Off on the Wrong Foot: the Art of Album Sequencing

Dan Wiencek: It is conventional wisdom (as well as bleeding obvious) that when sequencing an album, you start with a strong track — maybe not the best song, maybe not the single, but something to get people excited and keep them listening. My question: which otherwise decent-to-great albums open with a bad or dull song? (This excludes concept albums in which the opening song serves a narrative purpose.)

For me, the example that always comes to mind is Hothouse Flowers’ Songs from the Rain. It has some numbers on it I think are gorgeous: “An Emotional Time,” “Isn’t It Amazing,” “One Tongue.” But it begins with a mid-tempo thing called “This Is It (Your Soul)” that does absolutely nothing for me. (The band would plainly disagree; on their first greatest hits comp, “This Is It” is the only tune from Songs they included.) I always skip it; in my mind, Songs from the Rain starts with “One Tongue.”

Anyway, have at it.

Dw Dunphy: Tough question. The albums that I gravitate to usually get me there because they did it all right, including the sequencing.

Dave Lifton: The first that comes to mind is Achtung, Baby. I was never a fan of “Zoo Station.”

Wiencek: I’m pretty sure Blonde on Blonde came up last time I asked this.

Brian Boone: I was extremely worried that Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was going to suuuuuuuck when listening to the opening, title track. It’s somewhere between an oompah song and car commercial music. But once that’s out of the way, just a remarkable album as usual from those guys.

Chris Holmes: Well to look at a recent example, “Tattoo” is the weakest song on an otherwise great Van Halen album. That said, it’s grown on me a lot.

Wiencek: Yeah, I like it more than when I first heard it, but sometimes I’ll skip right to “She’s the Woman.”

Boone: On the Van Halen tip, the synthy futuristic “1984” on 1984 terrified me, but then again I was five. Today I realize that it’s something of a notice to fans that Van Halen has discovered keyboards. It’s not a bad song, but definitely not in line with the rest of that perfect album.

David Medsker: There’s an Australian band called the Midnight Juggernauts that I just love. Their album Dystopia is fantastic, except for the first song, which is without question the weakest song on the album.

As for “classic” albums, I just uploaded Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me for a friend, and I have no use for that album’s opening track.

Jack Feerick: Man, I feel like I’ve patched into a conversation from Crazy Town. To my mind, “This Is It” and “Zoo Station” are both great opening tracks, because they do exactly what an opening track should do — they teach you how to listen to the record.

“I’m ready for the laughing gas/I’m ready for what’s next” is a statement of purpose: Achtung Baby is going to be something new, a conscious reinvention of what this band is all about, and the disorienting bursts of noise that accompany it — what U2 song had ever before sounded like this? — mark out the new territory.

And what better way to start any record than with the refrain like “Now it’s time to listen”?

Lifton: All that is true, but I think that those futuristic sounds don’t hint at all the depth and melodicism found in the rest of the album.

Medsker: From.the second I heard “Zoo Station,” I knew I was in for something special. And indeed I was.

Feerick: Anyway, to address the topic, purely on an Eighties tip: I love the Church, but they’re always kind of uneven; while Starfish was a strong and sustained record overall, it kicks off with “Destination,” which I find to be simply an interminable slog.

“So Far Away” was easily the laziest, dullest, most needlessly protracted and aimless song on Brothers In Arms.

“The Messenger,” kicking off Daniel Lanois’ For the Beauty of Wynona.

And speaking of U2 (and Lanois), I’ve never warmed up to the studio version of “A Sort of Homecoming” that opens The Unforgettable Fire. It’s a great song — I love the various live versions and the later remix — but the murky production doesn’t suit it. It’s the flipside of the “statement of purpose” idea I was talking about before; it definitely introduces the production aesthetic of the record, but in this case the production is working against the song, rather than with it.

Matt Springer: One opening track I’ve never cared for is “Drive” from REM’s Automatic for the People. I totally take Jack’s point about a good opener teaching the listener how to hear a record, and I think it’s true for that track. I just think it’s far too much of a drudge, even for an album ostensibly about death.

