Digging deep in to his record collection, Getintothis’ Alistair Houghton explores what is the best way to end an album.
Not so long ago, I finally got round to listening to Chinese Democracy, unlike many of the 2.6m people who actually bought the thing when it came out. It was the most expensive album in the world – a stunning $13m to make, it’s reported.
It’s a flawed record, it’s fair to say. There are moments of magic. I love the preposterously overblown There Was A Time, all over the top string sections and three separate guitar solos.
Yes, some of the songs sound like snippets of other songs glued together with very expensive sticky tape. And at times, the singer sounds rather more like an over-emoting Axl Rose tribute act than Axl Rose himself ever should. And the whole thing is a monumental moan by a very rich rock star about how nobody likes him but he’ll win in the end because he’s BETTER THAN YOU – see the sludgy Sorry for the lumpen worst of that.
But. But. The golden but. Say want you want about Axl – I just have – but there’s one thing you have to take away from Chinese Democracy. Through all the self-indulgence, the dozens of wiggly guitar solos played by a cast of thousands and the overproduction, you can tell that Axl wanted this to be a proper Album, with a capital A.
It starts properly, fading in with a hum before the guitars crunch in. Finally – and now I’m getting to the point – it ends properly.
As the final shrieking guitar solo to closer Prostitute fades out, the pianos keep plinking, then the strings swoop back in, mournfully. And with the monumental ego trip behind you, you’re brought gently down to earth. Axl, you see, understands that an album is like a journey. And great journeys are so much more satisfying if they come to a great climax, rather than, say, crashing into a wall or petering out in the middle of nowhere.
An album is – should be – more than just a few songs stuck together. It should be a journey – and not just in a phantasmagorical-life-of-Johnny-Buggles-and-his-extraordinary-nose-as-told-over-three-LPs-with-a-nose-flute-free-jazz-interlude kind of way.
So how can you end an album?
I did an unscientific study – I looked at iTunes, pondered some of my favourite records and created some arbitrary categories. This isn’t about the best albums of all time. Most of them are pretty good, but some are wobbly. No matter – this is about how they end.
Most albums are collections of good songs that end on a good song. That works. It’s better than ending on a horrendous out-of-tune instrumental anyway – Stone Roses, I’m looking at YOU. But you can do it better. Here’s how. And if you know better, let me know.
Suede: Dog Man Star
Ending: Still Life
In which Suede – first Britain’s most glamorous Indie band, then somehow bracketed under Britpop – create a supremely monumental climax to an album already more ambitious and overblown than anything their so-called peers managed. After Brett Anderson has finished wailing his paean to a lonely housewife, the Sinfonia of London goes on, strings swooping and crashing in an ecstatic coda that borrows just a bit from Ravel’s Bolero, overblown, epic, undeniably thrilling and a clear sign the band knew it was doing something important. Which it was.
As Anderson explained at the time, “It is quite pompous, especially the end part. But pop music has always been about being pretentious—you can’t be worthy; there’s no point.”
The Beatles: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Ending: A Day In The Life
Because if you’re talking overblown endings, this has to be here. “I’d love to turn you on”, Lennon fades, then the strings start circling threateningly, their fins just peeping above the water, then they attack, soaring, chaotic, merciless. Then they stop. Then a piano hammers, and then it fades, fades, ambient descent, echo of the nuclear apocalypse even Swinging London feared.
The Beach Boys: Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”
Ending: Cuddle Up
A curate’s egg of a Beach Boys album this, the boys still struggling to find their way as Brian Wilson slipped away – his Marcella is the record’s pop highlight. But Dennis Wilson at least stepped up to the plate, orchestra in tow, ending the record with this monumental string-drenched ballad, drifting between his almost-whispered half mumbling – “I know a man who’s so in love” – and string swells that drown out even the Beach Boys’ harmonies. It all fades out with an extended chord that’s a mellow downer version of the one at the end of A Day in the Life, almost.
Ending the journey
Like Axl does. Only better.
Prince: Purple Rain
Ending: Purple Rain
This might be where Axl got his ideas from, in fact. After Prince’s screaming wears him out, that epic guitar solo/riff takes you to the end, strings in the background, lighters waving. It pauses, then crashes in to one last chord, keyboards plinking away, one last wrench of the guitar from the Purple One. Then, as the piano motif circles and the studio audience cheers in the background, the strings come in again. And so the album ends, not on Prince celebrating himself, but on those mournful, see-sawing strings. Prince ends an album when HE wants.
