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Ten of the best final singles by a musical artist

By July 7, 2023No Comments15 min read

It’s hard to end a career with a triumph. There are many bands who broke up after a lackluster final album, or a solo artist who died with their last album being a trifle. Even harder is ending that career with a great single, one last final farewell. This list aims to find the best final singles ever recorded.

Some limits and parameters to consider

I have some parameters in mind for the list to limit the number. 

  1. It must be, with some exceptions we get into, the absolute last single release by an artist listed on Rateyourmusic or Wikipedia.
  2. The exceptions are that archival material, re-recording and live recordings do not count against a final studio recording unless the song is newly released and promoted as a mainline single (so for instance, Nirvana’s Unplugged cover of “About a Girl” doesn’t count, but “You Know You’re Right” does). 
  3. Soloists’ final singles can only be listed if they are deceased. Posthumous singles do count if they are newly released material. One of Otis Redding’s best songs is “Hard to Handle” and that didn’t come out until well after his death (as a B-side) and means “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” doesn’t count for this list. Atlantic kept putting out new Otis singles until 1972, four years after his death, and the last song in that sequence is a fine but not amazing cover of the Temptations’ “My Girl”, so he doesn’t count.
  4. For bands on the other hand, a later reunion doesn’t discount the farewell single from their original run, especially if they never release any new music (The Police, for instance). If they do release new music, though, that will be noted and will be taken into account. Squeeze for instance, recorded “Annie Get Your Gun” as their final single and then reconvened a few years later. “Annie Get Your Gun” counts, but the fact they put out a bunch more singles, including the big hit “Hourglass”, after they reunited, counts against “Annie”‘s favor. An underwhelming reunion single doesn’t necessarily disqualify the original farewell song from being here, but I’ll definitely note my disappointment.
  5. US, UK, and the artists’ home country only. I’m not going to discount the final single by a British band if they then release another single after it only in France or something.
  6. The song must be released as a single, and must appear as one on RYM. This means that a lot of artists who rarely or never released singles won’t be here. An artist that only ever released singles posthumously, of previously released material and well after the fact also won’t be included (Nick Drake is a good example here).
  7. Artists who stopped putting out singles, but kept released albums and EPs are disqualified. Sorry, Archers of Loaf fans.
  8. Bands that are currently active and have not broke up don’t count for this, no matter how long it’s been since they last released music (see: The Rolling Stones)
  9. Solo artists that are still alive and still have the potential to put out new music are also ineligible (see: Joni Mitchell, Al Green). Artists that broke up once, but reconvened and are still going are eligible (Steely Dan, Squeeze).
  10. The artist has to at least have a substantial or influential career. No one-offs like M/A/R/R/S.
  11. I have to like the song. Why? Because this is my list and I make the rules. It’s hard to make lists that are completely objective, especially when they’re something like “the greatest final singles” when there’s so many that do not pass muster.

Great almost final singles that aren’t eligible

With that being said, here are a few artists who are not eligible because their final single doesn’t meet these requirements. Usually the one that fails here is #1: The song I’d consider wasn’t their final released single. This doesn’t mean the final single isn’t good, it just means I won’t be including it because the one that I wanted is the better song.

  • Aaliyah, “Miss You” (final single: “Come Over”)
  • The Bangles, “Eternal Flame” (final single: “Everything I Wanted”)
  • The Beatles, “Let It Be” (final single: “The Long and Winding Road”)
  • Blur, “Good Song” (final single: “Out of Time”)
  • Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (final single: “Out Among the Stars”)
  • Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (final single: “Meet Me at Mary’s Place”)
  • Marvin Gaye, “Sexual Healing” (final single: “It’s Madness”)
  • The Notorious BIG, “Mo Money Mo Problems” (final single: “Dead Wrong”)
  • Roy Orbison, “You Got It” (final single: “Heartbreak Radio”)
  • Roxy Music, “Avalon” (final single: “Take a Chance With Me”)
  • Rufus & Chaka Khan, “Ain’t Nobody” (final single: “One Million Kisses” – if eligible “Ain’t Nobody” would have been my #1 pick)
  • Simon & Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (final single: “El Condor Pasa”)
  • Split Enz, “I Walk Away” (final single: “One Mouth is Fed”)
  • Talking Heads, “Sax and Violins” (final single: “Lifetime Piling Up”)
  • Luther Vandross, “Dance With My Father” (final single: “Shine”)
  • Bill Withers, “Just the Two of Us” (final single: “Something That Turns You On”)
  • The Who, “Eminence Front” (final single: “It’s Hard”)
  • The Zombies, “Time of the Season” (final single: “If It Don’t Work Out”)

Unclear cases

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s final officially released single is unclear. “Crosstown Traffic” was issued as the last official single in the UK, but “Stone Free” was issued in the US in 1969 after being released as a single in the UK in 1966. However, that all pales to the release of the single posthumous single release of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (as “Voodoo Chile”) in the UK in 1970 after his death, going to #1. “Voodoo Child” doesn’t count because it came out in 1968, but it’s definitely a great epitaph for Jimi. I was torn about breaking my rules for this one.

