Lists

The 12 Greatest Final Albums

Amy Winehouse left us with a parting gift: The brilliant Back to Black.
Amy Winehouse left us with a parting gift: The brilliant Back to Black. Roger Kisby/Getty
From Mozart’s Requiem to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,  there's a mythical quality to artists' final works — the one last masterpiece before departing. Unfortunately, most musician's lives and careers end either unexpectedly or in a lesser place than when they were at their peak. In the aftermath of Loretta Lynn’s death and her incredible creative resurgence into her late 80s, we’re taking a look at the greatest final albums ever recorded.

Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door (1979)
Hot take: Every Led Zeppelin album is arguably their best album — whether it’s their titanic first six albums, which are regularly regarded as some of the greatest rock albums ever recorded, or their lesser-recognized final two, which in many regards represent the two opposing directions Led Zeppelin was thinking about taking. Presence, from 1976, is a bone-dry rock cruncher devoid of any of the orchestral or folk flavoring that colored all of the band's previous records, while the band's swan song, 1979’s In Through the Out Door, was Led Zeppelin in a mode of kitchen sink experimentation. While unofficial bandleader/guitarist/ producer Jimmy Page was in the throes of heroin addiction, his creative output lessened, leaving bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant with more creative responsibility than they had on previous albums. The result is a lush, textured album that shies away almost completely from the hard rock with which Led Zeppelin made its name. Jones’ keyboards and piano dominate nearly every cut, from the subversive honky tonk groove of “South Bound Suarez” or the poppy, unclassifiable, samba-touched strut of “Fool in the Rain,” to the album’s synth-driven entire second side. The centerpiece, however, is “Carouselambra,” an epic, pummeling 10-minute dance-rocker that would be Led Zeppelin’s closest brush with disco. With the tragic death of drummer John Bonham just over a year after the album’s release, In Through the Out Door became Led Zeppelin’s final artistic statement, followed by the posthumous compilation Coda two years later. Whether Led Zeppelin planned to course-correct back to a heavier, more traditional rock-oriented path or continue the sonic experimentation is a forever question mark, but the result is a true standout in Led Zeppelin’s already sterling discography.

Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2006)
"Bad romance" is a phrase taken lightly these days, especially post-Lady Gaga, but the idea of a romance that has gone so bad that the people involved are hopelessly trapped in a cycle of insanity is a concept all too real — and has been for too long. In 2005, 22-year old Amy Winehouse was a starlet on the rise with her jazz-and-R&B-influenced debut LP Frank. But, she was also in the midst of a tempestuous relationship with a man who left her for his ex-girlfriend. That, combined with Winehouse’s penchant for substance abuse and self-destructive behavior, fueled a creative fire that resulted in her sophomore LP Back to Black. Produced mostly by Mark Ronson and featuring vintage R&B group The Dap-Kings as her backing band, Winehouse spilled her frustrations, grief and, frankly, mixed emotions about both the relationship and the breakup across 35 glorious minutes of pitch-perfect soul. The album and its themes resonated with the masses, and Back to Black soon became a smash hit in 2007, leading to a frenzied demand for other powerhouse female voices with a retro flair. Adele, Florence + the Machine, Estelle, Duffy and others came into the fold, soon to blossom into the next decade. Sadly, while Winehouse was the impetus for practically an entire musical style’s resurrection, the personal hell at which she hinted in many of her songs was becoming a reality. She married, and divorced, the man who inspired many of the songs on Back to Black, and battled a whole litany of substance abuse issues, legal issues and public criticism. She reached the point that while performing live she had difficulty remembering songs and often stormed off the stage prematurely. Any attempts to right her ship ended on July 23, 2011, when Winehouse died of an alcohol overdose at the age of 27. While the immediate fallout from her death was focused on her struggles, time has been very kind to Amy Winehouse, and though Back to Black may have been a peek into Winehouse’s inner turmoil, it is now widely considered to be one of the defining records of the 2000s and one of the most influential albums of all time.

