Generally speaking, bands don’t leave the best for last. In most cases, they go on well past the point they should have called it quits and release albums that fall far from their creative peaks. One need only look at legendary bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Who to see groups that went out with more of a whimper than a bang, as very few fans would cite either band’s final studio release as their favorite. Of course, it’s easy to see why most bands tend to bow out with lackluster albums, as if they haven’t gone on too long, they’re at the point where they’re ready to tear each other’s throats out in the studio, which isn’t generally the best atmosphere to engender creativity. However, there have been quite a few bands that have managed to end their recording careers gracefully with albums that are simply excellent in their own right.
Here are 14 of the best final albums in rock history.
*Note: I didn’t include posthumous releases for consideration, as it just complicates things too much where some artists are concerned.
14. The Beatles – Let It Be (1970)
There is considerable debate among Beatles fans over whether Abbey Road or Let It Be is the Fab Four’s final studio album. While either answer is acceptable, I think Let It Be has the stronger case, as even though much of it was recorded before the Abbey Road sessions even began, it was released after Abbey Road and the group was still recording parts of it into 1970. Of the two, Abbey Road is clearly the superior work, but Let It Be is still a fine sendoff in its own right.
Sure, it has some disposable material in the form of “For You Blue” and “One After 909” but the stripped down, back-to-basics approach the band took with the record resulted in some truly great tracks. “I’ve Got A Feeling,” with Lennon and McCartney trading vocal duties, is to my mind one of the best songs The Beatles ever wrote, while “Dig A Pony,” Two of Us,” “I Me Mine,” Across The Universe,” and the title track are also essential. Yes, it would have made much more sense to release the superior Abbey Road after Let It Be but as final records go, this is still one for the ages.
13. T-Rex – Dandy In The Underworld (1977)
Glam rock act T-Rex were one of the most influential bands to come out of the British music scene in the early 70s but by the middle of the decade, they seemed to be running out of gas. The albums Bolan’s Zip Gun (1975) and Futuristic Dragon (1976) were critical and commercial failures, but the band returned in 1977 with Dandy in the Underworld.
Marked by great songwriting, the album was viewed by many as a return to form for T-Rex, with reviews at the time complimenting the arrangement and lead singer/guitar Mark Bolan’s vocal performances. Sadly, Bolan died in a car crash the same year, just two weeks shy of his 30th birthday, and T-Rex effectively disbanded, making Dandy in the Underworld the band’s unintended last album.
12. The Replacements – All Shook Down (1991)
By the time punk-alternative legends The Replacements recorded their final album, everyone was looking for the door. It’s not popular to even call the band’s final album All Shook Down good, as many view it as a dour affair that represents the band at their worst. In a way, All Shook Down is a Replacements record in name only, as songwriter Paul Westerberg recorded much of it with studio musicians and his disdain for the entire process comes through in the material.
That being said, if you can get past the record’s bad vibes, All Shook Down is arguably something of a disgruntled masterpiece that feels like the perfect way for a band such as The Replacements – who built their legacy on playing “heart on their sleeve” rock songs – to go out.
11. The Stone Roses – Second Coming (1994)
History has pretty much dictated that the second – and currently, final – album from Manchester rock band The Stone Roses was a disappointment. However, this can largely be attributed to the fact that the band took five years to release a follow-up to one of the greatest debut albums in history. With that kind of expectation, anything The Stone Roses put out was practically guaranteed to not live up to their previous work. Admittedly, when measured up against the band’s self-titled debut, Second Coming falls quite short but taken on its own, it proves to be a fine record with some true standouts.
The epic blues-influenced romp “Love Spreads” is worth the price of admission alone, though tracks like “Ten Storey Love Song” and “Driving South” prove that the Roses were not content to stick to the cleaner, jangly guitar sound that defined much of their debut. While Second Coming will always prove to be divisive among fans of the band, we should really be thankful that we ever got a second album from The Stone Roses in the first place.
10. Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
The fourth record in Cash’s American Recordings partnership with producer Rick Rubin, American IV: The Man Comes Around was the final album released prior to the Man In Black’s death in 2003 at the age of 71. Comprised primarily of covers, American IV continued Cash’s late career comeback and includes some striking, haunted material. The highlight of course is “Hurt,” a Nine Inch Nails song that took on new resonance thanks to Cash’s stripped down, clinging-to-life performance (Cash’s recording was so good, in fact, that songwriter Trent Reznor was “on the verge of tears” when he watched the accompanying music video, which itself is a work of art).
Other highlights include Cash’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and the title track. A number of additional Johnny Cash albums have been released posthumously and while the singer’s long, prolific recording career produced better albums, The Man Comes Around stands as a raw, unvarnished snapshot of Cash as he rode into the sunset.
9. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now (2011)
One of the most influential alternative rock acts of all time, R.E.M. had quite a prolific recording career, releasing 15 studio albums over the course of their 30-years together as a band. While their final album, Collapse Into Now, doesn’t represent a “saved the best for last” scenario, it still represents the band going out on a high note.
Collapse Into Now’s sound is permeated by a sense of finality, as the band had walked into recording having already decided that the album would be their last. With guest appearances by the likes of Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder and Peaches, Collapse Into Now has surprises to spare but overall, it’s a reliable listen from a group of rock elder statesmen who decided to end things amicably, on their own terms. There aren’t that many other bands out there that can say the same.
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.