain person's power to make you miserable. Dave Parasite's vocal on this track is the most emotionally charged of his career, and the guest guitar solo by Kurt Bloch is simply incredible.

9. AC/DC - "Whole Lotta Rosie" (from Let There Be Rock, 1977)
A great AC/DC album ends the same way it starts: with a blazing ball of rock! "Whole Lotta Rosie", if not my favorite AC/DC song, is in my top five at least. I don't think it's humanly possible to listen to this song without cranking the volume all the way up, singing the chorus to an imaginary crowd of 50,000 people, and going crazy on air guitar until you're drenched in sweat and gasping for air. If aliens showed up at my doorstep and asked me to explain earthling rock n' roll to them, I'd play them this song and await their acknowledgement of human supremacy. 

8. Material Issue - "Li'l Christine" (from International Pop Overthrow, 1991)
Material Issue always had a knack for concluding an LP in style (listen to "Help Me Land" or "If Ever You Should Fall"). But "Li'l Christine", off of the trio's classic debut International Pop Overthrow, is an album closer for the ages. While opening track "Valerie Loves Me" is one of the saddest ever songs about unrequited love, "Li'l Christine" finds a twisted joy in similar themes. Countless lonely guys found comfort in this tale of romantic rejection and consequent stalking. RIP Jim Ellison.

7. Pretenders- "Mystery Achievement" (from Pretenders, 1980)
"Mystery Achievement", like almost any song on the first Pretenders album, still gives me chills even after hundreds of spins. It starts with a hypnotic bass line, builds to the most sublime of choruses, and peaks with a guitar/bass duel of legendary proportions. It's a flawless conclusion to an extraordinary album. It's hard not to think about what this band could have become if James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon had not succumbed to addiction.

6. Sex Pistols- "E.M.I." (from Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, 1977)  
For anyone looking to get into punk rock, Never Mind The Bollocks is always my first recommended purchase. It's been copied again and again and again over 38 years - but has never been improved upon. And while it was certainly easy for the rock critics and respected musicians of 1977 to dismiss the Pistols as crude, untalented louts riding a short-lived trend, there's no denying today that this album (like punk rock itself!) has withstood the test of time. Steve Jones and Paul Cook remain the standard for a guitar/drum tandem in punk music. And Johnny Rotten's vocals - so raw, ferocious, and full of disdain for everything under the sun - inspired the careers of thousands of punk shouters. "E.M.I.", largely due to Rotten's vocal performance, was the perfect conclusion to the band's one and only album. It's like the last will and testament of the Sex Pistols - one final fuck-you to the establishment, delivered resoundingly.

5. Big Star- "I'm In Love With A Girl" (from Radio City, 1974)
Here's a classic case of a song perfectly placed at the end of an album. As a singular track, "I'm In Love With A Girl" is one of the most beautiful pop songs ever recorded. Hearing it in any context, I'm likely to close my eyes and get lost in one minute and 48 seconds of sheer bliss. But I especially love the way this song brings such gratifying closure to Radio City - like a happy ending to a movie or book that's unexpected yet entirely appropriate.

4. The Who- "Won't Get Fooled Again" (from Who's Next, 1971) 
Given that it was originally intended to be a concluding number in a rock opera, it's no accident that "Won't Get Fooled Again" is the consummate album closer - one of the great epic rock songs of all-time. Separated from its original place in Pete Townshend's Lifehouse narrative, it remains a timeless statement on revolution and power, punctuated by Roger Daltrey's career-best scream and those final, eternally true lyrics. Hearing this song on the radio a couple weeks back was what first gave me the idea to write this article.

3. Beach Boys- "Caroline, No" (from Pet Sounds, 1966)
Pet Sounds is the embodiment of great album sequencing: the best three songs are the opener, the first song on Side 2, and the closer. And they're all equally important. If you removed "Caroline, No" or even took it out of the closing slot, Pet Sounds would not be nearly as great. The whole album builds toward this masterful finale - a beautiful and deeply moving ode the loss of innocence and how it can complicate young love. Hands down, my favorite Beach Boys song.

2. The Replacements- "Here Comes A Regular" (from Tim, 1985)
At the height of Reagan era materialism, Paul Westerberg became a cult hero for articulating the plight of those individuals who'd missed the boat on all that happiness and prosperity. Much of his legend can be tied to The Replacements' finest album, Tim. Classic songs like "Swingin' Party", "Bastards Of Young", and "Little Mascara" offer powerful depictions of disappointing lives and shattered dreams. Westerberg returns to this theme one last time on "Here Comes A Regular" - a heartbreaking glimpse into the unfortunate back-stories of barflies. I don't think better rock lyrics have ever been written, and essentially this is an entire tragic novel condensed into a five-minute song.

1. The Clash- "Garageland" (from The Clash, 1977)
You all know the story. A music critic slams The Clash and implies that the world would be better off if all these crappy punk rock bands retreated to their garages and were never heard from again. The Clash respond with this powerhouse of a song - somewhat of a counterattack but more so a rousing manifesto about the sad state of mainstream rock and the boundless joy of making music purely for the love of it. This is the punk anthem to end all punk anthems, and it rings just as true today. Plus I love the way they pronounce the word "garage" in the land of my ancestors.

Honorable mentions:
Rolling Stones- "Shattered" (1978)
The Clash- "Train In Vain" (1979)
New York Dolls- "Jet Boy" (1973)
The Zombies- "Time Of The Season" (1968)
The Replacements- "Can't Hardly Wait" (1987)
The Tattle Tales- "Her New Company" (2006)
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- "American Girl" (1976)
The Unlovables- "Inconsolable" (2005)
Wipers- "Youth Of America" (1981)


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