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.”)
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.