Play That Last Thing One More Time: The 50 Greatest Last Songs on Albums
SONG SEQUENCING IS AN ART. As important to the success of an album as the cover art and the title. So what makes a great closing song on an album? It's the exact right track at the exact right time. There's more to it than you think; or there should be, at least. Finally, this list sorts it all out at last!
1. Songs must come from a regular album release—no compilations, EPs, or live records.
2. Hidden tracks don't count.
3. Reprised tracks don't count either.
4. Bonus/reissued extra tracks don't count.
5. No Swedish heavy metal records.
50 “Peace Train” Teaser and the Firecat (Cat Stevens)
There are many ways to end a record. Each can work. That’s the takeaway from this futile exercise. Some artists default to the longest song (understandable), some to the most inspirational track, others like to end with a ripper, some assume you've checked out long before and put in some filler. Strangely, most don’t go out in style, with humor, or with grace. Most end with a thud, an afterthought, or a tired old dog. C’mon, isn’t there one prevailing thought, idea, image, joke, or message you wanted to leave us with? Thankfully, this list won’t suffer such offenses. So, let’s start with Catman, whose ambition was as grandiose as any—world peace.
49 “Vaseline” Elastica (Elastica)
Then again, why so serious? This ode to decreased friction also seems perfect for a slick exit (and entry). A musical commercial in the grand rock and roll tradition of The Who Sell Out. Elastica’s debut record is brought to you by the slippery folks over at Vaseline: When you’re stuck like glue, if you’d like to woo—Vaseline!
48 “Take It Or Leave It” Is This It (The Strokes)
Casablancas responds to Strokemania with this last blast from their debut semi-disguised as a love song. I’ve always read it as an indifferent kiss-off to critics and skeptics. He makes a convincing case that he doesn’t care what you think, which is so rock and roll.
47 “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” The Bends (Radiohead)
From back when Radiohead was actually interesting, now a decade deep in anniversaries. Actually, fair is fair, they were pretty strong in the last song department at least. OK Computer gave us “The Tourist” and Hail to the Thief “A Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll),” both making the short list of nominees. The Bends’ rep wins because it does what it parenthetically promises. A nice touch.
46 “Plans I Make” New Day Rising (Husker Du)
Bob, describing the Husker’s style of music in his new book: “[A] blistering wall of sound—bright white radio static with occasional melody, with words buried deep in the storm, as if encrypted for shortwave transmission.” There’s no better example than this chaotic climax to their greatest record. And at the end, a caveman chases everyone out of the studio, guitars still plugged and humming.
45 “Whole Lotta Rosie” Let There Be Rock (AC/DC)
The same girl from the Commodores “Brick House” but after a few bad breakups?
44 “Walkin’ After Midnight” The Trinity Session (Cowboy Junkies)
A grand statement isn’t the only ticket to last song glory. In the case of Cowboy Junkies haunting second record, they had the brio to reinvent this Patsy Cline classic, with Margo Timmins sultry-squared purr bringing the night to a close with a slow, seductive, manhunt.
43 “Memphis Thing” Closer to the Flame (Rob Jungklas)
Last I checked, he was a 5th grade math teacher in Memphis, but hopefully the kids realize that the four-eyed math geek at the front of the classroom also wrote what should be forever known as the official Memphis theme song. And there is a lot of competition. Long out of print and unavailable on iTunes, you’ll need to find a vinyl copy somewhere (warning: it will set you back about 99 cents) or write Rob directly, as I did, for a burned digital copy. The dark horse on this list, but a lost classic in my book. Insert your secret favorite here if you like.
42 “1 2 X U” Pink Flag (Wire)
Twenty-one songs deep, the final 117 seconds of adrenalin release cap a thrilling walk on the razor's edge.
41 “Beautiful Girls” Van Halen II (Van Halen)
What better way for a VH record to end than with Diamond Dave chasing yet another girl down the beach never to return. Truth is sometimes the same as fiction.
40 “Takin’ Care of Business” BTO II (Bachman-Turner Overdrive)
It’s still a head-scratcher how a band with no hits to date could even consider “TCB” as the album closer. And it seems a tad ironic that the hook claims they’re “working overtime” only to call it a day seconds later after only the eighth song, less than 40 minutes into the record. Better title: “Takin’ Care of Some of Our Business.”
