To Celebrate ‘In Utero.’ Here Are 5 of the Greatest Final Albums Ever Made

From Sam Cooke to Johnny Cash, a lesson in saying goodbye

September 20, 2018 9:00 am

In Utero was Nirvana’s final album, released 25 years ago this week.

The “final album” is a tricky concept: there’s no way of knowing if the group would have continued on its same, unquestionably upward trajectory if Kurt Cobain hadn’t died in April of the following year.

But instead of dwelling on what ifs — and the depressing circumstances that often accompany the final release from an iconic musician — we should celebrate the art itself.

Below, five of the best final albums ever cut. Even if it wasn’t intended, these records serve as a fitting goodbye, and an everlasting artistic statement.

In Utero
A middle finger to their record company and mainstream acceptance — odd concepts in 2018, yes — In Utero was recorded in under two weeks, for a seriously low budget and with the help of indie producer Steve Albini (and a few radio-friendly remixes from R.E.M. producer Scott Litt). Full of songs about death, illness, depression and “rock star angst” (as drummer Dave Grohl put it, and most apparent in “Serve the Servants” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”), In Utero is often an intentionally ugly album … an ugliness that fails to disguises Kurt Cobain’s knack for melody and empathy. “All Apologies” is a sad, pretty, unexpected farewell.

Most artists on this list were unaware of what would become their final artistic statements. But Freddie Mercury, who died just nine months after the release of Queen’s fourteenth and final studio album (1995’s Made in Heaven was a weird hodgepodge of unreleased and reworked material) knew he had little time left. Diagnosed with AIDS a few years earlier, Mercury had stopped touring, appeared heavily costumed in videos and, on Innuendo, finally began (with his bandmates) to address to his frailty. Witness “These Are the Days of Our Lives,” “Delilah” (an ode to the increasingly bedridden singer’s cat) and, most poignantly, “The Show Must Go On.” A beautiful, sad, operatic final track — primarily written by Brian May — found Mercury almost too ill to sing. As the guitarist later recounted: “I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this going to be possible to sing.’ And he went, ‘I’ll f*cking do it, darling.’ — vodka down — and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.”

American IV: The Man Comes Around
Johnny Cash
If you can watch the Mark Romanek-directed video to Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” without shedding a tear, you’re a stronger man than us. American IV is the last of the six-album American cycle that was released while the Man in Black was still alive; another two were cobbled together from extant recordings after his death. It combined soulful, brooding covers (the aforementioned “Hurt,” Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) with three Cash originals, including the album’s namesake, “The Man Comes Around.” In aggregate, they make for a sprawling, haunting album experience that, like David Bowie’s Blackstar, is ripe with allusions to death and self-reflection. Cash passed away less than a year after the album’s release, and just seven months after the aforementioned music video — undoubtedly one of the medium’s greatest examples — was filmed.

From a Basement on the Hill
Elliott Smith
Though it’s technically unfinished (it was conceived to be a double album), Smith’s sixth and final studio recording doesn’t feel like it’s missing an iota. Arranged by a former producer posthumously, Basement strums through Smith’s signature minimal acoustic (much like the Good Will Hunting soundtrack feature “Miss Misery,” which catapulted him, unexpectedly, to performing at the Oscars) on tracks like “Let’s Get Lost” and “A Fond Farewell,” stopping along the way for some very heavy and dissonant turns, as on the sprawling “King’s Crossing” and the record’s title track. It’s sad as hell, but even more beautiful.

Ain’t That Goods News
Sam Cooke
Dropping the needle on this LP back in 1964, you’d be dancing around your kitchen to classic Sam Cooke feel-good jams like the title track and “Meet Me at Mary’s Place” (a favorite of Bruce). Then flip it over, and seemingly out of nowhere, there’s the gut-punch “A Change Is Gonna Come” — a Civil Rights anthem, and generally considered one of the greatest songs of all time. This juxtaposition of the King of Soul’s range makes his last album (before his untimely death) feel like a best-hits compilation.

Photo: Davide Costanzo/Creative Commons license

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