Monday, February 20, 2012

Building a Great Album: Side 1

Soundtrack: Black Dog, Led Zeppelin, for your listening pleasure.

Though albums are sold as CDs or digital tracklists these days, rather than tapes or records with two sides, there are certain features of the first half of an album's playing time, and certain features of the second half, that have held true even after we stopped having to flip over our tapes and records. This post is about what works on side one of an album.

I'll try to put links up at least one of the times I mention an album or band... but google works, folks, and unless I add a qualifier, I'd say that all the songs (and albums on which they are found, obviously, given the topic) are keepers, and worth a try. Unless you really disagree with my taste in music... which is OK, too.

1. As per Nick Hornby's Mixtape Rules from High Fidelity, the first track SHOULD be a great one... but it should also be a statement of purpose about what the album will be about (this has been true since Sergeant Pepper, the first modern album), and the second song should bring things up even higher, if possible-or go somehow further in the direction the album's going. No band has ever (or at least... SHOULD ever) put their most depressing song first. Or the one offbeat song that doesn't match the rest of the album's tone. The Joshua Tree put Bullet The Blue Sky fourth (a good place for a change of pace song), not first. White Stripes' Elephant also changes pace for tracks 4 and 5. Couldn't exactly gone any higher.

Led Zeppelin (Black Dog, Whole Lotta Love, Immigrant Song) and U2 (Where the Streets Have No Name, Beautiful Day) are two bands that are very good at picking a great opener. Like or dislike the entire album, with "And the Hazy Sea," Cymbals eat Guitars tells you exactly what you're getting. On an awesomer scale, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" at the beginning of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" lets you know you're in for something really, really hot.

Other albums with really great first songs, or songs that set the tone really well: Funeral, by Arcade Fire (The Suburbs is probably a better album overall, but The Arcade Fire might never top that first song off their debut full-length). Purple Rain, by Prince (Let's Go Crazy), "Fever to Tell" and "It's Blitz" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Weezer's "My Name is Jonas," is an amazing opening volley. "Until the Morning Comes" by Tindersticks. Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, by The Flaming Lips (At War With the Mystics is not their best, but probably their most fun album.)

Until the Morning Comes (Tindersticks)

2. The first three tracks should set out most of the album's sonic parameters, and if you only have four or five great songs for your album, it's not a bad idea to cash in two, or even three of them, in the first triple. If the goal of your album is to rock out, the advice given in High Fidelity (I think in the book: can't find it in the movie clips) stands: start strong, but make the second song even better, to serve notice that things are going to rock out, not peter out.

Greatest opening trios in my collection:
White Stripes: Elephant (Seven Nation Army, Black Math, which somehow, almost unbelievably, kicks it up another notch from the stunning opener, and then There's no Home For You Here, which nearly made me drive off the road the first time I listened to it in a car.)
Jeff Buckley: Grace (Mojo Pin, Grace, Last Goodbye)
U2: The Joshua Tree (Where the Streets Have no Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, With or Without You: Incredible!)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Zero. Shiny!

Other stellar opening trios: David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust (track 4's not bad, either), The Flaming Lips are very good at opening songs and trios that set out the tone for the album...and also kick ass, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums "Fever to Tell" and "It's Blitz" also do this really well, but the masters might be The White Stripes: all of their studio albums do this in spades, bringing the thunder while setting the soundscape.

Interestingly, the Beatles - album as genre pioneers - usually don't follow to the "first three tracks" rule

3. If there isn't a tone-shift track somewhere in the first five tracks (think "Bullet The Blue Sky" on Joshua Tree, or "Exit Music For a Film" on OK Computer, or "The Beautiful Ones" on Purple Rain), I stop expecting one, and start listening for if the album is consistent all the way through (Blood on the Tracks) instead. Changes of tone aren't needed, but it's a different type of album where the songs all combine into a very unified listening experience, instead of standing out a little, one from the other.

Back to part one.  On to part three.

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