How often is the last track the best track? I went through my iTunes and discovered a lot of great albums that fizzle a bit by the time track six or so rolls along -- and even a piece that’s strong all the way through can fail to present a last track, or a last movement, that really brings it up to the next level, provides a punch, or makes you want to start at the beginning again. So I catalogued some collections that do have this feature, where the last track is actually my favorite, and I tried to categorize them. What are the approaches that make for a memorable last track?
This all started with a trip through The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, the underrated 1999 album that actually manages to subtly dramatize twenty-something life in such a way that you don’t immediately notice that’s what they’re doing. I’m crazy about the last track, “Back and Forth,” which is nothing but a gift at the end of the road. Just an irresistible groove and the best white-man indie-rock band rap you’re going to hear, with terrific lyrics -- a poetic highlight but certainly not a locus of intensity. It’s just fun.
A composition teacher once told me that the last movement should be cake. “Back and Forth” is an example -- we’ve worked through some knotty stuff, some angst, some funny time signatures, and now it’s time for a four-minute party. The classic example of this approach, from a totally different tradition, is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We start off with fate and thunderbolts, and it all builds not to the very end but to the transition into the last movement, where we hit C Major all at once and BAM -- cake and punch. Party time.
1. The last movement should be cake.
This idea of a smooth ending section following a more dense and intense journey runs through a lot of my discoveries. There is a similar category in which the last movement serves to contextualize the journey, to shift the listener’s perspective on what came before.
My favorite examples of this effect come from recent classical music. I’m thinking of George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening, a long piece with lots of thorny bits and tons of silence, and then suddenly after like twenty-five minutes you get the “Song of Reconciliation,” a long coda that recontextualizes all the dissonant ideas, all the silence and distance, into a warm and inviting ostinato that slowly draws the music to a close.
Perhaps even more dramatic is the final movement of Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, a piece that starts off thornier than the Crumb, with microtonal scratchings that sound like a swarm of wasps and dances of death and all that until it crashes into the last movement, Moderato pastorale -- another ostinato, a Beethoven quotation, warm and limpid music that nonetheless keeps you on edge, largely because of where it came from. It completely changes the way you think of the first four movements.
The White Stripes are also practitioners of this strategy -- check out “It’s true that we love one another” at the end of Elephant and, to a lesser extent, “Effect and Cause” and “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”, from Icky Thump and Get Behind Me Satan, respectively. The first one especially casts the first part of the album in a new light. They all lighten the proceedings a bit, streamlining the style of the record into a little digestible package, smooth, calming. Not necessarily cake; more like an after-dinner mint.
2. The last movement should recontextualize what has come before.
These last examples lead us to a separate category of simplification, streamlining; of capping things off with a pop explosion. Beck does this a lot: look at little old two-chord “Debra” at the end of Midnite Vultures, reining in the musical and lyrical experimentation a bit and telling a funny story instead. The same with “Atmospheric Conditions” on One Foot in the Grave and even “Ramshackle” that quietly brings Odelay home.
3. The last movement should be a simple package of pop.
Or there’s the opposite approach, building to an intensification of meaning. The Beatles were great at this, swinging for the fences with album-ending experiments like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “A Day in the Life,” towering achievements both. Then of course there’s the second-side medley on Abbey Road, an album I find overrated, but the intent is the same. Get your “Here Comes the Sun”s out of the way first and then hit them with the big ideas, the brain-expanders.
Or how about Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight? Tons of fun, catchy driving music, and then at the end you get “Vittorio E”, abstract, repetitive, open-ended; “I took a river and it wouldn’t let go/I want you to stay and I want you to go/I took a river and the river was long and it goes on.”
Another impressive example is the one-two at the end of Source Tags & Codes, by And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. The first half of the album is full of catchy but shallower tracks that pull you in by sheer visceral punch. Then they draw up to “Relative Ways” and the title track at the end; not as heavy, but nonetheless they leave you with that feeling that something just happened.
4. Any piece should build to an intensification of meaning.
Incidentally, the best one-two closer I can think of is surely that of Led Zeppelin IV, right? “Going to California” and “When the Levee Breaks”? Perfect balladry followed by stretched-out kickass blues explosion with the hugest drums ever? Terrific stuff. A combination of a couple different approaches there.
Some others that don’t fit into any of my categories? How about “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”? Definitely my favorite from London Calling, which is too long and stylistically diverse to be easily parsed. Also “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” from Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, not necessarily my one and only favorite tune from that stunning record but definitely a strong statement, bold for its personal topics, poetic exploration, and sheer length. I guess you could call that an intensification of meaning, and it certainly draws together a lot of the strands from earlier on the album.
Not a comprehensive list even among my favorites, and of course it’s clear to see that these strategies are interrelated. But isn’t it interesting to realize how many albums don’t give you that memorable last track? These are my guesses as to what’s going on with a few albums that do. Any additions or revisions?
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