With the decade coming to a close, as a music fan it’s hard not to look back at all these years from a musical standpoint. A lot of truly historical albums were released during the past ten years, as we have attempted to assess through our various decade-oriented lists. Whether it was the IDM infused rock of Kid A or the grandiose art-rock of Funeral, a few landmark albums were released by some of the best bands that this new generation has to offer.
Anything truly great, however, has to go out with elegance, poise, and style. Sometimes a final word can mean everything. How something ends can influence the perspective with which you look back at everything that preceded it. In a way, music released this year works as a sort of frame of reference for looking back at the decade’s musical merit. Bands that didn’t even exist at the beginning of the decade (Phoenix, Passion Pit, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Antlers) released great albums, which drew influence from the various records that we have come to cherish over the course of these ten years. Bands that had just budded at the beginning of the decade released what some would consider career-defining records (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors); great retrospective tools for looking at their respective discographies analytically. In the same way that a great album ends with a beautiful, conclusive summation of itself, I see 2009 as a great decade-closer in it’s own right.
But, of the great albums released during the first decade of the 21st century, certain albums (and bands, as you’ll see) got the album closer down better than others. The following list is a collection of songs that seem to perfectly sum up the albums that they conclude. Some do this sonically, by tying all of the auditory motifs from within the album into one culminating idea, or even by stepping away from them. Others do it lyrically, by attempting to summarize the thoughts and ideas found throughout the album verbally. And the best do both simultaneously. These songs work as a sort of breaking system, a way of slowing down and easing out of the potentially high-energy songs at the core of the records, so that we can open the doors and get out safely. They make us understand just how deliberate the sequencing of a record is, how well balanced the songs on a great album really are. And, some make us want to simply replay the record immediately. These songs end things on a note that simply seems perfect in context with the rest of the music.
So here it is, the Top 10 Best Album Closers of the decade:
10. LCD Soundsystem – “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”
After eight tracks of danceable, funky, electronic-infused rock, James Murphy slows things down to end Sound of Silver. With this slow-building piano ballad about his city, Murphy looks back to the noisier, more cluttered moments of his record, and for that matter his life. Like most of the song, the track blossoms into grandiosity from a mere few layers, but not in the same manner as the prior tracks. Where programmed blips and drum machines opened all of the previous songs, a shockingly quiet acoustic piano leads us in, until crashing drums and electric strums catch us off guard. Here, Murphy proves, both sonically and lyrically, that sometimes you need to take a step back from all of the chaos of life and admit your deepest feelings to understand them. Murphy steps away from the computers and programming in order end an album bursting with technological and philosophical quandaries.
9. My Morning Jacket – “Strangulation”
At Dawn is a long record. To be specific, it’s 70 minutes of spacious, progressive southern rock. But At Dawn’s final song, especially in combination with its antecedent track, “Phone Went West”, is certainly worth the wait. In fact, it may just be the best the band has ever sounded. If nothing else, it is a perfect go-to for describing the range of sounds the band so seemingly effortlessly combines into one. The song can best be described as some strangely perfect amalgamation of Noise-prog-folk-psychedelia. Following the beautiful, angst-ridden reggae of “Phone Went West,” a flurry of distortion and hard-hitting chaos enters in. Faint, distanced screams are engulfed in noise before a sole acoustic guitar paves way for Jim James’ country-tinged swoon. That recorded-in-a-wheat-silo reverb that James has become so synonymous with sings depressingly about the desire for numbness. Lush pedal-steel and drums enter as the lyrics grow darker and darker, and progressively suicidal: “I don’t want to feel a thing.” But just before the song’s dark instrumental climax, James presents a sense of twisted hope amidst the misery: “But I know there’s someone that loves up above/And wants to fix you a dream./He wants to sit down and think./He wants to pour you a drink./And you wont feel a thing./You wont feel a thing.” Then waves of distortion and screams smother all else, and you don’t feel a thing but sheer joy in witnessing it all go down.
8. The Streets – “Empty Cans”
Mike Skinner is a very underrated songwriter, and just an underrated storyteller for that matter. A Grand Don’t Come For Free is one of the most compelling stories to be turned into music in quite some time. In brief, the story goes like this: Guy loses a thousand pounds (British currency, not weight), guy falls in love with girl, guy makes some (often consumption-related) poor decisions, guy sulks, guy gets dumped by girl, guy sulks again, guy comes to terms with his situation and looks on the bright side, guy finds the thousand pounds he lost in the beginning. But it’s really how the story ends that’s most brilliant. In a two-part track entitled “Empty Cans”, two sections begin with the exact same line: “If I want to sit in and drink super tennants in the day I will/No-ones going to fucking tell me jack/But can you rely on anyone in this world? /No you can’t/Its not my fault there’s wall to wall empty cans.”
