The last couple of decades have given us a trove late-career classic albums. From Johnny Cash to Gil Scott-Heron, here are ten of our favourites.
In late March, just as music fans around the world were coming to terms with the grim new reality, Bob Dylan surprise-released his best song in many years. The impact of the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ was especially striking given its creator is 78-years-old.
Dylan has since followed up with another creative thunderbolt, the comparatively terse ‘I Contain Multitudes’. The strength of these back-to-back releases has caused many listeners to anticipate a late-career masterpiece from Dylan.
He wouldn’t be the first artist to achieve such a feat – the last couple of decades have given us a trove late-career classic albums, and we’re here to walk you through the ten of the best.
Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man (2000)
The third album in Johnny Cash’s American series came out when Cash was 68-years-old. Working again with producer Rick Rubin – the producer who revived Cash’s career in the mid-’90s – the track list includes covers of Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat’, U2’s ‘One’ and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s ‘I See a Darkness’.
Side-B includes a number of the strongest original compositions to come out of Cash’s late career renaissance.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
2016’s We got it from Here… was not only A Tribe Called Quest‘s first album in 18 years, but it came eight months after the death of founding member Phife Dawg. This made it the hip hop icons’ final album overall (thus qualifying for this list).
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It’s hard to beat the era-defining releases of Tribe’s original run – albums like The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) – but We got it from Here… captures the Queens group at their most vital. The album also includes guest appearances from Kendrick, Kanye, Andre 3000, Elton John and Jack White.
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
There’s perhaps no other album that emblematises the idea of a late-career classic like David Bowie‘s Blackstar. Released just days before his death, a lot of attention was given to how the record explicitly addressed Bowie’s flagging health.
However, the songwriting on Blackstar is infallible even when removed from the context of its creation. Joined by New York jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and a crew of other virtuosos, Bowie sounds electrified throughout.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (2016)
Leonard Cohen was always going to suit his senior years. You Want It Darker came out one month after the Canadian singer-poet’s 82nd birthday and one month prior to his death.
Cohen’s aged, huskier voice adds greater emphasis to his poetic evocations. His son Adam Cohen produced the record, complementing his father’s literary vocals with intimate, fog-like arrangements.
Yoko Ono – Between My Head and the Sky (2009)
Along with pretty much everything in Yoko Ono’s back catalogue, 2009’s Between My Head and the Sky feels sorely underrated. Ono is backed by an updated iteration of the Plastic Ono Band – the band she formed with John Lennon at the end of the 1960s.
Her son Sean leads the pack, with Japanese musicians Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto) and Cornelius also adding to the carnal atmosphere. The 76-year-old Ono presides over a range of snarling rock songs and rousing dance punk numbers, offering plenty of quintessential glass-half-full Onoisms.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (2019)
Nick Cave would probably reject the idea he’s a “late-career” artist. And considering three of his strongest artistic statements have come out in the past decade, you can understand why. But 2019’s Ghosteen – released just after Cave’s 62nd birthday – is one of the most critically adored releases of the contemporary era.
The record’s abundant five star reviews didn’t claim it to be a perfect album. Rather, criticism feels entirely irrelevant in the case of Ghosteen. It’s a work of staggering beauty that’ll bring even the most stubborn listener into contact with their finer feelings.
Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here (2010)
When XL Recordings boss Richard Russell decided he wanted to hear a new Gil Scott Heron album, he figured he may as well just create it himself. So Russell reached out to Heron – who was serving time for drugs possession – and convinced him to work on his first album in more than 15 years. The title track is a cover of a Bill Callahan song, but the remainder all spawned from Russell and Scott-Heron’s burgeoning collaboration.
Scott-Heron’s poetic flair hadn’t faded in his many years out of the studio. And while he’d die before making any more music, the record has since been submitted to two reinterpretations – one by Jamie XX and another by jazz drummer Makaya McCraven.
Alice Coltrane – Translinear Light (2004)
Jazz spiritualist Alice Coltrane hadn’t made an album since the late 1970s. But we’re sure glad her son Ravi could cajole her back into the studio for 2004’s Translinear Light, as it’s one of the finest jazz records of the 21st century.
Coltrane predominantly plays piano and Wurlitzer organ, stretching out into untamed melodic passages. Her children Ravi and Oran both play sax on the record, while Alice honours her late-husband John by re-working two of his songs from the 1960s.
Paul McCartney – Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
Paul McCartney cops a lot of stick for being the silly Beatle. Yes he’s made some questionable decisions in his post-Beatles career – I’d pay large sums to never hear ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ again. But if anyone needs convincing of Paul’s unrivalled musical dexterity, look no further than 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.
Produced by Radiohead’s resident studio boffin Nigel Godrich, Paul plays pretty much every instrument on every track. And aside from the cringey ‘English Tea’, the songs here stack up against Paul’s best work either side of The Beatles.
Vashti Bunyan – Lookaftering (2005)
With Lookaftering, British folkie Vashti Bunyan achieved what Pitchfork called “one of the most unlikely comebacks in rock history.” It may have taken the psychedelic folk progenitor 35 years to follow up her debut album, 1970’s Just Another Diamond Day, but my word did she make it a worthwhile wait.
Lookaftering is full of beautifully crafted, delicately executed originals. Composer Max Richter handled production duties, expertly capturing Bunyan’s diaphanous but substantive songwriting personality.