REM: Automatic for the People
Ending: Find The River
REM’s music took a darker turn on Automatic, mostly subdued, death-heavy. But here at the end Stipe goes back to the beginning, the song’s protagonist setting out on his journey. To what, who knows. To where, who knows. “I have got to leave to find my way”. The simple tune builds, builds, and it’s those soaring Mike Mills backing vocals that lift your soul as you reach journey’s end. When I hear this song in my head, it’s a choir of Mike Millses at the end. When I actually play the tune, it’s just Mike Mills. But what a harmony, carrying Stipe’s soul-searching all the way to the end. “All of this is coming your way”… and the organ fades. Our protagonist’s journey begins, ours has ended.
Ending: Lot 105
Because it doesn’t end on This Is A Low. In my head it does, maybe yours too. But it doesn’t. It actually ends on the throwaway Lot 105, a minute and a bit of cheesy organ, la-la-las and “eighteen times a week, love”. Because ending on the swooping gorgeous This Is A Low wouldn’t be right – Parklife is about the silliness as well as the seriousness, and silliness is the way to end. Press play again.
The Whole Album In One
Not just the end of a journey, but also bringing all the album’s themes and sounds together. In the most literal way, in the case of…
The La’s: The La’s
Ending: Looking Glass
Even on its own this stretched-out epic would be a supreme closer to Lee Mavers’ collection of short, perfect songs – it’s seven minutes long, the next longest song only just makes 3 minutes. But then after six and a half minutes, Mavers’ lead vocal is joined by snippets of those earlier songs, while everything speeds up and whirls around him before crashing to a close. Plus it even looks to John Power’s future with the last words of the song proper, “the change is cast…”
It’s a short journey, The La’s, but if it’s the only album Lee Mavers ever produces, at least we can say it ends properly.
Spiritualized: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Ending: Cop Shoot Cop
An album drifting beautifully and brilliantly between soft, tender gospel, tearful confessions, and blistering noise brings it all together in a mini symphony right at the end. Woozy vocals, over twangy riffs and Dr John’s piano, break for thudding guitar noise, and back, before that monumental white noise/free jazz breakdown, which itself after several minutes gives way to a regretfully sleepy gospel closer. 17 minutes and none wasted. Arguably the live Royal Albert Hall version is even better, but that doesn’t end the album. We’ve got to have standards.
The Cheeky Surprise
Awful when done badly – please go away, The Foz at the end of The Second Coming. But done well it’s a rather memorable trick.
The Beatles: Sergeant Pepper (again)
Ending: The bit after A Day In The Life
Because that overblown ending isn’t it. First – if you’re a dog – there’s a high-frequency tone that’ll annoy you. And then there’s that tape loop of gibberish – Macca’s “Never could be any OTHER way” repeating over looping chitter chatter. Now it’s a quirky blast of normality after the heaviness. But it was even more of a shock to original listeners, as the run-out groove kept repeating endlessly until you got up to stop it. A physical journey to the record player to end your musical journey. Man.
The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
Ending: The bit after Caroline No
Caroline No is a comedown, I guess, though I’ve always found it the least interesting song on this majestic record. Brian Wilson, however, was at his peak here, and couldn’t quite let his masterpiece end on a downer. And so, as the song fades, a level crossing bell rings, dogs bark, and for no good reason a train rumbles across the speakers. Pet Sounds is all Wilson’s absolute mastery of the studio, crafting music of supreme beauty. But I love the fact that he couldn’t resist a disconcerting sonic joke right at the end.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners: Searching For The Young Soul Rebels
Ending: The snippet after There There My Dear
There There My Dear is a thrusting ending in itself, including one of rock’s greatest couplets – “the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things”. But it’s what comes next that gets the album on my list. The horns fade out, and you think that’s it. But after a few seconds of silence, Kevin Rowland croons, acapella, Brummily: “And everything I do will be funky…from now on”. Disconcertingly odd, even for an odd record like Searching. But it makes you want to hear more, just to see how funky it is.
The Move: Looking On
Ending: Feel Too Good
Roy Wood is a songwriting genius. I’m convinced of that. But he’s a musical magpie too, so his albums are all over the place. This isn’t a great record if I’m honest. But the ending… It’s overblown too, Feel Too Good’s hammering drums and Roy’s end-of his tether howling giving way to wailing backing vocals courtesy of the mighty PP Arnold and Doris Troy, electric sitar, wah wah guitars, and a juddering halt after eight minutes or so, tambourine jangling and someone saying that’ll do. But then – a fake doo-wop chorus comes in, finally wailing “The Duke of Edinburgh’s Lettuce.” And then a barrowboy piano tinkles on while an East End voice taunts “Ooh… show us your lettuce…” A rather memorable ending for an unspectacular LP. Musical magpie, like I say.
