8. Talking Heads – Naked (1988)
Though they wouldn’t announce their breakup for another three years, new wave pioneers Talking Heads were effectively finished not long after releasing their eighth and final studio album, Naked, in 1988. Even though the end was in sight, lead singer David Byrne and the rest of the band didn’t just phone it in on their final album. Instead, they made a concerted effort to get away from the pop sound that defined their previous two albums by recording in Paris with a group of international musicians.
The results were an album that, while not producing any standout classic singles, was an ambitious artistic achievement in its own right, with Byrne’s ever-playful lyrics backed by funky compositions and a tone that shifts from cheerful to foreboding as it progresses. In particular, Naked’s closing track, “Cool Water,” has to be one of the Talking Heads’ most underrated tracks, featuring propulsive guitar work from Johnny Marr, whose own influential 80s band, The Smiths, had broken up the previous year.
7. The White Stripes – Icky Thump (2007)
While no one knew at the time that Icky Thump would be the final album from The White Stripes, it’s hard to think of how Jack White’s two-piece rock outfit could have possibly topped it. Icky Thump is easily the Stripes’ most ambitious work in terms of sonic experimentation, as Jack White’s lo-fi guitar wails and Meg White’s basic, but impactful drumming are featured on songs that run the gamut from haunting blues on tracks like “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” to Mariachi influences on “Conquest,” which features trumpet player Rebulo Aldama.
Most importantly, it sounds like the duo are just having fun experimenting in the garage rock space they helped reignite in the early 2000s, which makes their subsequent split all the more unfortunate. Still, few bands ever get the chance to go out with one of their best albums, so even though fans are still clamoring for a reunion more than a decade later, maybe it’s best if Jack and Meg leave Icky Thump as the final stamp on their unique musical partnership.
6. Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (1991)
Unlike most bands, English rockers Talk Talk were the rare group in which each successive album was arguably better than the last, making their final release, 1991’s Laughing Stock, their greatest artistic achievement. Featuring a large ensemble of musicians overseen by sonic perfectionist and Talk Talk’s singer-songwriter Mark Hollis, Laughing Stock is a moody affair punctuated by passages of cathartic noise and eerie silence.
Admittedly, Laughing Stock is not an easy listen – in fact, it can be down right oppressive at times – but it’s also an experimental work of genius that it’s also hard not to respect its sheer inaccessibility. Unfortunately, with Talk Talk’s dissolution the following year, Mark Hollis largely abandoned the music industry and has only resurfaced a handful of times since.
5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland (1968)
With the sheer volume of posthumous material that’s been released over the years, you’d think Jimi Hendrix really hadn’t died in 1970 at the age of 27. However, The Jimi Hendrix Experience only ever released three studio albums during their leader’s lifetime, with the biggest coming last. Electric Ladyland is a double album that is thought by many to be Hendrix’s best work. The legendary guitarist is given tons of room to show off his chops, especially in the 15-minute long improvisational jam “Voodoo Chile.”
The album isn’t just comprised of lengthy experimentation though, as it also contains Hendrix’s best-selling single – his soaring cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” While critical reception to Electric Ladyland was initially mixed, the album’s standing has improved dramatically in the years since its release and it’s now regarded as one of the greatest double albums in rock history.
4. Nirvana – In Utero (1993)
Released less than eight months prior to Kurt Cobain’s suicide, In Utero represented a turning point for Nirvana that the band would unfortunately be unable to progress further. Following the incredible commercial and critical success of his band’s breakthrough album Nevermind in 1991, Cobain found himself struggling to reconcile his artistry with his newfound fame and In Utero was at least partly an act of rebellion against the album that made Nirvana famous, as the whole band – including bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl – had expressed dissatisfaction with Nevermind’s polished sound.
By contrast, In Utero is a raw, even unpleasant sounding record at times, but one that still showcases Cobain’s talent for crafting pop hooks, simmering under the anger that pervades songs such as “Heart Shaped Box” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” Despite the band’s best efforts to alienate fair-weather fans – helped along by large retail chains like Wal-Mart and K-Mart initially refusing to sell it – In Utero was critically acclaimed and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart.
3. David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
Few artists were able to successfully reinvent themselves again and again as David Bowie, who pretty much mastered any style he dabbled in over the course of his twenty-five album career. Like most aging musicians, Bowie experienced a period of decreased relevancy in his later years, but had a full-scale comeback in the 2010s thanks to his albums The Next Day and his final, Blackstar. Sadly, Blackstar was released just two days before Bowie’s death on January 8, 2016 but in terms of swan songs, it’s hard to think of a better way the former Ziggy Stardust could have gone out.
Striking a balance between vintage Bowie and a cryptic structure incorporating elements of jazz and even hip-hop, Blackstar represents one final reinvention for the late artist, whose 18-month long battle with cancer prior to the album’s release permeates the record itself, with lyrics that seem to address his impending death. Indeed, Blackstar is of such quality that listening to it is truly bittersweet, knowing that it will never receive a follow-up.
2. The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
Though they’re now regarded as one of the most important and influential British rock bands of the 1980s, The Smiths lasted barely five years before calling it quits in 1987 due primarily to a breakdown in the relationship between the band’s songwriting duo, vocalist Morrisey and guitarist Johnny Marr. While there is considerable debate over whether or not The Smiths ended on their best album – Morrisey and Marr have both cited Strangeways as the band’s best work, but many fans prefer The Queen is Dead – it is arguably their most adventurous in terms of sound.
The band’s guitar-bass-drums trifecta is maintained throughout, but are joined by saxophones on “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” and full orchestration on “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” proving that The Smiths still had a lot of room to grow as a band. Unfortunately, the band broke up before it could follow-up Strangeways, making the album a satisfying, if frustrating finale to the group’s all-too-brief career.
1. Joy Division – Closer (1980)
The influential post-punk outfit from Manchester saw their tenure cut short only 18 months after the release of their first album, the acclaimed Unknown Pleasures, following singer-songwriter Ian Curtis’ suicide on May 18, 1980. While Joy Division’s legacy is mired in tragedy, it’s also defined by two incredible albums, with their second and final album Closer being widely considered a definitive work of the post-punk movement. While this album’s inclusion breaks my arbitrary rules for this list a bit in that it was released two months after Curtis’ death, it’s much too important a record to overlook.
In contrast to the desolate, claustrophobic soundscape of Unknown Pleasures, Closer is more upbeat, with some songs that could even be described as dance music. That said, Closer is still defined by Curtis’ darkly personal lyrics and offers perhaps the best insight into his tortured mind. Wildly inventive and breathtaking in its scope, Closer is arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all time, made all the more legendary by the fact it never got a proper follow-up.