39 “You Can Make it if You Try” Stand! (Sly & the Family Stone)
One song after inspiring the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes (reward enough), Sly’s landmark Stand! sends us off with an inspiring Nike commercial-worthy anthem. But I know it and you know it and the American people know it—you’re probably not gonna make it, even with a steady diet of trying. But, for a few fleeting moments, a guy as crazy as a shithouse rat will have you believing there’s some hope.
38 “Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee” Doc at the Radar Station (Captain Beefheart)
Sometimes all you need to make a memorable exit from a record is one spectacularly effective line. “God, please fuck my mind for good” is that line.
37 “Always See Your Face” Four Sail (Love)
As the last song on the relatively forgotten Four Sail, Arthur Lee buried what may be one of rock’s great lost love songs.
36 “Before the Deluge” Late for the Sky (Jackson Browne)
“Now let the music keep our spirits high…” One last run through the chorus before the skies open up to cleanse the earth and everyone goes home to take shelter from the storm.
35 “Salt of the Earth” Beggars Banquet (The Rolling Stones)
Keith and Mick, at the rail, toasting “the lowly of birth.” It could happen. Although I could’ve done without the choir (plus, they really pad the bar tab).
34 “Free Bird” Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Yes, it has burned out its welcome and become a cliché, but keep in mind this was the last song on Skynyrd’s debut. Hard to believe, but there was actually a time when uncreative, disrespectful, and profoundly dull concertgoers had nothing to randomly scream while bands tuned up between songs. I long for those days.
33 "Purple Rain" Purple Rain (Prince)
If you know what I’m writing about here, raise your hand.
32 "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" Sail Away (Randy Newman)
A mere twenty minutes after Newman’s sweetly reassuring “He Gives Us All His Love,” God himself checks in with a dismissive rebuttal. “How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me / That’s why I love mankind.”
31 “Raining Blood” Reign in Blood (Slayer)
It’s not so much the blood as it is the humidity. The least popular setting on your ambient noise machine ends Slayer’s masterpiece. Cormac McCarthyism is on display when an apocalyptic rain “from a lacerated sky, bleeding its horror” arrives and leaves the Ten Commandments ground into a fine dust.
30 “We Float” Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (PJ Harvey)
Narrowly escaping getting her “goddamned brains blown out” in NYC, Polly eventually finds nirvana, presumably in the Hamptons.
29 (Tie) “Reason to Believe” Every Picture Tells a Story (Rod Stewart)
“Reason to Believe” Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen)
“Reason to Believe” Easy (Kelly Willis)
Three different reasons to believe, but leaving a record with one is never a bad idea. Bruce’s is the hardest earned, coming at the end of his bleakest record. Rod stole Tim Hardin’s heartbreaking ballad forever before leaving town. And Kelly’s, just a crib-side beauty of a lullaby. Anything that works, people, anything that works. Just get that little fucker to sleep.
28 “Sister Ray” White Light/White Heat (The Velvet Underground)
Makes you feel like you’re in the middle of tranny-packed, heroin-infused fuckfest in a seedy Upper East Side loft. Even in Manhattan, that’s the last stop of the night.
27 “I’ve Been Everywhere” Unchained (Johnny Cash)
Johnny belonged to everybody, one city at a time, dressed in black, guitar slung on back. Unfold the roadmap and take the trip with him.
26 “Twist and Shout” Please Please Me (The Beatles)
Normally, ending a record with a cover is not rewarded. Highly uncreative and disappointing in most cases. In this case, an exception. The definitive version, one with a Lennon vocal so hot and shredded, George Martin kept it for the last 15 minutes of the session because he knew John would be useless afterward.
25 “Whipping Post” The Allman Brothers (The Allman Brothers)
If you can’t afford to quit your day job to spend more time with the 23-minute definitive Fillmore East version, try this microwaved five-minute studio version. And it’s still hot.
24 “Superfly” Superfly (Curtis Mayfield)
The soundtrack out-grossed the movie, which pretty much says it all. Part of the blaxploitation holy trinity along with Trouble Man (Marvin Gaye) and Shaft (Isaac Hayes). (Apologies to The Mack and Willie Hutch). Extra credit given for also closing out the movie, this slinky number rolled over the final credits.
23 “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” Boston (Boston)
It really doesn’t seem an unreasonable request considering the quality of the preceding seven songs.