Pink Floyd, The Division Bell (1994)

Pink Floyd's career arc is a fascinating one, marked by changes in lineup, leadership and various definitions of what Pink Floyd even was. While the band’s post-Roger Waters years continue to be divisive, hindsight has been kinder to that particular era than contemporary critics and fans were. The consensus at the time was that Waters had more or less made himself the de facto leader of Pink Floyd, and that his contentious departure in 1985 was a death knell for the band artistically. Commercially, the band thrived, with 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason reasserting the band as a touring mammoth, despite mixed reviews from critics and fans alike. By the time 1994 rolled around, the band’s remaining trio of guitarist/singer David Gilmour, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason refocused their attention on the studio and released the better-received LP The Division Bell. The album’s themes of communication breakdowns and estrangement between people reflected the band’s heyday but caused the band to realize it was time to put things to bed. The Division Bell reads like a final chapter, not a nostalgic epilogue — a way to tie up loose ends. The album’s closing track “High Hopes” marks Pink Floyd’s only moment looking back — a well-earned one — on the band’s extraordinary body of work sprung from such turbulent musical minds. “Encumbered forever by desire and ambition, there's a hunger still unsatisfied, our weary eyes still stray to the horizon, though down this road we've been so many times,” sings Gilmour over an instrumental dirge that remains one of Pink Floyd’s all-time best. As the band nears the end of the song (and career) the nostalgia becomes unbearable and the song explodes into a waterfall of slide guitar, following the final lines Gilmour would ever sing as a member of Pink Floyd: “The nights of wonder, with friends surrounded, the dawn mist glowing, the water flowing, the endless river — forever and ever.”
Pink Floyd’s classic lineup, with Waters, would reunite one final time in 2005 before Wright’s death in 2008 rendered any full reunion impossible. The band released a posthumous collection of ambient outtakes from The Division Bell sessions in 2014 called The Endless River, in reference to the moment that Pink Floyd’s storied four-decade career came to a final and definitive close.

Nick Drake, Pink Moon (1972)
Nick Drake is the archetype of the reserved, troubled singer-songwriter. Despite making some of the most aesthetically beautiful music of the late '60s and early '70s, Drake experienced almost no commercial success during his lifetime. By his mid-20s, he became a withdrawn, reclusive figure. Perhaps unexpectedly, Drake approached producer John Wood and, over two days, recorded 28 minutes of spare acoustic folk songs — without the presence of a backing band as had been the case on his previous two records. The resulting album, Pink Moon, sold fewer than 5,000 units upon release in 1972, as had his first two LPs. Drake withdrew from the music business, and two years later he died from an overdose of prescribed antidepressants at the age of 26. As it goes with cosmic irony, Drake’s status has risen substantially in the nearly five decades since his passing, with Pink Moon being acclaimed by Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, Pitchfork and others as one of the greatest albums ever recorded. In 1999, the album’s title track was used in a Volkswagen advertisement, a move that not only revolutionized the use of popular songs in commercials, but elevated Drake’s status out of cult figure to folk hero and bona fide chart success. Sales of Pink Moon went from just over 6,000 prior to the advertisement’s airing to nearly 330,000 copies in the five years that followed. The ad probably moved more copies of Drake’s album than cars.

A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)