Is Daft Punk’s last single “Doin it Right” or “Give Life Back to Music” from Random Access Memories, or the Weeknd collaboration “I Feel It Coming”? I would’ve included one or the other but I wasn’t sure so I left them all off.

Read More: Five ways to fix the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Honorable mentions

Now the next part, here are some songs that do qualify and I did consider, but didn’t make the top 10. Remember some of these bands got back together and recorded new music, and that factored in. Only truly amazing farewell singles can get over that hurdle, and we’ll have some in the main list.

  • ABBA, “Under Attack”
  • Belly, “Seal My Fate”
  • Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Buffalo Soldier”
  • The Clash, “This is England”
  • The Darling Buds, “Sure Thing”
  • Eric B & Rakim, “Juice (Know the Ledge)”
  • The Jam, “Beat Surrender”
  • Led Zeppelin, “Fool in the Rain”
  • Pavement, “Spit on a Stranger”
  • Pixies, “Head On”
  • Refused, “New Noise”
  • Judee Sill, “The Kiss”
  • Siouxsie & The Banshees, “Stargazer”
  • The Smiths, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”
  • Squeeze, “Annie Get Your Gun”
  • Steely Dan, “Time Out of Mind”
  • Talk Talk, “Ascension Day”
  • Ween, “Your Party”

And now, whittled down from songs that were on that list, here are my top 10 favorite and/or the best final singles of all time.

10. Amy Winehouse, “Love is a Losing Game” (2007)

“Love is a Losing Game” is the fifth best of the five singles she released from Back to Black, but that speaks more to how incredible her work was in her short career than it is to the quality of this song. A beautiful neo-soul slow jam that highlights Winehouse’s incredible voice, the song was promoted with an, in hindsight, eerie montage video that feels like the kind of videos the label puts out when the artist is no longer with us. Four years later, she really was no longer with us, and never put out that third album. Two singles were released from the compilation album Lioness: Hidden Treasures that felt less like major singles and more like teasers from a collection of rarities, and I’m willing to bend my rules slightly to ignore those and highlight this as Winehouse’s farewell.

9. Nirvana, “You Know You’re Right” (2002)

Speaking of posthumous songs, this is the only such release on this list, “You Know You’re Right” is one of Nirvana’s best songs, saved for a greatest hits collection after a protracted legal battle between the surviving members and Courtney Love on how to release it. Both sides, however, knew this song was both special and a hit. Here, at their final session in January 1994, the band coalesced everything that made them special into one quiet/loud/quiet masterpiece that in another timeline could have been the lead single of a fourth Nirvana album, not a belated farewell released eight years later. Nirvana’s last single released from a studio album was the perfectly solid “Pennyroyal Tea”, and of course we can’t forget the singles from the classic MTV Unplugged in New York. Moving the timeline ahead to their actual final single, albeit a posthumous one, gives them a much better cap to their career. “You Know You’re Right” was worth the near decade fans waited to hear it and is one of the best.

8. The Police – “King of Pain” (1984)

The Police splintered apart right at the height of their fame and following a superlative run of singles that ended with this piece of philosophical pop. The only other activity from the Police was the poorly received “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86”, which is a re-recording, and their 2007 reunion tour. Otherwise this is a discography that has pretty much been preserved in amber since 1984. In the US, the Police’s last single was “Synchronicity II”, which was released before “King of Pain” in the UK. Since the Police are a British band we’re going with the British single (although “Synchronicity II” would have also made this list). “King of Pain” makes the list because it’s an ideal final single: not only is it a good song, but it’s also highly regarded and an international hit single. A song doesn’t need to be all those things to get here, but all of those together certainly helped “King of Pain” notch onto this list.

7. The Go-Betweens, “Love Goes On!” (1989)

This beloved Australian band went out with the excellent 16 Lovers Lane about a year before leaders and songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster broke the band up to the surprise of the other members. Before that, they put out this final single from the album, their last until their reunion in 2000, that serves as a good distillation of all that made them great: McLennan’s gift for verse melodies, a propulsive chorus, and a guitar and violin driven jangle that permeates the whole song. The band’s reunion, cut short by McLennan’s death in 2005, provided fans with some good albums and singles that added to their legend, but nothing as classic as their initial run that ended with “Love Goes On!”. Like “King of Pain”, this one’s simply a good pick of a last single from the rollout of an album not planned to be their final one.

6. A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People…” (2016)

Here’s an example of a reunion that was not only great, but also rewrote the unsatisfying first farewell from a great band. A Tribe Called Quest ended with the decent The Love Movement, which doesn’t reach the highs of their earlier releases and its clutch of singles, “Find a Way” aside, weren’t really the best goodbye for such an influential act. Eight months after the death of rapper Phife Dawg came We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, a modern classic that closed Tribe’s book the right way. The album’s only single “We the People…” is one of the best things any member of the band had made in decades. The song is a strident criticism of Donald Trump just before his election, with a chorus attacking his bigotry (the mention of “gays”, perhaps, an apology for Tribe’s own rightly unreleased homophobic mistake “Georgie Peorgie”). The song is a great introduction to the dense We Got It From Here, one of the best albums of the 2010s, and a capstone that strengthened the band’s legacy. “People” was the last official single Tribe released, promos and remixes aside, and it’s a good single for the band to bow out on.

