Top 5 Album Closers

Claire: We’re closing out our month long amble down record collection lane with album closers. Joshua and I had a long discussion about this post after I admitted that post by post, it’s come to my attention that I skip out on the end of most albums. Even some of my favorite albums contain mysterious final tracks that I’ve never reached. Why? Boredom sometimes, but more often it feels like the rhythm and narrative of the album got lost in the last few tracks, and after the penultimate and pre-penultimate, I can’t sit through another assault on my mini musical experience. Leave your favorite album closers, and closer criteria, in the comments! Maybe this post and your suggestions can end my stint as an album closer novice.

“The Big Country,” by the Talking Heads on Talking Heads 77

The Big Country is the epitomy of a proper album send-off. After a musical smorgasbord, this track winds you down, but not too much, not too fast. Perfectly paced, and still in pace with the album as a whole, with a solid last track length. If I’ve learned anything from our month of album posts, it’s that you never really want to leave a Talking Heads album. Once it’s on, once it gets going, it’s hard to give it up, hard to let it end. The Big Country is so satisfying it’s downright quenching.  And when Talking Heads 77 is done, you’ll probably replay the album (I know, you can’t help it) but if for some reason you couldn’t listen through again—if there was a tornado or some kind of martian landing— you could walk away and be okay. Until you remember Stop Making Sense, and then wipe out your schedule and cozy up to David Byrne, cause you’re a goner.

 “Jackson,” by Lucinda Williams on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Around the time I turned 16, my family spent a week in St. Cloud Minnesota, the town where I was born. We stayed with my parents’ friend Julie’s house, where we shucked corn in the backyard, ate mole off of plates perched on our laps, and flailed our open, stinging palms through the air, swatting mosquitos. It’s strange to say three cities later,  but everyone seemed so much more alive in Minnasota. My dad was on the radio, bonfires sprung up and filled with my parents’ college friends, and my sister and I ran free. I tasted my first beer that week (and developed a lifelong hatred of Leinenkugels), got my ears pierced, and spent the morning of my 16th birthday walking right down the center of an endless, empty road. I picked up this album at a record store called The Electric Fetus and listened to it relentlessly.

There’s a great line in Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, about listening to “I Will Always Love You” over and over again, and crying because she had never experienced that kind of love. During that week in St. Cloud, I felt ready to grow up and be tumultous, adventurous, and achingly heartbroken, as soon as I could, and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was my window into a life I didn’t have yet, but could reach out and almost touch.

“Save Me,” by Aimee Mann on Bachelor No. 2 or the Last Remains of the Dodo

I was in the throes of a bad breakup, and bingeing on sad girl music (…like Fergie) and a newly reacquired cigarette habit, when I got introduced to Bachelor No. 2. I remember that summer as being rainy and constantly dark, though looking back it was so sunny that I came home daily with a pink, scabby sunburn. And I also remember this album being a pitch-perfect ode to heartbreak, so personalized Mann may as well have laced my name through the choruses. But it’s not, not really. It’s heartbreak and growing up and being so strange inside that new love, someday, feels unlikely. I think this is where I ended up five years after I had exhausted Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, when I really was heartbroken and a little more grown up, and it was a lot less delicious than I had imagined.

“One Man Guy,” by Loudon Wainwright on BBC Sessions

Loudon Wainwright III is the world’s saddest man. If there were a “Sad, old guy singing sad songs” version of the Hunger Games, he would win in a heartbeat. He would get a walloping score from the Gamemakers, based on a freestyle ode to his lost loves and distant children. He would pull out a guitar and beat Leonard Cohen death, then melt everyone into a depressive heap with his pretty, lowkey songs, rife with death and loss and major life mistakes. (Oh my glob I want to cast the Sad Old Guy Hunger Games. What are we thinking, guys? Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe, wild card from District Experimental, Brian Eno…) (I’m reading the Hunger Games and they’re actually haunting my dreams. And this post, apparently.)

“One Man Guy” is an apt ending to a live-ish album: Loudon in concert is a carnival of kooky facial expressions, quips, and goofy smiles, all working together to cleverly mask some of the wrenching sadness in his songs. This song is an exploration of his lodged-in-his-bones-loneliness, and a quick peek behind his live performance mask.

“Murder of One,” by the Counting Crows on August and Everything After

Murder of One is a great big “things are going to change” song. It’s also solid internal montage music: If you need to imagine that things will change, for the better, in a quick, several scene cuts kind of way (instead of in the usual slow, up and down, un-soundtracked way that life works) this is your song. A nice, almost upbeat ending to a brooding, emotional rollercoaster of an album.

Honorable Mentions

“Rock Me to Sleep,” by Jill Sobule on Pink Pearl: Pink Pearl is the worst kind of album: Heartbreakingly sad, and equally catchy. It’s a lovely hummable type of torture, full of failed heroes and cruel lovers and Mary Kay Latourneau. “Rock Me to Sleep” is a pitch-perfect send off—a song about unbearable loneliness masquerading as a lullabye.

