The passage of time is always cruel, but this past decade seemed especially merciless when it came to culling our musical heroes and heroines. Prince, Aretha Franklin, Scott Walker, Lou Reed, Ric Ocasek, Dr. John, Levon Helm, Amy Winehouse, Adam Yauch, George Michael, Mark E. Smith, Alex Chilton, Daniel Johnston, Chris Cornell, Ronnie James Dio, Malcolm Young, Lemmy… the list goes on and on.
Ideally, you’d love to see your favorite artists cap their careers (and lives) by going out on a musical high note, but that can be a tall order to fill: The muse doesn’t always cooperate, the vagaries of life too often get in the way of crafting a great valediction, and sometimes death snatches you away before you even realize you’re heading for the exit.
But sometimes it all miraculously comes together, as in the case of these ten truly remarkable farewell albums from the last decade.
Sparklehorse — Dark Night of the Soul
Recorded in 2009, this masterful collaboration between Mark Linkous and Danger Mouse wasn’t officially released until June 2010, a few months after Linkous committed suicide. Though it’s essentially a concept record about struggling with a spiritual crisis, Dark Night of the Soul—which features engaging cameos from an impressive array of artists, including The Flaming Lips, Iggy Pop, Black Francis, Julian Casablancas, David Lynch, and Vic Chesnutt (the latter of whom would also take his own life before the album’s release)—ultimately feels far more like a celebration than a grim goodbye.
Gil Scott-Heron — I’m New Here
Scott-Heron’s 2010 collaboration with XL Recordings’ Richard Russell was something of a shocker—both because it was his first album in sixteen years, and because the record’s stark, electronica-tinged sound and deeply personal spoken-word segments constituted a marked departure from the funky jazz and passionate political poetry that characterized the bulk of his massively influential discography. Though the man himself seemed somewhat ambivalent about the project at the time, I’m New Here was sufficiently haunting, unsettling, and thought-provoking to serve as a worthy epitaph when Scott-Heron passed away in 2011.
Bobby Womack — The Bravest Man in the Universe
Released in 2012, the soul legend’s first album of original material since 1994’s Resurrection would unfortunately turn out to be his last; Womack passed away in June 2014 after battling a variety of health issues, including diabetes, cancer, and early signs of Alzheimer’s. Recorded with the help of Richard Russell and Damon Albarn (both of whom are credited as executive producers), The Bravest Man in the Universe set Womack’s grizzled vocals against electronic grooves and spacey twenty-first-century production—an initially jarring juxtaposition that has nevertheless aged exceptionally well.
David Bowie — Blackstar
The one-two punch of Blackstar’s release—on January 8, 2016, Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday—and the Thin White Duke’s death from liver cancer two days later sent seismic shocks through the music world that still reverberate to this day. Written and recorded in secret after he’d learned of his illness (news of which was also kept completely on the down-low), Bowie’s twenty-fifth album was a brilliant record on its own terms, and perhaps even his best in decades; but it was only apparent after his death that he’d managed to transform his impending demise into uncompromising art, bidding us a fond adieu in the most Bowie way possible.
Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
Largely recorded in Cohen’s Los Angeles living room, You Want It Darker delivered the kind of wistful, wry-humored, thoroughly unfiltered observations you might expect (and even hope for) from a legendary poet/singer/songwriter preparing to meet his maker at the end of a long and colorful life. Produced by Cohen’s son Adam, the album’s sparse yet appealing music offered a perfect backdrop for this collection of mordant musings and sly score-settlings, released just a few weeks before Cohen passed away in November 2016.
Charles Bradley — Changes
Though he’d been singing in clubs since the 1960s, Bradley—a.k.a. “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” —finally found a wider audience with his incredible 2011 debut, No Time for Dreaming. The album’s title proved sadly prescient, as Bradley would die only six years later from stomach cancer. But 2016’s Changes, the final full-length released during his lifetime, remains a powerful testament to Charles Bradley’s immense talent.
Sharon Jones — Soul of a Woman
Like her Daptone labelmate Bradley, Sharon Jones was a soul artist who got a late start on her career, but more than made up for it in the last years of her life. Her seventh album with the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman, was recorded while she was undergoing treatment for the cancer that had troubled her since 2013, and which finally took her life in late 2016. Released the following year, Soul of a Woman betrayed no sign of illness or weakness, but rather served as an appropriately triumphant capper to Jones’ career.
Nipsey Hussle — Victory Lap
Released in February 2018, this highly anticipated, guest-studded album—Nipsey Hussle’s first major full-length after over a decade of mixtapes—marked the rapper, entrepreneur, and community activist as a true hero of West Coast hip-hop; when he bragged he was “the 2Pac of my generation,” you actually kind of believed him. Regrettably, Nipsey’s promising career ended just over a year later, when he was murdered in the parking lot of Marathon Clothing, his store in South Los Angeles…but Victory Lap was certainly a victorious note to exit on.
Purple Mountains — Purple Mountains
In July 2019, after nearly a decade’s hiatus from music, Silver Jews main man David Berman finally released a new collection of songs, this time under the moniker Purple Mountains. The album of the same name showed that Berman had lost none of his knack for poetic, poignant lyrics, or for writing songs that danced nimbly along the divide between heartwarming and heartbreaking. Unfortunately, that sense of poignancy and heartbreak was thrown into higher relief when Berman took his own life, just three days before he was supposed to begin a tour in support of the new album.
The Muffs — No Holiday
As with Bowie and Blackstar, Muffs frontwoman Kim Shattuck went into the recording of No Holiday knowing that she was running out of time. Diagnosed with ALS, she had already lost the ability to play guitar; but even as she dealt with the debilitating challenges of her disease, she was still able to lead her bandmates through the making and mixing of one more album. Released in October 2019, just sixteen days after her death, No Holiday is brash, funny, tender, catchy, and rocking as all hell—in short, everything that was always great about both Kim Shattuck and the Muffs.