Funky Four + 1: Artists Who Went Out On Top

19 Dec

scarface
Although not accompanied by great fanfare or MTV countdowns, last week’s release of Emeritus made for a fitting end to a career that has spanned three decades with very few low points to speak of. Scarface, known to his mother as Brad Jordan, has left the door open to collaborations, but claims that this will be his final solo album. If it is, he will have gone out on top, without any of the justifying and critical gymnastics that accompany a new release from a grizzled veteran, be it Bob Dylan (every album is “his best since Blood On The Tracks“) or Jay-Z (whose every release is qualified as “It’s no Blueprint, but…”). Actually, with his booming voice and love of the third-person narrator, ‘Face was always suited for an elder statesman role; he just needed to age into it. It’s why after a few years of playing label politics in the late-90s, the late-career surge that began with Last Of A Dying Breed seemed entirely unsurprising. He also managed to straddle the damn-near-impossible line between avoiding trends and creatively stagnating. Contemporaries of his like Ice Cube have embarassed themselves when trying to stay current (their lack of interest in rapping doesn’t help), while Golden Age greats who’ve stuck to their signature sound have turned into museum pieces. Whether he was rapping over classic breakbeats in the late 80s (Issac Hayes, Steve Miller), or Euro-synth washes like on hisnew single “High Powered,” every song unmistakably sounds like Scarface. In tribute to Mr. Jordan ending his career with such a proper farewell, we present The Funky Four + 1: Five Artists Who Went Out On Top.

Disclaimer/Honorable Mention: Though The Band’s The Last Waltz is concert film and not an album per se, they didn’t take any chances for their final concert. They got a got a lineup of guest stars like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and a highly coked-out Neil Young,1 and then got Martin fucking Scorsese to film the whole thing. Anyway, on with the show!

The Black Album5. Jay-Z: The Black Album
After threatening retirement before every album, Jigga finally made good on it with The Black Album, an album that actually felt like a final album. Steeped through with meditation and taking stock of one’s accomplishments, Jay-Z truly ended his career on a high note. And then, after the success of the album and the Fade To Black concert (coincidentally, both share titles with Metallica albums or songs…), he lived happily ever after with Beyonce, never once considering sullying his legacy with an ill-considered comeback album…

Downward Is Heavenward4. Hum: Downward Is Heavenward
After years of floundering in the Chicago scene, Hum finally attracted attention in 1995 with You’d Prefer An Astronaut. Breaking through on the strength of the single “Stars,” they were immediately (unfairly) dismissed as Smashing Pumpkins wannabes. The comparison was kind of weak: Hum never indulged in the theatrics of Billy Corgan, but the fact that they were both from Chicago and used layers of guitars made for an easy dismissal at the time. For an encore, Hum took everything that worked with their previous album, and added more of it. A lot more 1997’s effects-pedal orgy Downward Is Heavenward flopped spectcularly. Moving merely 30,000 units these days wouldn’t get a band dropped from their label; it would get them shot. Time, however, has been kind to Downward Is Heavenward, as their refinement of the formula made for a masterpiece of dispassionate lyrics (see how we said they were nothing like Smashing Pumpkins?) and walls of guitar.

Odessey & Oracle3. The Zombies: Odessey & Oracle
Another band that had gotten caught in the one-hit wonder trap, The Zombies’ final album, Odessey & Oracle (it was a simpler time before spell-check) was a concept album about World War I that lost the plot somewhere along the way. The fixation with violence, war, and imprisonment (“Care of Cell 44” is in a league with Nas’ “One Love” as far as jailhouse letters go) clashes hilariously with the Paisley Psychedelic cover art. The band broke up immediately after finishing it (or possibly somewhere in the middle of the process. In other words, it had all the makings of a noble failure-turned-cult hit when some boutique label reissues it thirty years later. Unfortunately, this plan was wrecked when single “Time Of The Season” went on to become the band’s biggest hit, and they had to live wondering how much money they’d be making if they could stand each other. LOL!

The Argument2. Fugazi: The Argument
For better or worse, Fugazi’s devoted fanbase is full of scene veterans who were there back in the day, when everything was better, shows were a dollar, and Nike wasn’t appropriating Ian McKaye’s face for advertising campaigns. While this makes for packed shows, it also makes for incredibly limiting expectations: if every new song’s going to fall short of “Waiting Room” or “Shut The Door,” it puts a lot of pressure on the band to run in circles. Even the most crusty diehard eventually came around to The Argument, though, and with good reason. Toning down aggression of the early work for a more nuanced sound, Fugazi sounded even more dangerous when they were quiet than when they were loud (and there’s still plenty of abrasive guitar parts to go around). Hearing Ian and Guy against a cello also served to accentuate the lyrics, which benefited from the nuanced and (yes) mature perspective that age had given Fugazi. Punk’s not a genre known for aging gracefully, but Fugazi bowed out with their definitive achievement.

Loveless1. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless
Loveless tops any number of critics’ lists for any number of criteria, but it’s pretty hard to dispute its placement here. After evolving from a C-86-schooled twee pop band to a shoegaze band on Isn’t Anything, Kevin Shields and Co. delivered on that promise with the genre’s defining statement in Loveless. And then…

they disappeared. My Bloody Valentine never formally broke up, they just went all Chinese Democracy on us. Shields allegedly burned through a million pounds of his label’s money before they cut him off, the rest of the band (not that they were anything more like figureheads) fell out of the picture, and the long-promised followup never materialized.

Actually, the mention of Chinese Democracy brings it all full circle. As Scarface bowed out gracefully this month, Axl Rose’s perpetual punchline finally saw the light of day, and Best Buy, which inked an exclusive deal with Geffen to distribute the album, is now stuck with over a million unsold copies that they, by contract, can’t return. As bad as Axl (or Best Buy) has it, though, at least they had ample precedents guiding the way. The list above is notably bereft of rappers. Some die and achieve martyrdom status (or at least wind up on a lot of bootleg T-Shirts). The rest mostly fade away. Public Enemy released an album last week. Unless you’re on emusic’s mailing list (or you’re Public Enemy) you probably didn’t know that. For Scarface to remain relevant up until the very end… well, if nothing else, it makes this the second straight Funky Four + 1 list where he comes across like a champ. And it doesn’t leave Best Buy holding the bag.

1 Hilariously, despite Young’s vigorous anti-cocaine stance at the time, they had to re-edit the film when the camera showed the blow caked all over his nostrils in one scene.

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