“Stumbling Through the Dark,” by The Jayhawks on Rainy Day Music: Another con—the opening sounds lighthearted and playful, but listen to the lyrics for a second and it’s another lovely ramble on sadness and confusion.

“Montana,” by Frank Zappa on Over-Nite SensationWeird and fun, like this whole album. Makes me miss the “I might be moving to Montana soon/ To raise me up a crop of dental floss” pin I made in high school. It had a green field on it with tiny boxes of dental floss growing out of the ground.

Joshua’s List:

“Lawyers, Guns, and Money” by Warren Zevon, on Excitable Boy

The first line is so good: “I went home with a waitress…the way I always do.” It begins with a count-off. It’s loud, crass, and mean. It’s the perfect way to end Excitable Boy. Oh, and the music is pretty damn cool too. I love big guitars, both as a wall of sound and actual physically big guitars. And I can only assume this song has both.

“Sad Songs and Waltzes” by Cake, on Fashion Nugget

I may have mentioned this song before, but as Cake is one of my favorite bands they’re going to get a lot of mentions. And they actually don’t have very many good album closers, at least none I’d be willing to put on this list. Except for this song, of course. It’s a great cover of a Willie Nelson song, and it fits in perfectly with the whole jilted lover theme they have running through the album. Plus, it’s a nice slow way to end the album, which is my favorite way to end an album. And it’s a ¾ waltz! Who doesn’t like a waltz?

“Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show, on O.C.M.S

Let me preface this song with telling you that I am not a big fan of this band. The album this is on is not very good and the only other standout on the album is a song called “Big Time in the Jungle.” But this is quite possibly the best campfire sing-along song of all time. When I was at St. Mary’s College, it seemed like every single person knew the lyrics to this song and everyone who played guitar knew the key changes. So yeah, it wraps up a bad album, but it does it in one of the happiest ways ever.

“Sons & Daughters” by The Decemberists, on The Crane Wife

I’ve seen The Decemberists three times now, and twice they’ve ended their encores with this song. It’s big, it’s happy, and it’s a sing-along! (Ok, so sing-alongs are a running theme this week.) Every time I hear this song it puts a big smile on my face. It’s the perfect way to end The Crane Wife, which I feel is ostensibly a “winter” album, with the spring peeking out of its hidey hole and giving us hope after a long, dark winter.

“All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints” by Paul Simon, on Graceland

So yeah, I love this album. It’s on three of the four lists we have about albums. But goddamn, this is an amazingly fun song. It’s singy, it’s danceable, it’s balling. Also, props to the many mentions of watermelon. I totally want some after listening to this song.

Honorable Mentions:

“The Hazards of Love 4: The Drowned” by The Decemberists, on The Hazards of Love: Only bumped because of previous mentions and a Decemberists song already on the main list. Otherwise, one of my favorite album closers.

“Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang” by John Lee Hooker, on Live at Café Au-Go-Go: His signature song, and one of the best versions available.

“I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” by Stevie Wonder, on Talking Book: Gets a big positive for closing out the movie version of High Fidelity. But it’s also a crazy good song. Also, the outro is really, really, really funky.

Top 5 Album Openers

Claire: We’re wading through our record collections this month and taking a look at opening tracks, middle tracks, closing tracks, penultimate tracks, with, as always, some musical nostalgia and High Fidelity references thrown in. The idea for this month’s theme started with both of us rereading High Fidelity, as all good ideas do.

So what makes a good album opener? A giant musical blast, or a soft hand-held intro? A song that hints at a great album and delivers, or song that cons you into listening to something subpar? We landed on all of the above.

JOSHUA’s List:

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” by Arcade Fire, on Funeral

This song has the softest opening of any of the songs on this list, but like the album it begins, it swells to a grand and exhilarating scale. It positively exudes the childhood wonder that permeates this album: It’s like Win Butler dropped acid and mentally regressed to age 6 and wrote an album about it. The instrumentation of the song reflects that idea, with wide open, repetitive piano chords and simple, bass drum heavy drumming. This song made me listen to everything Arcade Fire ever wrote.

“Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine, on Lungs

I once told my brother Daniel I’d love to cover this song…if I only had a harp. It’s so infectious. I think it’s the clapping that causes this song to just stick in your head for months after you hear it. And Florence’s voice…Jeebos. Unfortunately, it has a level of promise that the rest of the album just doesn’t quite live up to. And the album is pretty damn good too, but this is a masterpiece, hands down. Just try to get it out of your head. Good luck. Side note: Florence Welch sings about horses all the fucking time.

“The Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon, on Graceland

A perfect way to start what I think is one of the most perfect albums ever written. How Simon makes accordion so appealing, I’ll never know. And that bass! Oh man, I have dreams of being the bassist for this album like three times a week. The lyrical phrasing and timing of this song is great, too: it’s never quite on the beat, but either just behind it or just ahead of it. The song signals what’s to come in the album and glib and ironic ideas of what’s to come in America from 1986 on. And lasers! Bizzow!

