It’s no secret that albums have structures. Songs rarely play in a randomly determined order; artists and bandmates often agonize over the playlist for weeks or months. Radiohead, for example, notoriously bickered about running orders during the final stretch of the recording sessions for Kid A and Amnesiac, nearly tearing them asunder. But it’s not for nothing. The song sequence is one of the most important facets of record-making, and it’s one that’s usually taken for granted.
Think of an album like a movie or a book. Directors and writers order their scenes and chapters in a very specific way to illuminate narrative and thematic content, and in any good film or piece of literature, each section builds off the others so that there’s a satisfying conclusion. But at the same time, it’s not something that calls attention to itself, since each part works together organically to make this seamless whole.
These same principles apply to the album. Artists have certain ideas they want to express to their audience with their albums, and listening to songs out of order corrupts the record’s purpose and the artist’s intent. After all, just like any structure, if a couple pieces are out of place, the whole thing could collapse.
Think of one of your favorite records. Is the first half all overpowering loudness? How about the second half? All soothing slow jams? I’m guessing the answer is no. But even for a genre like punk, where tempo and volume are likely on the right side of the bell curve, any good album shows a good sense of dynamics, taking care not to make songs appear one after the other if they are too similar in structure, tone or style. Even for something as homogeneous-sounding as the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks showed the good sense to match the thunderous roar of “Bodies” with the nearly melodic “No Feelings” and then go on ahead to the chugging “Liar” (on the 12-track version of the record, at least).
With that in mind, the first and last songs of every album—the intro and outro songs, as I’m going to call them—hold special importance. These are the tracks that introduce the listener to the artist’s world and compel you to come back again. A mis-chosen song could be a deal-breaker, and I’m sure there are more than a few albums I’ve reviewed that would have fared better or worse had the song sequence been changed up.
But I noticed something over the last few months. Since a lot of weight falls on these intro and outro songs, it follows that musicians use different approaches to maximize these tracks’ effectiveness. And I’m sure you’ve noticed it too, but maybe you’ve never really thought about it a lot because you, unlike me, have more important things to worry about.
I flipped through the albums in my iTunes library and came up with a conclusion: Just about every bookending track of an album fits into a specific category, regardless of when the album was released. I’m not saying that every song falls into one and only one category—some can easily slip into two or three categories if they happen to serve a couple of functions, but there most definitely is a pattern. So, I went through and made a list of all the categories of intro and outro tracks I could come up with. And then I gave them silly names.
Of course, these lists won’t necessarily apply to certain genres or every kind of record. Best-of compilations and live albums, for instance, aren’t often intended as major artistic statements. (Specifically, musicians base live albums and concerts around what would make for the best show, not necessarily what would make for the best statement, if you get me.) Also, movie scores, soundtracks, cast recordings, and their ilk are usually sequenced based on how the songs appeared in the corresponding show or film. Then we have those records designed like symphonies with two or three extended tracks, or those made up of improvised sets of some purposeful avant-weirdness… this probably won’t apply to those either. But I’m fairly certain that for 95% of any other sort of record, these categories fit the bill.
1. The “Intro” Intro
Let’s start off with the most obvious, shall we? The “Intro” Intros are just that: songs that are meant as nothing more than introductions. These are the ones often called “Intro” and are usually, but not always, short instrumentals or skits that act as overtures to the rest of the album, setting the mood before fading into the next song. For example, Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter begins with “Introduction”, a short, stirring piece that acquaints the listener with the sorts of instruments and moods that the record will explore.
Nick Drake - “Introduction”
Interestingly, the “Intro” Intro is now most frequently used on modern hip-hop records. Albums as diverse as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Black Star’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique all make use of the device, giving a taste of what’s to come. Of course, its use in hip-hop is largely due to the preponderance of skits on modern rap records, a trend inspired by the recurring sketches on De La Soul’s 3 Feet And Rising, which itself had an “Intro” Intro. But the way De La Soul’s “Intro” spawns that series of game-show sketches that snake their way throughout the record also makes it an example of…
2. The “Part 1”
Often but not necessarily found on concept albums, the “Part 1″ is an intro song that correlates to other songs later on the album, mostly by sharing some sort of musical or lyrical motif. In a way, the “Part 1″ is very similar to the “Intro” Intro, but where the latter is disconnected from the rest of the album, “Part 1’s” perform a more conceptual and structural function within the album.