Primal Scream: Screamadelica
Ending: Shine Like Stars
An appropriately twinkly comedown at the end of Bobby Gillespie and co’s ecstatic journey. The quietly buzzing walk into the morning after the big night is over.
Swell Maps: Jane From Occupied Europe
Ending: Blenheim Shots/Raining In My Room
A fantastic album of scratchy bitty oddness, this one. Brilliantly, willfully sloppy, skronky instrumentals, sometimes self-consciously indie before such a thing existed, dotted with moments of what could be punk-pop brilliance if they hadn’t been made to sound like they were recorded by snotty kids in a garden shed. Case in point, the clattering yet catchy Blenheim Shots.
Epic soundtracks whine-singing, occasionally muttering instructions- “Get rid of the piano”, or best of all, “Ok stop” as the band just crunches on, Hammond organ swelling in where the chorus should be. As it gets to the end, the wayward clash of the drums gets noisier still, guitars build, then a barrelhouse piano enters in the background… then suddenly, as the track listing changes from Blenheim Shots to Raining In My Room, the bass, guitar and drums drop out, and pounding pianos are left behind, a hammered-out “riff” wobbling over mellow white noise and disembodied squawks and wails, like a zoo at night. Bares no resemblance to the rest of the record, yet ends it perfectly.
The Warm Bath
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk
Ending: Never Forget
If I’m honest, when I first started playing Tusk, Never Forget annoyed me. It was Lindsay Buckingham’s sonic experiments I wanted – why did it end with this Christine McVie soppiness?
But when you stop skipping the tracks and listen to the whole thing, it makes perfect, beautiful sense. You don’t leave unnerved by Buckingham’s paranoia, brilliant though his New Wave pop is. After the long, winding journey of Tusk, you’re eased back into life by the twangily rich Never Forget. McVie leads it, but at the end, Buckingham and Stevie Nicks’ harmonies chip in too, everything that makes Fleetwood Mac the titans they are coming together in a melodic fuzz. A soothing end to a nerve-jangling journey.
The Raspberries: Starting Over
Ending a sweet album with an immense scoop of saccharine. Soppy, swelling, string soaked, seventies sweetness symbolized. The Raspberries at their best matched sweetness with a sharp punch – much like their namesake fruit, I suppose. But there’s no Keith Moon in this, only moon-eyed regretful longing after an old love. “If I had a chance to make one wish an know it would come true, I’d start all over with you.” Though for all its sweetness it boasts a kicker of an opening line, “Used to feel so f***ing optimistic, til she said goodbye…”
A great closer, and also a whopping great signpost to Eric Carmen’s future. Only a man capable of this weapons-grade soppiness could come up with All By Myself.
And Now for Something Completely Different
An album is a journey. Most journeys leave you where you expected to be, however scenic the route. Some leave you relaxed. Some journeys thrill. And some leave you in a train depot in Leeds, being shaken awake by a man in a hi-vis jacket, uncertain how you got there. My journeys do anyway. These are albums whose journeys don’t end as you’d expect.
The Beatles: Revolver
Ending: Tomorrow Never Knows
The granddaddy of this kind of ending. Obviously, at this Imperial Phase point The Beatles were shattering sonic boundaries left, right and centre. So by the time you get to Tomorrow Never Knows, you’ve already had George going full sitar on Love You Too, Paul going full string section with Eleanor ruddy Rigby, John bringing the psych muscle to ditties like She Said She Said, Ringo leading a psych singalong on Yellow ruddy Submarine.
But even so, Tomorrow Never You Knows smacks you over the head. A distorted sitar drone welcomes Ringo’s thudding drum loop, sounding like he’s playing it backwards, before all manner of tape loops squeal, a bassline like funk in revers hammers down, and Lennon intones his none-more 60s creed – “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream“.
The “solo” is a forest of tape loop squeals and a backwards guitar, funk Eno years before Eno. And it ends with a descending barrelhouse piano while the tapes squeal like angry seagulls. Lennon wanted the whole thing to sound like 100 Tibetan monks chanting. It sounds even weirder than that.
Now, if you’re a young’un, its impact may have been diluted a bit. Thanks to the Chemical Brothers and co in the mid-90s, this doesn’t sound like the future any more. Setting Sun is basically a remake 30 years on.
