While many artists and bands make an impact with their debut album, it’s often their final swansong that leaves a lasting impression.
Some are able to end their careers on their own terms with a final goodbye record for their fans to enjoy, while others come as a surprise when bands suddenly break-up, take an indefinite hiatus or are forced to disband due to personal issues or death. Whatever the reasons, a number of bands have still managed to put an exclamation point on their career with a final album that lives up to all expectations. Here are six such albums from the likes of David Bowie, Joy Division and Amy Winehouse.
Joy Division – Closer
The tragic suicide of frontman Ian Curtis meant we only got two albums from Joy Division, with final record Closer the perfect memorial to both Curtis and the band itself. Released just a month after his death, Closer is a phenomenal album of post-punk guitars and synth influences brought together by Curtis’ haunting lyrics and Martin Hannett’s sparse production. ‘Isolation’ is a stabbing piece of electronica, ‘Heart & Soul’ a jittery mediation on morality and ‘Twenty Four Hours’ a guitar driven melodic rocker with a dark edge. Despite not including hit single ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on the album, Closer was critically acclaimed upon release and is continually cited as one of the greatest records of the 80s.
Nirvana – In Utero
After Butch Vig’s slick production skills turned Nirvana’s Nevermind into a worldwide hit, the band wanted to go back to their grunge origins with their next release. In Utero is the band—specifically frontman Kurt Cobain—rebelling against their newfound fame and the over-produced pop sound heard on Nevermind. Producer Steve Albini (Pixies, The Breeders, Mark of Cain) was recruited to give the album a gritty, in-your face edge, distorting the guitars and highlighting the band’s more artistic art rock side. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ were commercially successful, but it’s on deep cuts like ‘Scentless Apprentice,’ ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and ‘Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’ where Nirvana shine, merging the pop sensibility of Nevermind with the thrash rock of their debut Bleach.
David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie is one of the few artists who successfully reinvented himself over the course of his 50-year career. From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, Bowie has played many characters, with his final act being to portray himself on an album about mortality, reflection and death. Blackstar is Bowie’s parting gift to fans; seven experimental tracks incorporating everything from jazz and rock to hip-hop and folk. Bowie’s lyrics are full of cryptic messages and imagery hinting his time left on earth was short. This proved prophetic when Bowie passed away two days after the album’s release and it was revealed he had been privately battling cancer for 18-months. Blackstar is a fitting tribute to Bowie’s greatness as an artist and a reminder that life is fleeting and we must cherish every moment we’re still breathing.
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
Finding critical success in the UK with the release of her jazz inspired debut Frank, Amy Winehouse’s popularity skyrocketed when she hooked up with Mark Ronson for sophomore album Back to Black. Combining her love of jazz with Ronson’s soulful productions and ear for chart topping melodies, Back to Black deals with Winehouse’s turbulent on-again, off-again relationship with her ex Blake Fielder-Civil. Winehouse sings about addition (‘Rehab,’ ‘Back To Black’), lost love (‘Love Is A Losing Game’) and depression (‘Wake Up Alone’) on her album that went on to win five Grammys. Ultimately the album’s success contributed to Winehouse’s downfall, with the singer’s issues with mental illness and substance abuse heightened by her fame and culminating in her becoming another tragic addition to the 27 club.
The White Stripes – Icky Thump
Unlike most of the artists and bands featured in this piece, The White Stripes went out on their own terms with sixth and final album Icky Thump. Jack White has said that and he and drummer Meg White really enjoyed recording this album and experimenting with their sound, something that’s quite obvious when listening. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)’ and ‘Bone Broke’ are classic garage rock songs, ‘300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues’ a diverse blues track and ‘Conquest’ is a mariachi style festival favourite. Icky Thump is everything you want from a White Stripes album and a fitting farewell to the band after a decade-long career.
The Smiths – Strangers, Here We Come
All good things must come to an end, and unfortunately for The Smiths this happened with the release of fourth album Strangers, Here We Come. Vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr’s tumultuous relationship hit its final hurdle as Marr walked out on the band after the album’s completion. Despite this leading to the demise of The Smiths, it gifted us arguably the band’s greatest accomplishment. Following the post-punk formula they helped create, The Smiths added saxophones (‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’) and full orchestration (’Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’) on an album full of dark pop songs about company greed (‘Paint A Vulgar Picture), love (‘A Rush And A Push and the Land Is Ours’) and break-ups (‘Death At One’s Elbow’). Fittingly the album’s last track, ‘I Won’t Share You,’ is Morrissey’s final ‘fuck you’ to Marr and a sombre goodbye to The Smiths.