At this point, Mike Skinner has drunk himself into oblivion, and thus spends half of the track talking about his unfortunate situation in an undeniably spiteful manner. “No one gives a crap about mike/That’s why I’m acting nasty,” skinner speak-raps. But half-way through, the track stops and the sound of speedy rewinding takes us back to the very opening line. The same hard-hitting beat comes in again, but this time with bright, solemn piano to accompany it. As the track continues, Skinner accepts his faults, accepts his flaws, and finally realizes that things don’t always work out. Just as he comes to this realization, Skinner finds the very source of most of his woes, the money he lost all the way back on track one. It’s a bittersweet ending to the story of one common guy just trying to get by.
7. Arcade Fire – “My Body is a Cage”
Win Butler and the rest of Arcade Fire really went all out with ending their sophomore masterpiece, Neon Bible. To conclude an album filled with spiteful church motifs, an ominous organ accompanies Butler as he philosophizes body vs. mind in “an age that calls darkness light.” The song slowly grows, introducing haunting choirs and strings, until it reaches its startling climax, a militant blast of drums, strings, and the like. The whole way through, the song describes a sort of paralyzing pressure. The narrator begs for freedom from a body that inhibits his ability to do what his mind desires. With such vague, yet stirring imagery, the song sets itself up for a wide array of interpretations, ending the thought-provoking album with a prompt for even more speculation. It’s hard to tell just what Butler’s getting at, but the grandiose intensity of the track says a lot about the powerful emotions he’s describing. Neon Bible certainly poses many specific questions throughout its duration, but perhaps its most important one comes at the end, when Butler starts questioning the very basic idea of existence; living inside of a body and having no say in the matter.
6. Radiohead – “Life in a Glasshouse”
Concluding their most inaccessible record to date, the boys of Radiohead semi-rebelliously explore some previously untouched sounds with the Amnesiac closer. The song opens with the same ambient, synthetic, eerie feel of the rest of the tracks. But, in direct contrast with the rest of the record, the tune utilizes predominantly live, old-time instrumentation. Instilling the collaborative effort of traditional jazz trumpeter, Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, “Life in a Glasshouse” is a truly breathtaking exercise in genre defiance. Just when you thought Radiohead had already broken all of the ground that they were standing on, the guys decide to record a song in the style of a New Orleans funereal tune to catch us all off guard. Nevertheless, even with such a seemingly different aesthetic, Radiohead adequately perpetuate the same mood and feelings found on all of Amnesiac’s previous songs, proving that there really are no limits to what this band is capable of. If a group can craft a song that utilizes the New Orleans Jazz aesthetic, yet still fits in with the off-kilter, mostly electronic-based tracks that surround it, then something truly special is going on. The music, in combination with cryptic lines only Thom Yorke could conjure, presents a song that is at once haunting and tantalizing. In other words, a Radiohead song, and one of their best at that.
5. Arcade Fire – “In the Backseat”
I often forget about the first time I heard “In the Backseat”. The first time you hear the song in the context of the album, it’s a bit jarring. I remember thinking, “Where is Win Butler? What’s going on? This song isn’t depressing.” But, after a while, I forgot about this initial reaction. I came to realize that in many ways, “In the Backseat” is the only way that Funeral could end. After all of the emotional intensity found in Win Butler’s howls, what we really need are some bright, lighter sounds. We need Regine Chassagne’s sweet voice to gradually ease us away from all that turmoil. Her words are comforting and reassuring in their blitheness, almost like a breath of fresh air after inhaling smoke for the whole album. As the song builds, it grows so refreshingly lush and harmonious that we can finally forget all of the problems presented before. As she belts out “I’ve been learning how!” howling like a wolf, her voice cuts into you. She comes across as a more accessible, warmer Bjork, passionately wailing alongside the cinematic strings that provide backup. With this song as the finale, Funeral ends on a high note and leaves little to mourn for.
4. The National – “Mr. November”
Whether the song references Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, being the President of the United States, or all of the above, the emotions on The National’s glorious Alligator album-closer are so universal, that the specific allusion is almost irrelevant. When Berninger repeats the phrase “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders,” for some reason, we all know exactly what he means. As he unleashes his desperate, feigned reassurance, “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November!” a feeling of intense hopelessness comes with it. “Mr. Novemeber” is a classic example of how with each of their songs, the National builds a sense of tranquility, caves in on itself, but somehow manages to make it out alive.
