I'm calling it side 2 even though you don't have to flip over a CD or tracklist... yet somehow a lot of albums are still structured to have similar highs and lows to what you'd get on a tape or vinyl record. Because it works: it's a way to sustain listeners through an hour of music from a single artist. I'm sure their are other ways to structure it (for example, making an entire side of a record a single song)
I'll Believe in Anything - Wolf Parade. Saw this song performed live. Wow.
By the way, while I'm on the topic... http://www.music-map.com/ is a great site to visit if you like an artist, and want to find more like them.
4. Somewhere in the second half, there needs to be one (or more) song that is absolutely awesome, to hold together the second half. If the album is front-loaded, I'll lose interest. Arcade Fire's albums suffer from this: too many of their second halves (side twos) are a little undifferentiated, and the resulting effect is an impression that their albums are all about ten to fifteen minutes too long. The side two anchor can bring something a little different than the opening trio, it's a good place for a piece that sprawls (on the first half, it's better to keep things tight) ... but it has to kick ASS in its way.
Some great standout second-half anchors - you'll notice that a number of these are the emotional climax of the entire album, and others are the emotional counterpoint that contrasts the tone of the first three tracks:
Ball and Biscuit (White Stripes: Elephant)
What is the Light and Waitin' For A Superman (Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin)
When Doves Cry (Prince: Purple Rain) (click the link fast. Prince has a record of removing his songs from Youtube)
Runaway (Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)
Hallelujah and Lover, You Should Have Come Over (Jeff Buckley: Grace)
I'll Believe in Anything (Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary: best track on the whole album)
So Come Back, I'm Waiting (Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy)
2 Eyes 2 C: (Suckers: Wild Smile)
Maps: (Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust)
Lonely Lonely and When I Was a Young Girl: (Feist: Let it Die)
Tracks thirteen, fourteen, fifteen: (Modest Mouse: This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About - only a stunning climax would have been able to balance an album with so many massive dynamic swings, but these three do it.)
Share (Cymbals Eat Guitars: Why Are There Mountains-the two songs I mentioned in this post are the only two really good songs on the album, in my opinion, but their placement shows me the band knows something about shaping an album. I'll give their next one a try.)
Scythian Empire (Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha)
Broken Drum (Beck: Guero)
If You See Her, Say Hello and Shelter From the Storm [not on Youtube] (Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks)
5. A satisfying closing. This is one of the reasons I really hate rereleases, bonus tracks, and special editions that add tracks (especially alternative versions of songs we've already heard) to the end of the original album: because the final word of an album shouldn't be messed with. And if a track wasn't good enough to be part of the original album statement, it doesn't deserve a place on a disc with the original album.
Many bands put their most sprawling track last (Desolation Row, A Day in the Life), some sail off into the stratosphere (Purple Rain - Prince: Purple Rain; All Is Full Of Love - Bjork: Homogenic; Dragon's Lair: Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer; My Body is a Cage - Arcade Fire: Neon Bible), or at least somewhere (The Happy Birthday Song - Andrew Bird: Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production Of Eggs) and others end with a gentle sigh that almost deflates (I Saw a Light - Bat For Lashes: Fur and Gold, Mothers of the Disappeared - U2: The Joshua Tree), and others are a little bow to tie off the emotional dramatics that came just before (After Hours - Velvet Underground: Self-Titled; Her Majesty - Beatles: Abbey Road; Space Travel is Boring - Modest Mouse: This is a Long Drive...) but when it finishes, you know it's finished, and the journey is complete.
Radiohead are the best at putting a final song in that drifts off and leaves the listener exactly where they want them. While the rest of their albums are so good it's not always easy to say they're the best tracks on the albums (though some are contenders) but they're all gorgeous songs, and perfect closers. Wolf At The Door and Four Minute Warning (Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, part II) are favorites. Tom Waits ties off his albums (which fly in every direction) with his final songs, which is very important to restore unity after switching across genres, themes and emotional tones as much as he does - "That Feel" from Bone Machine, "Anywhere I Lay My Head" from Rain Dogs, and "Come On Up To The House" from Mule Variations are three finishes that complete the arc of their albums, and "Fawn" is a perfect, sad little bowtie.
Other great closing tracks:
Bird Gehrl (Antony and the Johnsons: I am a Bird Now); Pitter Patter goes my Heart (Broken Social Scene: You Forgot it in People) Filmore Jive (Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)
On the flipside, NEVER EVER put your worst song last, because that's the closing impression I'll have of your album. From Here We Go To Sublime, by The Field, has a closing track I find really languid and dull compared to the excellent rest of the album, and particularly compared to the superlative track "Silent," which is the chillest bliss-out I've ever heard. It uses a different sound vocabulary than the rest of the album, and is considerably slower, so that the album ends in an anticlimax... and not in a good way (as in Bird Gehrl, above, or "One road To Freedom" a nice bring-down at the end of Ben Harper's "Fight For Your Mind," after the stormy "God Fearing Man"
Following the template
Antony and the Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now
White Stripes - especially Elephant
U2 - The Joshua Tree
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy... though the closing track isn't as great as some of the others.
Rain Dogs - Tom Waits (one of the greatest songwriting albums in my collection)
Songs by Leonard Cohen (his gorgeous debut album)
Bjork - Homogenic
Built To Spill - Perfect from Now On (second half high points; Time Trap, You Were Right)
and it doesn't have to be classic, indie, or obscure, either:
Barenaked Ladies - Stunt
Filmore Jive - Pavement (a band whose sound checks none of the boxes that usually make me like a band... but which I keep coming back to again and again, because their songs are just ... great.)
The other way to make an album is to make one that's strong from top to bottom -- no tracks particularly stand way out... but there also isn't a weak one in there, either. This is hard to do, because if the songs are too similar, it's boring, but they have to stay within the vibe. These consistent kinds of albums are the best for listening while you're working or driving, and they're really satisfying.
Avett Brothers: I and Love and You
Most Wilco albums, other than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Most albums by "The National" -- which is why they grow on you so much. High Violet is an especially good example of this, because they even manage to have some standout songs... without having standout songs.
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavillion
Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
Bon Iver: Self titled
David Byrne: Grown Backwards
Back to the first post. Back to part 2. My posts about Bliss-outs. About K-pop. About REAL Korean Music.