Five Great Artists’ Final Songs

As the music world often goes, there is an emphasis on immediacy — how will a song or record impact its audience right now? But when one considers the all-time greats, to whom surely modern musicians can’t help but compare themselves, legacy is the most important consideration: What will we leave behind?

It’s rare anyone gets to dictate this point. How we are remembered, it seems, is left to those who will remember us. But that’s not always the case. As musicians die early deaths, retire or fade away, there are a number of examples of artists both intentionally and by coincidence taking some control over their legacy: Their final songs will affect how we appreciate them in the years after they’re gone.

Here are a look at five great artists’ final songs and how those songs defined their careers since.

Glen Campbell: “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”

Country great Clen Campbell’s final song came with the release of the 2014 documentary, “I’ll Be Me,” chronicling Campbell’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. Though Campbell is still alive, as his health deteriorates, this is said to be his his last song and is a heartbreaking piece coping with the pains of his illness. Thanks to the publicity boost from the film, it has been an reintroduction to a world audience, contextualizing his personal struggles through his incredible songwriting.

Nirvana: You Know You’re Right

“You Know You’re Right” was written by late-frontman Kurt Cobain in 1993, making it one of Cobain’s last known songs. It was only known for years from a bootlegged live version recorded on Oct. 23, 1993. A studio version was recorded at Nirvana’s final session, on Jan. 30, 1994 — about three months before Cobain’s death. As such it existed for fans as almost a piece of mythology — best depicting Cobain’s emotional and creative state in his final days — until it was finally released in 2002 on an eponymous best-of compilation.

Frank Sinatra: “My Way”

Though not actually Frank Sinatra’s last released recording, “My Way” was written to be. The story has it, Sinatra had told songwriter Paul Anka he was sick of the business and retiring. Overnight, Anka wrote the song, inspired by Sinatra’s career and way of speaking. He called Sinatra first thing in the morning and the rest is history. There has arguably never been a more defining goodbye song than this.

Queen: “The Show Must Go On”

“The Show Must Go On” was recorded just a month before lead singer Freddie Mercury died from from complications due to AIDS in 1991. It was written mainly by Brian May, chronicling Mercury’s efforts to continue performing despite his illness. May later recalled Mercury’s performance on the recording: “I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this is 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.”

The Band: The Last Waltz album

It’s rare enough an artist gets to decide what it’s final song will be, but to decide your entire last recording with a full concert film the magnitude of The Band’s The Last Waltz is one of the a kind. The Last Waltz soundtrack includes Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond and many others. It peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200.

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