David Allen Jones: First thing that came to mind for me was Paul Westerberg leading Suicaine Gratifaction (an album I love overall and consider his best solo effort) off with not one, but two low-key moody songs which are not bad, really, but start the album off in a sluggish manner. I think they would have been better served, perhaps, somewhere in the middle …

Jeff Giles: I love this conversation. The art of album sequencing is one of the many things we lost in the death of A&R — just like the old-school art of leading off with a single that’ll get you on the radio, but leaves the real hit material in reserve for single #2 or #3. I wonder what our pal Peter Lubin has to say about all this.

Peter Lubin: Back in the day, album sequencing was was approached with deadly seriousness. Much was thought to hang in the balance beyond the final end-user experience.  The running order factored into the acceptance at radio and retail and all the stops in between. It wasn’t unusual for sequences to be passed around the horn from A&R to artist manager to artist and back again more than a few times. It could become a topic of heated debate.  Of course the degree to which the record label could dictate the sequence varied with the level of the act involved. Superstars obviously delivered masters that were not allowed to be altered, but the issue was considered to be of such primary importance that even contractual restraints wouldn’t prevent a label from trying to exert some influence.

If I’m recalling correctly, I always thought that The Pixies’ Bossa Nova (which followed their breakthrough Doolittle) was hurt by an awkward sequence, and could have been received much more strongly with some strategic changes.

I was responsible for sequencing dozens and dozens of albums over the years, though, so I’m sure that there were many little triumphs and tragedies along the way!

Boone: Mr. Lubin, I love Bossa Nova but you are so right about that.

It was years before I realized that I’d been listening to Rumours in opposite order, which is to say I thought side 2 was side 1, and vice versa. But I argue that my way is superior: that album should absolutely begin with “The Chain,” not “Second Hand News,” and end with “Songbird,” not “Gold Dust Woman.”

Matt Wardlaw: I think good album sequencing is still alive, but harder to find. It generally comes as a result of input from the old school, or a musician in the group that grew up appreciating well sequenced albums. It’s a lost art for the majority, for sure, but it makes hearing the really good ones that much more satisfying. I’m constantly blown away by the ones that in my opinion, really pulled it off back then … albums that sounded huge because of the songs and pacing … stuff like Reckless from Bryan Adams, 90125 by Yes, etc.

Is there an album from “back in the day” that comes to mind that was successful in spite of awful sequencing?

Medsker: I’ve actually seen some atrocious examples of sequencing in the last few years. That Black Kids record, for one.

Springer: Curious to hear what stuck out for you on the Black Kids record … it didn’t strike me as poorly sequenced although it’s been a while since I spun it and it’s not like I felt like the sequencing was some kind of magnificent accomplishment.

Medsker: Here’s what I wrote at the time. I honestly haven’t listened to the album since I wrote this.

There is a strong case to be made here for the importance of sequencing. The track listing for Partie Automatic, the debut album from Florida synth-rockers the Black Kids, paints the band into a corner before they’ve had a chance to spread their wings. Opening songs “Hit the Heartbreaks” and the title track are serviceable enough, but it’s the third track that throws everything out of whack: The weedier-than-weedy “Listen to Your Body Tonight” has no business whatsoever in the three-hole; that slot is tailor-made for lead single “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You,” which would have propped up everything on either side of it. Instead, “Boyfriend” is batting seventh, behind the girl group-ish “I’ve Underestimated My Charm (Again),” which feels like an answer record to the Pipettes. Granted, those two songs work really well together, but is anyone still listening by this point? Lead singer Reggie Youngblood has a few different speeds, but his strained Robert Smithisms dominate the front half, making the album a more laborious listen than it needs to be. Our suggestion: re-sequence the album, and replace “Listen to Your Body Tonight” with their cover of Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Everyone loves a cover version, right?

Springer: Wow, that is keen. Never occurred to me but absolutely true. Thanks David.

I tend to like a single or a title track buried in the sequence a bit. I get why that was rarely done especially in the days of vinyl but I like it when a record builds to a big song. Born to Run has its title track in a near-perfect spot, track 5 or side 2, track 1. Easily found for vinyl but not a leadoff cut.