22 “Don’t Ask Me Questions” Howlin’ Wind (Graham Parker)
A classic debut that spoke for itself. Hence, Graham was not taking questions afterward. Especially from the Lord—that preachy new addition to the Fox News team.
21 “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” What’s Goin’ On (Marvin Gaye)
How to close one of the most powerful records ever released? With a summary of all that’s wrong with the world or with a prayer for the people. As it turned out, the answer was both. It’s amazing how his gift could make people forget just about anything for a while. May all, as Marvin pleads, live a “long sweet life.”
20 “All Apologies” In Utero (Nirvana)
Kurt’s last treatise on fame? Nobody knows for sure. Either way, this last song/last record rarity was a powerful goodbye. (Although “Moist Vagina,” the flipside of the “All Apologies” single, would’ve also worked, but in a different way altogether.)
19 “Darkness on the Edge of Town” Darkness on the Edge of Town (Bruce Springsteen)
Where all the characters in Bruce’s masterpiece end up for one last grab at redemption.
18 “My Life” My Life (Iris Dement)
If there has ever been a more pure, honest, touching, and self-effacing autobiography ever sung, I haven’t heard it. Throat meet lump—you’ll be hanging out together for a while.
17 “My City of Ruins” The Rising (Bruce Springsteen)
The chilling candlelit version from the post-9/11 America: A Tribute to Heroes telecast will always be etched in my mind. Logical then that it would also close out Bruce’s full-length response to the attacks.
16 “Working Man” Rush (Rush)
When you think of working class anthems, you likely go for Springsteen, possibly Mellencamp, but the ultra-simple closer from Rush’s first is a monstrous 7-minute epic that makes one wonder what the band’s future would’ve held without the presence of Neil Peart and his binder of often impenetrable sci-fi mishmash (which this author loves unabashedly).
15 “Train in Vain” London Calling (The Clash)
Technically not disqualified as a hidden track. Wisely added at the last minute to the original running order, but after the initial artwork was already at the printers so it didn’t show up on the original track list (the rock star’s version of your wife not picking up your suit from the cleaners). Subsequent pressings correct the error.
14 “Who Are You” Who Are You (The Who)
Another absolutely epic closer from Pete Townshend. (See also “Love Reign O’er Me” from Quadrophenia, a song so good it couldn’t even be spoiled by the melodramatic courtroom scene from Adam Sandler’s mediocre Reign Over Me.) Minor irritation from the CSI franchise affiliation drops it down into the low-teens.
13 “Lawyers, Guns and Money” Excitable Boy (Warren Zevon)
After CIA manhunts, homicidal prom dates, and mutilated little old ladies, it’s only appropriate that Excitable Boy’s cliffhanger season finale ends in a Honduran prison with a hastily concocted exit strategy brewing.
12 "Here Comes a Regular" Tim (The Replacements)
One of the all-time great drinking songs (see God Loves a Drunk mixtape elsewhere). It sounds like Paul Westerberg is sick of himself, and pretty much everything and everybody else, too. Worn out and ragged. Not a Cheers episode to be sure. At the end, he blows the joint, and the album, last drink unpaid.
11 “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” Bringing It All Back Home (Bob Dylan)
Not only does he completely, and effortlessly, crush Donovan with this in Don’t Look Back, he then buries it on side two behind “It’s Alright Ma”, “Gates of Eden”, and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The audacity.
10 “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” Why Can’t We Be Friends? (War)
They had the opportunity to really make this an anthem for the times, but the lyrics? Not so good (particularly the part about the CIA and the Mafia). Most were forgiving, choosing to focus primarily on the oft repeated (45X!), impossibly catchy chorus. Credit where downgraded credit is due, the line “I’d kinda like to be the President, so I can show you where your money’s spent” seems eerily prescient now.
9 “In the Ghetto” From Elvis in Memphis (Elvis Presley)
Col. Tom Parker's corpse should be exhumed from his grave and his skull cavities grudge-fucked by every Elvis impersonator in the land for allowing Elvis to sign his 60s-wasting movie contract. There is no telling what we lost in that deal musically, but From Elvis in Memphis gives us a clue. This is his Rick Rubin-esque comeback record. His finest, most complete record ever, debut excluded of course. And its final track shows a side Elvis had never revealed before, but we never doubted was there.