But that’s the point. At the end of an album in 1966, a pop band – THE mainstream pop band, not some experimental outfit – made a record that sounds like the mid-90s 30 years before the fact. Staggering.
My Bloody Valentine: MBV
Ending: wonder 2
Maybe the most remarkable thing about this album is that it came out at all.
Even more so than Chinese Democracy, this was the album we thought would never happen. After all, Loveless’s reputation had only grown and grown since it was released in 1991, and maybe it was just too much of an albatross around MBV mainman Kevin Shields’s neck.
There were rumours – hours and hours of music had been recorded. It was even reported he’d gone jungle. Then Shields joined Primal Scream. Then MBV toured in 2008, but with no new music. But in 2013, MBV was finally snuck out. No Loveless – nothing could be – but really rather good, a pleasing melting pot of shoegaze, psych and noise rock. Diverse, yet, but recognizably MBV.
And it turned out there was one thing more remarkable than the album’s existence – its ending, Wonder 2. Those jungle rumours had something in them. Roars and whooshes phase from ear to ear, one-finger keyboards jab, electronic rhythms skitter in the background.
Imagine you were sitting at the end of a busy international airport runway watching a man singing The Byrds on a keyboard from Pet Sounds while a car behind you with its windows down blasts pirate radio drum’n’bass. Finally, the keyboards vanish, the jetplanes loop the loop around your head, and the skittering shimmers to a standstill. And you realise old dog Kevin Shields still has a lot of new tricks up those big sleeves.
Kanye West: Yeezus
Ending: Bound 2
Short, sharp, noisy and angry – that’s Yeezus. But Kanye knows he can still be the master of the soul sample when he wants to be. And so Yeezus ends not with minimalist fuzz and fury, but with hints of soulful warmth, built on that sample of Bound by Ponderosa Twins Plus One. (no, me neither – but then finding great samples is what Kanye does).
Gang of Four: Entertainment
Entertainment is all about two things. Lyrically, a dense intellectual, angry web – weaved largely by singer John King, satirising the consumer society. Sonically, it’s led by Andy Gill’s taut, controlled, yet furious and funky guitar. Morse code guitar, Pitchfork called it.
It’s not about riffs or big chords. The silence between each thrashed note is as important as that thrashed note, giving space for those tribal drumbeats and uptight funk basslines to drive through. Try Natural’s Not In It – where a solo could be, instead the bass and drums drop out, and Gill’s powerchord thrash still sounds like it has bass and drums all its own.
But at the end, on Anthrax, Gill ditches all that for feedback. Controlled and not so controlled squeals and howling, barely a string struck. Hendrix, without the notes.
After a minute or so, the guitar drops out, a drumbeat pounds, the bass riffs tautly, starkly. Then the vocals come in – two sets at once. In one ear, King sings – barks, really – about how love is like an infectious disease. And in the other, Gill recites a monologue about how Gang of Four doesn’t do love songs.
Yes, that makes it sound like the most student song in the world. But it’s majestically disconcerting. When they’re done, Gills guitar screams into earshot again. Finally, King and Gill join forces for two final couplets – “Love will get you like a case of anthrax, and that’s something I don’t wanna catch”, the drumbeats pound for a few bars more and then stunning silence.
Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Ending: Bike, and afterwards
Not just for Bike – Syd Barrett’s psychedelic English nursery rhyme sensibility at its most ridiculously catchy – as for what comes after. First, someone runs a stick along some railings. Then, a flock of geese flies from one speaker to another. Well, why not?
Ending your ending
How great bands end their last album. To be honest, I created this category just to include Strangeways Here We Come. Most bands go on too long, so their last albums aren’t their best. I could have included The Piper At The Gates of Dawn as the end of Pink Floyd Part I’s only full album. Or Abbey Road – yes, it was released before Let It Be, but it was the last album they recorded. But to end this piece about endings.
The Smiths: Strangeways Here We Come
Ending: I Won’t Share You
Morrissey has always been, shall we say, rather emotionally guarded – which is why, say, the tales of lust on Ringleader of the Tormentors came as such a shock.
So its hard to say whether I Won’t Share you actually was Moz’s goodbye to his greatest musical foil, Johnny Marr, or whether its placement at the end of The Smiths’ last album is just a happy coincidence. But it sounds like a farewell. Over a gentle acoustic backing – autoharp by Johhny Marr – Moz says a gentle farewell to someone. As The Smiths’ recorded career fades out, he wails “I’ll see you somewhere, I’ll see you sometime…” Over angry exchanges in the music press, it turns out.