I also think we need to start a petition to get Brian’s flip-sided sequencing for Rumours to be adopted by the band. That’s brilliant.

Dunphy: I wonder how many albums suffered not necessarily because of bad sequencing, really obvious stuff, but of just mediocre sequencing. The worst of the bunch would draw attention to itself without much debating, but how many albums with decent songs left the listener with a “meh” opinion, strictly because something didn’t feel right and it couldn’t be identified?

With that in mind, and owing to what Brian said about Rumours, have there been any records that listeners might not have loved as-is, but might have appreciated better with a tracklist change-up? Again, I’m not talking about examples of super-bad sequencing; maybe just careless sequencing …

Holmes: No names come to mind, but there have been countless albums described as front or back-heavy that would fit this.

Scott Malchus: I always thought the sequencing on Journey Frontiers was wrong. The album could have benefited from placing a couple of the hits on side 2.

Wiencek: Let It Be is pretty much a mess, but it’s possible that no sequence would have really worked for such an incongruous bunch of material. “Get Back” only works as an album-ender because of John’s farewell message at the end. “Two of Us” would have been much better.

Matthew Bolin: The worst album opener that I’ve possibly heard is the opening of The Time’s first comeback album, Pandemonium (1990). It starts off with a sketch, which at the time had just started becoming THE new trend, especially in R&B and hip-hop albums, to allow (I suppose) for filler material to easily be created to pad out the length of the album, and justify the greater cost of a CD, and the fact that it could simply hold more material.

Anyway, the sketch (“Dreamland”) goes on … and on … and on. It starts out with a fade-in to Morris Day asleep and snoring, while a wonky music box version of “Lullaby and Goodnight” plays. It then fades from that into his dream, which is actually taken from the audio of The Time’s reunion concert hosted by (I think) a Twin Cities R&B station. This part consists of one person introducing a second person who then goes on to make a speech about how bands shouldn’t break up/how special the night is/yadda yadda. As he FINALLY introduces The Time (this is about two minutes and fifteen seconds now elapsed, by the way), we fade back from the dream to the music box/Morris’s snoring, when his phone starts ringing (multiple times). Morris finally picks it up, and Jerome is on the other end of the line, telling him to get down to “the club.” We then cut to the sound of lame dance music in the background and crowd noises as Morris approaches and starts talking to the rest of The Time about the lame music being played at “his club,” and then FINALLY, after declaring that something else needs to be played, we get the traditional “needle scraping across the record” sound, and the first drumbeats of the title track kick in … Three Minutes and Eight Seconds after the album officially started!

Jon Cummings: I’m not a huge fan of the sequencing on either Woodface or Together Alone by our friends Crowded House. Starting Woodface with “Chocolate Cake” may have seemed an eventful opener, announcing Tim’s presence on the album as it does, but it’s mean-spirited and dissonant and not reflective of the abundance of beauty present elsewhere. (Releasing it as a first single, rather than “It’s Only Natural” or “Fall At Your Feet,” pretty much killed the album’s prospects in the US.) They should have done as they later (brilliantly) did with Recurring Dream, and start with “Weather With You.”

As for Together Alone, I get the point of putting “Kare Kare” up front, to emphasize the album’s Kiwi roots and all that, and it’s a lovely song — but for me it’s a bit formless and lacks the oomph factor that would have properly announced another great CH record. The sequencing on that album is kinda fakakte all the way around — to bury the singles at tracks 6, 7, 8 and 10 in the post-LP/cassette era was bizarre — but something about the album’s contents must have made it a uniquely difficult challenge. There’s just not an obvious leadoff track on the whole thing. That said, I might have led off with “Private Universe,” which has the interesting percussion that marks “Kare Kare” but has a better melody. Otherwise, “Black and White Boy,” “Fingers of Love” or “Walking on the Spot” might have made better choices as well.

Medsker: That’s funny, I almost mentioned Woodface, too. I actually like “Kare Kare” as the opener for Together Alone — that album’s biggest problem was summed up succinctly by the Boston Phoenix review: “Nine Ballads!”

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