If you had asked Q-Tip or Phife Dawg in the 2000s, they would have told you that the chances of A Tribe Called Quest reuniting, much less releasing new music, would have been nil. Lo and behold, as the power of music often does, the group came together several times in the early 2010s, mostly as an opening act for Kanye West on his titanic Yeezus tour (the other opening act was an up-and-coming rapper named Kendrick Lamar). Still, the group was hesitant to make new music, and who could blame them? Most groups that reunite make music that inevitably can’t compare to their classics. It’s not a subjective matter: it’s more because "classics" ascend in stature over time, so new material is void of the emotional connections people make with music they’ve listened to for years. Eventually, in the wake of the group’s rekindled and obvious chemistry, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Jarobi White put their heads together once again to give it a go (DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad was unavailable to participate due to his commitments to the Luke Cage soundtrack, though he is mentioned on the album). Sadly, several months into the sessions, Phife Dawg died due to complications of diabetes. Q-Tip made it a point to finish the album regardless. Pulling together a ragtag group of guests including Busta Rhymes, Andre 3000, Elton John and Jack White, they released the album to a wave of critical acclaim unprecedented for a group more than 25 years removed from their debut. The crisp, sharp beatmaking and smooth musicality that characterized their early records remained, but the group was clearly galvanized by the increasingly chaotic political world, punctuated by the election of Donald Trump three days prior to the album’s release — an event that magnified the issues presented on the album tenfold. “We’ve got to get our shit together,” Phife and Tip say together in the opening track’s beginning moments. “We gotta get it together forever, we gotta make something happen.” Without Phife’s input, any future A Tribe Called Quest records are impossible to make, but We Got it From Here … marks a changing of the guard — musically, politically, and socially. The end of an era.

Elliott Smith, Figure 8 (2000)
One of Nick Drake’s progeny, Nebraska native Elliott Smith spent his first five years recording acclaimed, subdued, lo-fi indie folk — which was as fragile as it was emotionally devastating. In 1997, after the acclaimed film Good Will Hunting brought Smith’s music into public consciousness and made him an Oscar nominee, he signed with major label DreamWorks Records, giving him the budget he long desired. While 1998’s XO continued Smith’s musical stylings with richer recording techniques, 2000’s Figure 8 marked a strong shift in Smith’s musical trajectory. Lo-fi no more, Figure 8 has more in common with the lavish works of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney than with Nick Drake, betraying Smith’s ambition as a pop songsmith limited only by accessibility to technology. Classic rock influences abound — “L.A.” is as much Tom Petty as it is Big Star, while the baroque chamber pop closing instrumental “Bye” is two parts Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd, one part Eraserhead score. Naturally, initial reception to the record was mixed. Elliott Smith had gone Hollywood. It was true, though; the album was recorded in the vaunted Sunset Sound studios with producer Rob Schnapf, and the album’s iconic artwork was shot at the other end of Sunset Boulevard.
Despite the newfound success, Smith was battling severe ADHD and depression, often not remembering the lyrics to his songs in concert. Reviewers and attendees alike caught wind of Smith’s mental state and health. Eventually, Smith made progress over his demons, but in October of 2003 he was found by his girlfriend with a knife in his chest. The violent and strange manner of Smith’s death led to an inconclusive autopsy and police report. The music Smith was working on at the time of his death was later completed and released posthumously as From a Basement on the Hill. Regardless, Figure 8 remains a high-water mark in Smith’s ambitious and unique career as a folkie whose love for pop baroqueness shone through at least one glorious time.

The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)

Only cool people know that the Beatles actually recorded Abbey Road after their last-released album Let It Be. As depicted in the epic (sometimes unruly) documentary Get Back, the sessions that ultimately produced Let It Be were chaotic and fraught with bursts of creativity and band tension. While those sessions were temporarily scrapped, The Beatles regrouped with original producer George Martin, who stipulated that his role would be the same as it had been during the band’s peak creative days, and that the Fab Four would have to adhere to strict discipline — unlike the ramshackle attitude and conflict that began with The White Album and continued through the sessions that became Let It Be. The result, Abbey Road, speaks for itself. The album displays nearly every musical strength The Beatles had exercised over the last decade: The White Album’s raw recording, Sgt. Pepper’s colorful songwriting, Help’s overabundance of hooks, Revolver’s ambition, Magical Mystery Tour’s whimsy — all while pointing forward into uncharted territory with the epic homestretch medley that marked one of the most ambitious productions The Beatles ever recorded. As usual, the album is all hits, no misses. “Come Together,” “Something,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh Darling,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and even the greatest compositional contribution of Ringo Starr’s career, “Octopus’ Garden,” marked The Beatles' operating at full creative power.
It couldn’t last. Just prior to the album’s release, John Lennon privately announced he was leaving the band, followed by Paul McCartney’s public declaration in April 1970 that he was also leaving the band. The Beatles were over. The Let It Be sessions were cleaned up and released the following month, marking a sudden end to possibly the greatest creative stretch on which four individuals have ever collaborated, ever.

Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
Johnny Cash was already a legend when he began a collaboration with Rick Rubin that would last until the end of the former’s life. Signed to Rubin’s Def American record label, Cash recorded the first American Recordings album in his living room with a single Martin guitar. As the collaboration continued, a bevy of contemporary musicians influenced by Cash’s longtime outlaw attitude and status as an American icon lent their hands. Eventually, for American IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash turned to covering more contemporary material, such as Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante twisting Martin Gore’s erotic riff into a wooden-floored gospel mediation. Most of the tracks on American IV are covers of songs by Marty Robbins, Sting, Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb and others, but all are dwarfed by Cash’s otherworldly cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” a cover so powerful in Cash’s aged voice that it regularly tops lists of "greatest covers of all time." That being said, it’s one of Cash’s original compositions that opens the record and sets the tone: the album’s title track, a sung and spoken tale of the apocalypse straight out of the Book of Revelation. “The hairs on your arm will stand up, at the terror in each sip and in each sup, will you partake of that last offered cup, or disappear into the potter's ground? When the man comes around.” American IV was the last album released in Cash’s lifetime, as less than a year after the album’s release, Cash’s beloved wife June Carter died, and he followed shortly thereafter. Two more albums in the American series were released after Cash’s death, but neither have the weight of The Man Comes Around. Cash’s final artistic statement was one of immense strength against the inevitable, a rally cry of immortality against all odds.

Joni Mitchell, Shine (2007)
It’s a well-told tale of the modern pop firmament now, but when Joni Mitchell re-recorded her early triumph “Both Sides Now” in 2000 for her orchestral album of the same name, it bookended a more than 30-year career perfectly, giving a weight to her words previously unfelt by those who listened to Mitchell’s triumphs from only one side. The success of the new version of the song led to Mitchell recording in 2002 another album of older songs revisited, titled Travelogue, after which she expressed her strong discontent with the music industry. Five years later, Mitchell announced she would be releasing her first album of original material in nearly a decade, titled Shine. The album is both a meditation on the then-raging Iraq War and Mitchell’s experience of having viewed those clouds from the other side. The album’s instrumental opener “One Week Last Summer” marks one of Mitchell’s greatest musical compositions and one of the most placid and beautiful instrumental works of the 21st century. Elsewhere on the record were Mitchell’s reserved yet scathing observations of gentrification, the Iraq War, and her usual character studies like the jittery “Hana.” The heartbreaking title track is a windswept observation of the world’s chaos and beauty in one breath. Mitchell’s break from the usual recording-and-touring chaos lends patience to the songs, a quality most of her contemporaries lack in older age. Mitchell has not released a record since Shine, due to her dissatisfaction with the industry combined with a number of severe health problems in recent years. Aside from a tear-jerking appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, Mitchell remains out of the public spotlight. She has explicitly stated she is no longer an active musician, leaving Shine as her parting message: A Message of love amid a cynical world — that an antidote to the darkness is, in fact, to shine on.

