Taylor Swift's new album "Reputation" couldn't be further from her country music roots. Until you get to the very last song.
"Hold on to your memories, they will hold on to you," Swift sings on "New Year's Day," a quiet ballad about love that lasts beyond a midnight kiss on Dec. 31. "Please don't ever become a stranger whose laugh I would recognize anywhere."
In an album getting a lot of attention for its pop production, "New Year's Day" stands out as the most stripped-down track - it brought Jimmy Fallon to tears when she performed it on "The Tonight Show" last week. Although the Nashville-trained Swift is long gone from Music Row, one thing "Reputation" has in common with country artists' albums is that it saves a particularly meaningful track for last.
This phenomenon is not specific to country music, obviously, as the best last songs on albums are a hotly debated topic. But multiple records released this fall are a reminder that even as country musicians experiment with upbeat rock, pop and hip-hop sounds, sometimes the last track is where an artist is the most introspective - and it can offer surprising insight into their life.
In September, Kip Moore released his rock-charged third album, "Slowheart," which he ended with the softer "Guitar Man." With echoes of Billy Joel's "Piano Man," it's an intimate, emotional song about the lonely life of a musician: "The fruits of my labor's when the crowd sings along/Nothing short of a savior, still I go home alone/I'm an empty, faceless spotlight mic-stand."
Moore was inspired to write the tune after seeing a guitarist at a bar play cover songs for about 25 people. The singer had an empty look in his eyes, which Moore recognized.
"It just brought me back to those days of spinning my tires and feeling like there was so much more that I wanted," Moore said. "It took me tapping back into my life before I had any success as a recording artist. So the song is autobiographical and very personal, but also my tip of the cap to all the dreamers out there that are trying to make it."
The almost-six-minute song has little chance of becoming a radio single; still, Moore said that people at his shows are constantly yelling out for him to play it. The song is similar to his first two albums' final tracks ("Faith When I Fall" and "Comeback Kid"), which are about never giving up on the music dream, a particularly personal concept to Moore, who has gone through many ups and downs in Nashville.
"I purposefully placed those songs last ... those are always my finalized feeling and the shutting of the door of that chapter of that record: 'OK, it's time to move on to the next thing," he said. "That's what those songs are meant to be."
Walker Hayes - whose sophomore album, "boom.," drops Dec. 8 - likewise saves an emotional wallop for his final song, titled "Craig." Hayes tells many stories of his life throughout his album (in which the spoken-word lyrics are somewhat polarizing), yet "Craig" goes even deeper.
The song is about one of Hayes' lowest points, when he lost a record deal and couldn't afford a car that had enough seat belts for all of his kids. But a man named Craig, along with his wife, gifted Hayes and his family a minivan. Hayes wrote the song by himself, and while his record was basically completed, he knew he had to make room for "Craig" to close the album.
"I feel like rarely do men and women in country music come out and say, 'Dude gave me a car.' I was at a time where I was so ashamed to even be grateful for it," Hayes said. "But I've learned what my audience wants now. I mean, it's not a giant audience, but what my audience wants from me is the truth."
Some singers go deeper even if they don't write the lyrics themselves, such as Blake Shelton's "I Lived It" on his recent album "Texoma Shore," about a rural upbringing. Lee Brice's self-titled record, released in November, ends with "The Best Part of Me," written by Phillip Lammonds and Chris Gelbuda. Brice said hefelt a connection when he first heard it.
"There's plenty about me that I don't like, most mistakes I've made, I made them twice/Sometimes I don't live out the words I say, and I just can't stay out my own way," Brice belts out. "But the best part of me, part of me is you."
Brice recorded it as a tribute to his new baby daughter. Citing Garth Brooks, known for putting "something really special" as the last song on a record, he wanted to follow suit.
"Some people don't necessarily take energy or care what the order of the album because this world is all about putting singles out," Brice said. "It's maybe an old-school thing to care about sequence of album ... but this felt like a great way to end this record."
Last country songs don't have to be slow, or even non-singles, as long as they make a statement. Kelsea Ballerini ended her new sophomore album, titled "Unapologetically," with the mid-tempo "Legends," about an epic relationship, which was the record's first single released to country radio.
Chris Lane, who released his debut record last year, said that the album-ordering process is a group effort - he, his manager, producer and label president all sketched it out. Though the title track, "Girl Problems," about a relationship that's almost too perfect, was an upbeat cut from outside writers, they all decided that they wanted to end the record in an uplifting way.
"The album starts on a positive note and ends on a positive note," Lane said. "It felt like it really said everything I wanted to say."