Side One, Track Two

The subject of this week’s All Songs Considered podcast (from NPR, and highly recommended to people who like pop and rock music) was Side One, Track One—the best songs that lead off albums. They hit most of the ones you’d expect: “Thunder Road,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “What’s Going On,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” as well as a bunch of songs I was less familiar with and at least one that split the panel: Fleetwood Mac’s “Secondhand News.” (I’m for it, by the way, at least up until Lindsey Buckingham starts in with the “bom bom bom bom bom bom” part.)

This discussion got me thinking, though; I’ve sequenced three records, and my experience is that when you hear a Side One, Track One, you know it immediately. The harder thing, for me, came in writing and choosing and Side One, Track Two. You have to grab the audience by the lapels with Track One, and if you conceive of your albums as albums rather than as collections of songs (and I always did), you have to set the mood for the entire album. Track Two is trickier. Sometimes you have to up the ante, taking what you did on the first song and going further with it. This is what happens on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue record—“Freddie Freeloader” is a longer and more relaxed take on the sorts of motifs in the opening track, “So What.”

Sometimes, on the other hand, you have to make a quick U-Turn. This is especially true if your new album is a stylistic departure from those that came before. A classic example: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was a big experimental shock in 2002, begins with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” a deconstruction of country music that features disjointed lyrics and melodies and a whole bunch of bizarre noises (hubcaps skipping across the room, analogue alarm clocks, dentists drills, etc.). After a last blast from a whistle, Track Two, “Kamera,” begins on acoustic guitar, bass, and trap set. It’s a much more conventional pop song than “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and it welcomes the listener into what could be a very difficult record, while still remaining a trace or two of the experimental vibe.

That’s what I tried on my band’s third record, incidentally—we began with a song called “Satellites, Post-Incident,” which began slowly and quietly before dissolving into a cloud of studio-produced noise. That noise abruptly cuts off and jumps into “I Hear a Symphony,” an ode to ‘60s rock. I knew when I wrote “Symphony” that I had a Side One, Track Two on my hands.

The really great records, though, manage the bridge the gap between restatement, intensification, and diversion—“Kamera” does that, I think. Here are some of my other favorite Side One, Track One / Side One, Track Two combinations. Leave yours in the comments—and don’t worry about any perceived snobbery. We’re not here to judge:

The Beatles, Abbey Road. “Come Together” may be John Lennon’s best song, and “Something” is almost certainly the best song Harrison did with the Beatles. Add Side One, Track Three, McCartney’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and you get a perfect distillation of the differences in their songwriting styles. Too bad “Octopus’s Garden” isn’t Track Four.

Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True. “Welcome to the Working Week” runs on pure nasty energy, and it’s easy to overlook the fact that “Miracle Man” is just as nasty—just more musically relaxed. (I can’t find these on YouTube, so you’ll have to find them on your own.)

Daniel Amos, Doppelganger. “Hollow Man” is built on a paraphrase of Eliot’s poem of a similar name creepily sung over a reversed track from the band’s previous record. After the “ding-ding” of an automatic door, you go right into the more traditional “Mall (All Over the World),” which is nevertheless only slightly less weird and which introduces the major philosophical themes of the record.

The Replacements, Let It Be. “I Will Dare” must have sounded shocking in 1984, with its bouncy bass and almost-ready-for-radio vocals. Thank God the ‘Mats launch into “Favorite Thing” right afterwards, proving that they can still get drunk and slur their words with the best of them. They’d never have a better one-two punch than that, and to some extent the rest of their catalogue is an attempt to merge these dual sides of their personality. (Try to ignore the extra notes the guitar player adds on that version of “Favorite Thing.”)

Tom Petty, Wildflowers. Without the breezy folk of the title track, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” sounds way less comfortable. Have there ever been two better autumn songs than these?

U2, Zooropa. “Zooropa” is a slow build into a song that somehow manages to be panicked and joyous at the same time. It melts in the end into “Babyface,” a far lesser song that works perfectly to calm you down after the six-and-a-half-minute blast of the title track.

R.E.M., Up. This very underrated album begins with its most alienating song, the poststructuralist electronic drone of “Airportman.” Then it gives us its most traditional song, the funky “Lotus.” Neither sound much like the R.E.M. you grew up on, and they go together perfectly. (You’ll have to make do with the live version of “Airportman.”)

Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism. The album begins with “The New Year,” the closest this band ever gets to anthemic. Then you get “Lightness,” a twisty, curvy song that’s much closer to the band’s wheelhouse. Somehow the two songs strengthen each other, and hearing one makes you want to hear the other.

3 thoughts on “Side One, Track Two

  1. Michial, nice. Here’s a couple…

    Smiths, “Queen Is Dead” begins with “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blightley” – long, anthemic, despairing – and follows up with “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” – much lighter and humorous, tongue-in-cheek. The two ends of the Morrissey spectrum set one after the other.

    Or Mogwai’s “Come On Die Young” which begins with a sample of Iggy Pop talking about punk rock to a background of sinister Mogwai-noise, and continues with the soft, lovely, low-key title track. Heard independently the second song might be a nice song to take a Sunday afternoon nap to, but after track one it’s downright eerie. Don’t know how you feel about Mogwai, Michial, but that’s probably my favorite record of theirs.

    By the way, how do you feel about Wilco’s latest couple records? I’ve heard them called “dad-rock” and while I don’t quite agree, I don’t like them nearly as much as “Being There” and “YHF”.

    1. Ethan, I’m just glad someone’s commenting. I know we’re not a music site, but I thought I’d get more of a discussion on this topic!

      I agree with you on “The Queen Is Dead”–I’ve never liked that band that much, but the contrast between those two tracks is very funny. I like Mogwai but only own “Young Team”; I’ll have to check out that other record.

      I hated the most recent Wilco record except for “You Never Know,” the bridge of “You and I,” and the instrumental opening of “Sonny Feeling.” I like “Sky Blue Sky” substantially more than I did when it first came out, but I still think it’s the sound of a band in decline, particularly in its second half. I really dig “You Are My Face” (terrible title and all), “Impossible Germany,” and “Side with the Seeds.” Overall that’s a good Sunday-afternoon-slash-rehab record; I find precious little to like in their eponymous record. What do you think?

  2. Yeah I was pretty disappointed with the “camel” record…of course there were some pretty moments. Same with Sky Blue Sky. I think “A Ghost is Born” is their last really great record. I sometimes wonder how much the departure of Jay Bennet/other lineup changes affected the change. I mean in many ways you have a different band now than you had. Whatever…they’ll always be great, even if I can’t listen to their last two records without putting on one of the old ones immediately afterwards…

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