8 “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” Let it Bleed (The Rolling Stones)
It’s a cliché in more ways than one, I know. Even the film adaptation of our Bible (Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity) claims that its mere association with The Big Chill should disqualify it from list consideration. But we contend that only applies to a funeral-based use of the song. Closing song credentials are hereby reinstated by the Supreme Court—List Division.
7 “Waterloo Sunset” Something Else by The Kinks (The Kinks)
Sure, it works as the stunning closer to a classic record. But it would’ve also worked as a film treatment, poem, romance novel, love letter, travel guide, postcard, postscript, screensaver, snapshot, painting, poster, or diary entry. With so much to contemplate, another song would’ve spoiled the perpetual contentment this song inspires.
6 “A Day in the Life” Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles)
The most definitive final chord ever recorded. Nothing could’ve or should’ve come next. Dropped a few slots for the superfluous studio chatter in the run-out groove. Save your breath, Beatlemaniacs, I don’t even want to hear it.
5 “Redemption Song” Uprising (Bob Marley)
The last song on his last record, no less, making this the greatest final song of a career ever. An acoustic anthem, a call to arms, a fitting epitaph.
4 “Jungleland” Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)
Evidence suggests that Springsteen is also the boss at closing out records. “Jungleland” was born to runaway from the pack, a street drama that could be a Broadway show tomorrow (Bruce, I beg of you, leave such bloated pursuits to Bono). Bruce has given us “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” from his debut, the epic “New York City Serenade” from his second, “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A., and the criminally undervalued “My Beautiful Reward” from the overly dismissed Lucky Town. And, if case you’ve forgotten, three others from this list alone. “Jungleland” gets bonus points for being Clarence Clemons’ finest recorded moment. We’ll never listen to his masterful solo the same way again. One small sax for a Big Man, one large sax solo for Bigmankind.
3 “When the Levee Breaks” IV (Led Zeppelin)
There’s reason to believe that if you walked down to the bottom of the stairwell at Headley Grange, the coolest rock and roll mansion with the possible exception of Keith Richards’ Nellcote in the South of France, the sound of John Bonham’s drums would still faintly be reverberating off the walls. Famous sludgy “backward” echo effects on the harmonica and guitars only add to the feeling that the album isn’t necessarily ending, but begging to go back into the house for some more of that basement thunder.
2 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” Who’s Next (The Who)
If Grammys were awarded for sequencing (and why the fuck not, really, what difference would it make?), The Who would've walked away with an armload in 1971. Best opening track: "Baba O'Riley." Best second track: "Bargain." Best penultimate track: "Behind Blue Eyes." And, without further ado, the best final track goes to (fumble nervously with envelope) "Won’t Get Fooled Again"! Yawn. No surprise no suspense. A blowout. Pete didn’t bother to even show up (Roger did, of course). One of the more anticlimactic, no-brainer moments in award show history to be sure. Flash forward; it's now an AOR warhorse, usually trotted out when the DJ has to burn a mule. But, really, what you have here is a masterpiece of epic scope. If only for the drumming. The scream. The guitars. The concept. Please, I beg of you, hone your skills at listening again like it’s your first time (note: process doesn’t work with your virginity). It is all you thought it was and more. Appendix: Extra points for not slotting the more obvious choice "The Song is Over" last. Appendix II: Pete Townshend & The Who finish an extremely close second (less than .02 points apart) to Bruce in the overall competition. Meet the new boss, Pete.
1 “American Girl” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers)
Can you imagine having an "American Girl" in your arsenal at any point in your career? It would be a career-maker for anyone. Can you imagine having it ready for your debut album? Maybe, you say, lots of classic songs come from debut albums. True, but can you fathom making the call, in an era of front-loaded hits, to slot it in the final position on your first record—right behind "Fool Again (I Don't Like It)," "Mystery Man," and "Luna"? What hubris! Expecting, almost daring, people to hang around that long is Tom Petty in a nutshell and also why Tom's debut finale gets the number one spot. It’s a sure thing drop-dead single on first listen. Easily one of the most memorable and durable radio smashes in rock history (there is no getting tired of it). Anybody can make the call to backload the longest song on a record, no matter how great it may be (people are instinctively drawn to such grandiosity), but would you have the stones to risk such a maneuver if you were an artist, A&R man, or label executive? Thankfully, Tom carried his sack around in a wheelbarrow (and it will never be easy to use the past tense when discussing his music—heavy sigh).