In the film “High Fidelity,”
which remains pop culture’s closest brush with music elitism
(read: “record nerds”), obnoxious clerk Barry (Jack
Black) asks mopey store owner Rob Gordon (John Cusack) for his top
five all time “side one’s, track one’s.” An
important question, to be sure, but it highlights a far more basic
concept: The first track on the album has as much to do with the
album’s success as any other moment. It can be gripping and
unavoidable, or merely the first brick laid on the path of boredom
and frivolity.

Mira Levitan

So sub-question: What about the closer? While lead tracks tend
to be the most memorable — as well as the most frequently
played song — the true success of an album often lies in the
ability of its last-gasp effort to leave an emotional imprint.

The importance of an album closer is inexorably linked to belief
in the “Album as Journey,” a concept that didn’t
develop until the 1960s. It is an idea that grew strongly in the
world of rock music, and as such, it excludes some of the finest
music ever made: blues, Motown and early country music were tied to
the notion that singles were the bread and butter of music and that
albums were merely a byproduct, a necessity of exposure and
economics.

Since then, however, many of the finest albums released in the
sphere of popular music have ascribed to the notion that an album
should transport a listener, and that its tracks should flow
smoothly into one another. The Beatles’ Sgt.
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
is exemplary of this
approach: a cycle of singular songs, bound by themes and
textures.

The ideal album closer is more than just a strong song sequenced
at the end of a record. It should be, if not the emotional and
sonic core of an album, then at least a resonating representation
of the album’s themes. The Beatles’ Revolver,
widely considered one of the finest pop albums ever produced, ends
with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a fine song even by that
band’s lofty standards, but not the resounding coda that
album deserved.

Further examination of classic album enders reveal two distinct
trends. The first is that of community music best exemplified by
the Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River” from
Stop Making Sense or the Rolling Stones’ “You
Can’t Always Get What You Want,” from Let It
Bleed
. This trend finds the artist ending on a usually
uplifting note, incorporating a chorus of voices, united in spirit
and message. The second, more art-damaged notion is the
artist-as-troubadour and usually features the singer, accompanied
by sparse instrumentation, closing the album on a simple, solitary
note. The Replacements’ “Answering Machine” from
Let It Be and Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the
Lowlands” from Blonde on Blonde come immediately to
mind, but the examples are too many to name.

Of course, falling into one of these categories is by no means
essential to producing a standout finish. Elvis Costello struck
gold with “Watching the Detectives,” which was
thematically and aurally removed from the remainder of My Aim Is
True
, yet still managed to sum his vision. It can be argued
that a fantastic closer isn’t a necessary component of a good
album. The Pixies, indie rock’s flagship band, released four
unbelievable albums without producing a pure closer.
Radiohead’s OK Computer, surely one of the
1990’s best albums, ends with one of the band’s weakest
songs (“The Tourist”). Neil Young’s timeless
After the Gold Rush and the Beatles’ White
Album
both close on similarly disappointing notes.

The necessity and impact of album finales is easily put up for
debate: Great music and great records have undoubtedly been
produced without such summations of intent. There is no denying the
emotional impression that such a track can leave, if executed
correctly.

The very best? “High Fidelity” etiquette dictates
that the only way to end such a circular debate is to roll out the
lists and argue. One hack’s favorites: Tom Waits’
“Anywhere I Lay My Head,” from Rain Dogs, The
Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” from Sticky
Fingers
, Radiohead’s “Motion Picture
Soundtrack,” from Kid A, Blur’s “No
Distance Left to Run,” from 13 and John Lee
Hooker’s “The Waterfront” from The Real Folk
Blues
.

 

Andrew desperately tried to fit Archers of Loaf into this
column, but he was heinously censored. Send sympathy to
“mailto:agaerig@umich.edu”>agaerig@umich.edu.

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