Consider The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beginning with the title track, where the Club Band invites the audience to “enjoy the show” they are about to put on, the album plays with this concept before picking up this thread on a reprise of the title track, where the concert comes to a close. Roger Waters was also a huge fan of the “Part 1”, working them into several Pink Floyd albums. For instance, The Wall‘s “In the Flesh?,” like “Sgt. Pepper’s,” begins with talk of a “show” and lays out some of the album’s thematic concerns. Later, “In the Flesh” revisits the same musical structure but addresses the lyrics from a different vantage point, one of extreme ego and social disconnection. In a sense, a “Part 1″ serves to add cohesion to these sorts of ambitious concept records, which can otherwise come across as erratic or indulgent.
The Beatles - “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
3. The Big Single
The Big Single approach gives the people what they want right away, starting the the album off with a hit single (or, at least, a single the artist hoped would be a hit). It’s not always immediately apparent what albums employ this method since singles continue to trickle out months after an album is released, so this is a category that usually comes in to play after the fact. Unsurprisingly, pop musicians, whose songs have the most widespread exposure, most often take advantage of the Big Single, with albums ranging from Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time to George Michael’s Faith all featuring smash hits (and, coincidentally, title tracks) as their first song.
4. The Big Daddy
The Big Daddy is an intro song that is substantially longer than the rest of the tracks on the album, usually acting as the centerpiece of the record. Generally, these songs show up on more experimental and underground albums, where longer, challenging compositions are more common. Sometimes, Big Daddies are meant to be the focal point of the album, such as Brian Eno’s 17-minute “1/1“, which features on Ambient 1/Music For Airports. Other times, they are lengthy mood-setters that set the tone for the rest of the record (see “Metronomic Underground” from Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup or “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Either way, the sheer size of the Big Daddy, lends it an air of significance within the album’s playlist. A successful Big Daddy will blow your mind before the album even begins; a botched Big Daddy will make you shout in exasperation, “That was only the first track?!” as it draws to a close.
Stereolab - “Metronomic Underground”
5. The Lullaby
The Lullaby is a quiet or slow-tempo intro song that frequently sets up the second track, which is faster, louder or a Big Single. Though Lullabies can be album highlights in and of themselves, their primary function is often to provide a contrast to the next song so that it has a greater impact. Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, the gently propulsive “The Stars of Track and Field” unfolds into the wry, complex “Seeing Other People,” which is oddly louder and ever so more upbeat, though it’s still miles away from anything conventionally rocking.
Belle and Sebastian - “The Stars of Track and Field”
6. The Pump-Up
The opposite of the Lullaby, the Pump-Up is a loud, up-tempo or highly rhythmic track intended to get the listener excited for the rest of the album. Very often these songs are also Big Singles, but it needn’t always be the case: Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions begins with the jazzy funk of “Too High”, which bounces on slick synths and an elastic bass riff before settling down for the spacey ballad “Visions”. Elsewhere, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy begins with the sunny, proggy rush of “The Song Remains the Same”, while the revolutionary title track of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps starts things off with fiery, frenzied chord changes.
Led Zeppelin - “The Song Remains the Same”
7. The Warning Shot
The Warning Shot is an intro song that is stylistically divergent from the artist’s usual fare and is usually indicative of the rest of the album. In short, it signals to the listener that they are in for something new and different. This is relatively common, given that most musicians evolve throughout their respective careers, changing their sounds up at least once. Sometimes, Warning Shots aren’t that jarring: Frank Sinatra’s classic meditation on loneliness, In the Wee Small Hours, which begins with its title cut, is vastly different from much of his early work, but it’s something his fans can easily acclimate to. Yet, sometimes Warning Shots are purposefully startling, like how on Pulp’s “The Fear”, Jarvis Cocker cautions the listener that they’re in for a darker, heavier sound on This Is Hardcore and that “you’re gonna like it but not a lot”.
Pulp - “The Fear”
8. The Red Herring
Relatively rare, the Red Herring is an intro song whose sound, style or tone is substantially different from the rest of the album. Sometimes this song subverts the Warning Shot, having a sound fans associate with the band before the rest of the album switches to something new—try the simple, guitar-driven “Futile Devices” on Sufjan Stevens’ otherwise dense and ambitious The Age of Adz. More likely, though, the Red Herring will be a one-off genre experiment meant to show off the artist’s versatility. For example, for being one of the most highly touted punk bands to come out of CBGB’s, Talking Heads threw everyone for a loop with “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”, whose Motown rhythms and Caribbean inflections are decidedly out-of-place on Talking Heads: 77, even if the rest of the songs are similarly off-kilter.
Talking Heads - “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”
9. The Highlight
Well, this isn’t a formal category—I was going to write that one of the best songs on an album is quite often the first song on the album. And then I realized that’s impossible to prove since that’s extremely subjective. But go through your music library and tell me I’m wrong.
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