Queen, Innuendo (1991)
In the late '80s, Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS, although no one else knew but he and the other members of Queen. The band then focused on recording new music as opposed to touring in support of a record, as had been the case previously. Immediately after the release of 1989’s The Miracle, Queen began work on a follow-up album, with Mercury’s declining health becoming a factor. For 1991’s Innuendo, the band made a symbolic return to its roots, recording some of the heaviest and most musically diverse tracks yet. While the album was not explicitly written about Mercury’s impending brush with mortality, a couple of tracks seem to have time, or the lack thereof, as a motif. “I’m Going Slightly Mad,” a Mercury composition, hints at his own frazzled state of mind: “I'm coming down with a fever, I'm really out to sea, this kettle is boiling over … I'm driving only three wheels these days, but, my dear, how about you?” The closing track, “The Show Must Go On,” marks the album’s emotional climax. Written by guitarist Brian May about the possibility of this record being Mercury’s last is both one of May’s most emotional compositions and Mercury’s greatest vocal performances. “I’ll face it with a grin, I’m never giving in, on with the show!” Mercury sings. Despite his increasingly frail state, Mercury shows no signs of vocal weakness on a single one of Innuendo’s 12 tracks. The album was released in February 1991 amid rumors of his condition, but Mercury continued to dodge acknowledgement of his illness to protect the privacy of his family and bandmates, and he continued to work on new music, going so far as to film the music video for “These Are The Days of Our Lives” in May of that year. In November, Mercury issued a prepared statement publicly disclosing his illness for the first time. Just 24 hours later, Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related complications, leaving Innuendo as his final artistic statement. While Queen did release one more album of material recorded with Mercury, 1995’s Made in Heaven, the album was not a crafted cohesive statement, and more akin to a compilation of unreleased material, making Freddie Mercury’s final musical hour a glorious one indeed.

J. Dilla, Donuts (2006)
In the era before “Lo-fi beats to study to,” there was J. Dilla. Described as “the world’s greatest drummer” by Roots timekeeper Questlove, J. Dilla wasn’t even primarily a live drummer, but a beatmaker — a cut-and-paste collage artist whose ability to create beats from samples was celebrated long before the release of his final LP. Prior to the recording of Donuts, Dilla fell ill with lupus and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. Dilla kept busy in the hospital, with 29 of the album’s 31 tracks recorded from a hospital bed in Cedars Sinai Medical center using a 45 RPM record player and a sampler. Though a mostly instrumental album, there is clearly a fighting spirit about the record — its mere existence an acknowledgement of death’s approach. The album was released on February 7, 2006, Dilla’s 32nd birthday, to acclaim from both critics and peers alike. However, three days later, Dilla died of his illnesses. In the years that have passed since the release of Donuts, its influence has become so ubiquitous, that its brazen originality has become something of a standard for contemporary hip-hop to mold beats in Donuts’ image. To this day, Donuts marks an artistic highpoint for the possibilities of hip-hop, rhythmically, instrumentally and spiritually.

David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)
There is no greater exit statement by a major figure in popular music history. Some we have lost were relatively sudden and/or unexpected. Elvis, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Marvin Gaye and others operating at a high level of creative output were not able to recognize that their time was drawing short and so they could meditate on the fact artistically. Others like Prince, Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra were at a lower point in their careers when they passed, and all icons still with us like Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and others are admittedly in a lesser creative state than in their heyday. That does not disqualify them from being able to craft an exit statement, but it’s difficult for anyone to pirouette artistically when needed like David Bowie could. Three years after his previous record (which came out over a decade after the one before that), Bowie released Blackstar, a dark, cryptic, jazz-influenced record that puzzled fans and critics alike. They did agree that the record was one of the most musically interesting things Bowie had ever put out — a bold statement, given his history of successful musical forays into folk, glam, hard rock, soul, ambient, new wave, pop, industrial and beyond. Blackstar defies categorization. Recorded with a group of local New York City jazz musicians led by Donnie McCaslin, the album draws influences from experimental hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips, while not directly nodding to any one style — a concoction that only Bowie seemed to be able to wrangle. Songs like the title track and “Lazarus” made direct references to death and rebirth, themes that orbit around the album’s other tracks in oblique ways. Two days after the album’s release, as fans and critics continued to analyze and consume the contents of his latest creation, David Bowie died of liver cancer at the age of 69. Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti admitted that the album had been written and recorded with the knowledge of Bowie’s impending fate, and that the album was intended as a “parting gift” to fans. Blackstar became Bowie’s first and only No.1 record on the Billboard 200, and has since been widely celebrated as one of the best albums of 2016, the 2010s and of David Bowie’s entire career.
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Vincent Arrieta
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