3. Radiohead – “Videotape”
Before the release of In Rainbows, there was much speculation as to how the final studio version of “Videotape” would sound. The band had performed several versions of the song live during their “testing” tour and many people were curious as to just what kind of song “Videotape” really was. As a result, some fans were initially disappointed with the finalized studio version; a subdued, minimal electronic laden piano ballad. But, with each listen, the perfection behind “Videotape” becomes clearer and clearer. What results is a song that delicately sums up the record’s principal theme, the ambivalence that comes with loving another human being. With just piano and what sounds like the whirring of film tape, Yorke sets the track up in anticipation for his own imminent death. Almost as if he’s discussing his own will in the form of a video message, he cries out “When I’m at the Pearly Gates/This’ll be on my videotape.” Presumably he is expressing his unconditional love for people he holds dear to his heart (“This is my way of saying goodbye”), but in his own words, he “can’t do it face to face.” Thus, he is leaving this song as a testament to those he loves.
Due to its intended message, the song simply couldn’t be as hard-hitting as some of the band’s live renditions would have suggested. The true beauty of videotape is in its subtlety. Everything about the song’s aesthetic is understated. For a piece with such heartbreaking lyrics, this means a great deal. It’s all in the way that the music’s gradual dissonance accentuates the conflicted message of having to say goodbye to the people you love more than anything in the world. “You are my center when I spin away,” Yorke cries as eerily out-of-time programmed drumrolls combine with drummer Phil Selway’s stickwork and Yorke’s spooked-out background croon. It’s as poignant a song as they come, from a band that pretty much got the idea of the album-closer down to a tee.
2. Okkervil River – “Okkervil River Song”
The eponymous track that concludes the debut album from Austin, Texas’ Okkervil River is an acoustic folk-ballad as lush and poignant as they come. The song begins with acoustic guitar strums, accordion, and sandpaper blocks, before beautiful mandolin dances its way in. It’s difficult to find any information on what significance the Russian river holds for Will Sheff and co, but the band’s name is taken from a story of the same name about the river, by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. In the song, Sheff paints a picture of a disgusting, polluted river “slow, silent, thick, and black.” By “cigarettes and rusty tires” Sheff describes a romantic, sensual scene where the narrator and his significant other escape to from “ugliness” to “find some refuge here.” At its core, the song describes turning something grotesque into an uncharacteristic paradise; finding beauty amidst chaos.
With his lover, the narrator finds solace on the banks of a dirty river, as it’s one of the few places where the two can be away from everything else. But as the song concludes, the narrator comes to realize that without his lover there, the river is merely the cesspool it appears to be. The song ends on a note of ambivalence as multiple voices cry out in a cappella, “And I woke up one cold morning/Felt an absence at my back/And I searched and stared/But only the river stared back.” Here, Sheff questions what makes a given place significant to any single person. The song’s narrator clearly feels a strong connection with this location, but soon realizes that it’s not the place that he loves, but the memories tied to it. Without the memories, the place loses all of the meaning it once held. For a record that focuses on deteriorating relationships, this gorgeous song does a great deal of justice for the rest of the record, setting Sheff up as one of the most exciting songwriters of the decade.
1. Radiohead – “Motion Picture Soundtrack”
Life is not like the movies and the members of Radiohead know it. And somehow, in a uniquely complex fashion, they have captured the feelings that accompany this realization to near perfection. Put simply, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is an ironic take on contrasting real world situations and relationships to those portrayed in film—a sort of backhanded joke, played out so beautifully that you might miss it if you aren’t paying attention. The song’s music purposefully imitates the whimsical and peaceful cinematic orchestrations of old 1950s Walt Disney films, most notably the music accompanying “The Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy” in 1942’s Fantasia. Though imitating these beautifully elegant sounds, there is quite a bit of sadness in the notes as a downbeat pedal organ plays alongside exploding whirling harp strums, all of which eventually overwhelm the vocals.
Whereas the music imitates that of blissful motion pictures, Yorke’s lyrics seem to completely contradict the happy-ending nature of these films. As he sings, “Stop sending letters/letters always get burned,” there is a sense that all hope for anything is lost, yet the music seems to build here into the most gorgeous sounds on the whole song as harp crescendos return joined by high pitched whirring choir vocals after a brief pause in the music. Though this seems counter intuitive, the song’s beauty is most revealed here, in that this contrast does not immediately jump out, but is still meant to confuse; it is meant to conflict the emotions, playing tricks on the mind. The song toys with the way listeners connect emotions with the music they hear. As Yorke sulks over a failed relationship, he finally comes to terms with everything and lets go: “I will see you in the next life.” A long pause follows before a brief swell of ethereal sound emerges from nothing and drops out back to silence. It plays out as if the gap is some sort of sonic purgatory and the swell, which sounds how a beam of holy light breaking through the dark clouds would sound if it produced noise, is entering heaven. And there you have it, with “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, Radiohead ends Kid A by letting you at least hear what heaven sounds like. And hell, that’s the way it should be.