Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are the best album-closing tracks of all-time? — Kris from Glenview, Ill.
Excellent question! Music fans spend a lot of time debating their favorite side 1, track 1’s ever. But while opening an album properly is obviously crucial, it’s also equally important to stick the landing. And yet this seems to be somewhat of an under-appreciated art. However, I’m glad that you and I understand just how vital a classic closing track is, Kris.
There are two kinds of closing tracks. The first kind are the showstoppers. These are the songs that are clear attempts at make a grand, epic, and emotionally overpowering closing statement. It’s like ending a concert with your biggest hit song, so that the audience leaves exhausted but satisfied.
These sorts of climaxes flourished during the classic-rock era, a time when great artists were expected to make masterpieces that took on the aura of instant myths. The first great epic closing track was probably the 11-minute surreal story song “Desolation Row” (from Highway 61 Revisited) by Bob Dylan, who proceeded to write an even longer surreal story song, “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” from his next LP, Blonde On Blonde.
The Beatles and The Rolling Stones naturally followed suit with similarly grandiose album closers like “A Day In The Life” (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and Donald Trump’s favorite Stones track, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (from Let It Bleed). In the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen was the master of the show-stopping album-closer, memorably wrapping Born To Run with the sprawling “Jungleland” and Darkness On The Edge Of Town with the bitter title track. The Who were also big on closing with showstoppers at this time, wrapping Who’s Next with “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Quadrophenia with “Love Reign O’er Me,” and Who Are You with the iconic title track. (Special notice should also be given to Lynyrd Skynyrd, who concluded their 1973 debut Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd with one of the most imposing rock songs ever, “Free Bird.”)
Other notable examples of “showstopper” closers include “Purple Rain” by Prince, “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, “Only In Dreams” by Weezer, “All Apologies” by Nirvana, “Mr. November” by The National, and “Continuous Thunder” by Japandroids. All are songs that you can imagine playing over the closing credits of a movie, or at the conclusion of a eulogy. They strive from profundity, and achieve it.
The other kind of album closer are meditations. These are the songs that attempt to blow you away but not blowing you away. They are quiet, mellow, meditative. They aren’t meant to bring you to your feet, but rather send you deep into yourself and your own feelings.
Perhaps as a reaction against the classic-rock era, this sort of album closer started to become more prominent in the 1980s and onward. The Replacements went to this well a few times, ending the raw and hilarious Let It Be with the melancholy “Answering Machine,” and then doubling down in the sad-sack department on the next album, Tim, by wrapping with Paul Westerberg’s most depressing ballad, “Here Comes A Regular.” Around this time, Talking Heads ended the upbeat and danceable Speaking In Tongues with their prettiest and most straight-forward love song, “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).”
Many of my favorite album closers from the last 20 years fall into the “meditations” camp. Interpol closed Turn On The Bright Lights with the album’s best ballad, “Leif Erickson.” My personal favorite Bon Iver song, “Re: Stacks,” comes at the end of For Emma, Forever Ago, and one of the best Arcade Fire songs, “My Body Is A Cage,” wraps Neon Bible. And then there’s “Bound 2,” a slice of throwback soul that wraps Kanye West’s last great masterpiece, Yeezus, on a surprisingly warm note.
But if I had to pick one of these songs, I would have to go with … Freeeeeee Biiiiiiird.
Do you miss the days when a publication could sink a band from a poor review? Do you wish critics were still taken as seriously as they used to be? Or am I just naive and they do still have that type of pull? —Tyler, Griggsville, Ill.
Oh my, Tyler! So many questions here but on assumptions that I’m not sure are entirely accurate.
Let me begin by answering your question at face value: Of course I don’t want to sink anyone’s career! One of the most fulfilling parts of being critic is finding a great artist or band who is being ignored by the public, and exposing them to your readers. I want to help, not sink. And I actually feel like critics still have the power to help independent artists in that way, though we don’t exercise that power as often as we should.
Getting back to the idea of critics having the power to “sink” a band — I really don’t think this was ever true! Critics historically have acted as a kind of check on the marketplace, writing about artists who might not otherwise get played on the radio or garner much support from the music industry. Rarely have critics had the power to actual hurt artists who are already enormously popular.
To pick a random example, let’s look at 1979, a year when you might be expect music criticism to be in its prime. That year, the most acclaimed artists in the annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll were, in order, Graham Parker, Neil Young, The Clash, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello. Today, we still remember most of these artists as all-time greats. (The exception might be Parker, who is relatively obscure now, though he does have several really good albums that hold up!) And the reason we remember these acts, aside from their obvious artistic merits, is that critics championed them in spite of their so-so commercial prospects.
Now let’s look at some of the best-selling artists of 1979: Billy Joel, the Blues Brothers, the Doobie Brothers, the Bee Gees, Supertramp, Donna Summer, the Knack, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles. Most of these acts were critically reviled. Billy Joel, whose 52nd Street was the year’s best-selling record, was actually once dismissed by Robert Christgau with one word: “yuck.” And yet that “yuck” did little to derail the Piano Man.
My point is that critics have always had some pull when it comes to smaller artists (sometimes classified as “critics’ artists”), and minimal pull when it comes to dissuading the public from loving who they already love. And that’s probably … as it should be? I actually would hate it if someone stopped listening to music because of me, even if that music is made by Ed Sheeran. I’d rather try to initiate more listening of other kinds of music.
In 2014, you wrote a great piece about the most important American bands since the 1960s. Now that the 2010s are closing, is there a band that won the 2010s? Or at least who won 2015-2019? — Brady from New York City
You are referring to the “American Band Championship Belt” column I wrote for Grantland five years ago. I still hear from people about that one, and they often want to know who I think “won” the back half of the decade.
Before we get to that, I should offer some backstory for the uninitiated: The idea here is to look at every year since the mid-’60s to determine who the emblematic American band of that time was. Artistry is obviously an important part of the equation, but so is popularity and impact. In fact, I tend to lean more on the latter than the former, because it has less to do with taste than factors that are actually quantifiable (album and ticket sales, Top 40 chart performance, influence, etc.).
If I went strictly by own taste, I would be tempted to go with The War On Drugs or Big Thief as winners of the American Band Championship Belt in the past several years. However, if I veer away from my own personal preferences, I would have to hand Twenty One Pilots the belt for 2015 and ’16, given the massive success of their 2015 album Blurryface. And then I would give the belt to Imagine Dragons for 2017 and ’18, when they were riding high on singles like “Believer” and “Thunder” from their 2017 LP Evolve.
As for 2019, I’m giving the belt to Bon Iver, given that they were able to graduate to playing arenas (which is quantifiable “winning”) in support of one of their best albums, i,i (which is based on my subjective reading of their artistic quality). Congrats, Bon Iver! Enjoy your time in the center of the ring!