I'm not a linguist but I'll confess that I'm fascinated by jargon. Ever heard the phrase the 11 O'Clock Number? It's theatrical shorthand for the big show stopping musical number late in act two. If your musical starts at 8:30 p.m. and you want the crowd awake for the finale then you better have a great song hit at 11:00 p.m. If you do a really good job they'll be singing that song as they leave the theater.
Most albums do not have an 11 o'clock number. Music writers will talk all day about their favorite opening and closing tracks but rarely does anyone give the penultimate track its due. It's a track that has to be different enough from the closing track to stand out without being jarring in the process. They might serve as the emotional highpoint of the album or may just be an interesting sonic experiment, but it's important that they lead in to the next song just right. Put the wrong song here and you could blow the landing to a great album completely.
It's a thankless job, but fortunately for us there are a few brave tracks that rise above simply being just another track on the album. Take a look at this list of tracks that put the ultimate in penultimate.
Talking Heads - "Psycho Killer"
If that bassline doesn't get your attention you should be concerned. This quirky look at the mind of a serial killer actually became a minor hit for the band when it was released as a single, which goes to show that bad guys always get the great songs. Although the song would eventually be refined in to the awesome version that opens Stop Making Sense, the original remains a fun listen. And yes, that is French in bridge.
The Cars - "Moving In Stereo"
While the song will forever be associated with Phoebe Cates and her red bikini, it first appeared as the penultimate track on the bands self-titled debut album. The song is instantly catchy yet mysterious, and stands out against the more "rock" based tracks that precede it on the album. Its transition in to "All Mixed Up" is flawless, making it one of the best final track pairings in rock history.
Kanye West - "Blame Game"
Like most Kanye tracks this low key epic is an intriguing mash up of different elements. From the Aphex Twin piano sample that the song is based around, to the Chloe Mitchell poem that makes up the third verse, to the great Chris Rock guest appearance, the song is a meditation on how his relationship fell apart. Those feelings of regret serve as the perfect base for lyrics of confusion in "Lost In The World."
City And Colour - "Casey's Song"
How do you make a track stand out on a collection of acoustic numbers where the songwriter pours out his heart on the page? You write a song that goes in the exact opposite direction. The song packs in a ton of emotion in its four lines, but the joy here is the synth and string combination accompanying the guitars. While his work as a lyricist is nice, the emotion that Dallas Green is able to squeeze out of the music on this track is amazing and a highlight of the album.
Deftones - "Change (In The House Of Flies"
The most well known song from their most well known album, "Change" is the Deftones doing all the things they do best at once. The music is catchy without overshadowing the other things going on in the mix, the DJ uses atmospherics to naturally fit himself inside the song and give it a creepy vibe, and Chino proves himself to be one of the best moaners in music history. The "ahhs" at the end of the track just go to show how sometimes a little goes a long way.
Marilyn Manson - "The Reflecting God"
It arrives as the last great violent outburst in a work filled to the brim with aggression. The darkness and danger of the last act of the album build to the climax in this track. The music becomes loud and the vocals become a mix of chant and scream. The protagonist realizes there's no coming back from the depths, and after a brief acoustic interlude, lashes out one last time, curses and all. It's the final manic highpoint before the album comes to its quiet, depressing conclusion.
Eminem - "'Till I Collapse"
He can be witty. He can be crude. He can spit faster than most can comprehend. Yet when I think of Eminem it's always this song that comes to mind. Although he would later return to the theme of preservation in "Lose Yourself" and "Not Afraid," I always felt that this track was Slim at his motivational best. It also has maybe the best hook of any of his tracks with Nate Dogg putting down another classic hook. Plus, we find out that Redman is at the top of his best rappers list, in case you were curious but scared to ask.
Mogwai - "Two Rights Make One Wrong"
Putting together a memorable instrumental track is difficult enough without making it nine minutes long and sticking it near the end of the album, but against all odds Mogwai make it work. One could argue that they cheat by putting vocals on the track but that's missing the greater beauty of what's going on. The words are gibberish and there for texture, and the way the choir eventually takes over for traditional instrumentation is just gorgeous. The unexpected highlight of this track is some light banjo that comes in about halfway though that adds a lot of character to the track. I'm a sucker for unexpected banjo.
The Get Up Kids - "Close To Home"
Sandwiched in between two beautiful but slow ballads, "Close To Home" is the rocker there to wake up the listener before the album comes to a close. There aren't a lot of rock moments on this emo classic, and that's not a bad thing. The interplay of slow/fast and quiet/loud lead to really rewarding moments. The song comes to it's rocking conclusion then falls gracefully in to the final track the way a good penultimate song should.
Third Eye Blind - "Motorcycle Drive By"
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There's a weird sensation you get listening to this album as a whole. "I Want You" and "The Background" come on back to back, and then the acoustic guitar for this song starts and you start to worry that the tempo on this record is never going to pick up. Hold strong though and your patience is rewarded with what might be the strongest section of music the band ever came up with. When the acoustic guitars come back again after the last "I've never felt so alive" you're thankful to have a moment to catch your breath. People may remember the singles but this is the song they should know.
Hum - "I Hate It Too"
Whether you call them post-hardcore, shoegaze, or space rock, Hum is one of the great underappreciated bands of the 90s. The best thing about this track is the way it plays with the quiet/loud dynamic. You find yourself almost straining to understand what Matt Talbott is saying before the track kicks off into the heavier second half. It does an excellent job of highlighting the distance of missing someone and the sadness of realizing they aren't the one both lyrically and musically.