Top Ten Favorite Penultimate Songs
he penultimate song on an album can wear many hats. Sometimes the second-to-last song serves lead-in to an epic closing track, as in the case of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” on IV. Other times, the penultimate song is the centerpiece of the album, followed by a short ballad, experiment or studio cast-off (see Supergrass’s “Hollow Little Reign” off In It for the Money). As a good album nears its end, the penultimate song should lift the listener towards the album’s inevitable denouement, either moving towards a conceptual conclusion or setting up the final conflict that will be resolved by the album’s finale. If not selected carefully, the penultimate song becomes faceless member of the Side 2 riff-raff that leads up to a disappointing end. The best penultimate tracks are not only good songs themselves, but they add positively to their parent album’s unique appeal.
10. Les Rythmes Digitales – Sometimes
With two Grammys and Madonna production credits under his belt, Stuart Price has become quite a big deal in dance-pop. But back in his early days, he was still poking around with all sorts of genres as both Jacques and in his rock band Zoot Woman. 1999’s Darkdancer collected some of his assorted dance and electro thoughts, and “Sometimes” bookended the record with a foot-tapping and head-hanging meditation on synth-pop. British has-been Nik Kershaw lends his rich pipes to this mournful tale of delusional ennui, and for a moment, that vibrato and despondent “Some-TIIIIIMES” chorus makes us almost feel sorry for him. The buzzy downtempo track “Damaged People” closes the album, but “Sometimes” is the place to press stop. Or even better, repeat.
09. Buffalo Daughter – Discotheque du Paradis
One of the better examples of the Japanese Shibuya-kei scene’s infatuation with Latin dance rhythms, this “Discotheque” features a rhumba beat, a three-minute breakdown, bird samples, and some of the sweetest human vocals ever recorded. Unfortunately, much of the record it appears on, 2001’s I, is anything but engaging. For some reason, the trio insisted on dirtying their half Krautrock, half J-pop sound with some sort of lunatic robotic lounge pop that requires the word “I” to be repeated over and over… and over. Luckily, BD tacked on “Discotheque” and the similarly sweet closer “A Completely Identical Dream” and kept the record from being an unlistenable disaster after the band’s previous effort, New Rock, made them popular with Western audiences.
08. Oneida – To Seed & Flower
After an album full of fucked-up guitars and buzzy vocals, we get a minute-long slice of fucked-up guitars and buzzy vocals, almost half of which is a dual guitar intro. This little snippet bucks the usual trend of asymptotically lengthening songs as the album nears finish (although the closer “Double Lock Your Mind” is twelve minutes). With one intro, one verse, one chorus, and about four hooks, this track is just long enough to prop up the second half of Oneida’s Anthem of the Moon, and exactly as long as it needs to be.
07. Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now
U.S. listeners know 1978’s Jazz as the album that spawned history’s best double-A side inspired by athletic nudity, “Bicycle Race”/“Fat Bottomed Girls.” What some may miss is that the album also holds Queen’s most flamboyant and energetic single in “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Essentially three and a half minutes of Freddie Mercury jacking the mike from the rest of the world, the song offers him a chance to let us know just how much fun he’s having in the spotlight. And after “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the entire world started having a little more fun too.
06. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Relative Ways Segue
I’m cheating a bit here, because I’m about to praise the characteristics that this segue shares with the previous track on this album, “Relative Ways.” That cut, culled from the EP of the same name, Source Tags & Codes begins to warm up after forty-odd minutes of agreeable guitar rock that is mostly just trying a bit too hard. The signature chiming guitar riff flows evenly throughout the tune, the rocking is organic, and the melodies are unforced. “Segue” extends that organic progression on the piano and develops it into a transcendent, hopeful piece that flows directly into the closer “Source Tags & Codes.” The “Relative Ways” riff is the undisputed centerpiece of Source Tags and Codes, and also probably the high point of Trail of Dead’s mess of a career.
05. Radiohead – Lucky
For some, this is a no-brainer for the trivial reason that it is the second-to-last track on the greatest album ever. That claim is, er, up for debate, but “Lucky” still deserves a spot in the top ten if only for its ability to up the ante on all of OK Computer. At some point, Radiohead really should have run out of emotional and conceptual posturing and fallen back to either filler or a more detached emotional place, but they managed to keep it together for a properly rocking climax. “Idioteque” would have made this list for the same reason (“EVERYONE, WE ARE NOW MAKING ELECTRONIC MUSIC”) if only it weren’t the third-to-last song on Kid A.
04. Phoenix – Funky Squaredance
I make no secret of my illogical love for this Parisian band’s synth-pop-via-Hall-and-Oates debut, United. While that album’s middle is about as conceptually empty as a deep-fried donut, its beginning and end contain some feel-good instant-classics. Mixtape staples “Too Young” and “If I Ever Feel Better” anchor the beginning, while the three-part epic “Funky Squaredance” helps finish out the set. First, “Squaredance” is a twangy, humorous bit about dying. Then suddenly it’s a dance party. And then the vocoder and crazy guitar solo comes in, and you’re fucking floored. Afterwards, the closer “Definitive Breaks” will mop you up with the Miami Vice yacht-rock edition of the “Too Young” chord progression, and you will indeed blog it.
03. Wilco – Poor Places
Say what you will about this album’s tortured genesis, and theorize all you like about its significance as 21st century cultural commentary. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is nothing less than a collection of great songs that take balanced portions of heartland pathos and citified nihilism. “Poor Places” brings YHF to its climax with just a touch of twang and steadily oscillating levels of feedback. Listening to it is kind of like getting drunk, then sobering up, then deciding to get drunk again, without ever figuring out why. And then there’s “Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot,” “Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot,” “YANKEE HOTEL, FOXTROT…”
02. Dntel Feat. Ben Gibbard – This Is The Dream of Evan and Chan
The song that launched a thousand A&R reps. This first collaboration between Postal Service members Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamorello (aka Dntel) came near the end of Dntel’s star-making LP Life Is Full of Possibilities. While about half of the tracks on the mostly-somber Possibilities included guest vocals, with singers like Mia Doi Todd & Meredith Figurine making appearances, “Evan and Chan” departed both in guest stature and in musical style. You can picture the kids all saying, “Is that the Death Cab guy?” and “Think I can DANCE to this?” and finally, “Where can I get MORE?”
01. David Bowie – Stay
Bowie deserves the Penultimate Songs Lifetime Achievement Award for deftly placing tracks like “Because You’re Young,” “Suffragette City,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Queen Bitch,” “Jean Genie,” “I’m Afraid of Americans,” and “Reality” at the magic position. Even when Bowie sprinkles only the loosest of narratives on his albums, he knows how and when to give his audience dramatic pause. “Stay” has the tough job of following “TVC-15,” but ratchets the coked-out space funk up to Station to Station’s highest level. Evoking a feeling not unlike spontaneously deviating your septum, “Stay” serves as the fiery set-up man for the maniacal crooner ode “Wild Is the Wind,” as well as, of course, the entire Berlin Trilogy.