The Truth About Music: Play It Loud

"What's hot, what's not, and whats next in pop music"

Lead Off Hit: Dissecting The Opening Track

There are countless factors that go into making an album great. Many of them completely within the artists control (song quality, statement of purpose), and some well outside (wider musical trends, label interference). One factor that every great album shares is that anyone familiar with the record knows the first track.

This really just makes sense. Even in this modern era of shuffled playlists and streaming content, when your favorite musician puts out a new album, the base instinct is still to start at track 1, as they intended. For this reason, I would argue that track 1 is the most important song on most albums. This isn’t to say it is always the best, or most memorable song, but it is the song that introduces the listener to the record ahead, and sets the tone for the proceedings. With this in mind, I contend that there are several distinct types of opening tracks, they are as follows:

The Lead Single
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit from Nevermind
Migue l- Adorn from Kaleidoscope Dream
The Beatles – Help from Help!

This is a classic maneuver that harkens back to the dawn of the album era. If an artist is trying to get you to purchase their record based on a hit single, they want that song to be your introduction to the rest of the album. While this strategy has produced some great results (see the above examples) it can also be a tell tale sign of a weak offering. The way I see it, if an artist is confident in their work, they will use their album as a platform to show what they have to offer beyond the song that has gotten them the most exposure. By putting a big single first, it can give the impression that this is the best the artist has to offer.

Welcome To The Show
The Beatles – Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band from Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Hold Steady – Hornets! Hornets! from Separation Sunday
David Bowie – Five Years from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

This type of lead off track was pioneered at the dawn of the “album as statement” era. Very popular in the 60’s and 70s, the idea is that the first song will set the stage for the sound and vision of the rest of the record. While this can be as simple as setting a sonic template, high concept albums love to use these tracks to begin the journey, introducing us to characters and events that will be important to the story ahead. Often these songs are short and sweet, and rarely serve as the true centerpiece track.

The Misfire
Phoenix – Napoleon Says from It’s Never Been Like That
Earl Sweatshirt – Pre from Doris
The Beatles – Come Together (yeah, I said it) from Abbey Road

Every once in a while, a great album comes along that, for whatever reason, starts off on the wrong foot. I’ve never quite been able to figure this phenomenon out. I imagine the artists themselves must have faith in these songs, and quality aside they often sound like appropriate openers in tempo and length, but are just…lousy. This can be a big problem as it can often cause a great album to go under appreciated by those who get the wrong impression right off the bat.

The New Normal
Radiohead – Everything In It’s Right Place from Kid A
Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues from Bringing It All Back Home
Guided By Voices – Teenage FBI from Do the Collapse

This has been a staple of adventurous artists for a long time. The idea of this song is to showcase the new sound the artist has found, and introduce the listener to what the rest of the record will sound like. Often this will come when an artist discovers a new instrument (synth, drum machine, going electric) and wants to make sure their listeners have no misconceptions about the record ahead. While this can produce some incredible songs, it can also produce albums in which listeners rarely get past the opener. At least the artist is being honest.

The Outlier
Led Zeppelin – Immigrant Song from Led Zeppelin III
Sufjan Stevens – Futile Devices from The Age of Adz

This is the opposite of the last category. At some point, most artists like to branch out and attempt a new sound and this can lead to backlash amongst their fans. To curb that backlash, musicians will sometimes use the album opener as an opportunity to remind fans of their previous sound, and that they are still capable of making songs in that “classic” model. This can be reassuring, but also somewhat deceptive. If the first song prepares you for a metal record, and the rest of the album is acoustic, one can feel a little misled.

Add A Comment