5. Bauhaus, “She’s in Parties” (1983)

Dialogue dub, now here’s the rub. Gothic rock figureheads Bauhaus flamed out shortly after the release of 1983’s Burning from the Inside, an album that seemed to have a push/pull between being the band at its most and least accessible. “She’s in Parties” wasn’t quite the band’s last single, they released “Sanity Assassin” as a farewell only to members of their fan club, but “Parties” was their last retail release and their last chart entry. This was the part of Burning that found the band at its most accessible, a hint at the goth pop that both singer Peter Murphy and the rest as Love & Rockets would release after their fragmentation. The song’s wonderful lyrics are about film editing, of all things, and are full of little references to the process. While the band reunited in 2008 for one more forgotten album, their original run ended with one of the best singles they ever put out.

4. Tubeway Army – “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” (1979)

At least the Police had a whole career before they broke up at the height of their popularity. Early new wave band Tubeway Army broke up while the enigmatic, chorusless sci-fi of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was atop the UK Singles Chart in 1979. The song is a herald of new wave synthpop while punk was still in vogue, and bridged the gap between early electronic pop and the new wave of the 80s so well that Trash Theory made this song the fulcrum point of his excellent history video on the beginnings of synthpop. The song must’ve sounded like the future in 1979, because it still does in 2023, but there was no future for the band. Tubeway fans needed not to fret, however, shortly after the band broke up and “Friends” fell from the chart, the band’s singer Gary Numan released his debut single: The worldwide hit “Cars”. Just like that, the new wave his band warned of came crashing to the pop shore.

3. My Bloody Valentine – “Only Shallow” (1992)

Shoegaze legends My Bloody Valentine weren’t much of a singles band. They typically released EPs instead, so the single for “Soon” released over a year and a half before Loveless is actually the Glider EP. One major exception came when “Only Shallow” was issued in the United States (and France, too) and actually charted at #27 on the Modern Rock chart during a period where that chart was fairly shoegazer friendly. “Only Shallow”, kicks off Loveless with a wall of fuzz the band hammers into a melody followed by the vocals of Bilinda Butcher that are as blurry as the music that engulfs her voice.. If they were going to have a hit with anything, it was going to be with this.

Loveless has the reputation of being so good it “killed shoegaze” (a bit unfair to Slowdive and their Souvlaki album in my opinion), but you can hear where some people would think that in this ultimate shoegaze song. Apart from a compilation contribution, the “Only Shallow” was the last thing MBV released until they gifted their fans the followup mbv in 2013. That one had no singles – and even if it did, our rules say they wouldn’t have discounted the accidentally perfect farewell that was “Only Shallow”. The song is the sound of a band running on all cylinders not knowing that they would be falling apart soon after.

2. Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)

What is Joy Division’s final single? “Atmosphere” seems like it’s that song, but it was released as a single in France (titled Licht und Blindheit) in March 1980 before it was issued as the band’s British farewell single in August after Ian Curtis’ death in May. That, to me, feels like “Atmosphere” is a stretch to call Joy Division’s last single. That means that the song that has been codified as both an alternative rock touchstone and Curtis’ epitaph, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, is that song. This is technically the second posthumous single on this list, issued a month after Curtis’ death, but it was already in the pipes when he died as opposed to being released years later like “You Know You’re Right”. Much has already been written about “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and what a perfect, gloomy heartbreak of a song it is. It’s well deserving of its importance and status as a classic. It’s a shame that Joy Division’s greatest moment turned out to be the star-crossed band’s farewell.

1. The Chameleons – “Swamp Thing” (1986)

I can already hear your tune, calling me across the room. What could possibly be a better final single than “Love Will Tear Us Apart”? How about this song by their criminally underrated fellow Mancunians The Chameleons. “Swamp Thing”, the second and final single from their final album Strange Times, is a marvel and one of the best songs of the entire 1980s. The song starts off with a hypnotic guitar line that is then surrounded by the sound of the Solina String Ensemble synthesizer. Then bassist Mark Burgess’ booming voice comes in and leads you through three or four different hooks, all of them perfect. The song is Anglophile catnip, and indeed it was a hit on early American alternative rock radio.

The band weren’t able to capitalize on what seemed to be their Stateside breakthrough, as they split in 1987 following the death of their manager. An EP of what they’d recorded for their fourth album followed a few years later with no singles. They eventually reunited and recorded one more new album of original material in 2001, which does not disqualify “Swamp Thing” even if they never recorded anything as powerful again. “Swamp Thing” is a perfect song, the kind that you’ll find yourself hitting repeat on over and over, like it’s a spell or an incantation.

It is the best single that has ever been released as an artist’s last. “Swamp Thing”, much like The Chameleons’ entire discography, is an ‘80s classic waiting to be discovered. The band is too influential to be relegated to the shadows, not when Interpol and Bloc Party owe so much to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever picks the music for Stranger Things wants to put “Swamp Thing” on the soundtrack next season.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” single cover featured image courtesy of Factory Records

Ryan Gibbs

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