“Testify” by Rage Against the Machine, on Battle of Los Angeles

I don’t think you can talk about album openers without talking about Rage Against the Machine. Every album they had opened with an insanely “up” song and this is no exception. And it’s tight. Tight like the whole album is, much more so than their other albums. It’s like the album was designed to be listened to start to finish each time, each song building on the intensity and message of the previous. It may not have been as caustic as the previous albums, but I think it’s their best, and this is the best way to open that album.

“Don’t Carry It All” by The Decemberists, on The King Is Dead

This is my favorite album opener on the list, hands down. Those of you familiar with the Decemberists know that their previous albums were all steeped in the tradition of British folk revival; that is, it sounded like their music was plucked out of a galley of a whaling ship in 1860. This is decidedly different: Big, open major chords, harmonica, beautiful mandolin and backing vocals. It’s the Decemberists’ take on classic Americana. It’s exactly what they sing about: A “turning of the season.” Let’s raise a glass!

Honorable Mentions:

“Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf, on Bat Out of Hell: Almost all of his songs are about losing his virginity, except this one, in where he beefs it on a motorcycle. Bad. Ass.

“1816, the Year Without a Summer” by Rasputina, on Oh Perilous World: Sets the stage for historical epic as commentary on the Iraq war. But this song, as Melora Creager is oft to say at performances, is a song about the weather.

“Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, on Stop Making Sense: God, this was so close to making the top list. It’s amazing. The guitar work is impeccable.


“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” by the Talking Heads, on Remain in Light

I owned “Remain in Light” for years before I listened to the whole album because I could not get past this song. Funky, bizarre, like if Brian Eno and Parliament Funkadelic made a new wave love child. It’s rare to have an album start to with a burst like this, but as you can see from Joshua’s Honorary Mentions, the Talking Heads excel at this: “Burning Down the House” was a track one, as was “And She Was” which, though not as rowdy or bizarre, begins with a jolting “Hey!”

If, like me, you spend part of your week writing about albums, and the bulk of it reading stuff about the War on Women, don’t be surprised when the line “…And I’m a government man” gets stuck in your head. And the reoccuring dream where Rick Santorum dances to “Born Under Punches”? Occupational hazard.

“Box of Rain,” by the Grateful Dead, on American Beauty

The first time I ever listened to the Grateful Dead by myself, outside of my parents’ cars or stereo, was when I was fifteen and suddenly obsessed with “American Beauty.” It’s not a creative first Dead album, but I fell into that deep musical love with it, the kind where you listen to an album on repeat for a whole year with very few pauses for other music. This was the song I replayed the most. Beautiful, gentle, and one of the very few times where Robert Hunter’s odd-quasi-poetic lyrics got under my skin.

“Miss You,” by The Rolling Stones, on Some Girls

Is it weird that I’m always embarassed to write about the Rolling Stones? Is it because every time I play the “What band does everyone like that you don’t?” game with people, The Rolling Stones always come up? (Top 5 answers to that question: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Ramones, The Who, Radiohead) Anyway, great opening to a great album—tense, sonically interesting (shuffling from oohs to aahs, singing to lyrics, and a nice showcase of Jagger’s weird and limited range) (none of those sound like compliments, but really, it’s a good song. Jagger is okay too.), and a solid introduction to the feel of the album overall.

“6’1″,” by Liz Phair, on Exile in Guyville

The irony of the placement here is not lost on me. This was Phair’s first album, so who knew what to expect. But when the guitar starts, and then her funny flat-ish voice throws out a catchy balance of anger and snark and imagery—you want to sit down and listen to the whole record. Even now, when Phair has since sold out and sold back in, has made good albums and not so good albums, when we all know what’s up with her and have for a while, this song has that “I want to know this girl, and I want to hear what she says next” quality.

“Cooksferry Queen,” by Richard Thompson, on Mock Tudor

What can I say? I like a tense opener. Listen to the first few bars of “Miss You” and “Cooksferry Queen” and you’ll understand. This song builds—in speed, in lyrical content, in Thompson’s voice, which goes from smooth and steady to gruff and growling. And it has the classic Thompson song story— Boy named James/Mulvaeney/Insert-British-sounding-name-here meets redheaded/curlyheaded/pigheaded girl, goes on a heady adventure with his ill-fated love, encounters danger/far flung small town locales/psychedelic imagery.  

Honorable Mentions:

“Welcome to the Working Week,” Elvis Costello on My Aim is True: I listened to this song so many times at a long ago terrible job that it will always remind me of crying while eating a sandwich. For all you pop-music-lovers or terrible-job-havers (or anyone looking for a good, upbeat sandwich cry), this is a great song. Enjoy.

“Blue Bird,” Bonnie Raitt on Bonnie Raitt: A happy, lovely opening to a sometimes happy, always lovely self-titled freshman album by Bonnie Raitt.

“Icky Thump,” by the White Stripes on Icky Thump: I completely forgot about this album. These things happen. Welcome to the honorable mentions category, White Stripes.